I mentioned in my post about Optic Nerve that I was reading this book as well for the Meadows Museum’s new book club. I finished it weeks ago but I wanted to wait to talk about it until after the book club discussion, which took place two nights ago. The books were chosen by one of the two owners of an independent bookstore in Dallas called Wild Detectives. Both owners are from Spain and they created this space to be a hangout for book lovers with a cafe and lots of programming to keep people and keep them talking to one another. So, I’m sure that times are tough for the bookstore as they are for so many small businesses.
Ben Lerner is a poet, and this is his first novel. It is a slim 181 pages. A first-person narrator who is young(ish) poet who is in Madrid because he has received an important fellowship to live there for a year and complete a project he had proposed. (Ben Lerner was a Fulbright Scholar in Spain. Write what you know.) One of the questions we were asked was, “Do you like this character?” No was the general consensus because he is flawed, sometimes hilariously flawed, I thought. I was just about the only person to cut him some slack. I got frustrated about him telling lies when he got into tight spots. He hadn’t learned much Spanish before he arrived in Spain and that accounts for him getting into quite a few of those tight spots. I’ve never seen an author depict a character’s struggle to understand people speaking around him at speed. He surfs the nouns, catching a word like “sister” and then trying to figure out what is being said about this person’s sister: coming to visit, getting married, sick? This runs through the book and lessens as he picks up a lot of Spanish by being immersed in it.
Of course, how could I not cut a person who carries around John Ashbery’s collected poems some slack? There is a lovely quotation from an Ashbery poem and an analysis of his work that takes up two pages in this book. I marked that spot.
I thought my writer friends might be as interested as I was in this description of Adam’s poetic practice while he is in Spain:
“Then I’d walk a few blocks to El Retiro, the city’s central part, find a bench, take out my notebooks, the pocket dictionary, Lorca, and get high…On these days I worked on what I called translation. I opened the Lorca more or less at random, transcribed the English recto onto a page of my first notebook, and began to make changes, replacing a word with whatever world I first associated with it and/or scrambling the order of the lines, and then I made whatever changes these changes suggested to me. Or I looked up the Spanish word for the English word I wanted to replace, and then replaced that word with an English word that approximated its sound (“Under the arc of the sky” became “Under the arc of the cielo,” which became “Under the arc of the cello”). I then braided fragments of the prose I kept in my second notebook with the translations I had thus produced (“Under the arc of the cello / I open the Lorca at random,” and so on).”
I never would have found my way to this book but for the Wild Detectives. Oh, and it is set at the time of the 2004 Madrid train bombings and their aftermath. I had to look this up because I did not know about them. So, that’s something, too.