lunedì 23 agosto 2010

The Last Interview, By Roberto Bolaño

The Last Interview, By Roberto Bolaño, with Monica Maristain

Inside story on a Chilean sensation
Reviewed by Jonathan Gibbs

The posthumous success of the Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolaño is almost emblematic of our desire, as readers, for stories behind our stories.

After a lifetime of more-or-less penurious existence, Bolaño saw his novel The Savage Detectives jump the language barrier to reap acclaim in the English- as well as Spanish-speaking world. He then raced to complete its 900-page successor, 2666, apparently putting off treatment for the liver failure that killed him to do so.

Now we are seeing the gradual emergence of earlier Bolaño books into English translation. Picador has given us The Amulet and Nazi Literature in the Americas, with The Skating Rink to come this autumn. Positive though their reception has been, much of it seems to buy into the romantic idea of Bolaño the tragic, solitary genius.

This slim collection of four interviews, the first from 1999, the last "shortly before" his death, does a little to feed the myth, and much to correct it. They contain pathos ("my children are my only motherland"), humour ("The good thing about stealing books – unlike safes – is that one can carefully examine their contents before perpetrating the crime") and tough-tender mixtures of the two.

More important is the sheer profusion of Latin American writers that Bolaño references, from the familiar to the currently obscure. Whether Bolaño is the best writer of his generation or not, he was inextricably bound to it, and we make a mistake if we read about them only through him.

The interviews come with an introduction by US journalist Marcela Valdes that sheds light on the genesis of 2666. She goes into detail about the spate of murders – of over 400 women and girls – in the Mexican state of Chihuahua in the 1990s, the crime spree that forms the backbone of Bolaño's novel. She gives due honour, too, to the Mexican journalist Sergio González Rodríguez, who exposed the corruption and connivance between state, police and drug traffickers that allowed the murders to continue.

Bolaño and Rodríguez corresponded, and met, and Bolaño made him a character in the novel – under his real name, which understandably seems rather to have unnerved Rodríguez. All of this makes The Last Interview an indispensable acquisition for anyone with more than a passing interest in Bolaño

lunedì 16 agosto 2010

Bruce Chatwin's Journey to Mount Athos

By Nicholas Shakespeare

Nicholas Shakespeare, the acclaimed biographer of Bruce Chatwin, follows the great travel writer on his final mysterious journey – to Mount Athos, a monastery overlooking the Aegean Sea

A strange osmosis takes place when you write the life of another person. After Bruce Chatwin died, his widow Elizabeth gave me the maté gourd that he had taken with him on his travels, together with its silver bombilla – the metal straw through which he sucked his addictive tea, like any Argentine farmhand. At times over the next seven years, I had the sudden deep conviction that I was absorbing the world through his perforated silver straw.

In the course of following Chatwin’s songline, I met his family and friends – some of whom became my friends. In Birmingham, I had tea with the charlady responsible for dusting the contents of his grandmother’s cabinet, including the scrap of giant sloth that had formed the genesis for In Patagonia. “It used to put the creeps up on me, an old bit of blacky, browny bristly stuff as didn’t look very nice at all… I thought it was only monkey fur.” In 1991, I drove with Elizabeth from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego, to the cave on Last Hope Sound from where Chatwin’s cousin had salvaged the original hide – believed by the infant Chatwin to be a piece of brontosaurus.

My biography of Chatwin was published in 1999, 10 years after he died of Aids. But in all the travels I had undertaken, there was one significant journey I overlooked.

In 1985, following his second visit to Australia, where he had picked up a mysterious illness, Chatwin was in Greece, grinding out another draft of The Songlines, when he interrupted his work to make a pilgrimage to Mount Athos. Before leaving, he wrote breezily to the Australian novelist Murray Bail: “Athos is obviously another atavistic wonder.”

Up until that moment Chatwin had not impressed friends as religious. “There was never, not a word talked about God,” says Patrick Leigh Fermor, his host in Greece, reflecting on their conversations over five months. Elizabeth was, and remains, a practising Catholic. In preparation for their wedding, Chatwin had taken religious instruction from a Jesuit in London. “Nearly became a Catholic,” he wrote in his notebook. Then, just before they were married, Elizabeth’s parish priest in New York State gave her a leaflet explaining why she should not marry a non-Catholic. “That put Bruce off forever,” says Elizabeth. Thereafter, his religious faith became subsumed in his nomadic theory: he believed that movement made religion redundant and only when people settled did they need it.

Since his illness, there were signs of a sea change. One entry in his notebooks reads: “The search for nomads is a search for God.” Another: “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time.” While recuperating with Elizabeth in Nepal, his thoughts had turned to a man’s athos “in the Greek sense of abode or dwelling place – the root of all his behaviour for good or bad, his character, everything that pertained to him.”

Of Chatwin’s friends, the diarist James Lees-Milne and the artist Derek Hill were regular visitors to the sacred, all-male enclave of Mount Athos. He importuned both to take him. Lees-Milne recorded in August 1980: “No, Bruce, I said, ‘you can't’. I was, I fear, rather bossy.” Next, Chatwin asked Hill, who had visited 15 times. Hill was a friend of the Abbot of Chilandari monastery, who could facilitate their permits. Finally, in May 1985, Hill agreed to accompany Chatwin. He told me: “I was slightly apprehensive because he was a great complainer. I thought he’d find the monks smelly or the beds hard or that the loos stank. But it was a revelation to him.”

One afternoon after his usual maté (mistaken by the cook for hashish), Chatwin walked to the monastery of Stavronikita, once painted by Edward Lear. He puffed towards it with his heavy rucksack. “The most beautiful sight of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea,” he wrote. From where he stood – just below the monastery – the black cross appeared to be striving up against the white foam.

Then these words: “There must be a god.”

Beyond this entry in his notebook, Chatwin was uncharacteristically silent. “He didn’t talk about it, but I knew by his whole bearing that it had affected him,” said Hill. The artist had known Chatwin for 20 years and had no doubt that as Bruce gazed down on that iron cross he was ambushed by a spiritual experience that unfroze something in him. “I think it hit him like a bomb.”

Elizabeth says: “When he came back, he said to me, ‘I had no idea it could be like that.’ It wasn’t like his other voyages of discovery. It was completely internal.”

The memory of that moment returned to Chatwin a year later when he collapsed, hallucinating, in Zurich. One of his hallucinations was of a fresco of Christ on Mount Athos. Back in England, during a brief period of remission, he went several times to see Kallistos Ware, a Bishop of the Greek Orthodox faith living in Oxford, to discuss the possibility of becoming Orthodox. “What he wanted was to be received by baptism on the Holy Mountain since the Holy Mountain had played such a decisive part in his conversion,” Ware tells me.

Unknown virtually to anyone, Chatwin planned a second trip to Athos in which, as part of the baptism ceremony, he would renounce the devil, breathe and spit on him and return to Christ. “I offered to receive him myself,” Ware says, “but we were overtaken by events.” On January 19 1989, Chatwin died in Nice. At his memorial service in the Greek Orthodox Church in Bayswater, Ware relayed his wishes to a frankly astonished congregation: “Bruce was always a traveller and he died before all his journeys could be completed and his journey into Orthodoxy was one of his unfinished voyages.”

Last September, after finishing with Elizabeth the editing of Chatwin’s letters, I decided to visit Mount Athos. My aim was simple: to find that simple metal cross. But an English priest warned me on the eve of my departure: “Nobody goes to Athos by accident. Whatever you think you are going for is not the reason.”

Mount Athos is actually a finger of steep wooded land that extends 37 miles into the Aegean, culminating in a 9,842ft peak of crystalline limestone. The peninsula is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who stopped off here on her way to Cyprus and jealously forbade any subsequent woman to set foot. This rule, enshrined in AD970 in the charter of the Grand Lavra, the first of Athos’s 20 monasteries, stated that monks “may not defile their eyes with the sight of anything female”, a stricture not relaxed even in favour of chickens. Under Greek law, a woman caught on Athos today faces an automatic prison sentence of up to 12 months.

“With no one to nag them, the monks often live to a hundred,” says a stout pilgrim whose whiskers sprout at a brigandish angle from his chin. We are on board the ferry from Ouranoupolis, the only way to reach Athos.

It’s a bright, hot day. I elect to walk to the monastery of Vatopedi where I am staying the night. The journey takes all afternoon, the white cobbled path twisting through woods of Spanish chestnut, past ruined stone fountains, over bridges spanning dried-up rivers. Thirsty and perspiring, I long for a freshwater stream to plunge in – although, from a former British diplomat, John Ure, I have gathered that Athonite monks deplore nakedness. Ure told me how, as a young pilgrim here, he once stripped off to splash himself in a stream, when a hermit emerged from a cave above him, screamed and ran off covering his eyes. Later, Ure arrived at the Grand Lavra to find the monks in a state of excitement. They had received a visit from one of the holiest hermits on the peninsula, who had broken his vow of silence to report a vision he had seen: John the Baptist baptising in his local stream – his telltale body radiating with “a shining whiteness unlike any normal mortal”. Already they were discussing the erection of a stained-glass window.

The gatekeeper at Vatopedi is Father Theano from Brisbane. Does he miss Australia? “The grace of God sustains you. You forget the past and keep an eye on the future.” He is dead to the world he has left behind, which is why he wears black. But Father Theano is far from gloomy. He brims with news of a minor miracle that occurred at Vatopedi last July. An old monk, Father Joseph, had died in huge pain with a terrible expression on his face. “We couldn’t close his mouth. We asked the Abbot if we should bind it shut, but he said, ‘No, let it hang open’ – and when we came out of the liturgy his mouth was closed in a tremendous smile. Look, I have a photo,” and from his black robe Father Theano produces a portrait of a bearded corpse with cheeks like polished doorknobs, beaming. “That is what sanctification is. It comes from within you.”

Vatopedi, founded in 972, is the peninsula’s second oldest monastery and its largest. Its luxuriant church accommodates 107 monks from 12 countries. I watch them at vespers flit across the water-veined marble floor. Their destination: half a dozen holy icons which they proceed to kiss in a way that reminds me of a scatter of swallows sipping the surface of a glassy pond; then, adjusting their hats, they sit down in squeaking stalls, faces in mid-distance reverie, beneath frescoes that Robert Byron, revered by Chatwin beyond all writers, considered the finest in the world.

Chatwin was so enthralled by the chanting of the Kyrie eleison, the words unchanged for more than a millennium, that he made a scene with some noisy Greek pilgrims, “demanding hushes at once and interrupting the service”. My solecism is to sit cross-legged. From nowhere, a black stick appears and wallops me – the wielder, a small wax-faced monk whose long white beard accounts for a quarter of him.

Chastened, I uncross my legs and go on listening. To the singers, the plainsong serves to enthrone their veneration for the Mother of God. Whatever one’s belief – and as Patrick Leigh Fermor reminds us, “no living man, after all, is in a position to declare their premises true or false” – the mysterious scallops of sound are absolutely transporting to hear live. “To anyone who has sojourned beneath the Holy Mountain,” Robert Byron wrote of Athos, “there cannot but have come an intensification of his impulse to indefinable, unanalysable emotion.”

In roughly such a state, Chatwin must have shouldered his rucksack and wandered down to Stavronikita.

Father Theano watches me leave. He arrived on Athos 20 years ago, but has never done the walk to Stavronikita. “I liked walking when I was young, but all things in moderation.”

It’s late in the morning when the castle-like building comes into sight, perched on a cliff above the Aegean. There is no swell and the sea is smoother than shell. Suddenly I spot it. A small black metal cross on a ledge of white rock, facing the bay.

It’s too dangerous to clamber down, so I stand and contemplate it. I shall not attempt to describe the sensation of trying to shed the load of a 19-year involvement, but my anticipation is shot through by an extraordinary blankness. I realise that I had been willing for some sign or emotion, however slight, to tell me that my journey was really over.

After a long interval I turn and walk up the hill to the monastery, where a surprise awaits me.

Fumblingly at the gate, I explain my mission to the monk who brings out a silver tray containing the traditional offering of loukoumi (Turkish Delight), tsipouro (ouzo) and water. He invites me inside to look at the church. I follow him though a door, into a chapel at once more intimate than at Vatopedi, small, dark, marvellous. In pride of place beneath the gold corona, staring out from the top of a base shaped like a squat grandfather clock, is a glassed-in icon of a bearded man.

The face is composed of mosaic fragments and there is a deep gash from the left brow down to the lip.

The monk explains that the icon arrived over the sea of its own volition from Byzantium.

“And the gash?”

Caused either by pirates who tossed it into the sea, or else by an oyster that a local fisherman found clamped to its forehead when he dragged it up in his net.

“Who is he?”

The monk gives me an impatient glance. “Saint Nicholas” – to whom Stavronikita is dedicated.

A name can mean nothing. But in that moment, in that space, it humbled me to learn, as I gazed around at frescoes that depicted scenes from the life of my patron saint, a name can mean more than a lot.

* Under the Sun: the Letters of Bruce Chatwin, selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare, will be published in September by Cape

venerdì 13 agosto 2010

Real-life tragedies for real-life cash


Writing books based on actual atrocities like the Holocaust or the Josef Fritzl case can lead to fame and fortune. But is it right?

Objectively, Emma Donoghue's Room is an excellent book. The idiomatic voice of her narrator – five-year-old Jack – is brilliantly controlled and maintained. The story takes a firm hold and imparts a tremendous emotional kick. It asks unsettling, important questions: about morality and society, the human mind and our black hearts, and the unbreakable bonds of familial love. As a work of art it's beyond reproach.

et it left a sour taste in my mouth which lingers several days after reading. And that wasn't just because the subject matter – a woman and child imprisoned for years in an 11ft by 11ft converted shed – is so horrific.

There's an inevitable queasiness attached to books inspired by actual atrocities – in this instance, the Josef Fritzl case. What is their purpose, beyond shocking the public or making them feel guilty, and accruing sales? Do writers use true horror because they've run out of inspiration or ideas – and because they know it will sell?

Of course, authors have the right to address any subject they choose, but as readers we have the corresponding entitlement to question their choices. What moral right has Donoghue, or anyone, to tap actual, terrible events as a source for fiction? Is there not something cynical, exploitative and opportunistic about a book in which the subject is the abominable things – in this case abduction, imprisonment and rape – that happened to real people in the real world?

Basing works of fiction on infamous criminal cases is undeniably a good career move; the book is guaranteed a sympathetic audience and huge sales. By her own admission, Donoghue's literary earnings were modest until now; with Room she earned a chunky advance. Publishers know there is a vast audience of ghouls out there, keen to wallow in others' misery – and pay for the privilege.

It's a similar story with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne's tale of children and death camps which was described by one leading rabbi as "not just a lie … but a profanation". Boyne, whose endorsement appears on the cover of Room, had previously written a few novels with unexceptional sales. But abracadabra: children die in a gas chamber and the author becomes a millionaire with a Hollywood movie.

There are others. Irish author Kevin Power based his – admittedly very good – Bad Day In Blackrock on a notorious Dublin killing. Inevitably, the subject matter generated huge publicity, resulting in sales, awards and a reported film deal.

But the Holocaust, of course, remains the nadir. The amount of fiction produced about the concentration camps led a books editor to describe it to me, crudely but accurately, as "Holocaust porn". This year, for instance, after a long hiatus, Yann Martel published Beatrice and Virgil, a woefully reductive, clumsy and disrespectful allegory.

Does anyone have the moral right to address such grave subjects? Perhaps. Art Spiegelman's seminal graphic novel Maus is a brilliant reimagining of the Holocaust. But, more importantly, his father survived the death camps: the book is also a testament and a tribute to him. Personal connection and filial obligation validated that book. (Martel, to compound his sin, referenced Maus in interviews – which made his novel seem even more redundant.)

My argument is best summarised, I think, by Paul Bailey's introduction to Primo Levi's If This is a Man, in which he writes caustically of "artists who use the terrible fact of the camps for emotional and aesthetic effect". This can be applied equally, I believe, to others who recast real-life outrages as stories; who use "innocent" narrators to win readers' sympathies; who reduce the messy unbearable reality to digestible slices of sentimentality; who dip into the horror suffered by others to cut off a slice and sell it at a profit.

These things – Fritzl, the Holocaust, child murder – are the literary golden tickets. And that really is horrible.

mercoledì 11 agosto 2010

The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers

I really like this entry!

Anis Shivani
Are the writers receiving the major awards and official recognition really the best writers today? Or are they overrated mediocrities with little claim to recognition by posterity? The question is harder than ever to answer today, yet it is a worthwhile exercise to attempt (along with identifying underrated writers not favored by bureaucracy).

It's difficult to know today because we no longer have major critics with wide reach who take vocal stands. There are no Malcolm Cowleys, Edmund Wilsons, and Alfred Kazins to separate the gold from the sand. Since the onset of poststructuralist theory, humanist critics have been put to pasture. The academy is ruled by "theorists" who consider their work superior to the literature they deconstruct, and moreover they have no interest in contemporary literature. As for the reviewing establishment, it is no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing, offering unanalytical "reviews" announcing that the emperor is wearing clothes (hence my inclusion of Michiko Kakutani).

The ascent of creative writing programs means that few with critical ability have any incentive to rock the boat--awards and jobs may be held back in retaliation. The writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules (no threatening history or politics), there's no incentive to call them out. (A politically fecund multiculturalism--very desirable in this time of xenophobia--is the farthest thing from the minds of the official arbiters: such writing would be deemed "dangerous," and never have a chance against the mediocrities.)

The MFA writing system, with its mechanisms of circulating popularity and fashionableness, leans heavily on the easily imitable. Cloying writers like Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, and Charles D'Ambrosio are held up as models of good writing, because they're easy enough to copy. And copied they are, in tens of thousands of stories manufactured in workshops. Others hide behind a smokescreen of unreadable inimitability--Marilynne Robinson, for example--to maintain a necessary barrier between the masses and the overlords. Since grants, awards, and residencies are controlled by the same inbreeding group, it's difficult to see how the designated heavies can be displaced.

As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn't know great literature if it hit them in the face. Their new alliance with the MFA writing system is bringing at least a minimum of readership for mediocre books, and they're happy with that. And the mainstream reviewing establishment (which is crumbling by the minute) validates their choices with fatuous accolades, recruiting mediocre writers to blurb (review) them.

If we don't understand bad writing, we can't understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.

Several of them have won the Pulitzer Prize in the last dozen years. Consider, however, the first 12 Pulitzer Prizes for the novel awarded between 1918 and 1930: Ernest Poole, His Family; Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons; Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence; Booth Tarkington, Alice Adams; Willa Cather, One of Ours; Margaret Wilson, The Able McLaughlins; Edna Ferber, So Big; Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith; Louis Bromfield, Early Autumn; Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey; Julia Peterkin, Scarlet Sister May; Oliver La Farge, Laughing Boy. Only Arrowsmith and The Age of Innocence belong there; Cather got it for one of her lesser novels.

Some other books published in the same period that weren't deemed worthy of the Pulitzer: Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio; Willa Cather, My Antonia; John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel; William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, The Sound and the Fury; F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, Farewell to Arms; Sinclair Lewis, Main Street; and Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer.

We can dismiss the early Pulitzer winners by claiming that a bunch of old white men probably decided back then. But the people deciding today are motivated by similar (though intensified) institutional compulsions. Awards are no substitute for critical judgment. It's also not true that only posterity can separate the good from the bad. In the 1920s, perceptive critics were aware of the difference. Readers know when a much-heralded book doesn't satisfy them. They know something is missing. But there's the institutional apparatus telling them, You're a fool if you don't appreciate this book.

Well, I'm the biggest fool of them all, and here's my list, and watch for my list of the most underrated American writers today, followed by similar lists for the past century of American writers, and the most overrated and underrated global writers.

lunedì 9 agosto 2010


Margery Allingham

A quoi tient le succès ? Pourquoi une oeuvre célébrée ici reste-t-elle confidentielle ailleurs ? Comment des auteurs d'égal talent, écrivant à la même époque et dans le même domaine, peuvent-elles connaître des fortunes si diverses, l'oubli pour l'une, la gloire universelle pour l'autre ?

Margery Allingham n'était pas moins habile qu'Agatha Christie - et beaucoup plus drôle ; ses intrigues étaient aussi bien ficelées, ses personnages plus originaux et son style plus pur que celui de la reine du crime, qui lui rendra d'ailleurs un hommage posthume, en 1956 : "La véritable question est la suivante : "De combien de romans policiers se souvient-on après les avoir lus ?" De très peu en vérité. C'est ici que Margery Allingham brille de tous ses feux. Tout ce qu'elle écrit témoigne en effet d'une forme immédiatement perceptible. Elle possède également une autre qualité qui est très rarement associée au roman policier : l'élégance."

Or, tandis qu'Agatha Christie est devenue un mythe, et que ses titres comptent encore parmi les plus vendus en France, Margery Allingham n'est pratiquement plus lue en dehors du monde anglo-saxon, où ses livres restent des classiques du roman d'énigme. Pourquoi ? Mystère. "Elle a été victime d'une sorte de malchance due aux éditeurs", estime François Rivière, qui préface la réédition de ses principaux romans chez Omnibus - en même temps que Baker-Street publie l'un de ses inédits.

Dans les années 1930, alors qu'elle fait les beaux jours de l'édition britannique ou américaine, l'"autre reine du crime" n'intéresse guère les Français : un livre chez Gallimard puis quelques autres aux éditions Empreinte. Les lecteurs ne suivent pas. "Elle était très excentrique, plus littéraire, moins simple qu'Agatha Christie, ajoute le critique. Cela n'a pas pris."

Il n'est pas trop tard pour découvrir ces petits trésors d'imagination et d'humour, à l'image de leur héros récurrent, Albert Campion, l'une des figures les plus originales de la littérature policière. Ce grand jeune homme mince aux cheveux gominés, affublé d'une paire de lunettes en écaille, joue les godiches et possède l'art de se faire oublier. C'est pour mieux cacher son jeu. Issu de l'aristocratie (l'auteur aurait pris pour modèle le duc de Windsor, futur époux de Wallis Simpson), il fait profession de non-conformisme, fréquente la pègre et vit à Piccadilly, au-dessus d'un poste de police.

Carlos Fuentes et Octavio Paz : les dessous d’une affaire


Il n’y a pas de place pour deux grands écrivains dans un seul et même pays dès lors qu’il est de dimension raisonnable. On le sait bien en France ; il fut un temps où l’on s’y posait la question : comment être Gide dans un pays où Proust est tout ? Il en est de même au Mexique avec Carlos Fuentes et Octavio Paz, les deux grandes ombres tutélaires qui dominent les Lettres de ce pays. Leur rivalité y a défrayé la chronique. A croire qu’ils ne s’embrassaient que pour mieux s’étouffer. Il y eut eu bien une « affaire Paz-Fuentes », mais plus complexe et donc plus intéressante que la classique et si codifiée « haine entre écrivains » (un genre littéraire en soi).

A ma droite, c’est le cas de le dire, Octavio Paz. Né en 1914. Grand caractère. Cohérent dans ses contradictions, pétri de paradoxes. Animé du sentiment tragique de la vie. Cinquième écrivain latino-américain à être couronné par le prix Nobel de la littérature (promotion 1990). Ne tolère guère la concurrence, non seulement dans son pays mais sur le continent latino-américain. Handicapé sur le plan international par une mauvaise voix et des difficultés à s’exprimer en anglais. A ma gauche, c’est le cas de le dire, Carlos Fuentes. Né en 1928. Bel homme, beau parleur. Excellent orateur en anglais également. Relit le Quichotte une fois par an. Hanté par le fantôme de Citizen Kane au point de s’en inspirer pour écrire La mort d’Artemio Cruz. Reconnaît l’influence, la rencontre, la coïncidence de Faulkner sur les écrivains latino-américains en ce que le sentiment tragique de la défaite leur parle au plus profond. Tient que si la littérature n’enrichit pas réalité, elle ne sert à rien. Convaincu qu’elle naît de la découverte d’une voix à laquelle l’écrivain tente de donner un corps de papier. Persuadé q’un roman jaillit de la prise de conscience que le monde est plus vaste que nous.

L’un et l’autre grands voyageurs dans la tradition latino-américaine des écrivains-diplomates. Les deux ont démissionné de leur poste d’ambassadeur, pas au même moment ni pour les mêmes raisons. Fuentes était le plus connu, Paz le plus respecté. Le premier dérivait vers la gauche, le second vers la droite. Insensiblement, Fuentes devenait, dans les universités américaines, le porte-parole latino-américain d’une critique radicale de la politique reaganienne, tandis que Paz devenait de plus en plus conservateur. La différence d’âge (quatorze ans), et l’ancienneté dans la carrière des Lettres, expliquent que l’aîné ait exercé une grande influence sur l’œuvre en formation du cadet. L’un et l’autre n’ayant pas été avares d’interviews (la collection de poche Arcades chez Gallimard les a recueillis en plusieurs volumes indispensables), on peut prendre la température de leur relation sur la durée. A une condition : ne jamais oublier de mentionner la date de leurs déclarations. Car le moment dit tout sur l’échelle de Richter de leur rivalité.

En 1967, Paz considérait l’érotisme de Fuentes comme un langage de signes corporels, puisque les corps sont des signes et que les signes nous interrogent. En 1988, il estimait que son recueil de poèmes en prose et de contes Aigle ou soleil ?, et plus précisément sa deuxième partie intitulée Sables mouvants, avait eu « une certaine influence » sur le premier livre de Fuentes. Quelques mois après, lorsqu’on demandait à celui-ci quels étaient les écrivains de sa génération dont il se sentait le plus proche, il citait spontanément Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marquez, Cabrera Infante, Cortazar et… Carpentier (né en 1904). En 1994, Fuentes invoquait la haute figure de Paz quand celui-ci déclarait que l’Amérique latine était le territoire même de l’utopie, eut-elle produit des résultats désastreux ; en 1996, il pouvait encore se permettre de citer Cuadrivio de Paz, entre le Saint-Genet de Sartre et le Melville de D.H. Lawrence, comme exemple de bonne réponse critique adressée par un écrivain à l’un de ses pairs ; cette année-là encore, Fuentes reconnaissait volontiers que dans les années 50, lorsque lui et ses amis prenaient publiquement parti en faveur d’une poésie mexicaine émancipée de sa réputation de subtilité, de finesse et de discrétion, et davantage ouverte à une vraie violence, ils s’abritaient derrière les vers de Paz dans son poème Les mots : « Attrapez-les par le cul, qu’elle hurlent les putains ! ». En 1997 enfin, Fuentes se disait l’héritier d’une tradition mexicaine, glorieuse cohorte composée de Reyes, Azuela et d’autres, en tête de laquelle il plaçait… Paz.

Au fond, heureusement qu’un était avant tout romancier et essayiste, et l’autre poète et essayiste : « Pas le même terrain ni le même registre : cette distinction a permis leur coexistence pacifique pendant des années » commente Alan Riding, l’homme du New York Times à Mexico de 1971 à 1984, qui fut proche de l’un et l’autre. On s’interroge alors sur ce qui a pu provoquer entre ces deux gloires des lettres mexicaines une rupture si profonde. Leur différend à propos des Indiens du Chiapas ? Insuffisant aux dires des protagonistes même, bien que certains aient tenté de lui donner la dimension fort improbable d’une controverse de Valladolid. « Juste une divergence d’opinion » minimisait Paz en mai 1994. Il refusait de voir dans ce mouvement une quelconque révolution ; plutôt une révolte isolée venue du plus profond de l’histoire nationale : « c’est la facture que nous présente le passé ». Tout en reconnaissant que les Indiens avaient été injustement oubliés, que les Mexicains devaient payer pour ce pêché d’indifférence, Paz envisageait leurs pétitions avec sympathie mais réprouvait la violence avec laquelle elles se manifestaient. Une bataille d’egos pour le contrôle du territoire de l’imaginaire national ? Il y a de cela mais c’est encore insuffisant. Même si Paz aurait rêvé d’écrire un grand roman et surtout du théâtre. Au lieu de quoi il fut un grand poète et une conscience. Quoi alors ?

Jusqu’en 1988, ça allait à peu près entre eux. « Ils étaient amis dans la mesure où ils n’étaient pas ennemis » fait observer Alan Riding. L’écrivain Jorge Volpi évoque même « un rapport fraternel » entre eux. Il y avait bien quelque chose de la fraternité lorsqu’à son retour au Mexique au mitan des années 50, très marqué par les paysages désertiques autour de San Luis, Paz publia le poème que cette désolation lui inspira dans le premier numéro de la Revista mexicana de literatura de Carlos Fuentes et Emmanuel Carvalho. Ce qui leur valut de se battre côte à côte contre la presse conservatrice accusant de poète d’avoir écrit un poème communiste. Mais un autre article dans une autre revue scella à jamais leur inimitié. Il révéla, radicalisa et cristallisa tout ce qui les opposait souterrainement depuis des années, tant personnellement qu’idéologiquement, pour ne rien dire de leur course au Nobel (l’un des deux pouvait l’avoir, pas les deux). Intitulée « La comedia mexicana de Carlos Fuentes », cette longue attaque au vitriol d’Enrique Krauze, d’une rare violence, fut publiée dans Vuelta (No 139, 27 juin 1988) ; or cette revue, dont l’auteur de l’article était le directeur-adjoint, était dirigée par Octavio Paz. Non seulement il la laissa passer mais il se défaussa en prétendant ne l’avoir pas lue auparavant. « Puis Paz assura qu’il ne partageait pas tous les points de vue de l’article mais qu’il en avait autorisé la publication par respect pour la liberté d’expression ; or, le milieu littéraire mexicain savait parfaitement que l’article avait circulé à la rédaction de Vuelta et que Paz n’était pas loin de sa composition » se souvient l’écrivain Jorge Volpi. Ce qui redoubla la colère et l’amertume de Fuentes, achevé peu après par la reprise de l’article en couverture de l’hebdomadaire américain New Republic sous le titre peu amène de « The Guerilla dandy », le caricaturant comme un écrivain plagiaire, aigri d’avoir raté le Nobel, plus proche de Hollywood que de Mexico.

Fuentes demanda à Paz la tête du coupable et ne l’obtint pas. Très affecté, il ne lui pardonna jamais ce qu’il considérait comme « une trahison ». Leur ami commun Alan Riding tenta bien de les réconcilier lorsque Paz était malade, mais Fuentes s’y refusa : « Disons que les conditions n’étaient pas réunies » commente le journaliste. L’absence de Carlos Fuentes aux obsèques d’Octavio Paz en 1998 fut remarquée. Juste de quoi rappeler, au cas où on l’aurait oublié, que, décidément, la vie littéraire éloigne de la littérature.

Don DeLillo: 'I'm not trying to manipulate reality – this is what I see and hear'

FROM The Observer
Robert McCrum

Don DeLillo, in a rare interview, talks about living the American dream, growing old and how an art installation inspired his latest novel, Point Omega

The bedside phone in 6 Columbus, my New York hotel, rang twice. Then a familiar voice said: "You're seeing Don today. I'll join you for lunch afterwards." And that was how my interview with Don DeLillo began.

Looking back, I see that there could hardly be a more appropriate introduction to first meeting a writer who revels in bizarre irruptions of the unexpected into the even flow of time, unlikely juxtapositions of reality and strange collisions of character and personality.

In hindsight, too, this early-morning phone call did something else. It made the encounter with DeLillo, a giant of the contemporary American literary landscape, seem almost normal, intriguing and unintimidating. That's quite something: DeLillo is said, in virtually every interview I'd read about him, to resent the intrusions of journalists. He describes his relationship to his readers as "silence, exile, cunning, and so on", and used to carry a card that read simply: "I do not want to talk about it."

So today would be different. This would be "seeing Don" and afterwards we would have lunch with our mutual friend, Paul Auster. None the less, as I waited for our mid-morning appointment, I anxiously reviewed DeLillo's literary career once more, just in case.

DeLillo has devoted his writing to the shadow side of American life, painting a dysfunctional freaks' gallery of the wrecked (David Bell in Americana), the sick (Bill Gray in Mao II), the mad (Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra) and the suicidal (Eric Packer in Cosmopolis). In White Noise, the protagonist, Jack, who teaches Hitler studies, riffs hilariously on death and mass murder. It is said that DeLillo used to keep two files on his writing table, labelled "Art" and "Terror". In Mao II, he writes: "I used to think it was possible for an artist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory." On some readings, his characters occupy this no-man's-land. His vision has been described as "paranoid" in the sense that it connects everything about his society.

In the process of exploring America, DeLillo has become credited with extraordinary powers of literary clairvoyance. The war on terror is said to be foreshadowed in Mao II. The planes that flew into the Twin Towers are possibly alluded to on the cover of Underworld. Parts of White Noise are echoed in the anthrax scare of 2001, and so on.

Fellow writers talk with admiration of DeLillo's creative radar. The truth is that DeLillo is wired into contemporary America from the ground up, spookily attuned to the weird vibrations of popular culture and the buzz of everyday, ordinary conversations on bus and subway. According to Joyce Carol Oates, he is "a man of frightening perception", an all-American writer who sees and hears his country like no other.

DeLillo's masterpiece, Underworld (1997), a portrait of cold-war America, declares its democratic, artistic agenda from its opening line: "He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eyes that's halfway hopeful." Reviewers who had been watching DeLillo's work in the 80s and 90s, without becoming fully converted, now lined up to throw their hats in the air with a chorus of acclaim, a "home run", a "colossus", a "bible", a "wolf whistle" etc. Writing in the Observer, William Boyd commented: "In Underworld, we have a mature and hugely accomplished novelist firing on all cylinders... reading the book is a charged and thrilling aesthetic experience and one remembers gratefully that this is what the novel can do."

After Underworld, an 800-page tour de force, DeLillo's career turned towards the miniature: The Body Artist (2001), Cosmopolis (2003), The Falling Man (2007) are much slighter books, a rallentando that suggests a writer moving inexorably into the minor key of old age. Not that you'd find this in the demeanour of DeLillo.

When he hurries into the hotel foyer out of some atrocious weather, DeLillo is a slight, anonymous figure in a black cap and leather jacket who, once he has got past the initial introductions, seems to delight in the narrative possibilities of Auster's phone call. "If it was a story," he says in his distinctive Bronx twang, with a sly look for my reaction, "it would be called '6 Columbus'." DeLillo can be a dazzling writer, especially in his early books, but to meet he is quiet, guarded and thoughtful. Not flashy.

So how, I wonder, getting down to it, does he usually go about collecting the materials for his fiction? "I'm always keeping random notes on scraps of paper," he replies. "I always carry a pencil and a notebook. Coming on the train today I had an idea for a story I'm writing and jotted it down – on just a little scrap of paper. Then I clip these together. I'll look at them in, say, three weeks' time, and see what I've got. You know," he adds defiantly, "I've never made an outline for any novel that I've written. Never."

This is something of an artistic credo. DeLillo is at pains to suggest he is in no hurry with his work. The material must come to him. When it comes, he believes that "it has its own mandate", and cannot, he says, be wrenched into a narrative at odds with its deepest meaning. Yet behind the unflustered calm of the artist, there's the older man's consciousness of age. DeLillo is now in his early 70s. In his most recent book, Point Omega, there are references to "time" on almost every page. Perhaps art and life are finally approaching harmony. In a recent New York Review of Books, John Banville described DeLillo as "the poet of entropy. The world he sets up is a tightly wound machine gradually running down".

More of a novella, or a long short story, Point Omega is a fragment of classic DeLillo, apparently rooted in time and place: 2006, late summer, early fall. This was when DeLillo went to New York's Museum of Modern Art (Moma) to see Douglas Gordon's installation 24 Hour Psycho, a video work that slows down every frame of Hitchcock's thriller into a 24-hour cycle. Immediately, it hooked the writer's imagination. "Time and death," he remarks with some satisfaction. "It's the ultimate vision of an artist at the end of everything. It's just what's there. It was not something I planned to do."

In an oblique, attenuated way, Point Omega is DeLillo's response to the Iraq war. "Because of 9/11," he summarises, "Americans were in a mood to have faith in their government and they were angry. It was a huge mistake to attack." Was it a crime? He won't go there. "Rendition would qualify as a crime," he says carefully. This new book, he adds pointedly, is "about time and loss".

"I walked into the museum," he says, "and there was this video about which I knew virtually nothing. But I found it oddly compelling. You were looking at a screen on which practically nothing happens. And as I looked I saw that there was something in here about time and mortality. I went back two or three times. I thought: maybe this would inspire a work of fiction."

This is how DeLillo works. Despite having nothing in mind when he encountered 24 Hour Psycho, he let his imagination get to work, freely. "I had no idea what would happen and absolutely no idea what would happen later on in the novel." Readers who want neat plots and tidy endings should leave now. This is not DeLillo's concern. As he writes in his first chapter, in words for which he will disclaim responsibility: "The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever."

Actually, in the use of Gordon's installation, there is an unconscious pattern. DeLillo likes to riff on contemporary art. There's the eponymous hero in The Body Artist. In Cosmopolis, he places a crowd of naked bodies in a street a la Spencer Tunick. Point Omega is what he calls "a triptych" whose prologue and unresolved epilogue take place in Moma.

Here, the mood is Beckett, out of the noir thrillers from DeLillo's Bronx childhood. A man and a woman, strangers, stand in front of the video installation in which time has run almost to a standstill. "I want to die after a long traditional illness," says the woman. "What about you?" After a bit, the man says: "Can you imagine yourself living another life?" To which the woman replies: "That's too easy. Ask me something else."

Face to face, DeLillo talks like a man who could imagine many lives and who has certainly run the gamut of the American dream. Confronted with a lifetime of experience, he confesses that his age "doesn't seem quite real. It's not meaningful. I can't quite imagine myself being 73. That's the age my father was!" He laughs. "How can I be his age? It's weird." So how old does he feel? "Well, I'm still in my 20s for sure. I'm pretty fit. I used to go for a daily run, but now I exercise at home to avoid the weather. I stick to a routine. But when I'm between work, I don't panic. I suppose I have the Italian element of enjoying a certain amount of leisure."

An all-American writer whose first novel was published, after a long struggle, as long ago as 1971, DeLillo's life is shaped in so many ways by his Italian-American roots and his need to fulfil his parents' ambition to assimilate the culture of the USA. "My parents [who were from Abruzzi] wanted American kids," he says, "and my sister and I had no motive in speaking Italian, though my parents were bilingual. My grandfather was a carpenter and my father eventually got a job that required him to wear a suit and tie, which was very important to him."

His father, who worked as a clerk in the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, bought into the American dream and so, after a certain amount of goofing around, did the young DeLillo. "In a strange kind of way," he goes on, "what I did was to repeat the journey of my parents. That's to say, they left the old country to find a better life. When I started to write short stories in my early 20s they were set in the Italian Bronx. That's what I knew."

He was, he says, "a provincial kid who went to the local college". This was Fordham, a Jesuit school in the Bronx. "I wasn't qualified to go to an Ivy-League school. I was the only guy in America who walked to college." Inevitably, he lost whatever faith he had, studied religion and philosophy and, failing a medical, missed the draft. "Too young for Korea," he observes, "too old for Vietnam." At first, he went into advertising, as a copywriter with Ogilvy & Mather, fulfilling his parents' ambitions for their son.

DeLillo pauses in reflection. "But then it came time for me to make my journey – into America." It was, he says, "no coincidence that my first novel is called Americana. That became my subject, the subject that shaped my work. When I get a French translation of one of my books that says 'translated from the American', I think, 'Yes, that's exactly right.'"

There are many other subtle transactions at play in DeLillo's fiction. "When I work," he goes on, "I'm just translating the world around me in what seems to be straightforward terms. For my readers, this is sometimes a vision that's not familiar. But I'm not trying to manipulate reality. This is just what I see and hear."

He still considers himself as something of an outsider in his society and relishes the perspective his age gives his writing. The 1950s Bronx chapter in Underworld was, he says "a pleasure to write, exploring all those memories". Growing up as an Italian-American kid on the streets of the Bronx, he concedes that he was "remote from the wider world around me".

One of the first books that opened his adolescent eyes to the American scene was literary baseball fan James T Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, set in Chicago, but evocative of the big-city life he was living. "That was a revelation," he says and a call to arms for a young man apprehensive about the next move. "Making the journey from the Bronx to Manhattan was a major undertaking."

DeLillo now lives in Westchester County in New York State with his wife, Barbara, a landscape designer, but he has not completely left his childhood neighbourhood, a place he insists still "looks the same, though the people are different": an influx of new immigrants, Serbs, Croats and African-Caribbeans. Every year, he goes back to meet old school friends from the streets of his childhood. "We meet on a major street and have a meal together and a laugh," he says. Inevitably, the conversation will turn to baseball, DeLillo's first love – what he calls his "second language". Baseball, he says, "was just so natural, because we all grew up with it. We played it; we listened to it on the radio, and then we went to Yankee stadium. It was a taken-for-granted pleasure".

DeLillo still had to make his journey "into America" and that was hard. "It took a long time," he says. "I was very slow to begin. I lacked the discipline for the enormous commitment one has to make. Even when I had all day to write, and sometimes all week, I took forever finally to enter my first novel." That was Americana, published in 1971 when he was 35.

"It was only after two years' work," he confesses, "that it occurred to me that I was a writer. I had no particular expectation that the novel would ever be published, because it was sort of a mess. It was only when I found myself writing things I didn't realise I knew that I said, 'I'm a writer now.' The novel had become an incentive to deeper thinking. That's really what writing is – an intense form of thought."

DeLillo likes to keep this intensity to himself, which has given him the label "reclusive". But he resists this. "I'm not reclusive at all. Just private." As a celebrated writer, and a shy man, he wants to keep it this way, with his fans held at arm's length. "This is the age of consumer fiction. People want fiction that's easily assimilable." That holds no interest for DeLillo. "Point Omega challenged me in the writing and I assume it will challenge some readers as well."

He relishes complexity and goes into a long account of Teilhard de Chardin's work and the idea of the "omega point", concluding, after an explanation of the "noosphere", with a note of triumph, that "these are not easy ideas to understand, but that's what we are dealing with". For DeLillo, the mystery of the process is a vital ingredient in fiction. "We are bound to wonder: where does this material come from?"

As a champion of "difficulty", albeit in an American mode, he is an heir of modernism and says that he sees himself as "part of a long modernist line starting with James Joyce". Unlike his friend Paul Auster, there's no part of his creative make-up that owes much to the 19th-century American masters. "I was too much of a Bronx kid to read Emerson or Hawthorne." Instead, he listens to jazz: "Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, the same music I listened to when I was 20."

This comes as a reminder that DeLillo stands in the middle of a postwar generation of American writers, ranging from the senior (Philip Roth) to the junior (Paul Auster), all of them from the suburbs. "We are not native," DeLillo explains. "We have no generations of Americans behind us. We have roots elsewhere. We are looking in from the outside. To me, that seems to be perfectly natural."

As an outsider, DeLillo hates the publicity that comes with each new novel. For Point Omega, he made one public appearance, in Brooklyn, and observes with a laugh: "Everyone who does not live in Berlin lives in Brooklyn now." Does he like to read? "In public? No." I suggest that he prefers to keep his achievements to himself, even from his family. A smile: "My mother used to say, 'Who was gonna tell me?' She would see my picture in the newspaper and exclaim, 'Who was gonna tell me that a son of mine from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx was going to end up in the New York Times?' There was always a sense of wonder and unreality," he concludes. Is that the American dream? Another thin smile: "In a curious way, yes."

"What's next?" I ask. DeLillo shrugs. "Just a story." He gives a weak smile. "I don't know what's next." Is he happy with that? Another shrug. "I'm fine." A beat. "It's my contention that each book creates its own structure and its own length. I've written three or four slim books. It may be that the next novel is a big one, but I don't know."

We're done. Beyond the hotel foyer, we can see Paul Auster in his black leather jacket fighting his way through the weather for our lunchtime rendezvous. He and DeLillo decide we should go to the Carnegie Deli, an old-style New York hang-out on Seventh Avenue. In the expectation of traditional fare, the conversation morphs into a discussion about the difficulty of finding typewriter ribbons. Neither Auster nor DeLillo, who both habitually carry pencils and notebooks, uses word processors. This is where American literature begins.