Thoughts on The Unbearable Lightness, Against Nature, and The Savage Detectives

by Nick

I could come up with excuses for why I didn’t try writing something earlier, but it doesn’t matter.

Over the past several weeks I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans, and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño.

I’d never reading anything by Kundera before and while I enjoyed the short, slow, and domestic reflections in the first half, I didn’t care for the rest of it. It’s too circular, too drab, too obvious. I’d heard plenty about the novel before picking it up, especially about all the sex throughout the novel. However there really isn’t that much sex explicitly talked about in the novel. I expected something more explicit like Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre but I largely got a mention that sex had happened or was going to happen, or a mildly explicit detail here or there. This is an odd detail to point out if we’re really talking about the novel, but I found it bizarre how strongly the sexual content in the novel had been talked up by my friends only to find out that most of it’s not explicit at all. There’s nothing wrong with this. It doesn’t put a bad taste in my mouth like Sabbath’s Theatre did where Roth tries to seduce the reader and thereby accuse them of being as sick or twisted as his crazy protagonist. That ends up feeling creepy and gross while at least the main topic of eternal recurrence and the importance or unimportance of decisions is more interesting. I expected longer and more lavish sentences out of Kundera but didn’t get them. I expected more than the existential realization that everyone is forced to go through life blindly and that their decisions can never be redone and the intentional and unintentional consequences are entirely outside one’s control and/or understanding. There weren’t several images to trace throughout the narrative, nor did the text seem to further the conversation about eternal recurrence. I felt like I was re-reading the same looped arguments again and again. I wanted to like this novel and I’ve been impressed by Kundera’s essays on literature, but this novel won’t stay with me.

A year or two ago, a friend gifted me Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans. It’s a lesser known novel about a rich young man who becomes an incredibly discriminating aesthete. Apparently a lot of people read it alongside Henry Miller in the 60s and I’m not entirely sure I understand why. Maybe because people growing up then were seeing such a rapid rise in individual wealth? Or was it seeing through the increasingly corporatized products that lead to monoculture and the negative connotations associated with anyone who might dare to oppose them? I don’t know. The novel follows our young rich protagonist as he attempts to escape from metropolitan society and live alone with only two servants. He plans to live the rest of his days exploring his favorite poetry, fragrances, etc. Most of the chapters involve the protagonist making fun of established writers or poets of the past or expounding upon visual art and giving manifestos for each medium. Because of that it bored me. Sometimes his diatribes are funny, but they aren’t insightful enough to warrant their length (even though many are only 12-15 pages). At least in something like Miller’s Tropic of Cancer the language and sentences energize me. They’re powerful and huge, naughty, and often cutting. Sometimes it rants for too long, but Cancer largely knows when to go back to the novel’s action rather than meandering for another 20 pages.

I did two posts on the strange words I found in Against Nature and I’m glad it made me look up new words or learn more about biology or medical terminology. Lesser used words don’t always have power, but sometimes they work for me. Some of my friends from college were obsessed with using lesser known words in their poetry and that eventually soured me a little on the idea. I used to think it was a little cheap to do this in order to manufacture novelty and the interest that comes along with that simply because most of your readers don’t know what “strigils” (112) are. But in Huysmans novel I enjoyed his odd and archaic words. The same went for Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding Volume 1 which I read a few months ago.

The last thing to mention about Against Nature is how bizarre the Penguin Classics edition is. It has more introductions and notes after the text than any book I’ve picked up in a long time. Also the tone of the introductions are “if you aren’t French you aren’t going to understand this novel.” The end notes are trash. They’re small encyclopedia entries explaining some of the famous writers, painters, etc. that the main character mentions. I’ve been told that’s not considered up to code for a translated book and while I could let that slide, some of the other endnotes mention how Huysmans took aesthetic ideas from people like Stéphane Mallarmé or how some sentence coincided with something Baudelaire once said. The aesthetic comparisons are probably the most warranted notes to make, but not when you assume your audience doesn’t know who Sappho or Virgil are. What made me stop reading the introductions and the end notes was how they’d often interpret the book for the reader and include spoilers. I don’t need you to explain what I just read. Don’t tell me about how familial disease is an undercurrent in the novel. That’s what your translation should include. If it doesn’t you’ve failed. If a pun or something is not easily put into the translation then make a footnote or endnote explaining the situation. Don’t treat the reader like they don’t know how to read. It’d be one thing if this were an academic copy of the novel like a Norton Critical Edition but it isn’t. I’d be a little more forgiving of gobs of info that isn’t as interesting to any given reader in something like that, but not in something like this. I also hate the folks who think no one can ever understand their culture or art because one would have to be from that country or region or speak that language, etc. There are cultural differences and some things aren’t so easily understood, but largely speaking they aren’t understood when they aren’t explained well.

Last night I finally finished The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. I tried reading this in 2011 and only got 140 pages in before college punished me for being productive in my spare time. Since 2011 I’ve read The Insufferable Gaucho2666, and some poems out of Tres, and The Romantic Dogs. While I enjoyed most of these I haven’t gotten a lot of fruitful analysis out of his work. I can’t tell if the work’s doing something I’m not in tune with or if the hubbub surrounding Bolaño comes from how different he is from the Magical Realists. That said, 2666 is one of the few books I think about once every day or two days. Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow are the only other novels that invade my thoughts as often and I had a better time reading both of those than I did with most of 2666The Savage Detectives was as fun as I remember it being. It didn’t give me the same energy it did the first time I picked it up in 2011, but the vignettes and interviews in part II were the most fun for me. Not all of them spurred me on or interested me, but many of them did. After writing that sentence I think that one of the main issues for me talking about Bolaño is that I’m not sure how to. His style is an odd combination between a stripped back Beat style like one might read in Kerouac with the occasional comparison and flourish found in a more baroque French writer like Mallarmé or Baudelaire and that doesn’t even sound right. The Savage Detectives is a huge vat of different stories that sometimes interrelate in narrative or characters but sometimes only their ideas or conflicts are similar. Most of the novel has this absurd maximal power to it like a human being with several hands mysteriously jutting out the neck. It’s preoccupied with how one becomes a good writer and how the explosive love of writing might make its own story. It’s also about rash youth and how trying something for long enough can make something happen. Like 2666 it’s also about death and failure or at least what many would dub failure. But this novel doesn’t have the specter of death that 2666 has. It doesn’t have the tragedy of a real ending. There’re tragedies in this, yes, but they aren’t as devastating as 2666. I thought about reading The Savage Detectives again after finishing it, but I just don’t have a lot to say about what is or isn’t going on in a given section. The same way I didn’t gain a lot of intertextual analysis from 2666 no matter how certain parts of it stuck with me. Biblioklept’s analysis of 2666 is excellent. I haven’t heard anyone else talk about the book well. People like James Wood want to overlay their aesthetic and say how right or wrong something is and that’s not helpful or interesting. It might lead to interesting outcomes, but only if you’re taking every detour that comes your way. But I’m off topic. I’m glad I read The Savage Detectives and I’m glad Bolaño wrote some weird books that I’m not entirely sure what to do with. That means we’re probably in the right ballpark even if I don’t write a ton in response to the novels.