Friday, January 16, 2009

Robert Bolaño and Edgar Allan Poe discuss interior decorating

The first story or sketch or whatnot in Nazi Literature in the Americas (available here via the Virginia Quarterly Review), describes, in twelve pages, the long life of the Argentinian poet Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce. She publishes poems, marries a rancher, tours Europe, founds a publishing house, becomes a "committed Hitlerite."

Many reviewers have described Bolaño's novel as a menagerie of obscurities and failures, which is not exactly correct. Edelmira, for example, has an "eminent place in the panorama of Argentinean and Hispanic letters." She achieves that status with "her finest work, Poe's Room (1944), which prefigured the nouveau roman and much subsequent avant-garde writing."

Poe's Room contains: a description of a room that Edelmira has had constructed, a "treatise on good taste and interior design," details about the construction of the room and the "search for the furniture, and so on. The room is an exact reproduction of the perfect room described by Edgar Allan Poe is his story or sketch or whatnot "The Philosophy of Furniture" (1840/1845).

In this actual story, available (semi-readably) here,* Poe describes the correct principles of interior decorating, and ends with a long single paragraph, nearly two pages of the six total in the Library of America edition, describing a room, an ideal room, built by a friend. The room is an oblong shape, the colors are gold and crimson, the paintings are large and lie flat against the wall. "Beyond these things, there is no furniture, if we except an Argand lamp, with a plain crimson-tinted ground glass shade, which depends from the lofty vaulted ceiling by a single slender gold chain, and throws a tranquil but magical radiance over all."

That's the last sentence. Really driving it home there, Ed. The Poe story is extremely tedious, although less so than two later pieces ("The Domain of Arnheim", 1847, and "Landor's Cottage", 1849) that do the exact same thing for landscapes. The one touch of weird Poe, just a bit of dreamy surrealism, is the brief mention, buried in the paragraph, that Poe's friend is all the while sleeping on the sofa.

What is Bolaño doing here? This is not a small thing. Bolaño spends four of the twelve pages of the story on this imagined book. More than half of that is directly plagiarized from Poe's story, except that where Poe has a single paragraph, Bolaño makes a list:

"- The frames broad but not deep, and richly carved, without being dulled or filigreed.

- The paintings lying flat on the walls, not hanging off with cords."

Two full pages of just this, straight from Poe, with just minor changes in wording and verb tense (e.g., Poe has "The frames are broad but not deep"). What does this have to do with fascism, or with anything?

Let's see. The point of this piece of conceptual art is that Edelmira actually builds Poe's ideal room; that she brings a fantasy into the real world. Perhaps the analogy is with totalitarian states enacting crackpot ideal rules about art and life.

Or possibly it's the artist - not just Edelmira, but Poe - who is covertly totalitarian. Maybe Poe is serious about his precepts of interior design, or landscaping, that there really is an ideal, he has identified it, and if he had the power that's the way things would be. Bolaño's novel might then be anti-idealistic, the artist presenting the world as it should not be.

This episode gave me one of my hints that Bolaño is going after Modernism. Edelmira reads "The Philosophy of Furniture" and is thrilled: "She felt that she had found a soul mate in Poe: their ideas about decoration coincided." The last clause is a joke; the first is an invocation of a founder of Modernism, Charles Baudelaire, who said the same sort of thing about Poe. If I were a Professional Reader I would find an exact quote of Baudelaire's. I hate to make too much of the absence of a name, but I think this reference is meant to be specific.

As I said, or meant to say, yesterday, I don't understand more than hints of Bolaño's undermining of Modernism, which is itself a Modernist sort of thing to do. Romantic, too, like Baudelaire's attack on Romanticism, hyper-Romantic; not like the Elegiac Poet in that Hugo play, who wants to be a "moderate Romantic."

Glub glub glub. I'm in over my head. I'm sure someone is at this moment writing a conference paper on this exact subject. Good luck with that.

* Please note the hilarious bracketed editorial comment at the bottom: "[It should be noted that Poe, in this article, has adopted an intentionally humorous tone.]" Intentional, you don't say? So noted.


  1. I didn't know about this article by Poe. I've just read the first few paragraphs. Great stuff, to say the least. Complimentary to the English, isn't it? Not so much to the Americans.

    I'm definitely planning to do a careful read of it all and then write a post on it, giving you full credit as the "scholar" who alerted me to it.

    Thanks again for your blog. I really enjoy it. You could teach in a classroom, believe me.

  2. I have also jumped up on the Bolaño bandwagon, just finishing 2666 and that being all that I have read of his, and find your posts really interesting. Specifically:

    "Maybe Poe is serious about his precepts of interior design, or landscaping, that there really is an ideal, he has identified it, and if he had the power that's the way things would be. Bolaño's novel might then be anti-idealistic, the artist presenting the world as it should not be."

    The last book in 2666 focuses upon Nazi Germany (who were obssessed with perfection) and Bolaño spends quite a bit of time to show the frightful irony of a nation with a rich cultural history (literature, music, art, philosophy, etc.) but then was responsible for the Nazi party. An analogy later made with the Aztecs, who were also highly 'cultured' but incredibly violent. And there is a particular scene in the first section of 2666 with the lit academics that also echoes this notion.

    A critique of modernism is clear with your analysis of NLintheAmericas, but Bolaño seems to be taking this a step further in 2666 by questioning the whole notion of placing culture upon a pedestal. Or perhaps just the notion of perfection? Bolaño must have believed in the good of cultural development, otherwise he would not have become a writer, but certainly does want to place some warnings on the table.

  3. Happy Birthday Poe.

  4. That's right, it's Poe's birthday. He would be 200 years old. That would make a good Poe-style story - he's still alive, and 200 years old. I'm going to have Poe Week, or Poe Fortnight soon. I should have coordinated it with his bicentennial.

    David - I'm glad I could point you to the article. It's in safe hands now.

    I'm not surprised that some of Bolaño's ideas that I saw in NLITA are developed more in 2666. A suspicion of "culture" in general - that makes sense. This is a way in which Bolaño really does resemble W. G. Sebald - some of their paradoxes are genuinely difficult, I think partly because of their originality. I'm groping around in the dark a little.

  5. I guess that interior taste change over the time and the opinions of both authors, however respected or brilliant, would be simply outdated today.