Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post: What Bolaño Read: French Lit

By Tom McCartan

This is the sixth installment in the series “What Bolaño Read” by former Shaman Drum Bookstore manager Tom McCartan. The series  about the reading habits of the author of 2666, which won this year's NBCC award in fiction, celebrates the publication of  Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations, with an introduction by former NBCC board member Marcela Valdes, which is just out from Melville House


Roberto Bolaño read tons of French literature. And he claimed to be influenced by many genres and eras, everything from Voltaire to the surrealists.

In a 2002 interview with Carmen Boullosa published in the Brooklyn based arts magazine Bomb, Bolaño waxes poétique about a number of authors: “I'm interested in French literature, in Pascal, who could foresee his death, and in his struggle against melancholy, which to me seems more admirable now than ever before. Or the utopian naiveté of Fourier. And all the prose, typically anonymous, of courtly writers (some Mannerists and some anatomists) that somehow leads to the endless caverns of Marquis de Sade.”

Céline: Total jerk.

In his last interview, Bolaño also names Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary as one of a handful of books that marked his life. (One of the best characters in 2666, the Black Panther Barry Seaman, relates how Voltaire gave him solace during his long imprisonment.) First published in 1764, the Philosophical Dictionary is a collection of radical essays; it was widely condemned by religious authorities and others, and banned in Switzerland and France. Regardless, it became massively popular, and Voltaire continually made anonymous additions and reissues. It is today considered a masterpiece of Enlightenment literature. (Thinking back to our last post, the Philosophical Dictionary is also more encyclopedia than dictionary.)

Bolaño was also an avid reader of French Surrealists like André Breton and Jacques Vaché. Breton's Nadja, one of Bolaño's favorites, is absolutely stunning. Some even make the claim that the infrarealist manifesto, penned by Bolaño, was directly inspired by Breton's own “Surrealist Manifesto”. The effect of Nadja on Bolaño's writing is evident in the subtlety of the non-linear and dreamlike realities inhabited by many of Bolaño's characters. Nadja's surrealism is surely of the same cloth as 2666's “surrealism.” It is the not surrealism of fantasy but rather that of hyper-reality, where the reader loses the ability to distinguish dream from waking reality.

Bolaño also gives massive credit to Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In a 1999 interview with the Chilean magazine Capital, Bolaño claims Céline is the only author he can think of who was both a “great writer and a son of a bitch. Just an abject human being. It's incredible that the coldest moments of his abjection are covered under an aura of nobility, which is only attributable to the power of words.”