the sweep of predication was more compelling than the predicated

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

I bought a copy of Prufrock and Other Observations recently. It’s a tiny book, containing one famous poem taught in schools throughout the English speaking world and a number of other poems that few of those schoolchildren will ever read. That’s the thing with poetry, most of us if we ever read it at all read it at school and never again. If we do read any later, we mostly read poets we already know (so only reading poems recognised as classics). The world of contemporary poetry is a tiny one, obscure to the point that by contrast translated literary fiction looks as popular as Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve said this before I think.

Ben Lerner is a US contemporary poet. Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel, and it’s a novel about poetry. It’s also almost certainly going to be in my end of year list as one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s extremely funny, beautifully written and unlike many novels written by poets it works as well at the level of the entire book as it does at the level of the sentence.

Adam Gordon is an American poet living in Madrid. He’s on scholarship, supposedly researching links between poetry and the Spanish Civil War (links he suspects don’t really exist). In reality he spends his days on an extended slacker holiday, drinking coffee and getting stoned, each day much the same as the last.

As part of his daily morning ritual he goes to the Prado, to stand before Rogier Van der Weyden’s Descent of the Cross:

A turning point in my project: I arrived one morning at the Van der Weyden to find someone had taken my place. He was standing exactly where I normally stood, and for a moment I was startled, as if beholding myself beholding the painting, although he was thinner and darker than I. I waited for him to move on, but he didn’t. I wondered if he had observed me in front of the Descent and if he was now standing before int in the hope of seeing whatever it was I must have seen. I was irritated and tried to find another canvas for my morning ritual, but was too accustomed to the painting’s dimension ans and blues to accept a substitute. I was about to abandon room 58 when the man suddenly broke into tears, convulsively catching his breath. Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?

Adam has never had a “profound experience of art”. He’s not entirely persuaded they exist, and if they do he’s jealous of those who have them. What follows is a lovely comic sequence as Adam follows the man and observes the guards’ reaction to him. The man is overcome in the next room too, leaving the guards with a quandary. Is the man having a profound experience of art, which is ostensibly why the paintings are there and what the gallery is for, or is he crazy in which case should they eject him before he damages something? If they do eject him and he was just being moved by the power of the art, have they just defeated the entire point of the gallery and their place in it?

Uncertainty is central here. Adam’s Spanish is terrible, he’s made almost no efforts to learn the language and can’t read the poets he claims to be researching.

But I couldn’t bring myself to work at prose in Spanish, in part because I had to look up so many words that I was never able to experience the motion of a sentence; it remained so many particles; never a wave; I didn’t have the patience to reread the same passage again and again until the words ceased to be mere points and became a line.

His conversations with the locals become comedies of part-understanding. A woman talks to him of home “but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn’t tell”. She says something about swimming in a lake as a child, or perhaps that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asks if Adam had enjoyed swimming as a child, or says that that something else she’d said had been childish. Adam catches words, but behind them spin penumbras of meaning, ripples cast outwards by fragments of language.

For much of the book then the bulk of Adam’s conversations are notional. Things are said to him, but whether what he understands is what was meant is far from clear. That sounds potentially annoying but instead it’s very funny, and something more than that – it’s a metaphor for poetry itself. Adam understands Spanish as a reader understands a poem. Sensed meanings, which may or may not be intended. Multiplicities of interpretations, those chosen coming as much from what Adam brings to the conversation as to what was actually said. Adam’s conversations exist in the space between him and the words he understands, like poetry exists in the gap between the reader and the words on the page.

Adam falls in with a group of Madrileños who introduce him to the Madrid art scene. One of them begins translating his poems, which he thinks are essentially fake works of no real merit (but he still becomes passionate when someone misunderstands what he’s doing with them). He starts to attend readings, including of his own works, and has to face his own disassociation and the feeling that at any moment he’ll be caught out as the charlatan he feels he is. Again there’s a mismatch of understanding, not now of language but of how others clearly view Adam and how he views himself.

Later, after the first reading of his work, he reflects on his poetry and on the relationship between poetry generally with Franco and to fascism, with the world:

I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without  even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I’d participated in that evening, then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.

When the Madrid bombings occur Adam finds himself present at history. He wants to be part of it, but really he’s at best an observer. He’s not a Madrileño, he’s just a guy who was in town when the bombings happened. What do his shards of poetry mean against dead bodies, shattered limbs? Nothing of course, they’re perfectly useless.

At risk of being political that’s what those who speak of cultural dividends, of the creative industries, of the commercial benefits to a thriving art scene all utterly miss. Art is useless. It doesn’t feed us, it doesn’t help keep the elderly warm or teach children employable skills or keep us safe from criminals or rogue regimes. Good art often isn’t even entertaining. If we try to justify art by reference to utility we always fail. Art is beyond utility, which is a problem for technocratic politicians who to a one cannot understand anything that cannot be monetised.

Ahem. Possibly I digress. Leaving the Atocha Station clocks in at under 200 pages. It’s full of tremendously written lines (Adam finds himself able to follow a bad Spanish poem because it is “an Esperanto of cliches”, visiting an apartment he notes “… against one of the walls a low, Japanese looking-bed that was probably Swedish.”). It’s more though than just a collection of great sentences; it’s a comic novel that’s utterly serious.

Leaving the Atocha Station is as light or dense as you wish it to be, and while Adam may be one of the less sympathetic protagonists I’ve encountered in a while (steeped as he is in privilege and self-absorption) that in itself just becomes a reflection of the class that he, and of course Ben Lerner form part of. If art is useless, and it is, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s dominated by the children of the well-off and by people convinced of the absolute value of their own introspection. Thankfully, they’re occasionally right about that value.

Leaving the Atocha Station has been very widely reviewed in the US, but less so in the UK. I learned about it through Just William’s Luck here (thanks Will). There’s another great review by the Guardian’s Jenny Turner here, a glowing Jeff Dyer review here and a depressingly skilled review by James Wood here (though I’m not persuaded of his Lermontov comparison). By way of contrast it’s worth reading this Amazon review by Paul Bowes, a Guardian book pages regular that I hold in huge regard (even if I do disagree with him on this occasion). In addition to all that, here‘s Tao Lin interviewing Ben Lerner (including a lovely exchange where it turns out that the art gallery passage, which was suggested to be essentially lifted from Bernhard, is actually from Lerner’s own experience making his life is an act of plagiarism).

On a final note, the title is a reference to a John Ashbery poem of the same name. The poem can be read here. Were I familiar with Ashbery’s work I could no doubt draw out some interesting conclusions about how the book relates to the poem (Adam, within the book, talks about Ashbery’s work). Since however I had to be told that’s what the title meant, I’ll have to leave that to others (Will makes some good points on that front). As Adam only speaks so much Spanish, I only speak so much poetry.

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19 Comments

Filed under Lerner, Ben, Poetry, US Literature

19 responses to “the sweep of predication was more compelling than the predicated

  1. Thank you for a very well written review. I have been looking for a witty book about art and poetry that is written by a contemporary writer. From your review, this books seems to resemble a modern day poet’s meditation on art . I cannot wait to read it!

  2. This goes on the list, Max. If you loved it, I’m sure I would to. I know I’ve heard of this somewhere, but I can’t remember where.

  3. termitespeaker

    I found your review most interesting, as always. In fact, it stimulates me to write a blog post or two of my own on the nature of poetry, taking off from your paragraph beginning “For much of the book … ” I intend to quote that paragraph, if that’s OK with you. Of course, I’ll give appropriate credit.
    I’ve never read any Ashbery, but I looked up “Leaving the Atocha Station” and it appears to be a stream-of-consciousness experiment – visions and glimpses of life and thoughts as this person boards and rides the train and gets home. Not having studied it, I can’t interpret it further. But it seems to well illustrate the paragraph of your post that I cited. I looked up Atocha Station and it is indeed a railway station in Madrid.

  4. Nice review, and I liked the digression too! Although I think art does have a utility, I agree that it’s impossible to measure and so incomprehensible to politicians. And it’s very indirect and unpredictable – for every argument that great literature is improving or morally uplifting, you could counter it with the example of the Nazi camp commandants who passed their time reading Goethe.

    I also agree that often novels by poets can be beautiful at the level of sentences but frustrating as a whole, and am glad to hear that’s not the case with this one. Sounds worth a try!

  5. Alas, no French translation available! Too bad, it’s tempting.

    The “profound experience of art” you describe makes me think of the Stendhal Syndrome.

    I agree with you about poetry. We often stop reading it after school and we never really discover new poets. I’m currently reading Kosztolányi’s poems and I feel I lack the tools to understand them. (not to mention the fact that they are adapted from Hungarian to French) I have no idea how I will write about them.

    About Art. It is “Useless” in the sense of “not participating in the GDP” which is how we measure worth in this century. Not useless in the sense of improving human’s well-being.
    Still, if we don’t monetise it a bit or subsidize it instead, it will remain “dominated by the children of the well-off and by people convinced of the absolute value of their own introspection”. Everyone must eat and pay the bills.

  6. vika, from what you say you should definitely check this out. It’s not a philosophical treatise, but it is in part an examination of poetry, both how one approaches it and its role.

    Guy, brilliant, I look forward to your thoughts on it.

    termitespeaker, attribution is nice and thank you for it, as a general rule (and I can’t really imagine any exceptions actually) you’re always welcome to quote anything. Blogs are a conversation after all.

    I actually know Madrid fairly well (it’s easily one of my favourite cities in the world), and he captures it very well. It’s not though a book which could only be set in Madrid (the bombings sure, but it’s not the only city by any means to know tragedy), so I didn’t dwell on that in my review.

    As for Ashbery, I hadn’t even heard of him which from my researches since getting this book looks a bit shameful. Still, we can’t all be up on everything.

    Andrew, I have a review here of a novel by a Haitian poet-novelist which falls more into the classic territory of great at sentence level but less so overall. I actually still really liked it, but it was undeniably dense in part as every sentence seemed so steeped in meaning and resonance. Still, if he writes more I’ll read more by him.

    Emma gets to what I mean by utility, which is in part economic justification (though that’s not all I mean, I also don’t really believe that many, perhaps any, people improve by virtue of say great literature nor do I think literature should even aim to be improving).

    Politicians try to capture art in GDP terms, but that’s banal reductivism and doesn’t follow because by GDP standards we must conclude that Dan Brown is of more value say than Ben Lerner (both countrymen, but Lerner’s sales are likely within the range of a minor accounting error for Brown). Comparing them on that level though is an obvious nonsense. I’m not knocking Brown there, I’m not actually as anti-Brown as many bloggers seem to be (it probably helps that I’ve not read him, but I tend to figure you don’t sell in those numbers without getting something right, it just may not be the prose style that you’re read for).

    In GDP terms a piece of classic literature downloaded for free onto an ebook has no value, but again are we ready to say that War and Peace, Sense and Sensibility, Madame Bovary, that these are without value?

    Moving on from GDP though there’s the concept that art in some sense ennobles us, and I’m not sure I’m persuaded. People talk of how a book is life changing, but are there lives really changed? Leaving aside the fact that The Boy with Striped Pyjamas is utter nonsense in factual terms does that sort of thing constitute greater literature for having a message than say Wodehouse who distinctly doesn’t (other than perhaps to beware of overbearing aunts)?

    Emma has a point too though that we can’t be too purist, or art becomes irrelevant, a toy for the rich. I don’t obviously have answers, because I don’t think there are any, but there are balances to be struck and I think at the moment we overemphasise value and in doing so get the balance wrong.

    Emma, good luck with those poetry reviews. A daunting task. I look forward to them.

  7. I just published my post entitled “What IS This Thing Called Poetry, Anyway?” It’s at http://termitewriter.blogspot.com/ if you should be interested in reading it. Thanks for letting me quote your post.
    I wasn’t familiar with Ashbery either, so I’ve ordered a copy of the Penguin Selected Works in order to familiarize myself with his writings. I’ve never been as fond of modern poets as of some of the older ones.
    Interesting that both of your last reviews are (partially at least) laid in Madrid. I’m just now in the process of reading the Madrid section of Gough’s books.
    Re whether books can change things: My books are laid in the future and I think all writers of future history have some pretension to influencing the course of events. However, I, too, seriously doubt that it will make any impact.

  8. LaurencePritchard

    Max, great review.

    I read the book a month ago and pretty much agree with you and the reviews you linked to. Mr Bowes is being a bit harsh and he doesn’t seem to have found it amusing. I can imagine this being a stumbling block to enjoying the book.

    As you say the narrator isn’t immediately sympathetic (was the pill-popping trying to get you to like him more?) but he’s sufficiently a fuck-up for him not to be too irritating.

    What he says about ex-pats is true—they always think they are more of a “local” than the other ex-pats. They always think that they are the ones that have some privileged perspective on the country that they are living in that no other ex-patriot has or has ever had. I should know: I’m guilty of it myself.

    I thought it was very very funny, in fact I had to put the book down on several occasions I was laughing so much, certainly during the first half. It’s quite a dry humour that creeps up on you though.

    As for the beginning I was thinking of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters – and Bernhard does seem to be an influence – the wanderings, the repetitions, the humour.

    I’d read a few Ashbery poems before but only at a glance. I don’t know a lot about him. There’s a sort of introduction on slate.com I think, but even the writer confesses she doesn’t understand a lot of his work.

    Maybe Lerner was thinking of Bolano’s Savage Detectives too. A more boisterous novel about budding poets.

    Haven’t read any of Lerner’s poetry though. I’ll give it a try.

  9. You could also google Ashbery Riding, after you’ve googled Riding Graves.
    Bye

  10. leroyhunter

    I was in Madrid for the first time earlier this year, it is a great city. I’d love to go back.

    I’m intrigued by this one. I’m a little stuck 2/3rds of the way through The Savage Detectives, so the market value (!) of a novel about Spanish poets is low for me just now. I’ll keep it in mind though. I like what you have to say about the humour and the writing Max.

    Is art really useless? Is thought useless?

  11. Lorinda, thanks for the link. I’ll read it later this week. Do let me know what the Penguin collection is like, I wasn’t sure where to start with Ashbery.

    Books do occasionally change things. Arguably William Gibson shaped the internet, as much by his ignorance of what was possible of course as any predictive ability.

    Laurence, thanks. I rate Paul Bowes as a reviewer, but I linked more because it was a contrasting view than because I agreed.

    I thought the ex-pat bits both true and among the many very funny parts of the book.

    If you follow that review there’s quite an amusing part where Lerner talks of how he was suggested to be plagiarising Old Masters, but he hadn’t read it then and the stuff that seemed plagiarised was true. The link may not be direct, but it does appear to be a very relevant reference point (I have another Bernhard first though before that).

    Marco, I did google Riding Graves, fascinating. Now Ashbery Riding too? Did Riding get no credit for her work? I’ll have to google and find out.

    Leroy, good luck with the Bolano, I note Laurence mentioned that too. Somehow I’m never that tempted by him.

    I think art is useless, or at least has no practical use. I don’t see that as a criticism though, it’s in part its value. We cannot live by pure utility (well, we can if the alternative is dying, first world problems and all that). Is thought useless? Mostly I suspect it is, but then why should use be the measure of value? In the long run we’re all dead, we may as well spend some of the time we have thinking, creating, imagining, even if little of it puts clothes on our back or food on our tables.

    I’m not a Dickens fan, but I always liked his Hard Times. In that there’s a Mr Gradgrind (Dickens knew how to name a character). He bullies children on utility, and against imagination. He says that a carpet should not be decorated with images of flowers, for we walk on carpets and we wouldn’t wish to trample flowers. He hates imagination, thought, reflection, and embraces only utility, hard practicality, things which can be measured.

    Mr Gradgrind is a fine model for a machine, but not for a human being. Many things which are valuable are important even though they are impractical, immeasurable. Perhaps even most things which are important.

  12. Lorinda, just read your post, which was excellent. I’ve left a comment there, and I’d flag to others that it’s definitely worth reading even if otherwise you might not follow Lorinda’s blog.

  13. leroyhunter

    I’ve enjoyed the Bolano so far, some of it is excellent. It does just go on a bit.

    I agree with you insofar as art doesn’t have to justify itself via utility, cost-effectiveness etc – that would be absurd. I meant that more that we can’t exist without (in some fashion) thinking, and art seems to me to be the natural outflow from (and nourishment for) the processes we call thought, imagination, dreaming etc. So it serves a “purpose” in being part of the condition of existing.

    Ah, Gradgrind. Hard Times was one of my O-level books back in the day; it did a reasonable job of putting me off Dickens for life.

  14. Nah, Ahsbery, like Harry Mathews, was one of those she castigated for the indecency of admiring her.
    I feel istinctively closer to Paul Bowes’ review, perhaps because it reinforces my own prejudices.
    That initial passage is indeed reminiscent of Old Masters, while the themes of translation, poetry and the border(s) of language(s) also bring to mind Ingeborg Bachmann. It’s hard to believe that LTAS could survive these comparisons , even if taken on its own terms might be a reasonably charming and funny novel.

  15. Pingback: That Was The Year That Was: 2012 | Pechorin’s Journal

  16. jacquiwine

    Wonderful review, Max. My comments are rather belated as I read Atocha several months ago but just wanted to say that it was one of my favourite books from last year. It’s such a smart book, but a thoroughly engaging one too. I love the way Adam seems to veer between the comic and the tragic and I found myself laughing and cringing at his encounters with various Madrilenos. The poetry readings are just priceless, and now I’ve read it, I’m on the lookout for anyone having a profound experience of art when visiting exhibitions.
    Is he planning to write any more novels, do you know?

  17. Thanks, and sorry for the slow reply. Atocha is great isn’t it? I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    No idea if he’s planning to write more, but I hope so.

  18. leroyhunter

    I just got to this Max, and am glad I did: an extremely funny book. I was a little unconvinced by the seemingly “happy” ending, but the journey there was enjoyable with Adam as a pathetic, infuriating but also somehow sympathetic guide.

    The debacle at the Ritz is just a fantastic set-piece.

    I felt the historic / political stuff was a little shoe-horned in towards the end, albeit it does serve to reinforce the general vague thesis of art-for-art’s-sake (if that is indeed the thesis of the book).

    Ashberry also features prominently in the fine but flawed Trip to Echo Spring, about writers and booze. I am distinctly interested in getting hold of his work.

    Looking back on the comments, I note that I basically abandoned Bolano around the time I made those earlier remarks. No real urge to try him further, although the mammoth 2666 remains on my shelf. Amusing to re-read that curmudgeonly Paul Bowes review as well.

  19. I think your points on the historic/political stuff are fair. It’s a lot of weight to place on a story that otherwise is much more personal in its concerns, though as you say it perhaps ties in to the issues regarding art and its utility.

    I don’t see myself trying Bolano anytime soon. He just doesn’t tempt. See also: Knausgaard and his Min Kamp, Norwegian for Mein Kampf of course, one of the oddest title choices of recent years.

    Curmudgeonly’s not a bad word for Paul Bowes, but he knows his stuff and he thinks his comments through. He’s one of the main things I miss now I don’t tend to read the Guardian book pages any more.

    Glad you liked the book.

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