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.