July 12, 2020

What the hell is that about the great American novel? | Culture

In one of his last interviews, Roberto Bolaño He counted by way of joke his secret method to cover so many and many American readings. His friend Rodrigo Fresán was responsible for the authors of the west coast, he stayed with the east and then they told what he had read each. The anecdote was remembered by the professor and critic of EL PAÍS Eduardo Lago during the presentation at the Guadalajara Book Fair of his essay, Walt Whitman does not live here (Sixth floor). "Years after that interview," Lago said after the presentation, "a very important criticism told me: Fresán and you owe readers in Spanish a book about American literature. And it stuck. "

The result is more than 300 pages where the different routes of American letters are drawn from the second half of the 20th century, its roots and its crossroads. "It's about putting a bit of order and establishing a more or less historical map from my position during the last 30 years as a privileged observer from the belly of the beast," says Lago, former director of the Cervantes Institute in New York, professor of Hispanic Literatures at the Private University Sarah Lawrence College, translator of Henry James or Silvia Plath and winner of the Nadal Prize in 2006 for the novel Call me Brooklyn.

Trial cover
Trial cover

His cartography is marked by a tension or a double helix. On the one hand, the emergence of "an important number of narrators who began to cultivate a type of deliberately difficult writing without it being the result of a collective decision". Those whom Lago has called "School of difficulty", marked by three almost biological milestones: his birth in 1955 with The recognitions, by William Gaddis, his zenith with The rainbow of gravity, by Thomas Pynchon in 1973, and his burial in 1996 with The infinite joke, by David Foster Wallace.

On the other hand, "another lot of interesting literature that does not participate in the difficulty, does it partially or even operates against it". In this second group would be, for example, authors such as Jack Kerouac, Lucia Berlin or Raymond Carver. "It is he who sets off the alarm that there is a fire in the house. Where do we get people who do not complicate their lives but reach our hearts? "

From there, from that "double helix where everything fits," Lago throws a look both at the past – he highlights the ascendancy of Joyce, Nabokov and Becket – as well as the future. In a nod to the title Four quartets of T.S. Elliot, review the lists of four designed by Foster Wallace and Harold Bloom in search of the canon -in which Pynchon and DeLillo agree-, choose their four favorite authors -Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Joyce Carol Oates and Marilynee Robinson- and leave take the fourth leg of the table: "There are George Saunders, David Eaggers or Michael Chabon, but there is no emblematic name today that has broken the panorama. We are in a stage of trial and error. "

What the hell is that about the great American novel? With this heading for one of its chapters Lago recovers the old label coined in the late nineteenth century, "that in a somewhat inbred and provincial way, but with pedagogical operability tries to answer the question: what novel explains to us?". A drawer into which they would enter The scarlet letter, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or, the most recent, Freedom Jonathan Franzen, who says, according to Lake, "of Obama's time."

Franzen and Foster Wallace, friends and contemporaries, represent the two polarities that collide and converge in American letters: the return of almost nineteenth-century realism and the postmodern experimental novel. "Franzen's program consists almost of returning to Tolstoy, who already had his time. That's why while Foster Wallace the boys of today follow him with devotion, Franzen is becoming the laughingstock of the people. "


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