The Unknown University
by Roberto Bolaño
New Directions, 2013
766 pages / $39.95 buy from Amazon
1. I’ve a strange attachment to Roberto Bolaño. One of coincidence and timing and love.
2. The Savage Detectives came out in the US six years ago, the same week I decided that—yeah, dammit—I was going to do an MFA.
3. I finished my MFA not too long ago (May-ish), just as the Bolaño Library seems to have exhausted its basement of posthumous manuscripts with The Unknown University, “a deluxe, bilingual edition of all the poems of the great Roberto Bolaño.” (Or so says the flap).
4. The Unknown University, really, reads more as a manuscript of notebooks. Poems incorporate drawings, caesuras become page-breaks, forms change again and again and again. At first, it reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, in which every page of the book was in fact a typed page of a notebook’s musings. This feels like that, but rewritten from notebooks to computer and revised.
5. It’s 700+ pages and irresistible to a Bolañophile like me. A short story that recently ran in the New Yorker appears (“Mexican Manifesto”), as does the whole of the novel Antwerp, albeit in somewhat different form (and under the title “People Walking Away”). I didn’t do a full index-to-index comparison, but it also seems the whole of 2008’s The Romantic Dogs appears in a scattering throughout Part Three.
6. Despite these inclusions, though, The Unknown University isn’t a collection of previously-published books, like other “complete” collections can tend to be. (Just above my Bolaño shelf at home are the Collected Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel, which are exactly that).
7. Some such collections, like Jack Gilbert’s or Richard Hugo’s, have a section of “uncollected” pieces that follow the chronological reprintings. The Unknown University is sort of like one big “uncollected” section, but one that the author took the time to fashion into something that can live alone.
8. According to the note from the heirs: “The present edition corresponds exactly to the manuscript we found (with only a few minimal corrections taken off of his computer). Roberto himself dates it to 1993.”
9. These are early writings. An author’s note lists the completion of some sections as early as the 1970’s, when Bolaño was just Roberto, one of the boy-poet idealists he takes so often as subject in his fiction. In several poems he makes reference to his age (typically 26 or 27), which would have been around 1979-80.
10. One could imagine The Unknown University as the texts Bolaño wrote during the time of his writerly maturation, for what many now is the MFA.
11. I want to say that one does not need an MFA to write seriously. But if one does enroll, it doesn’t hurt to make-believe it is a necessary step to greatness. (Act as if ye have faith…etc.) A lot of learning to write, I think, is trying to figure out how one learns to write.
12. I once told myself, “One probably cannot become a serious writer without reading Deleuze and Guattari.” Then I read Anti-Oedipus, slowly, hoping it would make me a better person. Like exercise or quinoa or articulate speech.
13. One does need admiration to write seriously. This I believe fully. One needs something to aspire to. One needs desire and heart. And if Bolaño’s work is about anything, it’s about desire and heart.
14. From Part One of The Unknown University, in a section titled “The Snow Novel”:
I seek credibility not durability for the ballads
I composed in honor of very real girls.
And mercy for my years before 26.
15. At MFA orientation, I was in the last of my years before 26. I met some other writers with whom I’m still friends. One of them introduced me to this site. Another introduced me to a bunch of other writers, and now we’re all friends. Four of us spent the first evening after orientation talking about The Savage Detectives. We bonded. We drank. We talked like silly idiots of dreams and the great tomes we were going to write. It’s no surprise that those of us who’d read Bolaño loved him. (We wanted to be the detectives ourselves, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, ranting at a café). The one of us who hadn’t yet read Bolaño was eager to try.
16. A couple weeks later he said he’d read Distant Star and found it “boring.”
17. It seems to me people either love Bolaño or find him boring. That’s a subjective observation, of course. An “N” of maybe a couple dozen. But still, talk to people who’ve read Bolaño and the theory seems to hold up.
18. I’m of the former group, clearly. I’ve got a shelf at home with all the Bolaño hardcovers in a nice, level line. That 2666, The Savage Detectives, and other FSG editions don’t match the bright-lettering-on-black design of the New Directions editions (Amulet, The Skating Rink, Last Evenings on Earth, etc) disheartens me. And that By Night In Chile and Distant Star (two of the best novels) didn’t come out in hardcover upsets me. Especially By Night In Chile, which is lovely, marvelous, and destroys me.
19. I’ve never quite understood how a person could find Bolaño boring. But while reading The Unknown University, I think I figured it out.
20. Bolaño’s stories take place in times and places in which anything might happen. The thing is, hardly anything ever does. Not on the page, at least. Something always just did, or maybe is just about to. It’s the suspense, the potential energy, the chase, that I love. A lit fuse or a crater, for some, can contain so much more than a boom or flash. For others, the boom and flash are as necessary as reading Deleuze and Guattari.
21. Here’s the entirety of “Your Distant Heart”:
I don’t feel safe
The adventure doesn’t end.
Your eyes shine in every corner.
I don’t feel safe
or in money
or in mirrors.
The adventure never ends
and your eyes are searching for me.
22. Here’s a bit from “The Bum”:
I remember one night at the Merida train station. My girlfriend was asleep in her sleeping bag and I was keeping watch with a knife in the pocket of my jacket. I didn’t feel like reading. Anyway…Phrases appeared, I mean, I never closed my eyes or made an effort to think, the phrases just appeared, literally, like glowing ads in the middle of the empty waiting room. Across the room, slept a bum, and next to me slept my girlfriend, and I was the only one awake in the whole silent, repulsive train station…
23. Anything can happen in that train station. But what will? Will you only enjoy the story if something does, or is the “maybe” enough?
24. Both The Savage Detectives and 2666— Bolaño’s masterpieces, whether you like them or not—chronicle journeys of seeking great artists. The Unknown University, however, chronicles the journey of trying to become one.
25. From “Postcript”:
Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength.