Week 3: What a Trip

by Maria Bustillos

We’re parting company with the critics at the moment where Norton has made her choice: she’s in bed with Morini. I certainly did not see that one coming! For all the bed-hopping that goes on in this section, medications it isn’t even entirely clear to me that the relationship between Norton and Morini is in fact sexual, though I suspect it might be (?) The author has been pretty silent on the subject of Morini’s personal habits, capacities etc., in contrast to those of Espinoza and Pelletier, but he’s presented as something of a sensualist, all the same.

When the three critics dashed to Mexico to find their hero, I thought we might come to learn more about Archimboldi himself, but we really don’t. They don’t even really seem to put their backs into finding the man. They don’t visit any libraries or bookshops, which would be the first place I’d try. If he’d spent any time there at all, he would have gone to both for sure. The critics don’t make what I would consider a concerted attempt to enter into the intellectual life of this place in order to identify possible contacts—to the point where they’re introduced to all the local luminaries and promptly forget all their names. In short, I didn’t get the feeling they wanted to find Archimboldi very badly at all.

What we know of Archimboldi’s actual books doesn’t amount to much, we haven’t heard much about the plots or characters, we don’t know how long they are, or in what style they are written, or what effect they were intended to make. We know tangential things, distanced things, for example that the critics are scandalized to hear that Amalfitano finds Archimboldi no more talented than Günter Grass. (How bad would that be?) By this time maybe the reader feels more comfortable with Amalfitano’s literary judgements than with those of the critics, and we can sympathize with that—after all, we’ve only just heard of Archimboldi ourselves! (plus in Europe, I guess, you don’t get to be a distinguished professor of literature without feeling scandalized on behalf of your subject at the drop of a hat.)

In any case, Amalfitano’s glorious allegory of the cave and the stage has a strangely cathartic effect on these three. After having been dismissive and even contemptuous of this hick littérateur, they come to like him—admire him, even. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that even though Norton is confused by the allegory of the cave, the meaning of this passage has kind of sunk into the three of them by osmosis. The world has come nearer to them; they see the mouth of the mine. There’s been this lack of contact between the critics and the world outside, a theme repeated over and over in the section. This might seem weird, but I submit that hanging around in Mexico (and even more so, Africa) has itself the effect of bringing reality inexorably, excitingly, and sometimes even frighteningly closer to a person.

So contact with Mexico and/or with Amalfitano begins to thaw the three of them out, a certain amount. They respond to the relative nearness of the world in very different ways, though. Pelletier just sits around reading Archimboldi, the same books over and over, when the author himself could very well be nearby. This seems to me somewhat to symbolize the futility of European academic life. Pelletier withdraws into his intellect, becomes more insular than ever before, rereading, reinforcing his old idea of himself, locking himself up in his mind with Archimboldi, only more so; Espinoza goes quite the other way, headlong into pure carnality; he forgets all about Archimboldi and engages in a blindly lustful sexual escapade, one that is really pretty sordid, I think, because he himself seems to know that it is going nowhere, he’s mindlessly buying rugs and lingerie and obsessing on this poor kid (that beautiful, terrible line about how she’s nothing more than “a tremor in his arms” by the time he’s done with her … and it’s no accident how no mention is made of how she feels about him, about what they’re doing together … how come he doesn’t make some moves to ensure that she can go to nursing school? It’s like he sees her only in relation to himself, his own needs. No chance is he thinking about marrying her, not really. I reckon that’s just not his nature.)

And finally, Norton weirdly flees the premises, rejecting both Pelletier and Espinoza, whose curious, bizarrely shared attachment to Norton is just so strange and difficult for me to understand. I finally came to the conclusion that the two of them were just sugarcoating their real feeling for Norton which is really your basic bestial attraction, pretending to “love” her and want to marry her and whatnot, telling her to choose between them. If a man wants to marry a woman, are we to believe that he would have sex with her, in the same room with his rival? Impossible, surely–? Plus, what the heck is she thinking?! Maybe she has been reading these wacky magazine articles about “polyamory” or whatever? I will welcome everyone’s views on this point.

By the way, I take Norton’s dream of the two mirrors this way: one mirror is Espinoza, the other is Pelletier. The woman reflected therein is both herself, and not herself. She panics and thinks how she’s got to get the hell out of there, which she does. The real Norton is in there, at least, and struggling to get out.

The three dreams after Amalfitano’s allegory are prophetic. Pelletier dreams of reading the same page over and over, which he does; Espinoza dreams of visiting the rug seller and mindlessly buying rugs, ditto; Norton, of scrambling around trying to find a place for the English oak, herself, for she sees herself as both traditionally English, and rootless (or the roots are Medusa’s locks, and she’s already been compared to that dreadful figure.) Which she finally does, as well, go off scrambling to the next place, and planting her roots with Morini.

I can’t tell whether Morini can really help her, though. Is their attachment real, will the roots sink down, or is it just another series of poses, like what she went through with Pelletier and Espinoza?

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18 Responses to “Week 3: What a Trip”

  • Comment from Steve

    You submit that “hanging around in Mexico . . . has itself the effect of bringing reality inexorably, excitingly, and sometimes even frighteningly closer to a person.” I will swear an oath to the truth of that if you require it, Maria. If you hang around Mexico too much, you will find yourself living here for the very reasons you cite. Which brings me to Pelletier, the character with whom I identify the most, although I have come to love Amalfitano.

    Pelletier is not only rereading three works by Archimboldi by that pool. He also laboriously studies the newspapers in an effort to figure out what is going on in Santa Teresa. The “reality thing,” as a former American president would put it.

    As for Archimboldi’s works, Pelletier for the first time admits that he does not entirely understand them. When Espinoza asks if he is preparing to write a paper on those three works, his answer is vague. Pelletier’s arrogance is gone.

    ”Archimboldi is here,” said Pelletier, “and we’re here, and this is the closest we’ll ever be to him.”

    The critics are never going to lead Archimboldi on stage to accept his Nobel Prize after all. But I detect the aroma of contentment in that statement. I am as sure as I can be that Pelletier will never leave Mexico.

    You are saying in essence that Espinoza is a simpler case, which is as I see it, too. He has forgotten about Archiboldi’s works that are stashed in his suitcase. Espinoza says that he is leaving but swears that he will return within a year. I take him at his word. I could be a fool. That business about maybe marrying Rebeca then and taking her back to Madrid I agree is clearly bullshit, however.

    I freely admit that Liz Norton is an enigma to me.

    I have rationed myself. One posting here per day only, with a reasonable word count. This one is it for today.

    • I herewith lodge a formal protest against your senseless self-imposed posting-limit. What gives? This is a big book, and it needs discussin’.

      I accept your reading of Pelletier, which is more perceptive than mine. It makes sense that the refusal to actually look for Archimboldi is deliberate. While I am on the subject of that elusive German author, have you got any insight as to the means by which he is able to charm all these scholars? Please note that none of them came to him by way of a big reputation. They all came kind of randomly, so it wasn’t the result of a preconceived ambition.

      • Comment from Steve

        That business about my reading of Pelletier being more perceptive than yours is so not true, Maria. The man demands an entirely subjective response from his readers, our own participation in this novel. It partakes much more of poetry than of prose. Each subjective response is going to be different, sometimes our subjective responses will seem to be in opposition. I am not sure that the active reader that Cortázar envisioned would be active enough to satisfy Bolaño. Bolaño wants everything—every single thing–that we as his readers have to give him.

        I feel as if every important novel that I have ever read was simply preparation for reading this man’s work. And damn it, even after the better part of a lifetime of reading, I am afraid that I did not read enough to be worthy of him.

        As for your question, it is frustrating not to be able to read something written by Archimboldi, isn’t it?

        Somewhere here Archimboldi is described as a person who didn’t pretend to reconcile the irreconcilable, as was the fashion these days. (Sorry. I do not have a cite for that in my notes.) Based upon that statement, I propose that we simply assume that reading Archimboldi must have been very much like reading Bolaño.

        As for the coincidence of these four scholars discovering him independently, let us just swallow that little pill whole without chewing it.

        • Comment from Steve

          I will violate my own rule limiting myself to one posting per day to add a side note. My Mexicana companion is reading along with you in a beautiful edition put out by Bolaño’s Barcelona publisher. She has been utterly seduced by Bolaño’s Spanish, to the extent that I now feel as if I am part of some outré threesome with Bolaño. She has lived in Mexico City, Madrid, and Caracas and has a feel for regional variations in the language. She keeps mumbling something about how she loves that fact that Bolaño does not “put too much cream on the taco like those Argentine writers do.” As I imperfectly understand it.

          Anyway, this ultimate liaison of Liz Norton and Morini is not a mystery to her. She contends that Liz’s attraction arose from the simple fact that Morini maintained a distance from her. In other words, Liz Norton wanted the thing that was not offered to her. Mixed in with that in a minor way is something about Liz Norton’s female caretaker instincts having been juiced up. The Mexicana cites text in support of this. Again, this is my translation of something that I only imperfectly understand.

          • I propose that if there must be limits, there should be at the very least some space made for the views of La Mexicana. Since you are aiming for one post and I am aiming for infinity posts (x2,) surely we can split the difference in some equitable way.

            I’m reading in Spanish and English and I heartily agree that Bolaño’s Spanish is a wonder. It’s the first time I’ve been able to read a ‘serious’ book in Spanish without the use of a dictionary. The language is utterly elegant and simple, like a perfect black cocktail dress, supplying everything needed in a manner so irrefutably correct and complete that it makes feathers and furbelows seem like a permanently bad idea. (I do have recourse to WordReference now and then, which I will highly recommend to anybody here in search of a little nuance.)

          • Comment from Steve

            I wish you could have seen La Mexicana’s furrowed brow as she fanned through her dictionary while studying this post of yours this morning, Maria. It would have tugged at your heartstrings. We had an extended discussion of the words “irrefutable” and “nuance.” I have recommended that she no longer sound the “b” in the word “subtle.” Any metaphor that partakes of a feature of women’s clothing makes for instant communication. She reconciles the irreconcilable in her style of dress, which I refer to as haute mode flash and trash. As I recall, you are passing familiar with that fashion statement.

            In any event, you now have another admirer, instantly and totally loyal to an extent that is a bit frightening to me. She is worried about your family and hopes you are prospering. She is upset with me because I know nothing about your current state of affairs. I am now forbidden ever to disagree with you about anything. Is there anyone that you wish to have rubbed out? La Mexicana awaits your orders.

            Here is the latest, an example of what I am up against here. La Mexicana smelled a rat as she read of Liz Norton’s reaction to Edwin Johns’ death. She locked in on me with narrowed eye and informed me that there is something more here than we are being told. Her current working theory is that Liz Norton was formerly married or is married to Edwin Johns or something.

            Jesus, what am I supposed to do with that? I had forgotten that Liz Norton had previously been married or is still married or something. So of course, I must go back and paw through Part I in order to set her straight. There it is on page 35:

            For a while they were silent and then Norton started to talk about her husband. This time the horror stories she told didn’t affect Espinoza in the slightest.

            I am still wandering around in Part I fooling with this startling theory to an accompaniment in the background of a constant staccato monologue from her about the Lola story at the beginning of Part II. Staccato means she is outraged about something.

            I wanted to talk a bit about translation issues today as we are about to leave Part I, but that will have to wait until tomorrow

          • Wow, this was so lovely. Thank you both. I will get in touch with you guys off-list and we can catch up with the last decade or so.

            My jaw really dropped at the idea that Norton and Edwin Johns were involved, or even married, that he’s the violent husband … something about that is really compelling.

  • Comment from Dan Summers

    I agree with you about the effect on a person of visiting Mexico. I would submit that visiting India has much the same effect.

    I also agree that these three suffer something of an existential crisis when they visit Mexico, and that their efforts in finding him are strangely desultory and ineffectual. I think this is utterly unsurprising, though.

    First of all, it really seems that the critics’ desire to meet Archimboldi has next to nothing to do with him. They want to meet him so they can escort him into the spotlight of European critical acclaim. They want to take him by the hand, in the hopes that they will absorb the glory of his debut on that stage. If he wins the Nobel, they are the ones who will take him to Oslo.

    However, when they meet El Cerdo it sounds disconcertingly like Archimboldi isn’t really the kind of person who will clean up well and look good in a white tie and tails. He gets into unspecified trouble with the authorities. He wears ratty clothing. He’s not really cocktail party material.

    Further, the critics’ raison d’etre is to decipher and interpret Archimboldi’s work for hoi polloi. Their work relies on the mystery of him. Trying to finding him and failing makes him more mysterious. Finding him makes him concrete. Why, he might even disagree with their theories of him. Better to hole up in the hotel, seek comfort in the arms of a poor local woman, or flee back to Europe and the arms of the even more disengaged.

    • Wow, Dan … great comment (and can we get an amen, also, for writing hoi polloi as Zeus intended)

      Okay though, this is just the thing I want to know: yes, these guys want to be the stars of the Archimboldi Show, especially if they’re going to be putting it on in Oslo. And yet the history of their joint and several associations with Archimboldi’s books seems on the face of it sincere, not derived from anything but the love of literature.


      • Comment from Dan Summers

        I don’t question the sincerity of their love for Archimboldi’s work. While I find them generally unsympathetic and (hate to have to admit this) a bit uninteresting as subjects of extended scrutiny, I don’t think they’re without depth. Like most of us, their feelings and motivations are complicated. On one level, they genuinely love the writings of a man they consider a great genius. In a similar vein, they have some desire to meet him. After all, they did fly all the way to Mexico to do so. But their hearts really don’t seem to be in it. (One thing that seemed consistent about them throughout the first Part is a sort of spiritual malaise, some odd melancholy or diffidence.) When it gets down to brass tacks, they lack the needed motivation, because at the heart of it it’s not what the really want.

  • Comment from Jimmy

    I agree with Dan that the search for Archimboldi is purely about the critics themselves and not about Archimboldi. The connection they made with Archimboldi in the beginning WAS sincere, (and the reader is kind of left in the dark as to what triggered that love) but I feel that by the end of the Part About the Critics, they’ve completely lost touch with what they first fell in love with. The critics are self absorbed and completely lost.

    As for Norton, I wasn’t surprised that she ended up with Morini at all. I thought everything was pointing in that direction (Morini’s dream about the swimming pool… also, right after she had slept with both Pelletier and Espinoza, the very next section starts “She thought about Morini…” p.124). Although it is hard for me to fully understand Norton’s motivation, and why she went through this sudden change where she thought so much about a childhood love and then was drawn to Morini. She seems kind of inexplicable to me.

    • Yeah. The Jimmy Crawford section speaks of “fondness” as a desirable condition; this isn’t a characteristic, seemingly, of her feeling for Pelletier or Espinoza, though it is of her feeling for Morini. Equating fondness with “happiness”–?

      There’s maybe a disconnect between the act of seeking “happiness,” of almost fleeing from reality in favor of sensuality, fondness or literature, and the act of seeking the truth, which is the part of a scholar? Are all these things dodges, to get out of having to look into the mouth of the mine?

      Still, I’m really drawn to Steve’s idea that the critics’ situation has actually improved by the end of this section. Really shocked, though, at the idea that Pelletier will never leave Mexico … that’s an amazing idea, one that had not occurred to me.

    • Also: Steve is right about Pelletier’s sudden interest in newspapers, I think.

  • Comment from Pocket Shelley

    I really love the discussion hee. This is great to have just finished reading this portion of the book, and then have you all talking about it! I thought the end of this part of the book was a total tour de force. The shift of focus form what Pelletier and Espinoze were doing to Liz’s letter had me completely riveted even when I was somewhat mystified by what was I was reading.

    I agree that their search for Archimboldi is completely desultory, and in fact I think the trip to Mexico was much less about finding him than about the three of them being together: and of course, it should have been the four of them, but Morini backed out. The search gets especially flaccid after the three of them have finally slept together. Maria might be right that this is an unlikely thing for the male rivals to do. On the other hand, the relationship is three=sided from the beginning. (And then there’s Morini, but he it turns out was wise to leave himself out of the fray.) The menage-a-trois has been in the air for at least 100 pages, and then is left undescribed. Not that I was chomping at the bit for a sex scene, but the absence of the scene throws the characters deeper into mystery.

    I’m reading this book for the first time, and wonder whether we will ever encounter them again, now we are done with The Part about the Critics. It’s a very strange juncture. If this is the end of their story, what are we to make of it? I agree that they somehow come alive here, but in the case of Pelletier, he comes alive in a sort of spiritualized way. He has dived into depths, and achieved a certain stillness. Espinoza on the other hand has had a vision of earthly happiness, in the company of a girl who is not his peer, but whose silence he can enjoy. It’s an unrealistic vision, maybe, and it’s a sleazy pick-up when all’s said and done (giving the brother $10, sheesh). But his attraction toward Rebecca doesn’t seem to be primarily sexual. She seems to awaken his own simplicity.

    I loved the passage about Jimmy Crawford. Fondness, the forging of a term of endearment out of unplanned tenderness: None of these things seem possible in Liz’s relationships with Pelletier and Espinoza. She is remembering something long forgotten, but once remembered, she wants it again. I was still surprised that she turned to Morini, though I find him the most sympathetic of the critics, perhaps because he is the least active and most mysterious. :

    We haven’t really talked about the painer with the mummified hand. So many strange passages, and the book hanging to try in the tree. I’m eager to see what happens next.

    • Thank you for this very thoughtful comment … I’m reading it for the first time, too, and have made sure not to read ahead so I don’t blow it, spoilerwise. So I hope nothing I say turns out to be too totally hopeless by the time we reach the end. I’m writing about Edwin Johns in my next installment and will look forward to hearing your thoughts.

      I loved what you said about Rebeca awakening Espinoza’s simplicity. What I kind of got from the end, after thinking about it for a few days, is this: Amalfitano’s allegory revealed or developed (in the sense of a photograph developing) the real characters of these three. Pelletier as a kind of dreamer, Espinoza as a sensualist and Norton as almost a little girl, longing for tenderness and intimacy.

      Agreed that Morini is much the most sympathetic, because the smartest, the most attuned to the outside world, the least deceived of the four.

  • Comment from Pocket Shelley

    Wrote this late last night. Among other errors, the last paragraph should be about the PAINTER, not the Freudian “painer” I have, the book was hung out to DRY, not “try”, on a clothesline, not a tree, if I remember correctly.

  • Comment from Steve

    Yes, The Part About The Critics has been quite a ride. I see development in the critics over the course of this Part in a more favorable direction than others here.

    In addition to Amalfitano’s diatribe concerning Mexican writers, this is the passage that sticks with me. It refers to the next young wave of academics coming behind our four:

    . . . the latest litter of Archimboldians, recent graduates, boys and girls, their doctorates tucked still warm under their arms, who planned, by any means necessary, to impose their particular readings of Archimboldi, like missionaries ready to instill faith in God, even if to do so meant signing a pact with the devil, for most were what you might call rationalists, not in the philosophical sense but in the pejorative literal sense, denoting people less interested in literature than in literary criticism, the one field according to them—some of them, anyway—where revolution was still possible, and in some way they behaved not like youths but like nouveaux youths, in the sense that there are the rich and the nouveaux riches, all of them generally rational thinkers, let us repeat, although often incapable of telling their asses from their elbows. . .[Emphasis mine.]

    [p. 72]

    That seems to me to be an accurate description what the four critics themselves had once been.

    I think Pelletier, for example, first became interested in literature, rather than just literary criticism, when he reread Archimboldi by the pool in Santa Teresa. “. . .to judge by Pelletier’s face, the rereading was fruitful and thoroughly enjoyable.” [p. 145]

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