Doodlings from Antwerp: Bolaño III


Read Parts I (here) and II (here) of Morgan Meis’ unfolding essay on the novel Antwerp.

There was a strange piece published recently about Roberto Bolaño’s novel Antwerp. It is worth reading if for no other reason than that it tracks down the references and explains the importance of the very last sentence of Bolaño’s novel.

That last sentence of Antwerp reads, “Let my writings be like the verses by Leopardi that Daniel Biga recited on a Nordic bridge to gird himself with courage.” As the writer of our odd essay explains, this sentence by Bolaño is a double reference to literary Romanticism. The point, we gather, is that by referencing Biga’s reference to Leopardi, Bolaño is himself making a claim about the ongoing importance of Romantic literature and placing himself directly within that history.

Not an uninteresting thought. It would mean that Bolaño is hardly the free-wheeling hippie radical post-modernist sometimes talked about in the press and at the fashionable literary get-togethers of our day. No, it would make Bolaño something more of a classicist at least in that he seems very concerned with the literary tradition as it has come down. Very concerned indeed. It would seem, as well, that he thought he had something to contribute, something that only people aware of that tradition were really going to be able to understand.


I think we may have to go ahead and take the leap: Bolaño is a metaphysician. There, I’ve said it. I feel a little better.

Bolaño dares to speculate about time. He has time on the brain. That’s a dangerous place to put your time, as the famous quote from Augustine long ago reminded us. Best just to experience your time, let it flow. Once you start thinking about it, the problems pile up.

But that is the central problem for all Romantics, time and thinking. Reading through Antwerp again I’m struck by how much it is a novel of youth. That’s not to say it is a young book, but that it is interested in the idea of youth. Much like the poet Leopardi, Bolaño took little comfort in his youth. He was too busy feeling old. He was too busy watching each moment of his youth flittering away into the void of time. Poor Romantics, they don’t even get to have their own experiences, for the simple reason that they are already watching them.


Chapter 25 of Antwerp is titled “Twenty-Seven.” Read from our new perspective of literary Romantic metaphysics of time, it is a chapter about being twenty-seven years old. What can one say about being twenty-seven? Nothing. Just a few things. They are already gone.

He goes out on to the street, pulls up the hood of his blue jacket, buttons all the buttons except the top one. He buys a pack cigarettes, takes one, stops on the sidewalk by the window of a jewelry shop, lights a cigarette. He has short hair.

Somehow the sentence “He has short hair,” blows me away. It is the saddest sentence ever written. Oh Roberto, Oh Hamlet. And of course Hamlet appears in Antwerp. Bolaño calls Hamlet a work of “youthful breathing.” Time, death, metaphysics, experience, the impossibility of experience. “Youthful breathing,” that’s very good.

What about the lines from Milton:

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!


I walk by Rubens’ house here in Antwerp almost every day. I like just to walk by.

Rubens once designed the cover page for a book of numismatics. It was 1632. In the drawing, Time hurls all the worldly kingdoms down into the abyss. Simultaneously, the forces of history in the guise of Hercules, Minerva, and Mercury, dig up the ruins of the past in order to give them back to the living world. Time destroys, history restores. A pointless though productive cycle. There is something deep there that Bolaño would have appreciated. Maybe you can say to yourself what it is better than I can. Maybe you’ve latched on to the terrible problem.

Time, death, metaphysics, experience, the impossibility of experience.


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