Summer Reading: Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano

It is 2009, and the summer is a hot one at its best. Most days, he travels to London for work, heading out from the small town where he lives with his wife and daughter. The journey is long, but he has learned to make use of the time, reading, working on a novel, sedating himself as he watches the landscape reeling past the window. He feels on the edge of things, of family, writing, pushed to the margins of his life.

In an effort to somehow stay current, he picks up a copy of Roberto Bolano’s Last Evenings on Earth from a bookshop on Ludgate Circus. It seems somehow typical when he discovers that Bolano had died six years before. That disappointment aside, he begins to find the stories immersive and compelling. These are fictions more than short stories; Bolano doesn’t seem to care for the moment ‘glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing’, in V.S. Prichett’s definition of the form. These fictions strain at the edges of their own structures, and whole lives will unravel over the course of ten pages, filled with silences or narrated speech, calamities and moments of threatening calm. He reads and re-reads the stories, finding echoes of his life and past relationships amongst some of the Bolano’s oddball writers, political agitators, and hapless conspiracy theorists. It seems that he was found an element of himself inside those pages, or at least something he has lost.

One Sunday, he takes the book with him as he cycles out to the coast. He has taken to cycling by himself at the weekend, partly to compensate for his weekly journeys, to escape into space. The sun is bright and high. He cycles along the edge of a faded resort town, to a beach beside a nature preserve, where white egrets gather on the marshes. The beach is surprisingly busy, although the tide is out across the dull sands, reflecting shallow water in long bars, like glimmering knives. He finds a private place to get changed, sliding out of his jeans under a towel and into a pair of swimming shorts. It strikes him that nothing is more sinister than a man alone getting changed on a beach.

It is low tide, with the sea on its way back. He gathers up his bag and walks to the edge of the water. He likes to swim, that is, he likes to immerse himself in water; he’s no swimmer, really. Before he reaches the tide, he dumps his bag on a stretch of dry sand and throws himself into the sea. The water is warm, although it is so shallow as to make his attempts at swimming ridiculous. He feels frantic, like a sparrow bathing itself in a puddle, and this idea makes him laugh out loud. The sun has clouded over in a metallic blur. Further along the coast, he can see the towers of a refinery.

When he returns to his bag, he finds a man and a woman standing nearby. They smile when they see him coming, but say nothing. The water has crawled over the sand, and soaked through the bag. The couple stare at him, smiling in unison, as though the idea that they might have moved the bag from the water is inconceivable. He says nothing. The couple stare at him blankly as he goes through the contents. His phone has moisture under the screen and fizzes once as he goes to turn it on and after that does not work again. The Bolano book has bloated with soaked water. He walks back towards his bike.

On the ride home, he leaves the cycle path and rides down to a roundabout along the road, through early evening traffic. Two boys on a motorbike overtake him, flashing obscene gestures at him as they pass. Something grips him- a burst of anger, frustration, injustice- and he speeds to catch up with the motorbike, weaving through traffic to reach them. For a second, he feels the power in his legs and lungs, the blood surging from his heart. It is the most intense sensation he can remember feeling in a long time. He cycles quickly, weaving his way through traffic and catches up to the motorbike at lights. The boy on the pillion laughs when he sees him, and waves, in a gesture he interprets as submission. At the roundabout, he peels away, still waving towards the motorbike as he finds the turning to his street.

The house is quiet when he reaches home. He return his bike to the shed and sits out in the garden with a bottle of wine, the wet book spread on the garden table in front of him. He spends the evening drinking wine and watching the vista from the garden: the frosted back windows of the houses in front of him, the street lights, the zinc coloured sky with a moon as skinny as a blade. He thinks that the book is ruined, but when he wakes the next morning, he will find that the paper has dried out overnight. From that moment on, whenever he sees the book on his shelf, he will remove it and strum his finger against the pages, thinking of how it warped but resettled itself into the binding, and he will remember the journey of that day.



‘The same people who are murdered slowly in the mechanized slaughterhouses of work are also arguing, singing, drinking, dancing, making love, taking to the streets, picking up weapons and inventing a new poetry.’

 Raoul Vaneigem

16649Over the past few years, during the months of late summer, I walk through the campus of a London university, on the way to work. Students gather around stalls from multinational firms- KPMG, Goldman Sachs, Glaxo-Smith Kline- snaring carrier bags of logo-ed mouse mats, coffee cups, and promotional material, accepting the skin bargain.

My first job after finishing university was packing radiator covers in a factory on the outskirts of Telford. While the other workers played football during their lunch breaks, I stayed by a desk in the corner and read The Alexandria Quartet, making notes in the red diary I carried around with me at that time. From then on, I was stuck in the pattern of minor jobs. A bookshop (of course). Kitchen work in restaurants. Selling bathrooms by telephone (I lasted one afternoon at that one). Potting plants in a nursery. Working as a hospital porter, a wine-merchant, for a small charity. Deleting a whole library of books, which I satirized in a short story, which gave rise to the name of this blog. Temporary contracts across London. And inevitably into office work: a desk, a phone, a computer. The way we work now.

Yes, I teach the odd creative class, but I’m mainly entrenched in what anarchists call ‘bullshit jobs’. To quote David Graeber, ‘Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul.’ I’ve had a soft spot for anarchists ever since reading Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, and enjoying its sense of utopian confrontation. It occurred to me at the time, that a form of anarchism (think of Thoreau, Tolstoy, Stewart Home) should be a true writer’s default political position. Obviously, it only works if you have no contact with other anarchists.

It’s arguable that any work which doesn’t save lives is bullshit. The anarchists have a point. But as much as these jobs defeat us, they give us something to work against. Mesitu-percussionistsaningless work, the hypnotism of routine, the vacuity of the grind: it at least conditions you to the essential uselessness of writing. If you’re going to choose to spend your life in this way, it’s best to consider the void. Once upon a time, I was the kind of person you might imagine blithely name-checking Rimbaud or Kerouac. These days, I cling to the examples of Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka, (or when times are really bad, Emily Dickinson). It’s probably a healthy sign to imagine wanting to meet your younger self and punch him swiftly in the face. Clearly, I’d be lying if I said that work hasn’t been like a toad squatting on my life. If you don’t benefit from the market, and you don’t have a university lectureship, you have to write with one eye on either of those two choices to save you from the ugly fact of work. And yet… Something about writing around a job appeals to me. Maybe this is because I’ve always thought of good writing as operating between the market and the academy, a third, no doubt illusory place beyond sales and research. Probably, I’m a fantasist. But the idea of the professional writer is a comparatively late, (and brief) development, and rather than being the dalliances of the occasional hobbyist, it occurs to me that writing should be part of a double identity. I’ve always been suspicious of the public writer, anyway. There’s something perpetually interesting about the ideal of quiet obscurity.

attachmentAlan Warner once wrote that nothing gives you better material for writing than working in shit jobs. Henry Green became managing director of his family firm in Birmingham, until losing himself to drink and the Ottoman Empire. R. F. Langley worked as a teacher, Iain Sinclair as a gardener, Roberto Bolano as a nightwatchman. American writing has (or once had) more of a tradition of working writers. Sinclair Lewis wrote on his daily train. Charles Bukowski worked for over ten years in the post office, and did it without going on a killing spree. James Sallis worked in hospitals. Like Henry Green, the poet William Bronk turned his back on academia and went to work for the family firm. Lorine Niedecker scrubbed floors and became a librarian. Inevitably, we will have to consider Raymond Carver. I always felt that a certain degree of prodigality was essential to any writer, or, at least, any writer with a decent story to tell. And what better measure of prodigality is there than to waste time in the day job?

When I lived in Brixton in the late nineties, a friend of mine had a flat off Coldharbour Lane. The first time I visited, he showed me the view from his back window. It looked over the garden of the downstairs flat, little more than a paved-over space, occupied by a single deck chair. I asked him about his neighbour. ‘I don’t know. Magnus… He’s written a novel, or something.’ He lived above Magnus Mills. Famously, Mills worked as a bus driver while writing his first novel The Restraint of Beasts, a book about cB_Bukowskyasual work. I heard recently that Mills had returned to driving buses after giving it up to pursue the writing career. I see this less an admission of defeat about the writing life, and more about what moves some writers to start in the first place. Those days when I was free to write, I hardly committed to anything worthwhile. Something about fitting the writing around a job which doesn’t quite suit, honouring the larger vocation, scraping together material, reading, drifting, letting things go: all of that turned me into a writer, for better or worse. Only when I worked, did I realise what I’d lost. My writing became charged with that purest, if hopeless, objective: to claw back all the lost time.

  ‘Let’s play Ask for a job.
What can you do?
         I can hammer and saw
         and feed a dog.
You’ll do! Take this slip
to the department of song.’

Lorine Niedecker





‘Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game.’ Roberto Bolano

Years ago, I knew someone with ambitions to be a writer. Like many of us, this friend – let’s call him Felix – brimmed with curiosity and youthful ambition, and, as Fitzgerald writes of a novelist character in Tender is The Night, ‘Fine dives have been made from flimsier spring-boards’. We both worked night jobs, and during the week we would hang out around his flat, drink beer, play computer games, talk about books. Real life might have been calling to us from the street outside, but we could ignore it quite easily. Real life was at work.

The trouble with ambition and ideas comes when they get thwarted by irredeemable fact. And the trouble with writing is that, well, it’s actually hard. You can try to cheat your way into the castle, but the guards always track you down. Sooner or later you get the tiny inkling that you’re not even half as clever as you think you are, and Samuel Johnson starts kicking your skull like a rock.

Felix struggled to get anything done. He told himself that he had a good armory in terms of language and ideas- ideas were never really his problem- but he was missing characters. During his adolescence, he’d been a keen player of role-playing games, and he still had some of those many-sided dice. He decided to score personality traits from dice rolls and draw up characters for his novel. You know the kind of thing: Anger 20, Obsession 15. Capacity for Love 5. I’m not really sure how these cards would have been used in practice, but for Felix, this represented an experimental solution to his problem. William S. Burroughs and B.S. Johnson had attempted similar things. J.G. Ballard would surely have approved. This would be Felix’s contribution to the avant-garde.

hqdefaultWriting is hard. But sometimes, for whatever reason, we make it harder than it ought to be. For most writers, it’s enough to keep an eye out for the people who cross their paths, to create characters from the composite sketches from that intersection of memory, insight and imagination. Sometimes, though, some of us want a bit of magic. Tricks become fascinating: those conjurings and deceptions, those games. Felix’s character compositions came back to me when I read ‘Enrique Martin Arturo’, Roberto Bolano’s short story about warring poets, which includes a mysterious folder of writing left to the narrator by the eponymous character. Bolano knew all about games. His novel The Third Reich tells the story of a professional war gamer struggling with the demands of romantic love. Any time he had away from writing (what time?) Bolano would spend playing world conquest games on a Playstation. Salman Rushdie came out of his years of hiding with a nasty Mario addiction. Georges Perec played pinball machines in his favourite cafe, and became a member of Oulipo, the group which aimed to advance the potential of writing by forcing it into inventive constraints. After all, if a game is defined by anything it’s the rules. When it comes down to it, writing is a game. Both depend on compulsion and delusion. Both make you believe in things which have no substance. Both are ways of spinning away your life. The real world? That’s at work. And we want to play.


I sometimes wonder what happened to Felix’s character sketches. I imagine them as the kind of arcane text-a Book of Thoth, a testament of Caspar Hauser- the kind of thing that might have been pasted onto the back of one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. I like to think of them being unearthed in a hundred years or so, poured over for significance. Perhaps those rolls of the dice tore something loose in reality. Perhaps one of those characters is about to walk through the door of this café, where I’m writing this, on a rather grey day in early February. Perhaps I’m actually one of those characters, writing a story about Felix, who all this time has been writing a story about me.

Five or so years ago, I started taking my daughter to swimming lessons. In between watching her work through the lengths of the pool, I would write poems on my phone. It’s never far way, that secret voice, however much you try to suppress it. One of my neighbours would sit a few rows down from me. Doubtless he thought me rude at the time, but later, he found out I’d written a novel, and I told him about spending those lessons writing poetry on my phone.

‘It’s funny,’ he said. ‘I always thought you were playing games.’