Writing Poetically About Spain and Desire

Ben Lerner's Debut Novel Is Sensitive Semi-Autobiography

By Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Published September 28, 2011, issue of October 07, 2011.
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Leaving the Atocha Station
By Ben Lerner
Coffee House Press, 186 pages, $15

Ben Lerner
mark lerner
Ben Lerner

A novel by a poet differs from a mere novel: It’s a grander affair, an occasion. A reader has many expectations of “a poet’s novel”: an exceptional attention to language, singular imagery and a deeper probing into anything soul-related (certainly deeper than what’s expected of novels by mere novelists). Simultaneously, unique doubts hover over the entire enterprise: Will the poet’s talents translate? Is this an instance of a poet just wanting to write a novel — and so, reach a larger audience — or is there something in this material itself that demands the fleshiness of prose?

Perhaps it’s because there’s so much skepticism surrounding the novel-by-poet that, when it’s successful, it’s such a cause for celebration. Some prime examples of monumental novels by poets and about poets (but not just for poets) are Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago,” Roberto Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives,” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.” Now, let us celebrate another of their rank: Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station.”

There are glaring similarities between Lerner’s novel and Rilke’s (the lack of hesitancy in comparing a novel favorably to Rilke’s should itself speak volumes). Both were written by relatively young men — Rilke was 35 when “Notebooks” was published, Lerner is currently 32; both are semi-autobiographical, first-person, journal-like accounts of a character so close to the author as to cast suspicion on that mitigating “semi-.” Both are accounts of time spent abroad (Rilke in Paris, Lerner in Madrid); and, despite the glaring differences in their eras, both are, to put it broadly and crassly, meditations on how a sensitive, artistic young man — a poet who still experiences a shiver of fraudulence at the very title — must live his life.

Lerner, by all accounts, seems to be managing just fine. From a recent interview in The Believer, it appears he is currently at a residency in Texas, dividing his time between reading, writing and watching movies with his wife. He’s published three collections of poetry, the second of which, “Angle of Yaw,” was a finalist for the National Book Award; has been the recipient of several fellowships, including a Fulbright to Spain that likely spawned this novel; and, perhaps most enviably, was the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie, which means that he used a gold pen to enter his signature into the same book in which the 1648 Peace of Westphalia was ratified.

The narrator of “Leaving the Atocha Station,” Adam Gordon, on a very Fulbrightesque fellowship in Madrid, is neither as self-realized nor as secure in his standing as Lerner, at least not during the first “phase” of his research (there are a total of five “phases”). In order to leave his attic apartment in the morning, he requires a strong espresso, a spliff that strikes a delicate balance between tobacco and hash and an unidentified white pill or two, whose exact dosage he regulates himself. Throughout the day he’ll need some more of each, with an inevitable upgrade to weed and alcohol.

If the balance is struck, Adam sits in the park, composing what he calls his translations and feeling euphoric. “But if there were no sun and the proportioning was off, if there were either too many people around or if the park was empty, an abyss opened up inside me as I smoked.” In that case, he reaches into his bag for a few more pills, runs back to his attic and takes a prolonged siesta — unaware he’s the only one in Madrid actually honoring the siesta with sleep — after which he wakes and the coffee/hash/tobacco proportioning resumes.

Adam’s desire to abandon reality is understandable: He is a poet though “poetry actively repelled [his] attention”; the project for which he was granted the fellowship involves epic poetry and the Spanish Civil War, whereas the project he’s actually working on involves pharmacology and hot showers, and he is clueless as to what he’ll do once his time abroad is finished. All fine reasons to avoid reality. But the real reason Adam tinkers with the mechanics of his experience is to remain convinced of a reality to avoid. The drugs fill in for reality’s inaccessibility; better to take them and believe in a deviation, as that must mean something is being deviated from.

“Leaving the Atocha Station” is so named, at least partly, because Adam witnesses, at least partly, the 2004 bombing at Madrid’s Atocha Station. Adam’s reaction to this event is painfully self-conscious: His attempts at joining an anti-terrorist demonstration and protests at PP headquarters (Spain’s conservative political party) are motivated mainly by a desire to follow Teresa, one of two graceful young women with whom he has a not-quite affair (the other woman is a Spanish-language teacher named Isabel). Later, Adam imagines that the jolts of his train as it pulls out of Atocha are the first signs of a detonation. “I tried to think about whether public outrage would cost the PP the elections, about blood on the platform and the makeshift morgue in the convention center near Atocha, but instead I imagined making love with Teresa as if I were remembering it… I tried to think about Isabel, could not…”

Films are regularly alluded to throughout, particularly in relation to Teresa. Adam presumes that the reason their kissing never graduates to lovemaking is that Teresa is at work, fairly obsessively, on translations of his poetry. Teresa is something of a cineaste, too, and she and Adam spend lazy days watching “Citizen Kane” and discussing “The Passenger”: She supposedly resembles Maria Schneider, and Adam, who lies about having seen the movie (amongst innumerable other lies), apparently has eyebrows that resemble Jack Nicholson’s. A movie that isn’t mentioned in the novel, however, but flits amid its pages is Luis Buñuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire.” That movie is most memorable for the fact that two very different actresses play the same character: Conchita (the object of desire). Scene after scene, you never know which actress you’ll get. Yet within the logic of the film, they’re not just interchangeable — they’re the same woman, and at no point is this absurdity acknowledged. The film is set against a backdrop of violence, imminent threat and terrorist activity, though the main character, the desirer, remains detached, not properly affected, operating in his own hermetic realm.

Lerner accomplishes the same effect as Buñuel, woman-wise. But a different medium requires a different strategy. His Conchita is played by Isabel and Teresa — two women I’d initially suspected Lerner had gotten confused. That I thought I’d found such a giant, blatant mistake only shows how well the trick was pulled off. The women are never drawn in detail. Both are described as attractive and as looking “older and younger than her age in shifts.” The main difference between them is socioeconomic — Isabel is poor, Teresa is rich. Parallel experiences abound. There are twin trips from Atocha: Isabel takes Adam to Granada; Teresa takes him to Barcelona, and both trips terminate prematurely, as failures, or “turning points,” in Adam’s “research.” Both women have vague alternate love interests: Isabel’s is Oscar, Teresa’s is Carlos (near anagrams), or is it vice versa?

The novel culminates in a public poetry reading by Adam. A chapbook of Adam’s poems in Teresa’s translation has been published, and for the first time he doesn’t feel like a fraud, which is ironic because for the first time he probably should. The novel ends before the reading itself begins, a reading in which “Teresa would read the originals and [Adam] would read the translations and the translations would become the originals as [they are] read.” It’s no surprise, then, that the novel’s final question, addressed to no one, is, “Why was I born between mirrors?” — a paraphrasing of the novel’s central image: Adam looking up at an airliner, imagining “I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down.”

Earlier in the novel, Adam claims, in regard to Isabel, that “our relationship largely depended upon my never becoming fluent, on my having an excuse to speak in enigmatic fragments or koans.” He wonders how long he could stay in Madrid without “crossing whatever invisible threshold of proficiency would render [him] devoid of interest.” But by the time of that public reading, Adam’s Spanish is fluent. His poetry has found a Spanish translator in Teresa, and in the future he plans on translating his translator’s own Spanish poetry into English. A utopian scenario occupies the book’s last sentences — the originals becoming the translations and the reverse, with Adam staying on, in Madrid, the reader assumes, living “in a skylit room surrounded by [his] friends.” This, though, is about as likely to happen as someone figuring out who the real Conchita is in Buñuel’s film. What keeps that film endlessly interesting is not only that the viewer will never know, but that she will never lose the need to know. I suspect Adam had it right all along — there must always be a striving for fluency and transparency, but what keeps life interesting is that it will never be achieved.


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