‘Henri Simon Leprince’ by Roberto Bolaño

Henri Simon Leprince by Roberto Bolaño, 1997

The magic trick:

Capturing the writing biography of a man without falling into the realm of self-absorption or self-parody

Stories by writers about writers can be dicey. Stories about writing careers? Yikes. This has the potential to be either self-aggrandizing garbage or – even worse – a venting of personal injuries and vendettas. In other words – nothing that is actually for the reader.

Somehow Bolaño falls into both of those pits while also creating a fascinating – and funny – story very much for the reader. This is the voice of a writer who takes himself very seriously, who no doubt considers his work and its place in the world almost obsessively. And yet part of that consideration appears to also include a recognition of the absurdity inherent in self-expression. He knows he is not as important as this obsession would indicate. In fact, Bolaño probably overcorrects here – painting himself as less talented as he actually is. But even that conceit feels knowing.

He’s playing every angle here, and, ultimately, he is the butt of the joke. Always.

And that’s quite a trick on Bolaño’s part.

The selection:

There is something elusive, something indefinable about him that people find repellent. They know he is there to help, but deep down they simply cannot warm to him. Perhaps that sense that Leprince is tainted by the years has has spent in the underworld of sad magazines and the gutter press, from which no man or beast escapes, except the exceedingly strong, brilliant, and bestial.

Needless to say, Leprince has none of these qualities. He is not a fascist, or a card-carrying Party member, nor does he belong to any society of authors. The authors with whom he is in contact regard him, perhaps, as a paradoxical parvenu or reverse opportunist (since for him the obvious thing would be to denounce and insult them, to help the police in their interrogations and devote himself heart and soul to the collaborationist cause) who, in one of those fits of madenss to which the literary journalist is prone, happened to choose the right side, as unconsciously as bacteria infect a host.

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