In February I was in Madrid and used a few evenings to wander down to the Prado, where they open for free two hours before closing time. It was the last leg of a month long solo jaunt around Portugal and Spain. I was tired a lot by this point; the hotter weather, the repetitive budget meals of supermarket food and the assault of a big city after quieter stops caused a general lassitude and I was looking forward to heading home. I thought going to look at some of my favourite art would help. All holiday I had been dogged by a disappointment in art; I would go to museums and churches, stand in front of paintings, affect my solemn art appreciating pose and … nothing. I was listless and blank, struggling to respond and it made me feel inadequate and a bit stupid. I had taken my copy of Middlemarch and sympathised a lot with Dorothea as she is left repeatedly disappointed by art when Casaubon takes her on literature’s least sexy honeymoon to Italy. Not even Goya’s black paintings did anything for me.
Adam Gordon, the first person narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011, 181 pp) has the same worries, at one point in the same museum, about having what he calls ‘a profound experience of art’. A poet who only finds poetry beautiful when quoted in prose, he is more interested in the gap between his feelings and the claims made for works of art, as he puts it ‘a profound experience of the absence of profundity.’ Later, at a poetry reading, listening to someone who looks less like a poet and more like ‘he was going to sing flamenco or weep,’ a friend’s studied expression will imply ‘he was having a profound experience of art.’ For Adam, the ‘Esperanto of clichés’ strikes him as ‘utter shit’ fawned over as though ‘it were their daily language passing through the crucible of the human spirit.
This tone of knowing postmodern irony, self-consciousness and acerbic humour is the main one as we follow Adam around Madrid. He is on a year-long project sponsored by a foundation to compose ‘a long and research-drive poem, whatever that might mean, about the literary response to the Civil War, exploring what such a moment could teach us about “literature now.”‘ We are left under no illusions that this is guff to get a research grant-note the ‘whatever that means,’ a typical narrative interruption. Adam knows little of Spain, the Civil War, and his Spanish is poor. He gives us lots of mangled reported conversations instead of dialogue: ‘He answered for a musical performance, or to perform music, or for some sort of performance art.’ His pompous plan to teach himself Spanish using Quixote, to give himself the air of ‘someone from a foreign time,’ emphasising to Spaniards ‘their own remove from the zenith of their language’ has not gone well. Borrowing Lerner’s categorisation of a poet in our society from his more recent On The Hatred of Poetry, it is hard not to see Adam as an ’embarrassment and accusation.’
Instead of his purported project, Adam bums around Madrid, surviving on strong coffee, tranquilisers, hash, hard bread, wine, poetry and Tolstoy. He falls in with a crowd centred around an art gallery, including Teresa, for whom he develops feelings, and has a loose relationship with a girl named Isabel. We see the various ‘phases’ of his project, stages characterised more by what drugs he is taking and who he is sleeping with rather than any actual progress with his writing: ‘Late in the fourth phase of my project I decided to up the dosage, to take two white pills.’ He is extremely self-conscious, always worried about ‘the air of mystery’ he thinks he projects. In all this he drips with disdain for American tourists, reserving most spleen for those, like himself, on a ‘soft version of self-imposed exile’ funded by parents. In a mangled attempt to project an enigmatic persona, Adam manages to lie about his mother being dead and slander his kind father as no better than a fascist, a father whose credit card he is all too happy to use.
There are three leavings of Madrid’s main Atocha railway station in the novel. The first is a trip to Granada with Isabel, where Adam’s solipsism reaches great heights: ‘why would I take notes when Isabel wasn’t around to see me take them?’ Wandering around the ancient city, he worries that a point will arrive at which his Spanish becomes good enough to shatter the air of mystery, the ‘speaking in koans’, he thinks is the drive behind the relationship. Adam becomes increasingly anxious and holds interior monologues in theoretical tones that begin to grate
‘I realised with a sinking feeling that the reduction of our interaction to the literal and transformation of our pregnant silences into dead air,…,would necessarily strip my body of whatever suggestive power it had previously enjoyed…she would no longer experience her own capacity for experience, but merely my body in all its unfortunate actuality.’
The second time Adam leaves the Atocha is after the bombings of 11th March 2004. Arriving at ‘what they call a scene of mayhem,’ Adam can do little and quickly walks away. An event of this scale is too much for a solipsistic privileged student and he fails to process it. There is some good musing on reconstructed memory, ‘I watched a terrible video online…or was that many months later’, but it’s not long before Adam retreats into a self absorbed and scathing attitude when he is waved away from a blood transfusion van: ‘I said to myself that, by that point, they didn’t need blood for the injured anyway; they were probably still there only so people could feel like they were contributing; hadn’t they done that in New York?’
Another journey sees Adam travel to Barcelona with Teresa, who is translating his poems. This trip too is a disaster, this time because he manages to get lost popping out for coffee and spends all day tearing around Barcelona in an increasingly febrile state trying to find his hotel. In the course of his beer and coffee saturated trips in taxis and wandering in the pouring rain he has a moment of clarity about himself, for once in unadorned language
‘I leaned my head against the wheel and felt the full force of my shame. I wasn’t capable of fetching coffee in this country, let alone understanding its civil war. I hadn’t even seen the Alhambra, I was a violent, bipolar, compulsive liar. I was a real American…I was a pothead, maybe an alcoholic.’
This comes as a relief as Adam can be a difficult narrator to live with. The overly ironic tone and extreme introspection could have been used more judiciously , so too the overly academic thoughts and lapses into ornate speaking such as ‘negative capability’, ‘foresworn’ and ‘bethinks.’ The book is however, very funny, both the knowing digs at Adam and the set piece humour such as a boozy meal at an extravagant restaurant where he and Isabel are completely out of their depth, having to act a part, with Adam ordering wine in a manner that ‘suggested I had made this request in several European capitals and languages.’ The inexperienced American in Europe is played to full effect, and our narrator is not immune to insensitive thoughts like the contempt shown for the poetry reading or a summary of Spanish cinema as imagining a country without authoritarian men, ‘a Spain defined by liberated women rediscovering their joie de vivre with the help of their colourful gay friends.’
After more drug taking, relationship drama and increasingly tortured self-criticism, Adam comes to some sort of piece with his Madrid experience. His Spanish improves, his friendships seem less superficial and he sees his poetry translated and published. He seems calmer, coming closer to ‘life’s white machine,’ in a favourite phrase borrowed from the poet John Ashbery. It may not be a profound experience of art, but it is perhaps more real. And me? After reading this I might need an excuse to visit Madrid, for another try in the Prado.