There are few more fascinating portraits of the silence of writers than Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby and Company. Cases like those of Rimbaud, Rulfo and Salinger- of writers who abandoned their vocation abound as are cases of those who are authors of only one book. Yet he talks briefly of another- of one who was the author of nothing other than an abandoned half novel, a few collections of ‘notes without a text’ as well as a few dozen letters to publishers and two dozen letters to the Nobel Prize winning writer Eugenio Montale. Unlike Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky who published nothing in his lifetime but whose texts add up to five rather thick volumes when published posthumously, the Triestine Jew Bobi Bazlen defied all the expectations of those who believed that he had hidden a great work to be published posthumously. He really was sincere when he stated that “I don’t write books. Nearly all books are footnotes that have been swollen into volumes. I only write footnotes.”
Yet this writer of footnotes deserves more than a footnote himself when talking about the history of literature in the twentieth century. Bazlen was a man of prodigious culture: another Triestine writer, Guido Voghera, said of him “Bobi Bazlen scorns intelligence because he has too much”. This philosopher of absence and negation has obsessed and fascinated a number of writers but still remains far too unknown.
Claudio Magris and Angelo Ara in their history of Trieste say of Bazlen: “Sower of labyritnhs and confusion, Bazlen is a mentality (thought process) living near a vacuum, near an absence. Bazlen is a kind of Musil who felt no urgency in writing The Man Without Qualities”. Moni Ovadia went on to describe the particularly Jewish nature of Bazlen’s thought in the way that Jewish thought is found in the spaces left open by writing , in its pneumatic vacuums and in the shadows of its elusivity in the sense that one could, like the works of Bazlen, call the Talmud “a monument to footnotes”.
The figure of Bazlen and his refusal to write obsessed Daniele del Giudice so much that he wrote a novel Wimbledon Stadium (Lo Stadio di Wimbledon) in which he tried to ask the question as to why Bazlen didn’t write. This was a writer manque’ who could write so well, introduced the works of many into Italy (Vila Matas mentions Freud, Musil and Kafka), and was a friend of Svevo, Saba, Montale and Proust. As Vila-Matas states, the book of Del Giudice is about the narrator’s decision to write (and presumably that of Del Giudice himself) and their justification for writing against the “terrorism of negativity” (the term is of Patrizia Lombardo) and so, in many ways, a book against the position of Bazlen. Del Giudice’s position (according to Vila Matas) is that while a text is based on nothingness there is a kind of morality of form which justifies writing. Yet Bazlen’s challenge remained and was solved by Bazlen in another manner. His very absence of a work, this negation, became in a way Bazlen’s major work.
Roberto Calasso in his introduction to the publication of Bazlen’s ‘Writings’ (his letters to people at the Einaudi publishing house, to Montale, his various footnotes or notes without a text as they are called in the book and the odd introduction or preface as well as his half abandoned novel (these last two being written in German) stated that Bazlen’s presence constrained others to think and that he intervened in this way in the lives of others. For Calasso the ‘triestinity’ of Bazlen is a false argument (it is uncertain how Calasso reacts to Ovadia’s idea of the Jewishness of Bazlen’s thought) and that Bazlen was a ‘post-historic’ man from which no cultural or environmental background can do justice to his contribution. For Calasso, Bazlen is, ultimately, Taoist rather than a Platonian or Aristotelian thinker, for Bazlen refused to obey all the essential incompatibilities which dictated the choices of all those who actually wrote. Bazlen’s own evasion or flight from writing was, in fact, one of his greatest discoveries. What was Bazlen’s greatest work, then? Calasso finds it in one of Bazlen’s footnotes where he states “Before one was born alive and one then slowly died. Now one is born dead – and some are able to slowly come alive”. For Calasso this gradual opening towards life itself was Bazlen’s great achievement. By not supporting oneself on any foundation, Bazlen was in continual movement without either an end or a direction- this process of self-transformation could not be uttered or transformed into writing.
Perhaps this radical choice of footnotes versus works as well as interventions in life, letters to his acquaintances and friends in publishing houses would provide those spaces where others would think could be seen as another form. If Adorno’sreflections in Minima Moralia or Benjamin’s obsessive cataloguing in his Arcades Project represent some of the forms of grandeur outside of the swollen work, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake could be seen as another form of grandeur then, perhaps, Bobi Bazlen’s footnotes and letters offer us another form (to me the Baroque disquisitions of Angelo Maria Ripellino’s works on Russian culture offer yet another of these surprising novelties). Bazlen offered a way of measuring, of taking stock of our vacuum, the empty place, from which works may emerge.
Reading through the ‘footnotes’ from Bazlen’s four notebooks one finds aphorisms, reflections and sometimes mere two or three word descriptions. The one notebook that is divided into themes has as its subjects, for example, the following : England, Death, the Italians, the Germans, Cinema, Present Day problems, Art, Literature and so on. For example, under the title Christ here is one of the reflections of Bazlen:
Christ was crucified after having said ‘Father why have you forsaken me’. Christians have themselves crucified in order not to be forsaken by Christ. It’s easy and lacks fantasy.
Or another thought under the same subject:
One drinks one’s own blood or the blood of the dragon. The blood of the Crucifix is the liqueur of being without destiny.
Under the title England, Bazlen writes down as his first entry simply the term ‘Robinson Complex’ or he notes later on (about the English) ‘Only intelligent – the pedantry of nonsense (the word is in English). Or he simply quotes something that, presumably, he has heard ‘Don’t sit there doing nothing. In a moment you will start thinking’ or sometimes he simply gives a one-word definition or encapsulation of a phenomenon. So, for example, the angry young men– they bark. Sometimes we are fortunate to have an added commentary by someone who knew Bazlen. So, for example, the Robinson Complex was something Bazlen thought was found in many English people – walking around at night in London he discovered that many people were busy painting their rooms – he told a friend “each in his own small island like Robinson Crusoe, busy in building their own hut with all the conveniences”. Beyond this was a whole historical theory of how the English since the seventeenth century sacrificed everything in themselves for the development of homo faber. For Bazlen the English were incapable of leading an integral life- like Robinson Crusoe who, having found the native Friday on his desert island would make of him a rather bland and banal servant. This reflection would, in turn, indicate some of Bazlen’s literary tastes, for example, his interest in Christian science fiction (Charles Williams, C.S.Lewis), for the aficionado of the macabre (T.L.Baddoes) or for Wilkie Collins- the inventor of the psychological thriller etc. Having heard of Virginia Woolf’s comment about Joyce “When you can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw?”, Bazlen found in this very comment the great defect of Woolf’s prose- ie that in her work everything was cooked arguing that if she ‘cooked’ less she would have written greater things.
Therefore in each of Bazlen’s short phrases and judgements one can glimpse a hidden world view, a universe and a genealogy might be gathered from a given habitual gesture or overheard phrase such that could rarely be found lurking in any given structured text- for surely the time required in cooking them would surely destroy at least half their flavour.
Apart from these footnotes there are letters to publishers (or friends of his who worked in publishing houses). These letters have something very colloquial about them. Bazlen often adds a description of his circumstances while reading the books that he writes about (for example while Hedayat’s The Blind Owl the first time he had a temperature, another book he tells his interlocutor he read on a train travelling through Switzerland and only reached page 54 by the time he got to Amsterdam) and yet this materiality isn’t necessarily purely superfluous. There are no real theoretical disquisitions in his letters (but these like from his footnotes can be ferreted out in a sentence or two which are often so dense with pregnant meanings that one could substitute entire paragraphs). Moreover they include rather fascinating fantastic ideas – one book is compared, for example, to the Bible rewritten by Cocteau. How Bazlen avoids or, rather, condenses, intricately woven series of thoughts into the lightning judgement, seems to be characteristic only of the very rare writer.
It is in these footnotes and letters of Bazlen that a new voice, a voice of one who intervened in the history of twentieth century literature and thought yet refused to make life fit into art. Through silence and the condensed thought rather he made art a part of life; through negation of the external shell Bazlen found a way of discovering some pure crystals in the raw sentence. The uncooked Bazlen if one were to force, to mine one’s way through his laconic judgements would be worth many polished writers who had never plumbed the depths of negation as had Bazlen.