In Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, first person narrator Adam Gordon is participating in a poetry fellowship in Madrid, Spain where he is expected to be working on a poem highlighting literature’s role in the Spanish Civil War. Instead, he spends his time smoking spliffs, reading Tolstoy, and interacting with his landscape.
Never does Gordon bring up the obvious foreigner-in-Spain references. There is no Hemingway or Orwell – two authors who participated in one way or another in the war he is supposed to be writing a poem about. However, it is a non-war novel by Hemingway that is most akin to Leaving the Atocha Station.
Like The Sun Also Rises, there are low and high society women to be sought after and like much of Hemingway’s work, courage is a theme throughout. However, Adam Gordon does not possess that particular virtue. Rather, he lies. He deceives others to avoid conflict and gain sympathy.
Post-Franco Spain is dramatically different from pre-Franco Spain, obviously, but that doesn’t matter. Here, Lerner discusses the artist and the place of the written word, understanding that he is somewhat of a tourist in both Spain and as a poet. “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility. Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”
Throughout, Gordon struggles with being taken seriously by his Spanish ‘friends’ and pseudo girlfriend. He is just another rich American in Madrid to seep up stories and culture, eventually returning home to tell his friends and families of that time he spent in Spain. He is inside and outside at all times, like he is watching himself, rather than living, “I imagined the passengers could see me, imagined I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down.”
Adam is also living a double life. One in the world of Spanish commoners where he isn’t taken seriously, and one in Madrid’s gallery scene and high society world, where he is surprisingly well regarded. This provides another sense of duality within the novel. One where he will never be a taken seriously by ‘the people’ but one where his work will not be read by them either.
Gordon is the depiction of the flaneur in the modern world, an individual seen in any picture of the tourist packed Gran Via, but never really imposing himself on the society’s every day culture. He is background, and as he strolls, he contemplates himself in a world he struggles to fit into. He fits into a world of discussion, rather than action, much like he sees poetry, “I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government, or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I’d participated in that evening then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.”
Later in the novel, a number of protests occur. At this point, Gordon is mostly involving himself with the gallery scene – one not accessible to commoners. Nonetheless, it is those who are the most politically active. And like modern America, they often scream the loudest and are the most visible, yet are certainly not the majority.
The crux of the novel sits on the discussion of the artist’s place in the modern world. The men and women of The Sun Also Rises could punch, kick, ad fuck while surrounding themselves with bullfighters and bartenders, and they don’t avoid scrapes. Those of Leaving the Atocha Station may speak loudly, but they are hardly men or women of action. They also don’t seem to fuck as much, but they do get punched in the face.
Nonetheless, what is the artist to do when their work is no longer read and they no longer love it? What is real about art that struggles to relate? Is the simple creation of art enough?
Throughout Leaving the Atocha Station the interpretation of art and protest occurs frequently, but never is a common understanding reached. It’s position it constantly influx and being debated, and we are forced to consider, “…no matter what any poet did, the poems would constitute screens on which readers could project their own desperate belief in the possibility of poetic experience, whatever that might be, or afford them the opportunity to mourn its impossibility.”
We suggest you roll up a spliff, pick up a copy of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, and project your own “desperate belief in the possibility of poetic experience” on to it. Just maybe then, you will find your own answers, or “mourn its impossibility.”
HURRY – READ – LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION