Roberto Bolaño’s “Henri Simon Leprince”

This story can be found in Last Evenings on Earth. Its humor is Borgesian and many-edged.

Like many Bolaño stories, it's about a writer, a struggling writer if that isn't an oxymoron --

“Publishing houses and their accredited readers (that execrable subcaste) seem for some mysterious reason to detest him.”

Whether the joke here is more on writers or more on publishers is also mysterious.

When France falls to the Nazis, “the writers, who until then have been divided into scores of pullulating schools, gather to form two bands opposed by a mortal emnity,” those prepared to resist and those prepared to collaborate. While ostensibly the story is about being a French writer post-1940, the experience feeding the story is surely that of being a Chilean writer post-1973.

A collaborationist offers Leprince a well-paying newspaper job, apparently assuming Leprince will collaborate because he is a mediocre writer. Artfully, Bolaño leaves Leprince's motivation for not accepting this job unexplained.

For a brief period following Pinochet's coup, the young Bolaño was a courier for the resistance in Santiago. The fictional Leprince does similar work in France. But despite treating his hero with understanding and sympathy, Bolaño gives Leprince no credit whatsoever for his heroism... which is what convinces me that deep down Bolaño is really writing about himself here.

"Henri Simon Leprince" is a savage, tender story about a hero who cannot be taken seriously because of some deficiency in his writing. The sense conveyed is that Leprince's work for the French Resistance is merely an attempt to compensate for his not being prestigiously published. Leprince – and this time I'm pretty sure the joke is on writers -- is far less preoccupied with the tyranny of the Nazis than with that of the literary establishment. He is snubbed by the writers he helps as a “reverse opportunist” --

“... they ask where he has published his works. Leprince mentions mouldering magazines and newspapers whose mere names provoke nausea and sadness.”

And I shudder at the contradictory emotions packed into the following sentence:

“Nobody can be bothered to look up the works of the writer who saved their life.”

6 thoughts on “Roberto Bolaño’s “Henri Simon Leprince””

  1. As I understand there is some contention as to whether Bolano was actually in Chile during the coup. Some of his friends and acquaintances believe he fabricated his involvement, which i guess is interesting if we really want obsess.

  2. "Like many Bolaño stories, it's about a writer, a struggling writer if that isn't an oxymoron . . ."

    Don't mean to say, "if that isn't a redundancy"?

  3. "Redundancy," exactly! Thanks for catching that. If only it were an oxymoron…

    I hadn't heard the claim that Bolaño wasn't really in Chile during the coup — if true, that further complicates the psychology of the story. The shame that pervades the story, attached to Leprince's insufficiencies as a writer, might then naturally be read as a displacement of other emotions, such as guilt over not being there? This could be part of what makes "Henri Simon Leprince" so troublingly intense?

  4. You're pathetically wrong when you say that Henri Simon Leprince is "a hero who cannot be taken seriously because of some deficiency in his writing". His writing has nothing to do with his fate. Bolaño gives us clear hints that his writing -at moments- achieves greatness (a miracle he's aware of when he writes a large poem one night, but because he lacks self interest, he burns the poem). This is why it's also a huge misreading to say that he "is far less preoccupied with the tyranny of the Nazis than with that of the literary establishment." The reasons why he has failed in the intent of being published -as he discovers with the help from a girl- is something strange in his face, something in the way he talks, certain lack of charisma. A mere whim of fate.

    My advice: read the story again.

  5. I just want to say that I don't agree at all with some of your "conclusions" and the way you read this story.

    First of all, you say that "Henri Simon Leprince is a savage, tender story about a hero who cannot be taken seriously because of some deficiency in his writing." Where did you take that idea from? Nothing's said about a deficiency in his writing. In fact, there's a moment in the story when he achieves certain greatness in his poetry, but because he lacks self-interest, he decides to burn the poem or to forget about it (a very important passage you seemed to have overlooked, because you also say that Leprince "is far less preoccupied with the tyranny of the Nazis than with that of the literary establishment.")

    To finish my post, I'll say that the reason why he's not taken seriously, as he discovers one night with the help of a girl, has nothing to do with his writing: there's something strange in his face, in the way he talks, that makes others reject him. It's just a whim of fate, so to speak.

    My advice: read the story again.

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