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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction / literature


Notes Without a Text

Roberto Bazlen

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To purchase Notes Without a Text

Title: Notes Without a Text
Author: Roberto Bazlen
Genre: Various
Written: (1968/1970/1973) (Eng. 2019)
Length: 340 pages
Original in: German/Italian
Availability: Notes Without a Text - US
Notes Without a Text - UK
Notes Without a Text - Canada
Le capitaine au long cours - France
Lettres éditoriales - France
Der Kapitän - Deutschland
Scritti - Italia
El capitán de altura - España
Informes de lectura - España
  • and Other Writings
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Roberto Calasso
  • Translated from the Italian and with an Afterword by Alex Andriesse
  • Published together in Italian as Scritti (1984) and separately previously as:
    • Lettere editoriali (1968)
    • Note senza testo (1970), originally written in German and translated into Italian by Roberto Calasso
    • Il capitano di lungo corso (1973), originally written in German (as: 'Der Kapitän') and translated into Italian by Roberto Calasso

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Our Assessment:

A- : a jumble, but a lot of impressive bits and nuggets

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Temps . 19/6/1999 Isabelle Martin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Quand on lit aujourd'hui la quarantaine de lettres envoyées de 1951 à 1964 par Bazlen à des amis éditeurs, chez Einaudi ou Adelphi, on ne peut qu'être admiratif devant sa culture et l'étendue de ses intérêts, la liberté extrême de ses jugements (qu'on n'est pas tenu de tous partager, même si on jubile souvent à le lire), sa lucidité et sa générosité." - Isabelle Martin, Le Temps

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Roberto Bazlen was very much part of Italian literary circles but, while numerous translations -- notably of Freud and Jung -- by him appeared, none of his own writings were published during his lifetime -- and in his Introduction editor and translator Roberto Calasso even goes so far as to explain that it is: "a part -- and a decisive part -- of Bazlen's work not to have produced any work".
       In one of his notebooks here Bazlen suggests:

I think it's no longer possible to write books.
That's why I don't write books
Almost all books are footnotes, inflated into volumes (volumina).
I write only footnotes.
       Elsewhere, he suggests: "At best we play at being Novalis" -- the author of two never completed novels --, and while Bazlen does seem to have long played at trying to shape a larger work of fiction (consisting of more than footnotes ...) it remains fragmentary. This volume includes the pieces -- ranging from fairly extensively worked-out chapters to small fragments -- of that work, the would-be novel 'The Sea Captain', as well as other notebook-fragments -- including the 'Notes without a Text' from which this volume takes its name, as well as some forty-odd 'Editorial Letters', brief book evaluations on behalf of publishers, suggesting whether or not these works were worth publishing.
       Bazlen was born in Trieste -- then (in 1902), as he notes in a piece 'On Trieste', still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so that his formative years comprised: "sixteen years of Austria, then emancipation, and then, until 1934, sixteen years of Italy". The city was, he argues, not: "a source of any great creative value", but it was: "an excellent sounding board, a city of uncommon seismographicity", and he certainly is a product of that culture -- reflected also in his bilingual writing, in both German and Italian.
       The fragmentary novel and the 'Notes without a Text' were largely written in German, and later translated into Italian by Calasso; Alex Andriesse, translating from Calasso's versions, explains in his Afterword that:
The state of Bazlen's notebooks and papers, which were found in a suitcase after his death and have never been published in a definitive German edition, makes this double translation necessary.
       (I don't quite see the logic here, but .....)
       Andriesse adds:
     Though I sympathize with those readers educated to distrust translations of translations, I'd also say that Bazlen is peculiarly well-suited to a two-leg journey into English. His writings, especially the novel and the notes, gesture beyond language. He was no cultist of the mot juste. As a reader, he cared much more for literature that handled what he called "the great themes" than for "Bovaryist" fetishists of style. Bazlen's language is rather pure energy, and as such designed for travel.
       In the (ultimate if never final) form it has been left, Bazlen made a strong start to 'The Sea Captain', which begins fairly straightforwardly: it looks like the beginning of a novel. The story begins (and remains) a bit vague -- a Captain keeps going out to sea, he disappoints his wife by not appreciating the red trousers she sewed him, his left-behind wife begins going her own way while he's away -- and he remains long away, on trips of sameness, for all their variety. At one point, Bazlen writes: "It was absolutely impossible to go on this way, something had to happen !" -- which goes for both the novel and the Captain.
       Eventually, the novel doesn't so much unfold as fragment. Bazlen tries variations on some themes: seduction by a Siren, the experience of being swallowed by a whale, or the Captain finding himself on an island. The drunk Captain tells his tales of Sirens and whales but complains of his audience: "You've all lost your imagination, you stopped believing in voyages in the bellies of whales a long time ago"; when they say he should describe it to them words essentially fail him too:
     "How was it ?" he winced. "How was it ? How was it ? It was dark ... dark ... dark ..."
       The story spins apart, and Bazlen tries to pull in the pieces, repeating variations, fragments that eventually are not much more than lists, the building blocks, de- and re-structured without him able to put them anywhere near together. He offers the tantalizing outlines of what he means and wants to do, but can't get past mere outline:
A passage where
                     the Wife
                     the Burgomaster's Daughter
                     the Helmsman's wife
                     the Sirens
                     the Gypsy Woman
                     (in advance) the Innkeeper's wife
are a single figure
       He spells out some of his scenes and meanings -- blueprints that he means to build on, but barely gets to:
Advertisements for Coca-Cola (as surrogate for pornographic photos) (Peg-leg no longer takes out the photographs, but stares at women in bathing suits) (the decadence of the Sirens)

"Ah-ha ! I was helmless, I was the widow of the Helmsman now I have another helmsman ..."

When the Captain sees the advertisements, he recognized in them the Sirens degenerated and trivialized
       There are wonderful, promising bits here:
Men are small, where in the world today is there an Alexander whom you can ask not to stand in the way of your sun how are you supposed to overcompensate for your inferiority ? Hence the mass, he grows furious with the mass, and suddenly discovers that he is alone
       But it is, ultimately quite a scatter, a fiction he can't bring to cohere.

       The 'Notes without a Text' lack even that would-be foundation of a novel to them -- but that's hardly a drawback. While not just a random assemblage -- there is some order to some of the pieces, many grouped together by some of his subjects and interests ('Buddha', 'Noise', etc.), and there are some slightly longer pieces, on Italo Svevo and on Trieste, for example -- they are a multitude of building blocks, pieces suggesting more that he never got around (or found himself able) to expand on.
       In some cases it is distillation, in others just a (for now) shorthand -- as when, under 'Literature' he offers:
Shakespeare world drama unlimited power the pariah.
Balzac society novel unlimited wealth the poor.
       There are some inspired formulations -- "The Greek gods, atomized like so many gnocchi" -- and a few headscratchers:
The Hitlerjugend as necessary counterweight to:
              Sunset Boulevard
       And there's already some of the literary assessment that then dominates the final collection, of 'Editorial Letters', as when he considers the Trieste of his childhood, between (Germanic but here also Slovenian flavored) Austria-Hungary and Italy:
     I see the particular tension between two different cultural configurations particularly in a Triestine poet called Teodoro [Theodor] Däubler, whose name you must know. A cosmic cultural outpouring of visions from a shoreless river, and, on the other hand, a need for narrow, angular forms, which produced a quite peculiar screeching, which condemns to failure the work of this man who was one of the greatest visionaries, almost (almost) on a level with Blake and Lautréamont.
       (Däubler is best-known for his monumental (1200-page) verse-epic Das Nordlicht; Arno Schmidt was a great admirer.)

       The final third of this volume is taken up by the 'Editorial Letters', one- or two-page reports on books Italian publishers were (or should be ...) considering. These are very much personal opinion-pieces, Bazlen taking into account their commercial prospects but on the whole more interested in literary quality and significance -- and acknowledging throughout that these are very much his feelings on the works.
       There are close to four dozen books that he covers. They include works by quite a few American authors -- including Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine -- and an interesting selection of non-fiction, including Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years (approvingly), Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy (a book "by a small-scale maniac" that, though he found it "confused and mediocre", does offer enough that he (very) grudgingly recommended it), and Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (which he hated: they should pick any page at random and then: "tell me if Adelphi can publish such a cup of swill ! (A bucket is more like it -- the first thing that set my teeth on edge was a metallic screeching)"; they didn't, by the way, the first Italian translation only coming out sixteen years later, from Einaudi -- a rare really bad call by Bazlen: think what you will of the Kuhn, it is an essential work of recent times).
       The longest report is the first, from 1951, on Musil's The Man without Qualities; Bazlen appreciates its qualities but feels obligated to warn the publisher, too; playing devil's advocate, he has four main arguments (that he then expounds on) that speak against publishing it:
The novel is:

     1) too long
     2) too fragmentary
     3) too slow (or tedious, or difficult, or whatever you want to call it)
     4) too Austrian
       Still, he's much more enthusiastic about it than one of the other (too-)long novels he tackles, William Gaddis' The Recognitions, which strikes him as: "a very good fake made by an exceptionally vicious forger". It's not for him -- but he's willing to grant: "the possibility that it's a book to do, and one with a fairly good financial prognosis".
       The books he considers are almost all European and (North) American; an exception is Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl, featured in two of the letters and a work about which he says: "for many years, this is the only book that really shook me up".
       Bazlen was no fan of the nouveau roman, not knowing what to do with something like Alain Robbe-Grillet's The Voyeur:
Robbe-Grillet is one of the many (almost everyone) who are paving the way for the Third World War; and from a culture reduced to this state, there's nothing left to do but emigrate.
       The rare exception is Franz Tumler's Der Mantel -- surprising even Bazlen ("This seems to be a contradiction: it's a very recent German novel and yet it's readable"). He does emphasize that it is: "a modest book (in the best sense of the word "modest")" but does consider it "the only decent nouveau roman" -- and finds one chapter: "that is stupendous"; he urges the Einaudi editor to: "Definitely do it, even with the risk it won't catch on". (They didn't; the book wasn't published in Italian until almost three decades later, in 1990.)
       Bazlen can be enthusiastic, when the work warrants it -- "I would say absolutely YES!!!" to Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke (a good call) -- and only occasionally does his judgment seem a bit rushed or perhaps premature, such as finding Christopher Burney's Solitary Confinement: "the only defining book of the Second World War I've come across, and the only one I've responded to with my whole being".
       Occasionally he'll push for a work he recognizes as flawed, if there's enough to it: six pages of Blanchot's The Space of Literature are enough for him to sign on, and: "perhaps it's a bad book, but it's the bad book of a REAL writer" he says in judging William March's The Looking-Glass: "it's just a hair away from being a masterpiece. Do it and launch it". (Oh to have a reader's report of March's The Bad Seed from Bazlen .....)
       If he dates himself at times in his reading (and preferences), there's also great depth to it: in praise of Sologub's The Petty Demon Bazlen points out:
Think how unreadable probably the greatest fiction writer of that era has become: Pontoppidan
       Despite a recent revival of that Nobel laureate's Lucky Per, Pontoppidan is so little read nowadays it would hardly occur to any contemporary critic to even consider him in the mix of the (now-)significant writers of that era .....
       So also Bazlen considers Hamsun: "one of the last great European novelists (one of the writers of novel-novels -- coming before the dissolvers)", and makes the case for Jeremias Gotthelf (!) -- of The Black Spider-fame -- being: "the (at least in some respects) GREATEST European novelist of the last century".
       Bazlen doesn't do reader's reports in the more conventional way, with plot summaries and the like. He gives his impressions, and rarely points to specifics from the books themselves. There's an often almost conversational tone here -- they are presented as 'Editorial Letters', and much of this is indeed like correspondence of the old school (albeit a one-sided conversation). Occasionally, he'll get more creative in trying to make his case, as in taking a cinematic approach to evaluating Kasimir Edschmid's Der Marshall und die Gnade, eventually summing up:
Storyline: very skillful. Dialogue: conventional and never indecorous. Direction: excellent work. Actors: well schooled though showing no special talent. Costumes: plausible. Makeup: the fake beards are not immediately noticeable. Photography (cinerama): perfect (at the edges of the frame, the objects are just as in focus as they are at the center). Color technician: good (Agfacolor). Sound technician: not bad. Smell technician: excessive. Period consultant: first-rate. Distinguishing characteristics: none.
       A translation of Bazlen's limited but quite fascinating work seems long overdue, and the appearance of Notes Without a Text, covering most all of it, is very much welcome, another small but significant piece of European literature (in every sense) finally available. An interesting and well-read literary figure, Bazlen has quite a bit to offer, even now, more than half a century after his death.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 June 2019

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Notes Without a Text: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Roberto Bazlen lived 1902 to 1965.

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© 2019 the complete review

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