Born Between Mirrors

Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station

Granta, 272pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781847087454

reviewed by Hugh Foley

What would it mean to have a profound experience of art? This is the question posed by Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. After three collections of poetry - most recently the extraordinary Mean Free Path - Lerner has produced a Künstlerroman that, rather than charting the development of the sensitive artist, repeatedly questions the value of his project. This novel probes the purpose of poetry, ‘deadest of all media’, and art itself in a world where aesthetic creation fails to do much more than reflect and re-inscribe the structures of an unjust society.

The novel’s protagonist, Adam Gordon, is on a fellowship in Madrid to write ‘a long research-driven poem’ about the Spanish Civil War. Every morning he wakes up, gets stoned, takes mood stabilising pills, and then proceeds to look at the same painting without being moved. ‘I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had,’ he muses while watching a man weep in front of paintings in Madrid’s Museo Del Prado. This bravura opening scene, funny and sad in equal measure, showcases some of Adam’s best quasi-aphoristic sentences as Lerner plays up his narrator’s contradictions:

‘Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artwork and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of the distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.’

He remarks that the only prestige the museum’s guards enjoy is derived ‘precisely from the belief that such triumphs could legitimately move a man to tears,’ yet anyone who actually wept at the sight of a painting might also be deranged enough to damage them. Adam finds the puzzled reaction of the museum guards, torn between these two thoughts, more powerful than ‘any pieta, deposition or annunciation.’ Lerner’s attempt to depict a failure of affect— in both art and life —is at once cleverer and more moving than the soporose postmodern flatness that this theme usually provokes.

One apparent influence on the novel is the Adorno of Minima Moralia (1951), the subtitle of which Lerner alludes to when Adam describes himself as a ‘bit player in the looped infomercial for the damaged life’. Adorno’s ‘Reflections From a Damaged Life' culminate in a twisting negation: ‘the more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously and so calamitously it is delivered up to the world.’ In Adam’s long, dialectical sentences, Lerner pays homage to Adorno’s involutions while affectionately mocking them, transposing them into the mundane and petty world of the over-educated enjoying ‘the package tours offered by late empire’.

It is this surrender to the world that Lerner uses the novel form to illustrate; it allows him to show the conditionality of things, as the prosaic impinges into Adam’s pseudo-poetic mediations. We watch Adam ineptly pursue affairs with two Spanish women, Teresa and Isabel. He lies to both of them about his mother being dead, once drunkenly seeking attention and another time ‘to deepen [his] guilt into a kind of penance’. With both women, he feels like his limited articulation (he makes much of his apparent struggles with the Spanish language, despite assurances to the contrary that he ‘can live in this language’) allows him to provide the experience of profundity even when the thought itself is missing. Lerner’s use of bathetic prose to offset the poetic - which Adam takes to be equivalent to the negative or the virtual — allows him to wring considerable humour from Adam’s relationships:

‘I was therefore able to raise an eyebrow and communicate that I was watching Teresa attempt to translate what I had said, or rather, failed to say, and thus my face reclaimed from her face the powers of metacommentary.’

It is not merely personal pettiness that intrudes on Adam’s sense of poetic possibility, but the more imposing spectre of geopolitics and terrorism. The novel takes its title from one of John Ashbery’s most disjunctive and difficult poems, and Lerner seems to want to make the reader consider what relationship that or any other poem has with the political world. It was the Atocha train station that was bombed in 2004, in retaliation for the invasion of Iraq, during which the novel is set. The bombing offers a stark background to Adam’s ‘journey;’ when he argues with Isabel, she rebukes him by saying, ‘I’m sure the people of Iraq are looking forward to your poem about Franco and his economy,’ and, after the bombing, a rival for Teresa’s affections mockingly asks Adam if he’s ‘going to write a poem’ about it. The poet’s confrontation with his medium’s political impotence provides the novel with some of its finest moments.

Leaving the Atocha Station is not a rejection of art, however, but an attempt to evaluate the power art has while simultaneously coming to terms with its position in society. At one point, while reading Ashbery’s ‘Clepsydra’, Adam says that what he likes about Ashbery’s poems is how ‘they allow you to experience your mediacy immediately’. This line echoes Lerner’s poem, Angle of Yaw, in which he also articulates the need ‘to experience mediacy immediately.’ As the novel draws to a close, the power of the ‘deadest of all media’ to really make one experience something, even if it is only mediacy, is what the reader is left with. We can still be moved by the idea of art’s potential, if nothing else:

‘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 so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.’

In the novel’s final scene, the reader finds, unlineated and unattributed, a quote from Garcia Lorca, recurring both in English and in Spanish: ‘Porque naci entre espejos’, ‘why was I born between mirrors?’ and there, in poetry quoted in prose, Lerner shows his readers the power of poetry as a symbol of possibility. The novel ends much like Joyce’s Künstlerroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with a ringing gesture that would fit the end of a poem. Like Joyce, the ending is fraught with intimations of failure: Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus has after all not learnt the way to ‘forge in the smithy of my soul, the uncreated conscience of my race,’ and Adam’s final assertions are far too utopian to think of as realistic. Lerner, however, seems less interested than Joyce in mocking the doomed poetic gesture, and more interested in the tensions such a position creates. William Hazlitt once wrote that ‘man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.’ In Leaving the Atocha Station Lerner demonstrates this, showing the funny and the sad disjunctions between what is and what ought to be in art as in life. By holding a mirror up to a mirror, Lerner gestures to the infinite that art supposedly captures.
Hugh Foley is a graduate student of modern and contemporary literature. He lives in London.