Preface to a Prologue of an Idea of a Thought (Part I)
tanning doing journalism at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, I thought it would be interesting to totally overload everyone on Macedonio Fernandez. Museum of Eterna’s Novel ranks right up there as one of the books that I’m most proud to be associated with. It’s unique, strange, “difficult,” endlessly playful, important, influential, conceptual, frustrating, enjoyable, and one of the most devoted love stories ever written. To build up to the March 11th event for Macedonio (“The Greatest Event Since It and the World Began”), which will take place at the Americas Society and feature Edith Grossman, Margaret Schwartz, and Todd Garth, all this week we’re going to be serializing Margaret’s translator’s introduction. And next Monday we’ll run a special interview one of our interns did with her about the translation. Enjoy!
I first encountered the archive of Macedonio’s manuscripts, notebooks, photographs, and diaries in 2002, in the closet of an apartment in Buenos Aires’s Cabellito district. I had come to Argentina as a young Fulbright scholar in search of Macedonio’s son, Adolfo, who was his father’s literary executor and posthumous editor, responsible for the meticulous work of typing out and arranging Macedonio’s chaotic longhand. Since the bulk of Macedonio’s publication was posthumous—including The Museum of Eterna’s Novel—it is only thanks to Adolfo’s meticulous care and patience that this book exists at all.
Unfortunately, the elderly Adolfo had died just a few months earlier, and the archive was in limbo. Perhaps because North American pilgrims to the shrine of Macedonio are few, or perhaps because I had come so far only to face disappointment, I was eventually put in touch with a friend of the family, in whose apartment the archive was temporarily stored. I read the manuscripts, under supervision and in secret, every day for two months, as clouds moved across the Southern Hemisphere’s winter sky to settle over the river at dusk.
I inhaled the musty, yellowed pages, stroked my finger across the indentations made on the page by a thick pencil and a heavy, elderly hand, obsessively catalogued marginalia, stains on the paper, fingerprints in the ink, and even a crumb of something stuck to the page—perhaps evidence of Maceodnio’s famous sweet tooth?—the fun and the frustration is, one cannot know. An archive is in many ways defined by what it cannot contain.
The most obvious piece missing from the archive is the writings that are commonly thought to have been lost because of Macedonio’s own neglect for them. The story goes that he wrote on crumpled café napkins, that he used to light the stove or his cigarette with loose manuscript pages, or that he piled them up in suitcases, only to abandon them when he moved from one flophouse room to the next. Though this neglect for his own written production is a cornerstone of the Macedonio mythology, the enormous number of writings that have survived (over thirty notebooks, and five full manuscripts of The Museum of Eterna’s Novel) suggest that perhaps rumors of Macedonio’s disinterest in his writings have been greatly exaggerated.
Less obvious, and more real, missing pieces are the notebooks full of undeciphered pages. Macedonio did not type: every one of the manuscripts in his archive is handwritten. The early notebooks, like the diary or so-called “Book for Oneself ” (Libro para si mismo) are written in ink in the lovely calligraphy considered a courtesy and a grace in the nineteenth century. As he aged, however, Macedonio’s hand grew ever crabbed, and his utensil—in the later notebooks usually a dull pencil—more easily smudged and blurred. These later notebooks are thus often illegible for long passages. The object-quality of the notebooks, their stubborn thingliness, stands in this case as a kind of maddening tease, as the words, though they are there on the page in clear and obvious reality, do not necessarily give way to intelligible meaning, especially in an author whose hand followed his meandering and fragmentary thoughts with such obsessive fidelity. Like Poe’s purloined letter, some of these thoughts are hidden in plain view, illegible.
As physical and thus mortal objects, these manuscripts have a lifespan. They were almost all written on cheap dime-store paper, and many were written with highly acidic ink. This ink is slowly breaking down the wood fibers in the paper, which will eventually disintegrate even if they are kept under ideal conditions. But the immediacy of the stroke of the living hand on the page leaves its trace on these manuscripts in a way I can only describe in metaphysical terms. The marks are not always intelligible or identifiable: they are ciphers. The only certainty is that Macedonio once held his living hands to these pages. It’s like laying one’s ear to a train track to listen for the vibrations of a train that passed fifty years ago. Microscopically, they are there—and knowing that is the thrill that keeps your ear pressed to the tracks.
Macedonio Fernández (1874-1952) is best known in his native Argentina as the mentor of a young Jorge Luis Borges, who later wrote of his friend, “I imitated him to the point of plagiarism.” This confession, however, belies the longstanding anxiety of influence between the two writers, and gives some insight into why Macedonio—as he is affectionately known—is more of a local folk hero than an internationally renowned writer. There exists a Macedonio of Borges’s invention, and this invented character’s reticence, or failure, to publish tends to reinforce Borges’s quaint mythology of a man dedicated to meditation, stillness, and only incidentally to the written word. Nevertheless, Macedonio wrote thousands of pages of manuscript in his life, most of which remained unpublished when he died, in 1952. His son, Adolfo de Obieta, organized and published these manuscripts, serving as literary executor, editor, and high priest of the cult of Macedonio until his death in 2002.
The Museum of Eterna’s Novel is Macedonio’s most important work. This is the first time it—or any of his considerable oeuvre—has been translated into English in its entirety. He began what he called the “first good novel” around 1925, at the height of his involvement with the avant-garde literary scene in Buenos Aires. He would labor over the book for the next twenty-seven years, producing five full manuscripts in total, the first of which was written out in longhand by his lover, muse, and companion, Consuelo Bosch. Although The Museum of Eterna’s Novel eludes categorization, its many prologues and self-conscious use of authorial persona often lead to its characterization as an example of proto-postmodernism. Macedonio himself would have shrugged off this label, and insisted instead that the novel is a sketch for a metaphysics wherein love conquers death.