Preface to a Prologue of an Idea of a Thought (Part IV)
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 on Monday we’ll run a special interview one of our interns did with her about the translation. Here are links to Part I, Part II, and Part III of the intro. Enjoy!
In the mythology, Macedonio’s role is not only as Socrates, but as grieving widower. His poem, “Elena Bellamuerte” (Elena Beautiful Death) is one of his few non-posthumous publications. It is a gorgeous, keening lament and celebration of the innocent, childlike quality of his dead beloved—she the occulted, the awaited. He likens himself to Poe, who also had a dead child wife at the center of his poetics. Here, too, was the motionless metaphysician, the prophet of artistic-non-being and the nothingness of death, the champion of oblivion and the prince of thought: a man utterly stunned by grief, overwhelmed by guilt, confused and frightened and unable to come to terms with life.
The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, however, was written during a second chapter in this story, one that has long remained hidden, mostly because both protagonists wanted it that way. Sometime in 1925 Macedonio met and fell in love with a wealthy widow named Consuelo Bosch de Sáenz Valiente. They spent the next twenty-seven years as an artistic and romantic couple, though they kept this relationship a secret and never married. Twenty years his junior, Consuelo also died in 1952, meaning that the partnership lasted for the remainder of both of their lives.
Consuelo gave Macedonio back the experience of love and the desire to create. She gave him back his life and allowed him to reshape it to better suit him—an artist’s life, a thinker’s life, not the life of a lawyer and family man. She came from a very old and wealthy family, and this position allowed her to support him financially. He lived on her country estate and also in her house in Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, she called him the Maestro and always used formal address when speaking to him in public, as he did to her. She deferred to him as an artist and creator, thus easing the awkwardness, for a man of his generation and background, of her financial patronage. Instead, she was the muse and the benefactress, and the secretary. She copied out by hand—largely from his dictation—the entire first manuscript of The Museum of Eterna’s Novel.
“The death asked for love’s
initiation is not
the death lovers fear.
Day through night,
not night through day.”
Borges remembers: “Two fears throbbed in back of Macedonio’s smiling courtesy and somewhat distant air; the fear of pain and of death. The latter led him to deny the self, so there could be no self to die.” The fear of death, or perhaps more accurately the inevitable encounter with death, is the core of The Museum of Eterna’s Novel. The President gathers together his friends at an estancia in the countryside outside of Buenos Aires called “La Novela.” This President is more like a spiritual leader, for he assembles his characters for the purpose of helping them see that they are only characters: their only death is artistic (at the end of the novel), their only being, novelistic. He gives them training maneuvers to practice this “artistic-non-being.”
Non-existence and persona are the principle tools with which The Museum of Eterna’s Novel builds this theme. In addition to the President, other persona are obviously stand-ins for Macedonio himself. The Gentleman Who Does Not Exist, The Lover, and the Author are all characters in the novel and are used to express different elements of his theory of artistic non-being. The Reader appears frequently as well, voicing his concerns and confusions, yet all the while also drawn into the net of non-being and recognizing the “character-like” nature of his being—that is, his non-being, his inability to die. The characters, meanwhile, demand to live and seek various escape routes from the novel.
Even as the novel denies the self and, by extension, death, it also despises novelistic pretention, particularly realism or what Macedonio calls “the novel of hallucination.” Why should we want to dream the same dull things that happen in the real world? Novels are for novelistic non-being; they are also tools to elicit in ordinary people the sense of their own non-being. Thus the structure is mutually determining: the novel writes us, and we write the novel, and in this way death is transformed.
Let’s return to The Museum of Eterna’s Novel simple, even naïve question. How can we risk love when death is inevitable? Macedonio, for all of his many eccentricities, seems to be a man determined to take on questions that we all face. Even his quirks have their origins in everyday fears that characterized his life and times—fear of the dentist’s drill, fear of tramcars, fear of dogs—and his quests are more Quixotic than heroic.
As a young man, Macedonio filled a diary with earnest exhortations and meditations on the abbreviation SFz—ser feliz, to be happy. He wants so desperately to find joy in the small and dull aspects of everyday life, and he holds his wife and his mother up as examples of good people who are not annoyed with these details. He writes that he suffered, between 1894 and 1903, a terrible period of desperation. He intricately calculates hours and days of SFz, fills pages with prescriptions not for joy, necessarily, but for contentment: eat very little, wear your long underwear when the weather gets cold, don’t complain, don’t smoke too much, get enough sleep. Remember the good people, and do not make them unhappy. Stop touching your mustache. Make ample use of toothpicks.
Don’t we all wish we weren’t irritable with those who love us, that we could keep from eating the things that make us feel bad, that we could be liberated from annoying tics, like talking too much or biting our nails? That we could be truly good, not in some abstract way, but in all of these little, maddening ways? And yet how few of us would turn these anxieties and preoccupations into art? How many of us would set down the world and take up another, in which these questions are the only passion? The method is madcap; the intent is desperately human.