Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel)
Prologue to the Review
Macedonio Fernandez is little known outside Argentina. Unfortunately I foresee this remaining the case for some time. Even with the recent translation and publication of his posthumous novel, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: The First Good Novel (Museo de la Novela de la Eterna), by Open Letter Books (translated by Margaret Schwartz), the “skip-around readers” Fernandez is looking for (to convert into “orderly readers”) are few. One of the reasons is because Fernandez is taking a risk. He knows exactly what his novel is and what it isn’t: he knows that it is the “First Good Novel,” which follows the writing of another novel, Adriana Buenos Aires: The Last Bad Novel (Adriana Buenos Aires: ultima novella mala). So what makes Fernandez’s novel so good? This is where (and why) he remains obscure: the tenacity with which he hopes to redefine the novel. It is a task that can get sloppy very quickly. And so, Fernandez makes sure that the reader is well equipped before “beginning” his novel (he argues, “. . . the reader comes late if he comes after the cover.”). Thus, he prolongs the start of his novel with fifty-seven prologues: in part to provoke the novel to be “thrown violently to the floor most often, and avidly taken up again just as often” by his readers. He boasts, “What other author can boast of that?”
Introduction to Macedonio Fernandez
You can tell by my first prologue, Macedonio Fernandez was not the typical novelist. From the Preface by Adam Thirlwell and Translator’s Introduction by Margaret Schwartz, and from my selected readings, there is a cacophony of mythology surrounding Fernandez. Most often mentioned, yet somewhat unknown, is Fernandez’s mentorship of Jorge Luis Borges. Oft-quoted Borges explains: “I imitated him, to the point of transcription, to the point of devoted and impassioned plagiarism.” But he continues:
I felt: Macedonio is metaphysics, is literature. Whoever preceded him might shine in history, but they were all rough drafts of Macedonio, imperfect previous versions. To not imitate this canon would have represented incredible negligence.
Other myths include eccentric qualities: running for president by leaving scraps of paper with his name inscribed on cafe tables; starting a utopian society, in Uruguay (with Borges’ father, Jorge Guillermo Borges), but stopping after a day because of mosquitoes; leaving pages of manuscripts behind after moving from one shanty to another. Numerous other myths survive, partly due to Borges, partly to others.
What seems to be true of his adult life is that Fernandez befriended Borges’ father as a university student and they remained close friends throughout their lives. He was a lawyer until his wife passed away in 1920. He left his children in the care of grandparents and, as Marcelo Ballvé describes, “spent the final three decades of his life drifting through Buenos Aires boardinghouses and country hermitages, absorbed in writing and thinking.” It was in these years, reunited with Borges senior, befriending younger Borges and the “_generación martinfierrista_,” that he dedicated himself to philosophy, literature, and meditation.
What the Novel is About
So what is the novel about? Alison McCulloch, in her Fiction Chronicle, tries to answer this, “So what is the novel about? A group of “characters” gather at a house called La Novela, which belongs to “the President.” But what is the novel about? Clearly, that’s for “the Reader” to decide.” Although the review is only nine sentences long (four of which appear in the quote), I couldn’t accept her final decree: aren’t all novels open for “Reader” interpretation?
The novel is about love. Or what Fernandez calls Todoamor; that is, as Schwartz translates “Totalove.” I refer to Ballve, once again, for assistance,
Museo de la Novela de la Eterna, first published in 1967 and impossible to summarize, is best described as an extended experiment in writing an open novel analogous to a piece of music. The prose evokes a dizzying world of aesthetic associations and possibilities in the reader’s mind. At every moment it tests the limits between art and life, reality and fiction, as well as form and content.
“Impossible to summarize.” That sounds like a challenge! The prologues address metaphysics, literary theory, time and space, non-identity, death, life, Love (Totalove), Authorial Persona, critics, characters that appear in the novel, characters that do not appear in the novel, the Reader, prologues, “postprologuery note” and “prenovelistic observations,” and then some.
The novel is the execution of the prologues. It is as if Fernandez has set up the novel’s history, the ur-thoughts, in the prologues. And without them, the novel would seem more absurd. Are the prologues a part of the novel? Fernandez is ahead of the Reader (as he often is): on a page between the end of the prologues, and the beginning of the novel, he writes, “Éstos ¿fueron prólogos? y ésta ¿será novela? Esta página es para que en ella se ande el lector antes de leer en su muy digna indecisión y gravedad.” Margaret Schwartz translates this post-prologue/pre-novel page as, “Were those prologues? And is this the novel? _This page is for the reader to linger, in his well-deserved and serious indecision, before reading on._”
Where the Reader realizes that Macedonio Fernandez wrote the novel in Spanish and that Margaret Schwartz translated it into English (which also finally answers what this review really meant to do from the beginning: tell what the novel is about)
Margaret Schwartz has imprinted a dual signature into this translation. One is Macedonio Fernandez’s. The other is her own. It is apparent in Schwartz’s translation, that the Spanish is playful and inventive; words (and worlds) collide and connect at the hip: Totalove, goodbad, firstlast, limit-end, autoexistence, auto-prologuery, etc. We do not even need to look at the Spanish to know just how well Schwartz has performed: towards originality in the English and creation of transparence for the Spanish. We cannot forget the debt we owe to Margaret Schwartz for working through the novel’s dense content and Fernandez’s eccentric style; this work shimmers in fluidity and strangeness.
“The playfulness of the novel is identical to its sadness,” writes Adam Thirlwell in his Preface. Schwartz does not confuse the two. Eventually she projects into English a novel about an estancia called ‘La Novela’ (an instance where the works shimmers in fluidity and strangeness), owned by The President. There, he asks certain characters to stay in hope that they can prepare for the novel, and perhaps find happiness. But they must first rid themselves of their past, in order to make themselves more real, which means they become dreams, because dreams have no past . . .
And now, to begin . . .
This novel is about beginning and ending, or the rejection of beginning and ending. To never start is to never end. Totalove, never having a witness to its start, never ends. But our everyday reader will say, “Certainly love has a beginning!” Macedonio Fernandez, bravely and brilliantly, rallies against this notion. He blows his trumpet on the beginning and ending to love, the novel, and life. There is no death. This novel is an expression of non-death. He is sure of it. And Margaret Schwartz turns the frequency dial and furthers this claim. If you are a reader, one well equipped, this eccentric, yet heartfelt novel is worth throwing to the ground. Because, you will pick it up again just as avidly.