1 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Heath Mayhew on Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), which came out from Open Letter earlier this year in Margaret Schwartz’s translation.

As you may or may not know, we generally don’t run reviews of our own books, which may or may be a sound policy, but regardless, we’re making an exception for this piece because of how it came to us. Heath Mayhew is one of our subscribers, and with Macedonio’s Museum, he received a letter from me explaining how we came to publish this, how much the book means to me, why I love it so much, etc. It also included a request for readers to let me know what they thought of this, since it’s such a strange, unique book.

Last month, Heath sent me this review, which he wrote as part of a Translation Seminar he’s taking with Stefania Heim at Columbia University. It’s a great introduction to the book, which is why we decided to violate our “rule” and post it here:

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.”

Click here to read the full review.

1 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

27 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

So last month, the day after the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award, the Americas Society hosted an amazing panel to help launch Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel).

This event—which Open Letter executive committee member Hal Glasser helped put together—was loaded with awesome panelists, including Margaret Schwartz, who translated The Museum; Edie Grossman, whose first translation was a short story of Macedonio’s that she did for an Americas Society publication; and Todd Garth (a Macedonio scholar and author of The Self of the City, a book about Macedonio and the Argentine avant-garde.

Overall, this was one of the most interesting panels I’ve ever moderated. We were able to cover a lot of stuff about Macedonio—his eccentricities, his work, his relationship to Borges, his hatred of public transportation (“down with the tyranny of bus routes!”) and his disbelief in all medical knowledge (which, well, was why he ended up toothless . . . ). And I was even able to read the most romantic paragraph ever written (in my opinion), which is something I tend to do when I talk about Macedonio . . .

Anyway, definitely listen to this audio file.. I promise you’ll be enthralled after the first few minutes . . . It was a sort of magical night and event.

Click here to download. Or simply hit the play button below . . .

11 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So now that the Best Translated Book Awards are over, I can fully concentrate on the next event—one for Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) that is taking place tonight at the Americas Society tonight at 7pm.

Our cheeky title for this event comes from Macedonio himself, who, within one of the fifty-some odd prologues to Museum, refers to the book as “The Best Novel since both It and the World Began.” Which is plan brilliant. Because it is one of the best novels ever written. It’s amazingly playful, innovative, and thought-provoking, but it’s also one of the most heartfelt love letters ever.

I’ll be moderating tonight’s event, which will feature superstar translator Edith Grossman (who is also the author Why Translation Matters), Margaret Schwartz (who translated Museum), and Todd Garth (author of The Self of the City: Macedonio Fernandez, the Argentine Avant-Garde, and Modernity in Buenos Aires). With such great panelists, and such an amazing subject (Macedonio may well be the quirkiest of all quirky writers), this is sure to be a spectacular event.

If you’re in the area and want to come out, the Americas Society is at 680 Park Avenue (68th St.). Here’s info on how to RSVP for the event:

Americas Society Members: membersres@americas-society.org or (212) 277-8359, ext. 4

Non-Members: Visit www.americas-society.org

Hope to see you there!

8 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on last week’s serialization of Margaret Schwartz’s introduction to Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), here’s an interview that she did with Meredith Keller, one of our current interns.

Meredith Keller: I know you spent your Fulbright year studying Macedonio Fernandez’s life and work, but how did you first come across him?

Margaret Schwartz: I first encountered Macedonio in a lovely phrase from Borges: “What will die with me when I die? What fragile, pathetic form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a roan horse in the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?” I have always been fascinated by the idea of traces—small, seemingly insignificant tokens that mysteriously open on to hidden worlds. That’s what the name Macedonio Fernandez was for me. I was moved enough by the passage to look him up, started reading him, and that was it for me. I remember the first time I walked by the corner of Serrano and Charcas, too—there’s a gas station there, now.

MK: Aside from those studying Argentine literature (or working at Open Letter), I don’t think many American readers are familiar with Macedonio. How is he perceived in Argentina?

MS: I’d say that Macedonio is considered a folk hero more than a literary giant. Everybody knows him, but only the academics and literary folk have actually read him. Popularly, however, he’s sometimes viewed with more affection than Borges, who is often considered a snob or a tourist attraction. In academic and literary circles, where people do read and respect him a great deal, he’s often viewed as a kind of postmodern visionary. There are lots of books in Spanish about his prescience on topics as diverse as postcolonialism, deconstruction, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. There is also a group of young people, hipsters I guess, who run an “Anarchist Archive” in San Telmo and they have some Macedonio first editions.
I think if you’re down there as an American and you’re interested in Macedonio, people treat you really well, because he’s not so well known outside of Argentina. They feel really honored and excited that you’ve taken the time to discover someone that they feel is deeply intertwined with their national values and the peculiarity of what makes them Argentines. And that’s across social strata. The first time I was in Buenos Aires I stayed at a kind of ladies boarding house, and the women I met there were all really working class and not very educated. But they seriously framed a copy of the letter of permission I got from Macedonio’s granddaughter, Maite Obieta, that I was going to use for the Fulbright application, because they were so emotional about my work. Strange, but true, I swear!

MK: Museum must’ve been a particularly difficult book to translate. Was there a theoretical (or maybe procedural?) approach that you used for this project?

MS: The key to my process in this case is the hours and hours I spent in Macedonio’s archive, reading his handwritten manuscripts, notebooks, and diaries. Almost all of Macedonio’s books were published posthumously, which means he never got a chance to decide what order things should be in, and what things should get cut and what things should stay. That biographical fact, plus the spiraling, open-ended nature of his prose and the ideas he’s trying to express about consciousness, make reading him (and translation is in some ways a very special kind of reading) into a sort of detective work. You work with clues—with traces, like I said before. And you have to go with your hunches. In my case, those hours spent reading accumulated in my subconscious to make a kind of Macedonian murmur. It took a long time to hear—but there’s an earnestness and melancholy about him, despite all his irony and silliness. Once I realized that, I found I had a voice for him, and I had the confidence to translate him without trying to be ridiculously faithful to his insane syntax.

As for theoretical approaches—is it cliché at this point to talk about Benjamin? Though I don’t buy the idea of a shared linguistic essence, his ideas about translation resonate with my process for The Museum of Eterna’s Novel. As a translator, you have to believe there’s something there, that you can pull out of the source language and sort of embed in the target language. I’d hesitate to call it a truth or an essence, but it’s something. So when I was translating Macedonio I would kind of put my ear to the tracks, metaphorically speaking, and listen for what he might sound like in English. Maybe that’s why when I do readings of Macedonio I sometimes end up sounding like my old Jewish relatives.

MK: Which leads nicely into my next question: Do you have any favorite sentences from the book?

MS: Sigh! There are so many good ones. When I read Thirlwell’s preface I was struck by some of the passages he quoted. I was like, “Wait, did I translate that? It’s beautiful!” You get very close to things when you’re working on a book. So I’ll pick the one that a friend picked: “All the statues that saddened the plazas were evicted, and in their place grew the best roses.”

MK: I know this if your first book-length translation to be published, but are there other Spanish writers you’ve worked on? Ones that are maybe easier to translate than Macedonio? It’s hard to imagine anyone starting off with such a complex novel . . .

MS: I have actually mostly translated Macedonio. [blush.] I was working on another of his books, called The Newcomer’s Papers, when I met Chad from Open Letter, and we started working on _Museum of Eterna’s Novel_—which I had also translated parts of, but wasn’t actively working on at the time. Macedonio is what made me want to do literary translation.

I did also translate an issue of Popular Communication, which is an academic journal in Media Studies (I’m an assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University). That was a really rewarding experience, because so much work in our field is global, but it doesn’t get circulated as it should because all of our major journals are in English. So I really salute Popular Communication for that—it’s much rarer in academia than you’d think.

But the experience of doing that translation—well, everything seems so much easier after Macedonio! But it was also interesting to find that one still struggles with voice—how to make it sound like an academic article would in English, with the same kind of diction, the same kind of authoritative register. It was fun.

MK: In your introduction to the novel, you cite Scalabrini Ortíz’s statement that Macedonio was Buenos Aires’s only authentic philosopher, and elaborate that “He’s an archetype, a kind of distillation of what it is to think like an Argentine, of the particular poetics and mournful solitude of the South.” Is there something unique about the way Argentina/Macedonio thinks?

MS: Argentina has typically viewed itself as kind of unique in Latin America—a sort of different breed. Which is why if you talk to people from other parts of that region they’ll often say that Argentines are snobs! But historically, Argentina developed as a nation in a far corner of the Spanish empire, during the colonial period. The land is mostly flat, with lots and lots of plains—the pampas—and so it developed as a ranching country, much like the American west. It had a very small population of immigrants, and its indigenous population was mostly nomadic—not like the big civilizations of Peru and Mexico. So if you put together those factors—the small population, the quickly decimated native people, and the huge expanses of land—you get a certain individualism, and a certain sense of isolation. The archetypal Argentine is the gaucho—a man who works as a ranch hand and as a mercenary, who travels with the herd and who sells his knife or his tracking skills to the highest bidder. Romantically he’s often pictured with his mate and his guitar, alone on the prairie, much like our cowboys.

Now Macedonio, of course, was no kind of cowboy. But he came from a very old family, one that traced its roots back to the earliest colonial times. He was Argentine, through and through, in a nation that identifies itself, much as the U.S. does, as built on immigration. And he was a highly original thinker who believed in the uniqueness of the Argentine people. His writing is full of witty references to life in Buenos Aires, and to little details of everyday life that have a very distinct Argentine flair to them: mate, a strong tea drunk from a gourd; empanadas, alfajores, whistling tea kettles and chilly winter patios and lost buttons and dimly lit street corners. His writing, but more properly his persona, which he cultivated in life and which Borges amplified after his death, exemplifies the kind of courteous, self-effacing, idealistic yet melancholy feeling that is part of the romanticism in Argentine literature about those empty, lonely, vast expanses to the south.

MK: Anyone who’s ever tried to translate literature knows that it takes more than fluency, a solid grasp of grammar, and a good dictionary—the true challenge and key to a successful translation is rendering the poetics and refined artistry of the original prose in the target language. You describe Macedonio’s prose as “baroque” and “complicated and ornate,” where the “diction is antiquated if not necessarily high-register.” How did you go about conveying these characteristics in English?

MS: I tried to keep the register high, even absurdist, without tangling the syntax too much. I remember insisting that the verb “to redact” not be changed to the simpler “to write,” for that reason. There’s something of the old-timey soap box salesman in Macedonio—there are no cars or carts in his world, only conveyances, contraptions. He also reminds me of a silent film comedian, like Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin: there are a lot of exaggerated, winking asides and grandiose yet absurd gestures, a lot of madcap, Keystone-Cops-esque sequences. So where I could, I let run on sentences run on. I tried to find a way to keep all that loopiness, even when sometimes I had to straighten out the syntax or cut a long sentence up.

MK: Do you have any recommendations or advice for aspiring literary translators?

MS: OK well this will sound very goofy, but it’s true: Translate what you love! I worked for ten years on this, and I never hoped to get it published. Then one day I met Chad at a conference and he asked me what I was working on. I said, “Oh, you won’t have heard of him, he’s this Argentine avant-gardist . . .” and he said, “I’ve been trying to get the rights to that book for the past five years.” Suddenly I had a press that really believed in translation and an editor who loved the project. It was perfect. You’re not going to make a million being a literary translator, so why not let your passion guide you? You’ll be happier, and you’ll attract people who care about the project the same way you do. It’s a win-win!

5 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

While I’m 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, Part III, and Part IV of the intro. Enjoy!

Because Museum was transcribed, edited, and published posthumously, it’s important to realize that there’s a certain hypergraphic quality to Macedonio’s manuscripts. Compulsive lists and fragmentary observations appear without any organizational structure and without respect for the linear form of the notebook or even the page. He obsessively traced the patterns of his psyche onto the page.

In the Museum manuscripts there is almost no editing. That is to say, Macedonio seems rarely if ever to have returned to a passage once it was written. Multiple versions of the same prologue exist, or multiple treatments of the same idea, and Ana Camblong’s 1993 annotated edition of Museum traces these repetitions and their variations. But mostly one sees Macedonio adding, not subtracting: reading
a passage, perhaps (towards the end of his life) one that Adolfo had typed up for him, he makes a few underlinings or minimal corrections and then writes another two paragraphs on the bottom half of the page. Museum’s logic is one of supplementarity as well as deferral: there’s a kind of additive logic, wherein ideas, rather than being illustrated or explained, are repeated often enough that they start to take intuitive shape for the reader.

It is very much a book that teaches you how to read it. It’s not so much a question of showing versus telling, since neither form seems to apply. The reader is simply thrown into the book as Heidegger (someone for whom Macedonio would have had only scorn, given the importance of death for his ontology) says we are thrown into the world: there is no point of entrance or origin, merely a given world that unfolds in its own time.

*

How to translate someone who deliberately tangles his words, uses antiquated language, and who writes at the speed of thought, without regard for syntax and punctuation? Macedonio was a famed conversationalist. Borges often identifies Macedonio not so much by name as by voice, tobacco roughened, distant, yet very genteel. Macedonio’s voice becomes a metonym for his presence and his uniqueness—an ineffable quality, physically and temporally constrained by the body
of the man himself. As a translator, therefore, my choices have consistently been to preserve this voice.

Macedonio’s prose is best characterized as baroque, for several reasons. First, because it is complicated and ornate. Sentences may go on for pages, without any temperance with regard to punctuation, with open parentheses dangling and semicolons propping up impossibly convoluted clauses. An idea begins, only to be interrupted by a different thought, then the first idea returns without fanfare or apology. Secondly, the writing is baroque because the diction is antiquated, if not necessarily high-register. Wherever possible, I have tried to capture this quaint quality, almost as if there were lexical mothballs scattered liberally in the closet of his prose, giving it the air of your grandmother’s steamer trunk. Macedonio was very aware of his grand vieux image among the young vanguardists, and it’s possible he cultivated this in his writing. But Macedonio was also a man whose formative years were in the nineteenth century, and who was conscious that he was coming late, as he so often joked, to authorship. Like Chaplin’s tramp in the film Modern Times, he is alternately befuddled, entangled, and irritated by newfangled contraptions, by the speed that characterizes modern life.

These persona—the Chaplin’s tramp style of the Author, or the melancholy President, or the gallant Gentleman Who Does Not Exist— are one of The Museum of Eterna’s Novel’s main delights. And, as I described earlier, they form the core of the novel’s metaphysical project to promulgate artistic non-being. Wherever possible, then, I have made decisions that favor the development of these persona, inevitably at the expense of what I consider a misguided fidelity to each word on the page. For example, I have translated the character’s name Deunamor as The Lover. Literally, Deunamor means “Of A Love,” or “Ofalove,” to preserve the neologism, as Deunamor is actually a phrase: De un amor. Of course the combination of words is much more felicitous in Spanish than in English (where indeed it’s almost impossible to pronounce it as a single word), and their meaning would be obscured by the neologism in a way that it is not for Spanish speakers. By calling Deunamor The Lover, then, I have selected the most important part of his character—his love, the fact that he has only one love to which he dedicates himself—and emblematized it in the meaningful, but not necessarily perfectly “faithful,” rendition The Lover.

Translation is an encounter with a textual other that both demands and defies an ethical response. Here the text is posthumous, and so it carries with it the sort of delicate intimacy of a draft: it was not yet ready for publication, if indeed its author would ever have thought it so. It demands a certain tenderness; just as it will teach you how to read it, it taught me how to render it, as I listened for the traces of the remarkable man who built an ardent structure of his grief and, ultimately, his belief in the redemptive power of love.

4 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

While I’m 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.

3 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

While I’m 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 and Part II of the intro. Enjoy!

“I was born a porteño, and in a very 1874 sort of year. Shortly thereafter (though not at first) I began to be cited by a certain Jorge Luis Borges, and with such unabashed commendation, that, thanks to the risks incurred by his vehemence, I became the author of his best work.”

       —Macedonio Fernández,
       in the Argentine literary magazine Sur

As Marcelo Ballvé recently observed, Macedonio invented Borges as much as Borges invented Macedonio. The difference is that it is more likely that a reader will have actually read Borges than Macedonio, whose prose is difficult and does not fit comfortably within any literary genre, and who has been much less widely translated. Like most people, I also came to Macedonio through Borges, in the wistful question that ends his prose poem “The Witness:” “What will die with me when I die? What pathetic or fragile form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a roan hoarse on the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?” Macedonio here is a voice—or the memory of a voice—that Borges alone possesses, and whose trace will disappear with him. The unusual name, and its casual inclusion in a list of vaguely eccentric, or perhaps anachronistic objects, catches the attention. It sets up a notion of Macedonio’s voice as talisman, momento mori.

There is no easy way, then, to place Borges in an introduction to Macedonio’s work that does not threaten to overwhelm or re-author the man he nevertheless called his mentor. Borges was a generation younger, and he “inherited” Macedonio’s friendship from his father, who had attended law school with Macedonio. When the Borges family returned from Europe (where their stay had been extended by the outbreak of World War I), Macedonio was recently widowed, and his life was in airless limbo. He lived in a series of flophouses, having given up his law practice and sent his children to live with his mother and sister-in-law.

Before his wife died he was a regular, if somewhat eccentric, bourgeois man with occasional literary pretentions and an interest in philosophy, psychology, and music. A photograph from this time in his life shows a small man in a bowler hat with a severe, resigned expression, kneeling with his arms around two small children whose faces are blurred by motion. Now, in his grief but also in his freedom, he divested himself of all bourgeois responsibilities and dedicated himself to metaphysics. As a young man he corresponded with William James and read Schopenhauer and Kant—now he would begin his engagement with the mystery of consciousness in earnest.

Borges wrote that in those days he felt “Macedonio is metaphysics, he is literature.” Nevertheless, the Macedonio of Borges’s eulogy is not so much a man of letters as of conversation. His jokes, his observations, his anecdotes, and his cordial, almost quaint manner—this was his brilliance, not the writing he left behind. In Borges’s construction, Macedonio was the Socrates to his Plato, the oral teacher whose words the disciple transcribed and transformed.

He was a creole Socrates, a New World Socrates, a founder of a new Argentine literature. Borges had spent his adolescence in Europe, and felt ill at ease, perhaps, in his homeland, which seemed backwards by comparison with the cafés of Madrid and Geneva. Macedonio, he writes, seemed to command a uniquely Argentine point of view on “certain eternal things.” The humbleness of his surroundings, his fraternization with the prostitutes and confidence men with whom he shared his lodgings, and his age all contributed to this romantic image.

In his classic book of Buenos Aires essays, The Man Who Is Alone and Waits (El hombre que está solo y espera), Raúl Scalabrini Ortíz writes: “Buenos Aires’s first metaphysician and its only authentic philosopher is Macedonio Fernández.” As the creole Socrates, then, Macedonio re-founded metaphysics and philosophy in an Argentine context. He’s an archetype, a kind of distillation of what it is to think like an Argentine, of the particular poetics and mournful solitude of the South. That Macedonio is the only authentic philosopher of Buenos Aires implies that many others may pretend to the title. His reported disdain for publication and fame underpin that authenticity and add to his mystique. An authentic porteño philosopher discusses his ideas over a cortado in one of the city’s cafés or bars, or over a mate in his home, at the kitchen table, on the porch of a country estancia while the eucalyptus trees rustle in the hot pampas wind. He disdains the pomposity of writing for publication, for he writes, as Borges once said of himself, for himself and his friends—as an afterthought to these cordial, lazy, endless hours of conversation.

In Argentina, Macedonio’s people prefer to trade stories about his eccentricities rather than read his difficult books: how he gave his guitar away to a busboy who was passing on the street, how he founded an anarchist colony in Paraguay but gave up after one night of mosquitoes, how he slept in his clothes and fed sweets to the ants in his boarding house rooms. Very few of these stories are biographically true, or at least they cannot be verified—though what is known does support the image of an eccentric and a recluse. As his son and literary executor, Adolfo de Obieta once wrote, Macedonio’s life is one of those “about which more will always be unknown than known,” a quality that lends itself to literary gossip.

Borges wrote that “writing was no trouble for Macedonio Fernández. He lived (more than any other person I have ever known) to think. Every day he abandoned himself to the vicissitudes and surprises of thoughts as a swimmer is borne along by the current of a great river.” The writing may have been easy, but reading Macedonio is often very challenging. Perhaps because they trace the errant line of his thoughts, his jokes and ideas and images are all presented at once, in rambling sentences with loose syntax and utterly chaotic diction. His ideas are complex, and they are stated in a complicated, ironic, and often contradictory way. He is consciously trying to make the reader uncomfortable and confused, and he was trying to publish at a time when postmodern literature was not yet a genre. As a visionary, his lot was to remain unrecognized in his time, except by a handful of avant-gardists who shared his vision. It may have suited him best—a man with more than his fair share of anxiety who became increasingly reclusive with age—to cultivate his mystique and work on his manuscripts in solitude.

2 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

While I’m 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’s a link to Part I of the intro. Enjoy!

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel is written for what the author calls the “skip-around reader.” In an often hilarious but equally maddening series of between fifty-seven and sixty prologues—depending on whether you count the dedications, the post-prologue, and the blank page dedicated to the reader’s indecision—the novel postpones itself, thwarting both the reader who tries to skip ahead (where to?) and the dull “orderly” reader’s desire for linearity. There are prologues of salutation, prologues introducing the author and the characters, prologue-letters to the critics, prologues about characters who were rejected, a prologue of authorial despair and, of course, prologues about prologuing.

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel is also dedicated to its main character, the lovely Eterna, who has the power to change the past. She is at once transparently allegorical, as the idea of eternal love against the threat of death, and wonderfully real. Museum enshrines her laugh, her changing expressions, black eyes and hair, her grace. She is also real biographically: in the manuscript dedication, the word “Consuelo” has been crossed out and replaced with “Eterna.” Consuelo Bosch was Macedonio’s longtime companion, patroness, and muse after the death of his wife; The Museum of Eterna’s Novel is in a real sense the most earnest, complex, and heartwrenching of love poems. “I write this unnecessary book,” he writes in “Introduction to Eterna,” “because she wants to smile at her lover from outside this love, from the space of Art.”

The novel takes place on an estancia, or country home, outside of Buenos Aires. The estancia is named “La Novela,” and in it the characters share a domestic intimacy reflected in its prose. Much time is devoted to the small comings and goings of life at “La Novela,” and the eventual abandonment of this placid domesticity in favor of the action of the novel—the conquest of Buenos Aires in the name of beauty. Thus The Museum of Eterna’s Novel is also an ardent structure, dedicated to the suspension of time, its enclosure both still and fluid. The eternity it captures is intimate, domestic: kitchen conversations and stovetop kettles, the sound of eucalyptus leaves blowing against the eaves on wet afternoons.

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel asks a simple question: how can we give ourselves fully to love in the face of the certainty of death? And it proposes itself as an answer, however awkwardly and provisionally, by creating a space where neither life nor death exist, only non-being and oblivion. Where there is love, there is no death, only forgetfulness.

As difficult and visionary and ambitious as the structure is, this concern is very simple, human, and understandable. Love opens all of us up to the possibility of loss. What makes Macedonio’s story remarkable is how earnestly he wrestles with tigers that we all face. It isn’t the felicity of his prose, or the prescience of his ideas—though his prose is often felicitous and his ideas often prescient. Rather, it’s the open heart with which he takes up his pen and seeks, through its wanderings, to find a way to love the sound of the kettle on the stove, the crumbled mate leaves on the tablecloth, the arrangement of the furniture in the room—all the dull, pedestrian details of everyday life that clearly offer more irritation than fascination. And somewhere in these details, the tiny tinkerings that he inexhaustibly and minutely calibrates in every corner of his life, is the beloved. And in the beloved, in the other, there is passion, and death, and art, and eternity.

1 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

While I’m 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.

25 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is still a few weeks away, but seeing that I’ll be off in Abu Dhabi for a while (see tomorrow’s post), I thought I should mention this now.

On Thursday, March 11th at 7:00pm at the Americas Society (680 Park Ave, NYC) there will be a special event in honor of the first English publication of Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), which the author referred to as “The best novel since both it and the world began.” Hence our witty event title . . .

But seriously, this is going to be an amazing event. Todd Garth (author of The Self of the City) will read a bit from Spanish and English and will talk about Macedonio and his influence on Latin American literature. Margaret Schwartz will talk about the intense process of translating this novel. And Edith Grossman—whose first translation was of a short story by Macedonio—will be there as well.

I’ll post another reminder in a few weeks, but for now, posted below is a description of Museum from the Open Letter website. And this has actually gotten a few stunning reviews: Bookforum‘s was probably the most enthusiastic (but isn’t available online), Complete Review gave it a B+ (solid!), and Luis Alberto Ambroggio wrote a nice piece for First Person Plural. And here’s the jacket copy:

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) is the very definition of a novel written ahead of its time. Macedonio (known to everyone by his unusual first name) worked on this novel in the 1930s and early ’40s, during the heyday of Argentine literary culture, and around the same time that At Swim-Two-Birds was published, a novel that has quite a bit in common with Macedonio’s masterpiece.

In many ways, Museum is an “anti-novel.” It opens with more than fifty prologues—including ones addressed “To My Authorial Persona,” “To the Critics,” and “To Readers Who Will Perish If They Don’t Know What the Novel Is About”—that are by turns philosophical, outrageous, ponderous, and cryptic. These pieces cover a range of topics from how the upcoming novel will be received to how to thwart “skip-around readers” (by writing a book that’s defies linearity!).

The second half of the book is the novel itself, a novel about a group of characters (some borrowed from other texts) who live on an estancia called “la novella” . . .

A hilarious and often quite moving book, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel redefined the limits of the genre, and has had a lasting impact on Latin American literature. Authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Ricardo Piglia have all fallen under its charm and high-concepts, and, at long last, English-speaking readers can experience the book that helped build the reputation of Borges’s mentor.

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