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.
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