|The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (the First Good Novel)
A novel by Macedonio Fernandez
Open Letter, 2010 (first published 1967)
Reviewed by Mark Molloy
Outside of Argentina, Macedonio Fernandez (1874 – 1952) is famous principally for his role as mentor to Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986). Fernandez, a generation older than Borges, was born into wealth, and studied law with Borges’ father, with whom he became close friends. Both were anarchists, and both were interested in the philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and especially William James. The younger Borges completed his education in Switzerland in 1921 and returned to Argentina an impressionable, upstart Imagist poet. Once back, he resumed his friendship with Fernandez. Fernandez was a paradoxical figure, notoriously hermetic and yet a famed conversationalist. With Borges’ support he positioned himself in opposition to the resident establishment modernist figure of Leopoldo Lugones and assumed the role of figurehead of an entire generation of Argentinian writers. He even, with the support of his literary acolytes, waged two quixotic campaigns for the Argentinian presidency. In the late 20s, however, Borges changed tack: he renounced much of his previous output, and began to deny the quality and importance of Fernandez’s work, and its influence on his own mature works. Throughout his life Fernandez had published infrequently and reluctantly, and with the withdrawal of Borges support Fernandez largely slipped through the fingers of the critical establishment for decades. Lately, however, there has been a critical reevaluation. Fernandez’s writings, after all, display many of the dominant traits that came to define Borges’ works, and it was in Fernandez’s company that Borges grew into maturity as a writer. This, the first English language translation of Fernandez’s masterpiece, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, is an event of considerable importance.
Eterna’s Novel does have the feel of a swan song. Fernandez began it in 1925 – shortly after his wife’s untimely death and his abrupt abandonment of his law practice and children to assume the life of a writer – and worked on it continually until his own death in 1952. It would remain unpublished until 1967. The manuscripts for the work were found, we learn in the translator’s introduction, in piles of loose papers, “compulsive lists and fragmentary observations… without any organizational structure… there is almost no editing.” Non-linear and self-reflexive, playful and ponderous, fragmented and whimsical, unapologetically dense, the resulting text, at least as posthumously edited together and presented here, comes across as wildly experimental, for its, and even our own, time.
It is structured into two parts, or “wings,” as Jim Ruland has called them. As in Tristram Shandy – probably the dominant influence on Eterna’s Novel – its first part is a preposterously long prologue (or, more accurately, collection of over fifty prologues). The second half of the work, the ostensible novel proper, takes as its plot the novel’s characters’ gathering at a country house in preparation for their transformation “from living beings to characters,” and their eventual departure from that estate to Buenos Aires, to conquer it with beauty (the second most dominant influence on the work may very well be Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author). I say ostensible because, for the most part, the second part, like the first, is less fiction, more cacophony of brief philosophical treatises, footnotes, critical enquiries into the nature of allegory and of allegorical characters, expositions on love, determinism, phenomenology, etc. And just as there is no real plot to speak of, neither are there any real characters. What characters there are are explicitly, resolutely allegorical. “The Lover is the suspension, the caesura of identity, and Sweetheart is the expectation of being,” Fernandez writes. Other characters are named Absent, Awaited, Nonexistent, and Thwarted. Eterna’s Novel remains explicitly meta-fictional from beginning to end: a character asks of the characters she is reading about in a book: “Are they like the reader and author?” and, moments later, notes: “I felt as though Life brushed up against me.” Quotes attributed to the reader appear frequently; “the reader” is addressed repeatedly with backgrounding and instructions for proper reading, etc.
I noted above Fernandez’s philosophical interests; indeed, he took his philosophy seriously. The formal aspects of Eterna’s Novel (its non-linearity, its self–reflexiveness, etc.) follow directly as a result of his metaphysical beliefs. The gist of the metaphysics of Eterna’s Novel is clear enough: the “real,” material world is an illusion, a “dream” of some wholly mystical, unitary, and eternal Other: “My sensibility,” Fernandez writes, “didn’t begin, nor will it end, nor will it be interrupted for even an instant, nor will individual identity ever be discontinued in my memory.” The gist is clear; the degree to which Fernandez actually subscribes to these beliefs, less so. Ultimately, however, the work remains a literary, not a philosophical text, and it is precisely in its engagement with philosophy as literature that the work most fully blossoms. Take, for instance, Fernandez’s penchant for little surrealistic passages. There are, he writes, “three existing types of applause – / the one for calling a ‘waiter,’ / the one for shooing chickens in the yard, / and the one for catching moths.” Sixty pages earlier, we had read: “Kinds of applause are valuable because they are scarce: only two are discovered every ten years.” Throughout Eterna’s Novel Ferandez plays with language in this way; his de-emphasis of the fictional aspects of the text permits it to take on more functionally poetic valences. Likewise, he displays flashes of great profundity (“maybe all that we call music, starting from Bach… is nothing but the elaboration of an obsession tied to fear”); captures beautifully human truths in startlingly original observations (“the most intense form of old age… occurs between the ages of twenty and twenty-five, when a man must assume all the responsibilities and demands of life… Old age is simply not about the years but about the entire relationship of the life’s excessive charge with respect to the reactivity of an individual psyche”); channels, in a personal favorite moment of mine, Classical Chinese poetry to end a chapter: (“Here an elegant praying mantis has paused in front of my manuscript, undecided as to whether he would like to enter”).
Eterna’s Novel’s major achievement is not found in its individual moments, however, or in the sum of those moments, but instead in the formal, structural aspects of the work. Though I question Adam Thirlwell’s assertion – in the work’s preface – that “Macedonio was the first novelist for whom the problem of writing was so explicitly the problem of the reader,” it is unquestionably true that Fernandez did set down with considerable maturity many of the narrative techniques that would later be associated with postmodern, readerly oriented writers like Italo Calvino, J.M. Coetzee, Julio Cortázar, and Flann O’Brien (Fernandez explicitly insists upon the necessary role of the reader in the creation of the text, describing traditional art as keeping “us all like children, spoonfeeding us,” and his own art in terms nearly identical with those of reader-response criticisms). The shock of reading Eterna’s Novel with the knowledge that (non-editorial) work on it was complete by 1952 is very real. Consider that, in describing his intentions in writing the book, Fernandez writes of “routing the stability” of his reader, in whom he intends to effect a “radical decentering.” “I myself am,” he writes, “nothing more than a shadow, a silhouette of pages!” In the final chapter of Eterna’s Novel, Fernandez writes: “I leave it an open book… which is to say that the author…authorizes any future writer who is so inclined…to liberally edit and correct it.” Interestingly, whereas later postmodernism deploys these postures to mirror the fragmented nature of life and phenomena, Fernandez seems to deploy them to the exact opposite purpose; he intends for his disruptions and intrusions to “obliterate and liberate the mental or emotional fear that we call the terror of ceasing to exist,” to illuminate for the reader her own fictional nature in the here and now, and thus, at least according to the metaphysics of this book, her own eternality. Formally, of course, the final outcomes of both approaches are the same.
The character of Eterna, a goddess of sorts around whom Eterna’s Novel’s twists, is modeled after Consuelo Bosch, Fernandez’s patroness, muse and companion after the death of his wife. Eterna’s Novel, in fact, is largely a testament and expression of his love for her. While the work is on the whole more conceptual than it is lyrical, one moment, in particular, shines luminous with lyricism and elegance. Speaking to Eterna, the President – another main character and ostensible stand in for Fernandez himself – says: “You are deep night, with its ebony depths, heights of life in the domed headdress of the Milky Way, brilliant dimples at diverse distances, the immense, ample swing of the celestial vault… your nearby step wakes the surrounding air, in the revolving processional towards the dawn your distant pace is congruent with all planes and summits… this is how you made yourself, pale and dark, how you undid the distractions of immortality… you are the night, as severe of aspect as your heart is lush with fervent invention.” Eterna’s Novel, too, is a thing of depths, of heights and fervent invention.
Mark Molloy is the Reviews Editor for MAKE.