[And Other Stories; 2021]
Tr. from the Spanish by Annie McDermott
Swedes Have All the Fun
The most fashionable and confused critical term of the season is autofiction. With his My Struggle series, Swedish author Karl Ove Knausgaard leads the newest iteration of a genre practiced best by Marcel Proust in his In Search of Lost Time. After My Struggle, Knausgaard wrote an earnest seasonal quartet addressed to his unborn youngest daughter. Summer, the final book of the series, can be described as an attempt to square writing as a solitary practice with the responsibilities of being the father of four. Karl Ove proposes a theory for understanding autofiction: “writing,” he says, “involves expressing the inner, as it is in itself, which is only possible if one forgets that one is writing, forgets that writing consists of techniques, rhetorical moves, manipulations and modulations of tone, since all this belongs to communication, that which is directed towards the other, and thereby implicitly opens up the internal world to one who sees, and consequently introduces shame, or the possibility of shame.” This reflection stems from his concern at the underwhelming size of his cock.
The risk of shame and self-destruction gives good autofiction its zest. Books like WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Karl Ove’s own derive their undeniable power from this ever-present risk. Knausgaard, at least here, does not operate under the illusion that the first person is a default shelter from criticism. Many other particularly, but not exclusively, male autofictionalists seem to imagine that writing and publishing their failings will bring them an inherent redemption of sorts. (All it does is reduce them to cringe, read and discarded as flawed and indecorous). Knausgaard’s text acquires emotional force when it deploys his interiority as grounds for reflection; not self-description, but self-interrogation. To do this, Knausgaard elides the mechanics and technologies of authorship: his literary stature and fame, his audience (a “global” New York to which details of Swedish culture must be explained), even the very fact that he is writing presently, so that all we see is elsewhere, what lies outside his study or beyond the computer. He preserves the Romantic myth of the writer struck by a Divine(ish) inspiration; in his hands the writer’s practice remains mystical and secretive, born of the writer’s unique gifts and communion with the better angels of creation. This has spawned a school of writers for whom this is combined with a desire for writing to be a form of redemption. Specific traits become immovable and unchanging in their novels: masculinity, misogyny, transphobia, racism, imperialism, colonialism.
A decade or two before Knausgaard, a parallel tradition emerged within Latin American literature fed by the obsession with the (often precarious) historical conditions in which these authors wrote. As a result of this preoccupation, their writings sit uncomfortably within the mostly US-based institutions that fund it. Its most deft practitioners — I attend to one shortly, but others include Ricardo Piglia in his diaries, Hebe Uhart (recently published by Archipelago), Tamara Kamenszain, Bioy Casares (his Borges is on the way through NYRB Classics) and, hesitantly, Jorge Luis Borges himself — often saw through the gringo bullshit. When they wrote in the first person, they devoted themselves to asking the question that so many white writers in the US seem unwilling to consider: What allows you to write like this?
Dial-up Technofiction and/or Cátulo Castillo Plays in the Background
Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel was originally published in 2004 and has now been translated by Annie McDermott for And Other Stories Press. The bookreads like an encyclopedia of obsessions, dispersions, hindrances, and obstacles to its very writing. The novel’s unabashed 600 pages contain a “Diary of the Grant” chronicling Levrero’s efforts to attain what he believes to be an impossible goal: to narrate “some extraordinary experiences that can’t be written about without becoming denatured.” Mario Levrero, a self-taught Uruguayan writer who claimed to have learned his craft by listening to tango on the radio, had barely finished the book when he died in 2004, having worked on it intermittently for 20 years. His career spanned bookselling, comic book writing, crossword publishing, and he mostly wrote detective stories and strange metafictions. His novel El discurso vacío was published in the US in 2019 by Coffee House Press as Empty Words, also in McDermott’s translation.
Levrero finished The Luminous Novel with help from a Guggenheim grant providing about a year of full funding. Dollars go a long way in Latin America, as they are not subject to local economic instability. The Luminous Novel’s project is failed at birth, a paradoxical exercise in pointlessness and triviality. The book rejects the grandiose epic of My Struggle, opting instead for the ragged, broken cliffs of an écriture explicitly unconcerned with the literary. Knausgaard is obsessed with elevating ordinary experience to the sublime fields of literature; Levrero puts it this way: “It being impossible wasn’t reason enough not to do it, as I knew full well, but the prospect of attempting the impossible made me feel very lazy.”
In fulfilling his impossible mission, he resolves to overcome “the vague anxiety,” a diffuse and all-pervading dread that compels nightly computer game binges; what he needs, he says, is “leisure.” Only through leisure, he believes at the outset, can he search within his memory sufficiently well as to produce worthy writing, so that the one bleeds into the other. He realizes the absurdity of pursuing leisure, saying that “leisure doesn’t have its own substance, it’s not an end in itself. It’s nothing: leisure is an attitude of the soul, and it can accompany any kind of activity.” Leisure and literature are becoming one and the same, so that one cannot pursue either writing or leisure — neither is an end in itself.
In this vein, he details his obsession with downloading internet porn, with (offline—this was 2004 in Latin America) computer games, with programming useless Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions, and with failing to quit cigarettes or wake up before 4PM. Tremendous disclosures shoot by like details — for example, a report of a new grandchild, which also reveals that the narrator has children, takes up a grand total of two sentences. The moments spent addressing important matters are brief, quickly dispatched and sometimes taken up again 20 or 30 pages later. Levrero commits to saying nothing too crucial or writing about something for more than a couple pages. Seemingly random themes are strategies for escaping seriousness and sentimentality. The contents of this impossible novel turn out to be the difficulty of writing, the bodily and psychological pains it brings.
Eventually, Levrero’s computer monitor breaks, and he starts disclosing the writing implement used in each entry: a Rotring pen, a pencil, and occasionally the computer. Levrero is perennially obsessed over the varied implements of creation — Empty Words, for example, centered on a writer’s obsession with his handwriting. In The Luminous Novel, emphasis shifts towards Levrero’s computer’s effects on his writing, on his sleep, and his everyday life and relationships. He details the bodily, psychological, material costs of authorship. There are no fantasies, no mythologies of writing as an immediate, frictionless process cleanly separated from life or a disembodied act of divination. Writing is sensuous and physical, wholly mundane, laborious and devoid of phony romanticism.
On a similar vein, Levrero wonders why there aren’t more writers in Uruguay: “many of my students write far better than I do. And yet they don’t keep up a constant output, they don’t make the things they write into books, they’re not interested in being published, they don’t want to be writers. They’re happy to share their experiences with the other students in the workshop.” Writers produce continuously, publish, publish books; they embrace “a life of starvation or poverty.” Writers live a lifestyle and rhythm of which writing is only part, transformed from creative expression into something more than itself, more than words on paper read by individuals.
Financial gatekeepers are central characters in the novel and might be the diary’s only explicit addressees apart from “the reader.” Mr. and Mrs. Guggenheim are his imagined benefactors and interlocutors, to whom he writes often and with guilty conscience:
Dear Mr. Guggenheim, I’m afraid you have wasted your money on this grant you so generously awarded me. My intentions were good, but I just don’t know what’s become of them. Two months have passed, July and August, and all I’ve done so far is buy those armchairs (which I’m not using) and fix the shower (which I’m not using either). I’ve spent the rest of the time playing on the computer. I can’t even keep this diary of the grant the way I’m supposed to; you’ll have noticed by now how I leave topics in suspense and never manage to return to them. Well, I just wanted to let you know. Best wishes, and regards to Mrs. Guggenheim.
The novel accretes paradoxes. Levrero’s students are non-writers who write, while he is a fully funded, prize-winning writer who doesn’t write, or rather who exclusively writes improperly. Mr. and Mrs. Guggenheim christened him a writer by financial fiat, unconcerned with his actual writing: all the foundation demanded of Levrero was an expense report, so that the crowning achievement of his writerly career is not really related to their writing. The literary never manifests as itself, and the novel refutes the equation of writerliness with writing; all that exists are the accoutrements and technologies of the literary, the technical specifics often overlooked when recounting a writer’s life. These are the details that render non-writing into a diaristic fantasy and, eventually, into a book
Escapism or Not?
Levrero wrote the diary of the grant in 2000 and 2001, while Uruguay’s worst ever economic crisis raged and a similar, related debacle loomed over Argentina. Rithika Ramamurthy has said about climate anxiety novels (and autofiction broadly) that amidst the totalizing mood of generalized collapse — climactic, socio-economic, and otherwise — an inward turn can feel inert, rendering us witnesses in a simple sense to “one person’s perception of how bad things make [them] feel.” Autofiction puts too much faith in consciousness as a final frontier or an unconquered refuge, positing that by rendering a single narrator’s truthful life experience fiction can move past an overwhelming sense of dread. Levrero does go autofictional, deep into himself, yet I can’t stop hearing the screams of carefully muffled background noise. As the world around him collapsed, his Guggenheim dollars got ever more valuable, made him ever wealthier. That he was outwardly (i.e., institutionally) at the highpoint of his career, his income secure and abundant, did not keep him from getting depressed, being lonely, and developing a porn addiction.
Guilt over supposedly undeserved success, over failed projects — book, relationship, health, social life — might be seen as driving the diary’s creation, setting it in an explicit relationship with Knausgaard, whose literature operates much the same way. It might even explain Levrero’s inability to keep the diary, where entries become scarce after month 8. Redemption requires a moment of uplift and absolution, the purging of sin through suffering or atonement; no such climax exists here. Levrero flirts with closing in that way, and even gives us a taste of the ideal ending, depressing and exhausted, before debunking it: “That would perhaps make the book sell very well; in this country, death whips up an exceptional interest in the work of the person who died . . . But I’m not interested in selling books. I never have been. And what’s more, I’m not actually tired of life. I could carry on living exactly the life I’m living now for all the time the good Lord allows me, indefinitely even. It’s true that some of my behavior annoys me, but it’s also true that I don’t work very hard to fight it. I’m happy, really, I’m comfortable, I’m content, even within a kind of overarching depression . . . So the problem remains. I don’t know what to do to keep hold of the reader, to make them carry on reading. Something had better happen soon, or all this work will have been in vain.” Redemption sells by resolving suffering into sanctification; Levrero is not interested in being a saint. Quite the opposite: reflecting on his report for the Guggenheims, he says: “they don’t care; they just need me to take responsibility for the grant I received, to show the donors that they haven’t thrown their money away. And I can assure them they haven’t. On the contrary, I think they’ve made a stupendous investment.”
The most basic structures of literature — plotting, narration, publication — come apart in the depths of Levrero’s luminous, mundane, and erratic interiority. Literature offers no shelter, no comfort or rescue from the total crisis, and Levrero questions any attempt to claim literature as a respite or an escape. He displays the many failures and functions of the literary, a product of inescapable forces with which he cannot be bothered. Laziness and indifference in the face of the impossibility render nothing, much less a smooth, marketable, “relatable” final product, but they do constitute an insurgence against comfortable narrative structures. Like the system of gatekeepers that delivers The Luminous Novel into English translation only now, almost two decades after its publication.
Federico Perelmuter is a writer and translator. He recently moved to Buenos Aires.