This excerpt is from Macedonio Fernández’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz and forthcoming from Open Letter Books in January 2010. Although we are excited to present this excerpt to readers of The Quarterly Conversation, it is not without some hesitation that we do so, as Museum’s heavily digressive, accumulative structure does not make it an easy book to excerpt.
Museum is a collection of prologues to a book that is not yet written, and, reminiscent of Viktor Shklovsky, part of Museum’s logic is to frustrate the readers’ expectations with continual digressions, as well as to challenge their attempts to predict what kind of a book will follow this series of prologues. That all is to say that Museum is one of those books that makes practically no sense at first and then slowly gets better and better as the reader acclimates to its sensibility.
We’ve chosen this section because we feel that it conveys a flavor of what Fernández is up to while also being accessible to a reader who cannot rely on the rest of the book for help in understanding what is going on. It is as self-contained as any part of Museum can be said to be, and we think it contains its own distinct pleasures and insights.
—The Editors of The Quarterly Conversation
For more on the life and works of Macedonio Fernández, as well as the details of his mentorship of Borges, see our essay Macedonio Fernández: The Man Who Invented Borges.
PROLOGUE TO THE NEVER-SEEN
The genre of there-never-was, so frequently invoked, but without precedents, will make its debut here, since it has never existed itself, there never has been a there-never-was, yet there will be in the current year, and, as is only fair, in Buenos Aires, the first city of the world to present itself in this category, the only city that is equally good for the conclusion of a trip around the world as for the start of one, a city that serves this purpose for trips started wherever else, as various and continual world navigators have successively discovered, with any around the world trips—whether they start in Berlin or Rio de Janeiro—being consumed, without regard for its future plans, in Buenos Aires, where it lingers, whispering its disdain for the other legs of the trip, instead going off into the streets, tramways and public works of Buenos Aires, buying a little house, getting married, and producing offspring, all of which has the fullness and heroism of the fulminous completion of the whole trip.
With this genre, humanity will finally lay eyes upon the never-before-seen, a display of there-never-was; it won’t be a bridge that’s always dry, a conjugal frigidity, a religious war between peoples without religion, or other things that haven’t been seen. The never-before-seen will really be seen; this isn’t fantasy, it’s something else: the first example in this genre will be a novel. I’m just about to publish it, as the manuscript critics have already mentioned, admiringly, “it’s a novel that has never been written before.” And it hasn’t been written yet, but there’s only a little ways to go.
Such a collection of events is contained in the novel that there’s practically nothing left over to happen in the streets, houses, and plazas; the papers, confronted with this lack of current events, will have to content themselves with citing the novel: “the following exchange took place in the middle of the afternoon yesterday in the novel of Eterna”; “this morning the Sweetheart is smiling”; “the President of the Novel, responding in person to the rumors circulating among his numerous readers, told us that today he will positively launch his plan for the hystericization of Buenos Aires and the conquest, in the name of aesthetic salvation, of our population by humor.”
“After Chapter V of the Novel we can be sure that it isn’t because of NK (the Nonexistent Knight) that Sweetheart’s existence is saddened today.” “This evening, the Novel will send its soloist orchestra—six guitars—to execute various obsequious polyphonies for the orchestras of the bars Ideal, Sibarita, and Real, so that they can listen to music for a change. The Polygraph of Silence will explain the reasons for this with erudite gestures, and he will circulate the bottomless collection plate of gratitude among the personnel of the orchestras, which will make the music of thanks as coin strikes against coin. The public will also serve as a harmony of contentment, as the listening orchestra, momentarily laying aside its instruments for calling-the-waiter in favor of its instruments of applause.”
This is a novel that was, and will be, futuristic until it’s written, just as its author is futuristic—until today he had yet to write a single future page—although he has left futurism until the future, as a proof of his enthusiasm, and doing so brilliantly from there on—without falling into the trap of being a consecutive futurist, like those who have adopted futurism, without understanding it, in the present. And, for that reason, they have declared much to come for the novelist, who has everything in front of him, including his own genial sense of haste, which arises from having thought that, given the speed of progress, posterity has been left behind; each day comes quicker, almost completely forgotten, a series of contemporaneous events that exist in the last journalistic edition of the day it appears and that’s it. We all die already judged immediately, book and author are made classics or corpses in a day, and meanwhile they recommend us to posterity and complain about the present. And today, all of this is done with sufficient justice in 24 hours. The old posterity, with all the time it took to think about it, consecrated a multitude of nonentities as glorious artists; there’s more equity and common sense in today’s reporter: vacuous solemnity and moralisms were posterity’s cheap and effective bribe, born until yesterday. I will look, trusting, for posterity’s universal judgment of my novel in the 30th of September 1929 edition of Critique and Reason, the day the novel will appear, a date which could not have been postponed, since all the postponements had already been used up in promises, with the most literary postponements having been used for prologues.
For the consecrated future literati that does not believe in, nor is able to estimate, posterity beyond each day’s night, it won’t make sense for authors to feel a sense of urgency to write promptly for a prompt posterior judgment: with the speeds that posterity can reach today, the artist will outlive his posterity and will know the next day whether he should or should not write better, or if he has already written so well that he should content himself by contemplating the perfection of his writing. Or if he has no literary accolades left to seek, other than the one that’s most difficult to find—the reader’s. The actual ease of writing makes the legible scarce, and it has reached the point of superseding the injurious necessity of having readers in the first place: writing is for the fruition of art and at best is for knowing the critic’s opinion. In all sincerity, this change is lovely; it’s art for art’s sake and art for the critics’ sake, which is art for art’s sake all over again.
Horrible art and the accumulated glories of the past, which have always existed, are a result of the following: the sonorousness of language and the existence of a public; without this sonorousness, only thinking and creating would remain; without a clamoring public, art would not be drowned. Under these conditions, Literature would be pure art, and there would be many more beautiful works than there are at present: there would be three or four Cervantes, the Cervantes of the Quijote, without the stories, Quevedo the humorist and poet of passion, without the moralizing orator, various Gómez de la Sernas. We’ll be liberated from the likes of Calderón, the Prince of falsetto, from lack of feeling, which is poor taste itself; from the likes of Góngora, at least from time to time, with his exclamations of “Ay Fabio, o sorrow!” We’d have three Heines, each of sarcasm and sadness, or D’Annunzios to limitlessly versify passion. Happily, we would have only the first act of Faust, and in compensation various Poes, and various Bovaries—with their sad affliction of loveless appetite, despicable and bloody—and this other, lacerating absurdity: Hamlet’s lyric of sorrow, which convinces and breeds sympathy, despite the false psychologism of its source. We’ll be free of the scientific realism of Ibsen, one of Zola’s victims, and this magnificent artist for his part will be dismantled by sociology and theory of heresy and pathology, and instead of a dozen master works we’ll possess a hundred, of true, intrinsic artistic worth, not mere copies of reality. These works will be typically literary, works of Prose, not of didactics, without any musical language (meter, rhyme, sonorousness) or paintings with words, that is, descriptions.
* * *
With this I’m publishing a prologue of such a novel, since I hope to guarantee that in special rehearsals its characters, events, and jokes will all prove its utter seriousness; and even publishing it is a rehearsal, anterior to the reader. But only the prologues after this one!
I’ll rehearse the upcoming prologue instead. Also, there’s a new German word in Spanish that I consulted with Xul Solar about in his workshop: “Languages in repair.” It’s an amended adjective, but new, not like mended boots.
The Prologue to:
The “for-all-of-us-artists-gifted-with-daydreams” Reader
The “often-dreamed-of” Reader; The “who the author dreams is reading his dreams” Reader.
The “who-the-art-of-writing-wants-to-be-real-more-than-merely-real-reader-of-dreams” Reader.
The “only-real-that-art-recognizes” reader of dreams.
The “less-real, he-who-dreams-the-dreams-of-the-other,-and-stronger-in-reality,-since-he-does-not-lose-
I believe I have identified the reader who addresses himself to me, and I have obtained the proper adjectivalization of his entire being, after so much fragmentation and some false adjectives. “Dear” reader does not modify the reader but the author, et cetera.
The adjectivalization read above—of that which is not read that the book contains I speak of, conveniently, before the novel; but the rest, here, is before everything and of this I leave only a little; by means of prologues I have the refinement to privilege the readers who know the entire book, something only my readers have found in an abnegated author—I give the book to the public just to turn around and put it through the linguistic workshop of that singular artist, Xul Solar, who will make it into one, definitive word. And, already in its fourth edition, my salutation to the reader, which you’ll have to pardon me today, will be presented without stems.
To your health, reader. How sad we are in our books, and how distant. I, the most often mentioned and identified of the unknowns, find myself in a predicament with my Complete Works, to start with, in such a way that the entire future, my whole literary career, will be posterior, in my case, to the aforementioned Complete Works; only because the public has not stopped to wait for me and hasn’t given me the name of a great unknown. So now I am obliged to deserve it, composing myself a past as an author in one fell swoop, so that later I’ll be able to write. This is a new situation in the life of writers, and isn’t it adverse to success?
You who have read me before I began to write, if you have a problem like mine, by now I don’t have it any more. I’ve finished my Complete Works. In my satisfaction, monumentally incapable of understanding difficulty, I can give you a distillation of long experience in art, collected in the present Complete Work.
Let art be limitless and free and all that is intrinsic to it—its handwriting, its titles, the life of its exponents. Tragedy or Humorism or Fantasy should never have to suffer a Past director, nor should they have to copy a Present Reality, and all should incessantly be judged, abolished.
It’s an axiomatic error to define art by copies: I understand life without getting a copy of it first; if copies were necessary, each new situation, each new character that we encountered would be eternally incomprehensible. The effectiveness of the author derives solely from his Invention.
* * *
I leave only the title finished, since:
A prologue that starts right away is really sloppy: the perfume of its preceding is lost, just as I said that futurism can only be genuinely practiced by leaving it for later.
I will also have said, earlier, that this is one of the twenty-nine prologues of a novel that’s impossible to prologue, as a critic, who surely born in that tranquil country of “ask questions later,” has recently predicted; there’s another, more sympathetic, book, that is, one that’s more given to length and limited in prologues—which can still be remedied—which was going to be called “The Man Who Would Be President But Wasn’t.” 1
* * *
Or, an equivalent:
“Buenos Aires hysterical, torn between the hilarious faction and the faction of eternity, and saved by its splendid compatriot, who unifies humorism and passion.” But the title I’ve got left for “the novel permitted a beginning,” which although it begins late has no less of a beginning, and, if he reads it, the reader will wish it were all made of continuations, such as “Novel of Eterna, and of the Child of Melancholy, Sweetheart, of-a-love that was kept unknown.”
This last is the title a certain gentleman preferred; he began to read it and promised to come back right away, to finish finding out how the novel is named.
* * *
This is the only novel that tells everything and that, nevertheless, has nothing added, although the obligation to tell everything leads to telling more. I got hung up reading Arabic stories in my adolescence, because I didn’t know there were only 1001, so I kept reading them after I’d finished: I was warned much too late, and so I continued devouring stories, which I found abundantly scattered through Morality, History; there are stories of Progress, the abnegation of statesmen or martyrs or propagandists of some selfless cause, like the happiness of the good, repentance of evil, the ultimate concordance of the general and the particular, or Utilitarianism, the order of the Universe and other miracles of the abundant “faith” of the men of science, which is so demanding of vulgar miracles!
* * *
This is a novel with two beginnings, according to preference.
It has a lot of sadness and a lot of enthusiasm, but no death, only the words The End, written a long time off, much after you have finished reading the title. It’s only written once, although the prologues need it (not all of them, but a few need endings), and even the title, when it ends: I’ve abolished The End of the title, The End of the prologue, so as to show just how little the novel depends on death for its existence—but neither does it rely on life (truth, realism)—.
It has two almost-impossibilities that are almost resolved: how to narrate the ultimate and what to do with a bungled joke—how to regain one’s composure after having laughed at a tragedy because the title gave no indication that it was not comedy.
It interrupts its reading and narration once, so that Sweetheart can get dressed, during which the reader should have no pretext to read, as that’s his way of looking.
It has twenty-nine prologues written to prevent it from beginning.
It has the exclusive use of three new mathematical tenses. These are “novel tenses” which have never, before today, been spooled out in narratives and novels, as if time didn’t flee and flow during events of fantasy. The aforementioned tenses are: the tense of porteño or Buenos Aires–style courtesy, which dictates that no one be disposed of or denied, but that one simply wait “until there’s a new tango” to look for work or improve oneself. Second, the tense of the interval (on the floor) between two falls of the Prince of Wales: this surveyor Prince is very nice, he acquired his title by measuring short stretches against the length of his real persona, but I hope this won’t reinforce the hobo inclinations of the skip-around reader or encourage him to read by the illustrious example of this skip-around pony. Finally, the minimal tense: the one that’s left over now to make the first overcoat or the first cold of winter, or measuring this tense by another standard: the tense of rescuing a black hat which had been forgotten on the black seat of a chair, during the forthcoming visit of a recently arrived guest. Or, if you like: five minutes of film in which the entire cast of Hollywood has to run, falling over themselves to convert all of the disgraces in two hours of film—marriage, kissing, the unmasking of false virtue—into happiness.
It has characters from three different ages, measured by Oblivion: the age in which we leave a cigarette burning in Papa’s new cigarette holder and forget it in the maid’s room; the already advanced age when we forget a baguette that’s been left on a polished desk; and the desperate age in which we forget everything, including age, even forgetting a hat that’s been left in a soup tureen—a horrible turn of events. (The age in which we take the stairs in leaps will predominate, that age in which we tangle our last kite or our last fishing line, and the first game of billiards emerges, and the first night of forgetting one’s house keys.)
With the melancholy of the child, whose beautiful love was remained unknown.
And the valor of the quest of the Nonexistent Knight.
All of which is stocked with indescribable confusion—but for the forbearance of the Novel we would describe it now—for a bank employee who doesn’t know whether he is a genius.
Once the prologues are finished, the novel will begin all of a sudden, opening surprisingly with “An executed novel, which has gone out into the street,” insistently insinuating itself to the point of the full extent of the “Novel of impediments” and ending with all the rest that the author found out in “What to cry about,” a chapter that will procure for the reader a list of what is worth crying about, plus the impossible death of the “Man who feigned life,” here played by the barber who pretended he was awake and able to see, although he was sleeping at the moment, as he almost always is. His accursed sleep does not prevent everything from coming to be known and told, without being said, however, nothing that isn’t in the book, that comes from outside the novel or has the formality of an End, will impede this novel. It has its end in the same place as every other novel, that is, the point where the book is left with nothing to say, throwing into doubt everything it said in the first place. We assure you that very few eras have a forthcoming novel, even the ones who by the end have been more lauded, been as concluded as ours, written entirely before the end and not leaving behind a single continuation.
To conclude, this novel is sure to appear, since it’s been promised three times already just to fulfill the first promise. It does not contain any trips abroad, nor does it neglect to continue; both of these things are mere pretexts to leave the reader without characters, since obviously the story cannot move ahead if various protagonists don’t leave for Europe or are simply forgotten for pages at a time, obliging the reader to wait until so-and-so returns so that the forgetful parts will slap their hands to their foreheads and remember. That’s why I already said, or I will say, that we do not accept among our kitchen characters those that want a degree in mending buttons or making sure the pots on the stove don’t boil over and burn their bottoms with rice and milk.
Margaret Schwartz is an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. Macedonio Fernández was a seminal Argentine avante-garde writer and philosopher and is credited with mentoring Borges.
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