The Luminous Novel, by Mario Levrero, And Other Stories, 544 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1913505011
Sleepy Stories, by Mario Levrero, Elsewhere Editions, 32 pp, ISBN: 978-1939810847
In the year 2000, Uruguayan author Mario Levrero won a Guggenheim fellowship. This would allow him to complete a book (which he referred to as “the luminous novel”) that he had begun writing sixteen years previously but subsequently abandoned. Instead of completing the novel however, Levrero found himself with writer’s block and spent a year recording his thoughts and experiences in the form of a diary that ran to more than 450 pages. The result, The Luminous Novel, was eventually published in 2005, a year after Levrero had died, with the diary comprising an extended prologue to the few completed chapters of the eponymous novel which are included at the end.
The book has gone on to enjoy something of a cult status in South America. The Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra thought it Levrero’s “greatest work, which he wrote by forcing himself to write it, knowing beforehand that what he wanted to write was impossible”. The Mexican novelist Juan Pablo Villalobos judged Levrero to be a “strange” writer, “unclassifiable, with a boundless imagination, who [created] one of the most intriguing, thought-provoking bodies of work in the Spanish language … Levrero is an author who challenges the canonical idea of Latin American literature. If you really want to complete the puzzle of our tradition, you must read him.” The Argentinian author Mauro Libertella said: “If Roberto Bolaño showed us it was still possible to write the great Latin American novel, Levrero told us it wasn’t necessary.” Another Mexican author, Álvaro Enrigue, simply stated: “we are all his children”.
Levrero was born in Montevideo in 1940. He was diagnosed with a heart murmur at the age of fourteen, which meant that during his adolescence he was mostly limited to spending his time at home reading and listening to tango music on the radio. He wrote his first novel, La ciudad (The City) at the age of twenty-six and worked as a bookseller, a cartoonist and an editor for a crossword magazine. An encounter with the works of Franz Kafka was particularly formative. In an interview, Levrero admitted that while writing La ciudad:
I read Kafka at night and I wrote by day, trying to seem like him. I thought that was the way to write … I wanted to do something like translating Kafka to Spanish.
In The Luminous Novel, the narrator/Levrero admits that he “saw Kafka as a kind of older brother, who had arrived before me at a very similar world view to the one I was developing. But most of all, he convinced me it wasn’t necessary to write well.”
While his later works, Empty Words (first published in 1996) and The Luminous Novel, are more diaristic, there is still a trace of Kafka’s initial influence. In The Luminous Novel, Levrero struggles to go to bed on time. He spends his days on the computer, creating programmes, playing Solitaire and browsing the internet. He makes homemade yoghurt. He broods over his failing (and failed) love affairs. All the while, his goal of finishing his novel seems further and further away. It is reminiscent of Borges’s essay “Kafka and His Precursors”, where he evokes Zeno’s Paradox against movement when discussing Kafka. The Kafkian protagonist can’t get from Point A to Point B because they “must first cover half the distance between the two points, and before that, half of the half, and before that, half of the half, and so on to infinity”. Levrero can’t begin his novel until he has fixed his air conditioning, or gone to the dentist, or got a new ID card.
In spite of all this, he continues to write in his diary. The diary gives shape to his dilemma, and helps him to try and see things anew. However, Levrero is not just interested in what writing can uncover but what the process can also help create. In his later works, there’s a sense that it’s the act of writing that will generate the subject matter, not the other way round. Indeed, it’s the physical act of writing that’s paramount in Empty Words, as the narrator embarks on a round of “graphological self-therapy”. By improving his handwriting he hopes he can bring about improvements in his personality. In The Luminous Novel Levrero writes about not being able to write his book, with the end result that a book gets written (if not the one he had set out to write).
Through his accumulated diary entries, we gain a sense of Levrero as a whole. Annie McDermott has done an excellent job of translating his unique tone of voice, which can be by turns, witty, metaphysical, self-deprecating and obscure. He is also unfailingly honest, sometimes disturbingly so: he makes offhand comments that are homophobic and, more than once, admits to graphic fantasies of sexually assaulting younger women. Quite how literally we’re supposed to take these pronouncements is unclear. Levrero mentions at different points his admiration for Thomas Bernhard and Charles Bukowski, so there’s every chance he’s working in a similar épater le bourgeois mode. But it’s jarring when it happens, and a serious challenge to the reader’s sympathies.
Levrero’s preoccupation with the mundane can also yield some strange and interesting results. The experiences and states of mind that are usually left out of literature and typically pass by our conscious attention are what Levrero investigates here. He is preoccupied with the hidden mechanisms of the mind that can restrict what we see, and with figuring out ways in which those mechanisms can be outmanoeuvred. He is also always looking for signs, patterns or signals from other dimensions. One morning, when looking out his window, he notices that the corpse of a pigeon on a rooftop opposite. As the weeks and months progress, he scrupulously records the gradual decay of the pigeon’s remains and the comings and goings of the other pigeons who he imagines to be its family members. While this act of amateur haruspicy at first seems bizarre and more than a little grotesque, it gradually reveals itself to be an act of care and attention to the everyday world. In an interview from the 1980s (which he conducted with himself), Levrero admitted that he thought “there’s artistic material in the most trivial, mundane experiences; the one requirement is that the artist’s spirit is present”.
Many of the diary entries in The Luminous Novel are written late at night or early in the morning as Levrero struggles to sleep and reflects on the day that passed. Combating sleeplessness is also the theme of Sleepy Stories, a book Levrero wrote for children, which comprises a dialogue between a sleepy storyteller (identified only as “Me”) and a young Nicolás who just wants to hear another story. What follows is a series of surreal vignettes (usually punctuated by the storyteller’s frequent yawns) about sleepy protagonists: a weary man falls asleep in an umbrella only to wake up and find it full of water, another falls asleep in a monkey cage, only to be tossed around by the inhabitants, yet another falls asleep while skateboarding home. As each story ends and the storyteller drifts off to sleep, Nicolás simply exhorts: “Another.” The full-page illustrations by Diego Bianki are a colourful complement to the text, while the translation by Alicia López preserves Levrero’s idiosyncratic voice.
Throughout each of these works there is a recurring sense of resolution postponed. Any achievements are provisional and resolutions are quickly forgotten. Levrero captures the flux through which we experience our day-to-day lives and how they are intermingled with stray thoughts, memories and dreams. Most of all, he strives for freedom in his writing and how this can be expressed through style. As he points out in The Luminous Novel:
When you’re young and inexperienced, you look for dramatic plots in books, just as you do in films. With time, you come to see that the plot has no importance at all; and that the style, the way the story is told, is everything.
Towards the end of The Luminous Novel, there is a short chapter entitled “First Communion”, which recounts the narrator’s/ Levrero’s friendship with an Italian priest and his growing religious faith. There was no way the book was going to have a conventional ending, but it is an unexpectedly straightforward account of religious belief and provides a surprisingly emotional coda. The book ends with a final update on the pigeon’s carcass: “The pigeon’s skull doesn’t seem to have moved. I can’t see the bones of the body, but perhaps, even now, they’re still there.” Of the ephemeral life of this common bird, something still remains and because of Levrero’s attention, it lives on through this book.
Brian Davey is a writer. He lives in Co Sligo.