NOVEMBER 25, 2021
IN A CULTURE governed by the Protestant ethic, there is a special contempt reserved for the procrastinator. Few have so flagrantly flouted this most modern of taboos like the Uruguayan novelist Mario Levrero.
Often extolled as a “writer’s writer,” Levrero published his first novels in the 1970s, as “almost an attempt to translate Kafka into Uruguayan.” The ensuing years would bring forth a compact corpus of fiction, marked by a chiaroscuro of veiled figures and a quiet surreality, the peak of his early output undoubtedly being the so-called “Involuntary Trilogy” — La ciudad (The City, 1970), Paris (1980), and El lugar (The Place, 1982). Levrero gained a cult status among his post-Boom peers while adopting the persona of irreverent recluse, spurning the public displays typical of the Latin America literati for the comfort of his living room. His later work eschewed conventional narrative, becoming more autobiographical in character. El discurso vacío (1996), which was translated into English by Annie McDermott and published as Empty Words by Coffee House Press in 2019, begins as a notebook of repetitive handwriting exercises, which metamorphize into a platform for wild divagations: psychosexual self-scrutiny, childhood memories, obsessive-neurotic rhapsody — more exhibitionist therapy than a novel.
The continuity is undeniable with La novela luminosa (2005), Levrero’s last work and unequivocal masterpiece, now also available in English as The Luminous Novel in a McDermott translation. As with certain works whose premise belies their scope, its basic plot can be summarized fairly pithily: the narrator, like Levrero an aging Uruguayan writer of middling means, receives a Guggenheim Fellowship (as Levrero did in 2000) to complete a novel from a few scant fragments he wrote in the 1980s concerning “an experience of mine that had been extremely transcendental” and whose “obsessive image” has haunted him for the better part of his life. Immediately conceding that “it was impossible then and I think it’s impossible now,” he proceeds instead to write “[t]his whole book [as] the testimony of a monumental failure.” What follows turns out to be a diary account, a so-called “Prologue” to his “Luminous Novel,” that sprawls over 400 pages in a herculean feat of procrastination, transcribing mundane events in painstaking detail without ever seeming to afford us the promised revelation.
Readers versed in the tradition of Latin American metafiction will note the parallels with The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (Museo de la Novela de la Eterna, 1967) by Argentinian author Macedonio Fernández. Yet whereas Fernández opts for a baroque tessellation of metaphysical fantasies, Levrero’s effort is pedestrian by comparison, consisting of a compulsive and indiscriminate documentation of the quotidian life of a man confined to his apartment. In the thicket of its perverse completism, there is a progression of sorts. Fall is mainly concerned with the purchase of a new armchair for reading (and napping), while the advent of winter brings the installation of a new air conditioner and springtime is occupied by the protagonist’s attempts to navigate the byzantine Uruguayan bureaucracy to renew his identity card. Events that would typically drive a novel’s plot — the attempted suicide of a friend, the death of his father, his relationship with his ex-wife — are all offhandedly referenced, incidental afterthoughts amid the absorbing trivia that forms the book’s grist: a dead pigeon decaying on a nearby roof; an addiction to various games pre-installed on his computer; a voracious consumption of detective novels; and obsequious missives to a fictionalized “Mr Guggenheim,” apologizing for the delays in his work. The diary is a kind of perpetual motion machine chronicling a “never-ending series of small hours,” with Levrero at its perfectly static center.
Rhythm becomes the generative motor of the work, a serial rigor of figures in incessant procession, astride a ground bass of shifting moods. Blocs of diffuse affect evoke “a state of mind, […] an atmosphere I’d almost call artistic, […] all infused with a very particular mood.” Feelings are almost reified as characters in a rueful fugue — Vague Anxiety, Plaintive Nostalgia, Deep Depression — with the author claiming to “feel more like a Beckett character by the day.” On this impenetrable flatland of the everyday, achievement consists in the unbridled joy of finding a good probiotic yoghurt. Eventually, the “prologue” simply ends, with no justification save the conclusion of the year and hence the termination of the grant. Innumerable milanesas (breaded cutlets) have been consumed, the apartment is a little more furnished, and the pigeon is a desiccated skeleton.
Yet if there is aught of plot, there is little of ploy. While he spurns the conventions of “disciplined imagination [—] […] deceitful, since it comes disguised as naturalism. Like the famous Flaubert. Pah [—]” Levrero is hardly so crass as to believe that failure is somehow redeemed as literature through the mere quantitative padding of 500 pages, when failing better, so to speak, demands some qualitative leap. While he is meticulously self-conscious, it would be wrong to overstate Levrero’s irony, his humor being a modest self-deprecation that lacks the critical distance necessary for a knowing wink. Indeed, the novel’s tenuous narrative interest is sustained by its unabashed earnestness. Its careful guilelessness, expressed in frank and defiantly unstylized prose, allows Levrero to toe a delicate line between the plainspoken confession of an outwardly pathetic life — with its myriad addictions and self-delusions — and a burlesque of maudlin self-pity. Anything less than absolute unassumingness, the merest suggestion that this is some overlong joke, would have reduced the enterprise to obnoxious shtick.
Poised against the twin literary lies of conventional narrative and its backhanded ironic subversion, Levrero’s novel is literature conceived as a fundamentally ethical act, a mode of self-expression whose cardinal virtue is nothing less than an impossible honesty. His method involves restoring the oblique visceral quality of lived experience, its inexorable continuity. And, indeed, something like abstract time is captured at the sentence level, the unchecked accumulation of trivia producing a hypnotic effect. “There are some things,” the narrator tells us,
that can’t be written about. […] The system of creating an environment for each luminous event I wanted to describe took me down dark and even sinister paths. […] [O]nce written down, [they] cease to be luminous; they disappoint, they sound trivial. They’re out of reach of literature, or at least of my literature.
The driving logic of The Luminous Novel resembles nothing so much as prayer, a radical ascesis as the narrator prostrates himself before banality and ritualized repetition. Levrero explicitly equates his own procedure with that of his patron saint Teresa of Ávila, for whom kenosis, the radical emptying of self, is a prerequisite for mystical union with the godhead. Analogously, this is a form of literature dispossessed of all literariness — rhetoric, plot, and pretense — in complete surrender to “mortal heaviness, an infinite clumsiness, […] what Santa Teresa calls ‘the natural.’” It is absolute realism realized.
It is therefore more a token of honesty than unimaginativeness that the luminous experiences to which Levrero finally turns toward the novel’s end revert to Western culture’s typical tropes of transcendence: childhood and the Eucharist. Yet even with its pseudomystical gymnastics, the novel’s stakes would be paltry if confined purely to navel-gazing: at the level of the sheerly personal, Levrero divests his literary persona in order to regain it, yet there is the further matter of what subsists beyond the solipsistic theater of his own mind … namely, other ones. It is in this transition from self-absorption to communion, from therapy to ethics proper, that the “Luminous” gains its real stakes.
On the one hand, this other mind is Chl, the protagonist’s former lover with whom he is in a protracted and ambiguous breakup, and who he comes to see as “luminous, bursting with light, and so full of grace and goodness that I came to worship her as if she were a supernatural being.” The other other mind is, of course, the reader, to whom Levrero’s entreaties are consistent and clear, effectively whittling the stakes down to patience with half a thousand pages of humdrum. Whether its outsize charge upon the reader is onus or boon, whatever power The Luminous Novel achieves as radical realism resides in the fact, as Levrero avers, that “the only light to be found in these pages is the light that the reader will give them.”