A Quick Post On A Day Spent Reading, Fake Fireplaces & Sergio Pitol

I’ve set aside today to read.  My usual routine for days like this is to make prodigious amounts of tea, put the “fireplace” video on the television and pretend I’m stranded in a Scottish Inn. The video operates under the same concept as the Yule Log.  Which, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is played during the holidays on public television – transforming television screens across America into burning fireplaces. Classical music plays as the logs burn down, though why they (by they I am of course referring to the visionaries who recognized the market demand a video of burning logs fills) can’t just use the crackling sounds of an actual fire is beyond me. The particular video I have access to also includes artistic close-ups of portions of the fire, further destroying the illusion of your-tv-as-fireplace.  We can only assume this (along with the music) is a balm to the filmmaker’s artistic integrity, or perhaps a way to pacify the Gas Fireplace Manufacturers of America who might view televised fireplaces as a competing market.

As usual there’s a stack of books I want to get to.  At the moment my focus is on finishing Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight. He has a remarkable authorial voice – and his personality shines through this and the first book of his Trilogy of Memory: The Journey. What I wanted to talk about, though, is the wonderful supplemental material Deep Vellum included with each book.  Two Introductions  – written by Enrique Vila-Matas (for The Art of Flight) & Álvaro Enrigue (for The Journey).  Álvaro Enrigue’s is your standard overview: explaining the author’s work and its importance in an essay called Sergio Pitol, Russian Boy.  Vila-Matas’ introduction is a bit more personal. He draws a wonderful portrait of Sergio Pitol in his own, very brief, essay entitled Pitol in the Rain.  The two men (Vila-Matas & Pitol) are friends; and Vila-Matas mentions the little details, the small quirks of personality, which true friends treasure. Thanks to Vila-Matas we discover that Sergio Pitol is a bit of a hypochondriac and is continuously losing (and recovering) his eyeglasses.

‘I remember the day because there was a pounding rain and Sergio was constantly losing his glasses; the latter was not at all unusual, his penchant for losing and then finding his glasses being legendary. That day he lost them several times, in various bookstores and cafes, as if that were the perfect antidote for not losing his umbrella. I recalled the day that Juan Villoro had found in Pitol’s tendency to lose his glasses a clue to illuminating new aspects of his poetics:  “Sergio writes in that hazy region of someone who loses his eyeglasses on purpose; he pretends that his originality is an attribute of his bad eyesight…”

Pitol in the Rain is only a few pages long, but every word is full of affection and friendship.  Readers are left in no doubt that Pitol is a man much loved by those fortunate enough to know him personally.

How often can biographies, let alone introductions and afterwards, make that claim? I often find that the more I learn about an author the more disillusioned I become.  But, from what I’ve read so far – The Journey in its entirety and a good portion of The Art of Flight – Pitol is far from a bad boy or glamorous member of the Literati.  Though he seems to have come in contact, and frequently developed lasting relationships, with some of the most important writers of the times his writing is amazingly scandal and gossip free.  His anecdotes are amusing because he finds them amusing, and always good-naturedly so. I get the feeling the members of the Algonquin Round Table would find him a bore and he would feel the same of them.  He lacks their sting, yet is as charming as any one of them could wish to be.

George Henson’s translation captures the author’s lightness and guileless enthusiasm for life and literature. He’s also done an admirable job of keeping the strand of Pitol’s prose from becoming tangled in the author’s convoluted labyrinth of memory. Henson, too, seems to have succumbed to Sergio’s charm despite their having never met.  In the translator’s note Henson describes the pressure of translating without an author’s collaboration.  Particularly when the author is a much celebrated translator, himself.   He explains the reason for the absence of authorial input (which I won’t go into) and ends the paragraph with an email he received from Pitol (which I will) – “Your interest in my work fills me with happiness and gratitude. I would love nothing more than to see my Trilogy of Memory translated into English, a language I adore and in which none of my books exist.”

I found those two sentences incredibly touching, – particularly the words happiness, gratitude and adore. The more I read the more it becomes apparent that Pitol possessed a rare and self-effacing intelligence. Those three words are representative of the author, or at least how I’ve come to think of him through the his books. Many things seem to have filled Sergio Pitol with adoration, happiness and gratitude.  We can all be grateful that he took the time to write some of those things down.

My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson)

Like the narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds, I am an inveterate walker.  Never to be confused with a hiker, city walkers are an entirely separate category who delight in the organized, the man-made, the carefully choreographed.    We choose “To walk and nothing but.  Not to walk without a destination, as modern characters have been pleased to do, attentive to the novelties of chance and the terrain, but instead to distant destinations, nearly unreachable or inaccessible ones, putting maps to the test.”  While I have explored most of the major U.S. cities on foot – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, etc., my international resume is limited.  I have never been to Brazil, yet Sergio Chejfec so thoroughly captures the essential place-ness of the park through which his narrator travels that I feel I could add it (my guess is Parque Farroupilha/A Redenção in Porto Alegre?) to my Top 10 list of  best walks. Ev-er.

Because reading My Two Worlds is the literary equivalent to taking a leisurely, meandering and  companionable walk with a new friend.   He talks while you enjoy the scenery.  Quickly you learn that our anonymous narrator is male, an author and a few days away from turning fifty.  He is shy.  He is in the habit of greeting people he does not know and who do not return his greeting.  He’s also a bit paranoid.  We learn few specifics about his background such as that he has friends, but no children and is not currently in a romantic relationship.  He talks about a niece and two nephews of whom he seems vaguely fond of (or is he just fond the idea that he is fond of them?  Like some people are in love with the idea of being in love?).  He tells you that his last novel is not being reviewed well, but can only cite his own dissatisfaction with his writing and  a malicious email containing a link to a bad review as evidence of this.

This new friend is in the city attending a literary conference.  As is his habit when traveling, he has obtained a map from the hotel front desk and carefully planned his walk the night before.  He carries his writing supplies with him in a backpack.  Other than his compulsion to walk he’s not particularly quirky or strange (as far as narrator’s go he’s amazingly tame).  While his thoughts trend towards the philosophical and the introspective at no point did I detect self-pity. Just an underlying dissatisfaction.  I do not want to give the impression that My Two Worlds is depressing – it’s not at all!  Probably due to the narrator’s dry sense of humor – which pops up frequently and unexpectedly.   And also because the narrator/companion/stranger is easy to like. He’s oddly endearing.  Someone I find myself wanting to spend more time with  than the 103 page book allows for.

As the author moves us from one section of the park to another we listen to the narrator’s opinions of himself and his surroundings.  It’s a fine park – the star of the novel.  It has an aviary, a fountain, a labyrinth, a lake filled with aquatic life (fish, turtles, frogs), paddle boats for rent and a little cafe with a lovely view.  The writing shines in the descriptions of these landscapes.  Somehow Chejfec has struck just the right note: providing enough detail to place his reader on the path beside his narrator, but avoids becoming bogged down by minutia.  He beautifully recreates the sense of discovery that occurs while wandering through a well designed park – the wonder of turning a corner and stepping in front of a carefully planned perspective.  The narrator is constantly projecting his emotional state onto these environments.  (As we all do to a greater or lesser extent).   Chejfec uses this interaction between man and terrain to explore how the interior and exterior worlds reflect each other.  The narrator seems to feel he must be, or is, constantly choosing between them.  What he does not realize is that they are one in the same.

As had happened several times earlier on this outing, before long I spotted a light area toward the end of the path; and when I drew closer, some ten minutes later, I glimpsed a tableau that at first disturbed me, I don’t know why:  over there a good-sized, tranquil lake lay hidden, and from where I was approaching I could make out some unexpected, gigantic swans, stock-still and arrayed as if in regimental formation.  As I drew nearer to the water and the scene grew better lit, I felt a mixture of wariness and wonder.  Wariness owing to something quite primal, for which I realized I wasn’t prepared:  simply the size of those pedal boats in the shape of swans, which one associated more with some monstrous scale than with any idea of a replica or an amusement; and wonder because of the illusion of standing before an inanimate army, but one that seemed subject to a latent vitality, ready to awaken or be activated at any moment.

Whether you approach it at a symbolic level, or go with a more superficial interpretation, My Two Worlds is a deeply satisfying read.  It is easily my favorite novel of 2011.  Wonderful, charming and intelligent – I believe Sergio Chejfec is a master.  What I love most about this book is probably what many reviewers have found frustrating: how atypical it is of the majority of what is published by the larger houses.  It is less a story than it is an experience.  Because of that, and the high quality of the writing, I am impatient for more of this author’s work to be translated into English. (Note:  I vaguely remember hearing at BEA that Open Letter Books, the publisher of the English translation of My Two Worlds, is planning to release a second book by Sergio Chejfec.  I still need to confirm that information).

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 28 3