An Ars Poetica?

Mexican writer Sergio Pitol (left) with Spanish publisher Jorge Herralde.

For Ednodio Quintero

I was invited to attend a biennale of writers in Mérida, Venezuela, where each of the participants was to explain his own concept of an ars poetica. I lived in terror for weeks. What did I have to say on the subject? The best I could do, I told myself, would be to draft an Ars Combinatoria. Or, more modestly, to enumerate certain issues and circumstances that in some way define my writing.

Regrettably, my theoretical grounding, throughout my life, has been limited. Only later in life, during a stay in Moscow, did I begin to take an interest the work of the Russian formalists and their disciples. I met Viktor Shklovsky, who invited me to his studio where I listened to him talk for an entire morning. I was speechless! I was at a loss to explain how I had been able, until then, to do without that universe filled with brilliant provocations. I decided to study, as soon as I finished with the Russians, the fundamentals of linguistics, the various theories on form, to address the Prague School, then structuralism, semiotics, the new currents, Genette, Greimas, Yuri Lotman, and the Tartu-Moscow School. The truth is, I never got beyond the study of Russian formalism. I did read, with indescribable pleasure, the three volumes that Boris Eichenbaum dedicated to the work of Leo Tolstoy, Tynyanov’s book on the young Pushkin, Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, since his literary theory was also based on concrete works: those of Boccaccio, Cervantes, Sterne, Dickens, and Bely. My interest grew more intense when I got to Bakhtin and read his studies of Rabelais and Dostoevsky. When I attempted to delve into more specialized texts, the so-called “scientists,” I felt lost. I was confused at every turn; I did not know the vocabulary. It was not without regret that little by little I began to abandon them. From time to time I suffer from abulia, and I dream about a future that will afford me the opportunity to become a scholar. Lacking any knowledge in classical rhetoric, how could I dare lecture on an ars poetica?

In Mexico, during my adolescence, I was a devoted and frequent reader of the work of Alfonso Reyes, which includes several titles on literary theory: El deslinde (The Demarcation), La experiencia literaria (The Literary Experience), and Al yunque (To the Anvil). I read them, I imagine, for the pure love of their language, for the unexpected music I found in them, for the ease with which he suddenly illuminated the most necessarily obscure topics. In a poem to the memory of the Mexican writer, Borges declares:

In his labors he was helped by mankind's
hope, which was the light of his life
to create a line that is not to be forgotten
and to renew Castilian prose.
(trans. Harold Morland)

His modesty was such that even today few are aware of his extraordinary achievement: transforming—and in the process reinvigorating—our language. As I reread his essays, I continue to be amazed by a prose that is unlike any other. Cardoza y Aragón maintains that anyone who has not read Reyes’s work cannot claim to have read his.

I owe to our great polygraph, and to several years of tenacious reading, my passion for language; I admire his secret and serene originality, his infinite combinatory ability, his humor, his talent for inserting everyday expressions, seemingly at odds with literary language, into a masterful exposition on Góngora, Virgil, or Mallarmé. Even though I may have been deaf to the theoretical reason present in Reyes, I am indebted to him for introducing me to the various fields to which I might otherwise have been slow to arrive: the Hellenistic world, medieval Spanish literature, the Golden Age, Brazil’s sertão novels and avant-garde poetry, Sterne, Borges, Francisco Delicado, the detective novel, and so much more! His tastes were ecumenical. Reyes carried himself with a slight air of confidence and extreme courtesy, moving with an insatiable curiosity through many different literary spheres, some unenlightened. He complemented the hedonistic practice of writing with other responsibilities. The teacher—because he was that too—conceived of sharing with his flock everything that delighted him as a kind of ministry. He was a patient and hopeful shepherd who endeavored to, and in some cases succeeded in, cultivating generations of Mexicans; my generation’s debt to him is immeasurable. During a time of closed windows and doors, Reyes urged us to embark on every journey. As I recall him, I am reminded of one of his first stories, “The Dinner,” a horror story situated in an everyday setting, in which, at first sight, everything seems normal, anodyne, one might even say a bit saccharine. Between the lines, however, little by little, the reader begins to sense that he is entering an insane, perhaps criminal, world. That “dinner” must have hit the right spot. Years later, I started writing. Only now do I realize that one of the roots of my narrative lies buried in that story. A large part of what I have done since is little more than a mere set of variations on that story.

My apprenticeship has been the result of an immoderate reading of stories and novels, of my efforts as a translator and the study of some books on aspects of the novel written almost always by storytellers, such as E. M. Forster’s classic, or the exhaustively prepared Notebooks of Henry James, or the fragmentary Notebook of Anton Chekhov, as well as a long list of interviews, articles, and essays on the novel by novelists, not to mention, of course, conversations with people from the profession.

These decalogues, an enumeration of instructions for use by aspiring young writers, have proven fascinating to me for the mere fact that they allow me to read the authors’ works again in an unforeseeable light. The precepts that Chekhov wrote to guide his younger brother who was determined to take up the literary profession are a clear explanation of the poetics that the Russian author had forged. They are not the cause but rather the result of a work in which the author outlined and defined his world and his literary specificity. But will we understand Chekhov’s world better because we know those precepts taken from his own professional experience? I think not. In return, the knowledge of the craftsmanship he employed to write his remarkable stories surely intensifies the pleasure of reading them. Knowing those precepts allows us to discover, if not his conceptual world, then surely some secrets of his style, or, rather, the mysteries of his carpentry. Only if we apply as a rule the same precepts to Dostoyevsky, Céline, or Lezama Lima must we disqualify them as storytellers, because both their universe and their methods and purposes are in total opposition to the Russian writer. Indeed, could Horacio Quiroga’s decalogue be applied to the work of Joyce, Borges, or Gadda? I am afraid not. For no reason other than they belong to different literary families. In the end, each author has to create his own poetics, lest he be content to be the succubus or the acolyte of a teacher. Each will establish, or perhaps it would be better to say that he will find, the form that his writing demands, since no narrative is possible without the existence of form. And in this way, the hypothetical creator must be guided by his own instincts.

One learns and unlearns at every turn. The novelist must understand that the only reality he is responsible for is his novel, and therein lies his fundamental responsibility. Everything he has lived, his personal conflicts, social preocupations, his good and bad loves, his readings and, of course, dreams, must come together in it, because the novel is a sponge that will wish to absorb everything. The author will take care to feed and strengthen it, preventing any tendency toward obesity. “A novel is in its broadest definition,” Henry James maintained, “a personal, a direct impression of life.” 

Having quoted this great storyteller, I should admit that I owe some of the crucial lessons about the craft to reading him. I was fortunate enough to translate into Spanish seven of his novels, including one of the most fiendishly difficult to be found in any literature: What Maisie Knew. Translating allows one to enter fully into a work, to know its bones, its structure, its silences. James validated for me a trend that was present in my very first stories: a furtive and sinuous approach to a fringe of mystery that is never entirely clear and that allows the reader to choose the solution he believes most fitting. To achieve this, James adopted a highly effective solution: the removal of the author as an omniscient subject who knows and determines the behavior of his characters and in his place one or, in his most complex novels, multiple “points of view,” through which the character tries to arrive at a meaning of some incident he has witnessed. Through this device, the character constructs himself, in an attempt to decipher the universe around him: the real world undergoes a process of deformation upon being filtered through consciousness. We will never know to what extent that narrator (that “point of view”) dared to confess in the story, nor what portions he decided to omit, nor the reasons that led to one decision or another.

Similarly, even before reading James, my stories were characterized by their representation of an oblique view of reality. In general, there is a hole in them, an ominous void that is almost never covered. At least not entirely. The structure must be very solid so that the vagueness that interests me does not become chaos. The story must be told and retold from different angles and in it each chapter functions to add new elements to the plot and, at the same time, blur and contradict the schema that the previous elements have established. A kind of Penelope’s weave that is continuously done and undone, in which a plot contains the germ of another plot that will in time lead to another, until the moment when the author decides to end his story. It is a literary convention that can be arduous, but is in no way novel. The origin of this literary tradition dates back to One Thousand and One Nights. In the Far East, this resource has been employed frequently and has produced works that we must inevitably call masterpieces: Cao Xuequin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, written in China in the eighteenth century, and the short story “Rashomon,” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, written in early twentieth-century Japan. Its Occidental counterpart is easier to trace. We find it, of course, in the Quixote, in The Canterbury Tales; it reemerges in the Enlightenment, with amazing energy, in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, by Diderot; in Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa; and in that wonder of wonders, Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. In our century, this type of novel, whose composition has always been associated with Chinese boxes or Russian matryoshka dolls, and which today theorists call mise en abyme (placed into abyss), has found a legion of fans. Allow me to cite three remarkable titles: Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, and The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges.

The writing of my first novel, in the late sixties, coincided with a universal attempt to discredit the novel, a hatred of the short story. Expressing even a moderate interest in Dickens, to cite just one example, could be considered a flagrant provocation or a confession of ignorance or provincialism. It was a time of never-ending innovation. Literature, cinema, visual arts, theater, all switched languages with extreme frequency. I was excited about many of these innovations, as was almost every member of my generation. We were convinced that a renovation of form was essential in order to return the novel to the state of health it needed. We applauded the innovations, even the most radical ones; but, in my case, the interest for the new never diminished my passion for plot. Without it, life to me has always seemed diminished. Relating real things and undoing, while at the same time enhancing, their reality has been my calling. Whatever doubt I had vanished when I read Galdós. Even if admitting it in Spain is at times scandalous, he has been my true teacher. In his work, as in that of Goya, I discovered that the quotidian and the delirious, the tragic and the grotesque, do not have to be different sides of a coin, rather they are able to be a single fully integrated entity.

But, to return to the storyteller’s ars poetica: Does a single, valid universal principle exist? Golden rules of compulsory application? Does each period add new norms and proscribe others? And yet I still wonder: Is it not true that what is a source of energy for most writers can also be poison for some of them? Are there cases in which a writer, by violating the canon, succeeds in creating masterpieces? Jan Potocki and Jane Austen are contemporaries, but their works seem to illustrate genres that bear no resemblance to each other.

A basic rule, articulated by Gide: “Never take advantage of momentum already gained.” Does each book, then, have to start from zero? We have been witnesses to the fall of authors who for years were our idols, whose audacity we admired without reservation; we came to think that their prose and their vision not only renewed narrative language but also modified our perception of existence until, paralyzed, suspicious of our own faculties, we began to discover through one of their books that their language left us cold, that we had become insensitive to their subjugation, only to be convinced in the end that the faculties that should be regarded with suspicion were not ours but those of the formerly idolized writer, whose prose was devoured by a vegetative language from which he could not or did not know how to defend himself, whether out of slapdashness, self-indulgence, or exhaustion; a language that, like a golem, had begun to mark the rules of the game, only to go its own way, to confuse the author, to convert him into a mere amanuensis. Félix de Azúa recalled once a conversation with Eduardo Chillida in which the sculptor told him that in his youth he suddenly felt surprised by the ease with which he carried out his work until, frightened by his extraordinary skill, he forced himself to sculpt with his left hand so he could again feel the tension of the material. It seems clear to me that Gide’s warning requires no mechanical change of style, resources, themes, or language. It does not require the writer—in each novel, drama, or poem—to transform himself into someone else. That would be foolish, a masquerade. How do we understand, then, the work of Henry James, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Valle-Inclán, Borges, Saramago, and Gombrowicz, for example, for whom excellence depends on the permanent exacerbation of a personal style? In the end, it is really a matter, I imagine, of preventing language from passing, by sheer inertia, from one book to another and becoming a parody of itself, lulled by the energy of the momentum gained. The only influence that one must defend oneself against is one’s own, declares the master of clarity, Bioy Casares. But there, as in everything that has to do with writing, lies the instinct of the writer who will have the last word.

Another definitive rule: never confuse the act of writing with the art of writing. The act of writing does not tend to intensify life, which is the goal of the art of writing. The act of writing will scarcely allow the word to possess more than a single meaning; in the art of writing, a word is by nature polysemantic: it speaks and is silent, reveals and obscures. The act of writing is reliable and predictable, the art of writing never is; it rejoices in delirium, in darkness, in mystery and in disorder, no matter how transparent it may seem. Marguerite Duras: “Writing comes like the wind, it’s naked, it’s made of ink, it’s the thing written, and it passes like nothing else passes in life, nothing more, except life itself” (trans. Mark Polizzotti).

Writing for me has meant—if I may borrow a phrase from Bakhtin—leaving a personal testimony of the world’s constant mutation.

Xalapa, September 1993

Translated by George Henson 


LALT No. 5
Number 5

LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.

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