The Outside which Forces its Way In, or the Writing of Victoria de Stefano
More than half a century ago, in 1962, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the prestigious Seix Barral prize, in Barcelona, Spain, for his novel The Time of the Hero. This event has been agreed upon as the start of the so-called "Boom" of Latin American literature, more out of the need to identify a point of origin in cultural processes than for being a verifiable point of beginning. Many think that from this moment on the literature from this side of the planet reached universal status for the first time, becoming visible and accessible to readers around the world and in multiple languages. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then, however, and for a while now, other and more diverse visions, concerns and circumstances have guided the course of Latin American literature into the twenty-first century. Among the legacies of the so-called "Boom" we must include that ability to build up imaginary, mythical-literary spaces, strongly anchored to everyday and ancestral Latin American cultural and life practices, the representation and questioning of which is synonymous with many of the narrative projects that formed part of this literary and editorial phenomenon. There we find and will always find those settlements full of unusual histories and family sagas, called Macondo, Comala or Santa Maria, born of the pen and the imagination of García Márquez, Rulfo or Onetti.
In Venezuela we can think of other cases, in which writers, staying loyal to existing toponyms, have bestowed a different existential status upon remote or forgotten villages, such as Ortiz or Altagracia for example, whose entrance into the national consciousness was thanks to the persuasive power of the works of Miguel Otero Silva or Salvador Garmendia. Or an even more emblematic case, perhaps unparalleled in Venezuela literature, that of Canoabo, thanks to the poetry of Vincente Gerbasi, a poet whose relationship with Victoria de Stefano comes not only from the fact that both are children of Italian immigrants who crossed the ocean between Italy and Venezuela with their families to acquire this country's nationality and language, but above all from a shared conception of the literary, which de Stefano observed in Gerbasi – and we observe in her – characterised by "the unifying force of subjectivity”. This condition, moreover, in de Stefano’s case, is unique, as it does not represent any kind of separation between the objective account, the erudite inventory, the cumulative unravelling of the observable elements of a reality which, although it may seem to only be described, certainly grows in memory as a fact absorbed by an attentive subjectivity. And it is from there, from that inalienable intimacy, that de Stefano counters all those aforementioned places that prevailed in the epic of the “Boom”, of which she did not form part and surely did not share many of the symptoms, a different place, her own yet shared, from which they are all born, or rather, a place whose name does not respond to the geographical, historical or imaginative loyalty to which an author is restricted, as indebted to and participant in a determined culture. Her work is born, takes up a position, takes form, endures and recovers that unique space that lends its name to one of her novels, as a defining symbol of her literary intent, “the place of the writer”. If there is one phrase that suffices to capture and order de Stefano's already vast oeuvre (eight novels, three collections of essays and a diary, between 1970 and today), not paying attention to chronologies but rather to the preponderance of certain hallmarks within the literary system established by the relations between the books that make up this oeuvre, it would undoubtedly be this. From this, her permanent place, the place of the writer and of writing, for more than half a century, this Venezuelan novelist and essayist, born in Rimini, Italy in 1940, has done nothing but reiterate rigorously and soundly her passion for exploring the expressive possibilities of that language that her parents gave her by planting her in our soil, to create an exceptional body of work, unique and unusual in Venezuela, singular and well-loved among Spanish language writing.
In a well-known collection of aphorisms, Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope and the True Way, Franz Kafka – an author quoted frequently by characters in Victoria de Stefano's novels and evidently admired by the author – says the following: "There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you". This imperative affirmation could well serve as the epigraph to the complete works of Victoria de Stefano. There are numerous passages in many of her novels in which a character highlights the necessity and importance of this space in the psyche and spirit of the writer. This space, this small room from which to live and remember one’s own existence and that of others, from which to summon the world, to make plural the most deeply rooted intimacy. "A room is the world, the world fits in a room, it fits a room, it fits us. Do you hear how the doors creak when they close? The shadows grow, swell, as if with the best yeast. It is the world about to enter. The room is filling to the brim, a brim, moreover, which it is lacking. It is full; full of me, full of the world, teeming like a hive. Alive, swarming". Everything that happens in literature happens there, as it is none other than the place of the ritual where the blank page ceases to be a space to fill, through effort, insistence and determination. That is why she says: “A line, another line, line after line, and with these lines, almost without my realising, a page will come together, another page, the next page, and in this way lines will be pages, and pages and pages will add up to books: a beautiful future as a second life which is a continuation of this one. Patience and dedication, an unbeatable rule for life. For want of skill, patience and persistence, ever more refined qualities of discipline and hard work. Patience and tenacity, the patience of a saint, the tenacity of a criminal: the utmost capacity for resistance”. It is not, therefore, a space in which one lives passively, free from needs, nor a version of a possible Paradise, like the library imagined by Borges or Gerbasi’s homeland, about which he affirmed in a verse: “The natives of Paradise/Are from Canoabo”. It is more the space of the inevitable and perpetual search, where, together with the awareness of failure, dwells the certainty of impossible perfection. A place where the task of the writer becomes, if not the punishment of Tantalus, at least a voluntary prison sentence. As one of her characters affirms, “Editing is not, as some believe, a job of cleaning up, crossing out here, adding there, a full stop here, a comma there, editing is a constant and demented reformation, it is turning everything on its head when you thought that it could all stand on its feet. Again, once again from the beginning, and so many more times from beginning to end. With such zeal, graves are dug, one’s own grave. With such zeal, whole estates are thrown out of the window. Again, once again from beginning to end. They are the tricks of the trade, aren’t they? You get there very late, at great cost, and when you are almost there, almost at the Promised Land, it loses all fascination. Was it this, just this, only this, this infinite wasteland with no beginning or end?”
In this incessant task there is no difference between the writer who plants herself in this space and any kind of artist. We must first clarify that for de Stefano the writer is none other than a celebrant of the word, an artist who builds worlds with them and from them. In building these worlds, she tries to penetrate the passageways of her own consciousness, united with the reader, both bearers of the same human condition. A list of all the references to philosophers, thinkers, scientists, poets, novelists, essayists, painters, sculptors, musicians and artists in general who populate the pages of her oeuvre would be unending. They all form part of that place (let’s call it the place of creation) as they are complicit in the same plot.
Thomas Berhard, the Austrian author who is surely of the same narrative stock as Victoria de Stefano, attributes to one of the characters of his novel Wittgenstein’s Nephew the so-called counting disease. He describes it thus: “For whole weeks and months I have a compulsion, whenever I take a streetcar into the city, to look out of the windows and count the spaces between the windows of the buildings along the route, or the windows themselves, or the doors, or the spaces between the doors; the faster the streetcar travels, the faster I have to count, and I feel I have to go on counting until I am almost demented”. It seems to me that, in de Stefano’s writing, this streetcar is none other than memory, capable of crossing immense distances rapidly in search of the unforgotten, of those memories which are by necessity also inventions. For that reason, exhaustive description and an infinite network of relations, quotations, objects, situations, reflections and digressions take form in this narrative space, giving a complete feeling of pause and density, far removed from the traditional inertia of the novels of intrigues, surprises and adventures. We could perhaps talk of a narrative of quietness, which goes looking for thresholds, for the breaking points or turning points from which the creative memory sparks off to entwine stories that ride, one atop the other, traversing the stock of memories until they are exhausted. Or perhaps, to use the words of one of the characters of La noche llama a la noche [The Night Calls the Night], referring to the novels of Marcel Proust, a writer with whom de Stefano undoubtedly feels a special affinity, it is a case of works whose “success comes from how the book ends when the novel begins or, to put it another way, never finishes beginning, never, ever”. Or in other words, recalling Cortázar, they are novels in which you neither win nor lose, neither through points nor a knockout, as the fight falls apart or gets postponed in the very act of noticing it. Like a condor, the narrator of this novel lingers in the sky and glides above himself, circling, again and again, observing unhurriedly the mountainous features, the grains of memory. And he does this not with a language which seeks to cover up, or to decenter the verbal sign – there is nothing further from Victoria de Stefano’s aesthetic intentions than the Baroque, superfluous adornment or metaphorical gymnastics. More than decentering, the primary task of the mechanism that this narrative corpus puts into practice is that of unravelling. The scene offered to us is one of an incessant search, a desire for knowledge and a repeated questioning from within the depths of the consciousness, always watched over by the certainty of uncertainty, that “superlative consciousness which conceives itself”, as the writer in La noche en llamas would say, recalling Proust. There every exhaustive account, every multiplication of stories, revolves around the same questions, radiating from a common center of exploration: human existence and the indecipherable plot in which this takes place.
Among the motifs which we can identify as liminal, as boundaries, turning points or breaking points, from which this narrative mechanism fed by memory sparks off in multiple directions (as the author of Lluvia [Rain] notes in her diary on 18th June: “That which we believe forgotten and which bursts in suddenly always seems more real”), are: failure and loss of faith in the historical, political or social order; old age or the imminence of death; depression; accidents; natural disasters; suicide; family relations; the figures of the mother and the father; motherhood and the writerly labor; the desire for solitude; and of course, writing itself and the perception of the meaninglessness of life before the passing of time and the incomplete work.
Now, if we want to see the counterpoint to this space, this “place of the writer” where the narrative task implicated in this oeuvre begins, if we want to identify an element that could symbolise the vicissitudes of the exterior world previously observed, recorded or imagined by the writer from the safety of her room, that could be represented by the rain. Not for nothing is it the name given to one of her most highly regarded novels. It is also pertinent to observe that it is an element present in almost all, if not all, of them. An element which speaks to us in whispers or in shouts to give us the news of what is happening on the other side, in that outside which forces its way in, which becomes interior and grows denser through writing. Let’s take a passage from Swann’s Way to express this same sensation and that masterful descriptive attention to detail which we find in so many of Victoria de Stefano’s pages and which, as the narrator of Lluvia says, “are nothing more or less than the self making itself known in everything”. This is how Marcel expresses it in In Search of Lost Time: “A little tap at the window, as if something had struck it, followed by a plentiful falling sound, as light as if a shower of sand were being dropped from a window overhead; then the fall spreading, taking on an order, a rhythm, becoming liquid, loud, musical, innumerable, universal: it was the rain”. At the start of de Stefano’s novel, we find this phrase: “In the silence she heard a soft, melancholy crackle. Was it the leaves in the trees or drops of the rain returning?” In both cases, what happens outside is suspected and understood through hearing. The writer describes and imagines what she hears as if she could see it. Her writing follows the rhythm of what she cannot see but imagines, to give breath to an expansive atmosphere where the external and the internal condense via a language that begins to drip onto the page. And on this level, there is no longer any difference between the novelist who approaches writing conscious of the sonorous possibilities of language, its rhythmical and melodic nuances, its euphony and capacity for suggestion, and the poet. It is no coincidence that one of the most playful, penetrating and rigorous studies of the work of Baudelaire ever written is by de Stefano (Poesia y Modernidad, Baudelaire [Poetry and Modernity, Baudelaire], Caracas: FEHE-UCV, 1984/USB-Equinoccio, 2006). Her vocation as a novelist and essayist does not set her apart from the linguistic concerns she shares with the poet. Her case is not that of Faulkner – a writer who, of course, had a decisive influence on the Latin American Boom generation, inventor of that other mythical literary place called Yoknapatawpha and, along with Joyce, Proust and Kafka, one of the most prodigious prose writers of the twenty-first century – who surely disillusioned and perhaps with some irony, some time after the publication in 1924 of his only book of poetry, would affirm: “I wanted to be a poet, maybe I think of myself as a poet, and I failed at that, I couldn’t write poetry so I did the next best thing”. The novelist character of La noche llama a la noche tells us: “Each novelist only makes being one more difficult. The artisanal part gets complicated. The great works take these difficulties to the limit, the minor ones cloud and bind this limit in proof of “style” and technical refinement. I will have to fight against so many doubts to persist! To win, also to win! An interval to read No impidaís la música [Don’t Stop the Music] by Paul Claudel. Extraordinarily beautiful and virulent writing. The magical prose of poets”. But what is the difference between the prose of this novelist-character (another alter ego of de Stefano) and that of the poet he admires, when he writes: “It is a wonder what can be done with words. Even though they are limited in number, and even more limited the number of them each one of us can count on. We almost always use the same words, our own, those of our discord and our desires, those we have engraved in our memories like carvings in the bark of tree. Every word is a confession and houses a secret”. To then add: “There is within me a marked preference for the internal, quiet melody, for languid writing (…) It is a wonder that words and gestures are signs of man’s penury; it is a wonder that man has made with his intelligence a fertile constellation of meanings. It is a wonder that so many delays, so much skilful duplicity, make up the fragile and subtle thread of our servitude. It is a wonder that we have managed to intercept a ray of sunlight, which bounces off of us towards the world. And it is this glory that has covered us in medals. This glory and these wounds”.
This dazzling, rhythmic and piercing language with which Victoria de Stefano appeals to us as readers, page after page, is not halted by differences of genre. It is writing that surpasses any possible precept, fully aware of the threat of the obstacles that try to mark the characteristics of each genre. In this way, the reflection that takes place in her essays – referring to themes like “the place of the writer” in modern society, the artistic and vital compromise inherent in the writing profession, the biographical dimension of the creative text, the narrative space as a discursive amplification of the poetic sphere, the necessary solitude of the artist, the pleasure and existential enrichment bestowed by reading, or the migrant experience and travel – is also at work in her novels.
In short, we can affirm that Victoria de Stefano’s entire oeuvre is one that, without abiding by preconceived ideas or market prerogatives, goes to the rescue of the bravery of those works like Don Quixote and Ulysses which – as she highlights in her essay ‘De lo imperfecto del arte’ [On the Imperfection of Art] – remain “disobedient and impure”, not allowing themselves to be restricted by rigid moulds. From there the freedom that allows them to keep accounting for that which lies “behind every writer”, that “weak, overturned I”, loyal to itself, through which we can perceive “a philosophy, a moral position, a world view”.
Translated by Katie Brown
Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza is a poet, essayist, and university professor. He serves as the Associate Editor and Book Reviews Editor of Latin American Literature Today.
He has published the following verse collections: Al margen de las hojas (Caracas: Monte Ávila, 1991), De espaldas al río (Caracas: El pez soluble, 1999), Principios de Contabilidad (Mexico: Conaculta, 2000), Pasado en Limpio (Caracas: Equinoccio, bid&co, 2006), and Cuidados intensivos (Caracas: Lugar Común, 2014). His books of essays, literary research, and anthologies include: Lecturas desplazadas: Encuentros hispanoamericanos con Cervantes y Góngora(Caracas: Equinoccio, 2009), Itinerarios de la ciudad en la poesía venezolana: una metáfora del cambio (Caracas: Fundación para la Cultura Urbana, 2010), Las palabras necesarias. Muestra antológica de poesía venezolana del siglo XX(Santiago de Chile: LOM, 2010), and Formas en fuga. Antología poética de Juan Calzadilla(Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 2011).
Among other prizes, he has won: the Mariano Picón Salas prize for poetry (Venezuela) in 1995, the Premio Hispanoamericano de Poesía Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Mexico), in 1999, and the Premio Transgenérico de la Fundación para la Cultura Urbana (Venezuela) in 2009. He is a retired senior professor at the Universidad Simón Bolívar (Venezuela), and he currently works as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Katie Brown is a Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Exeter. She completed a PhD on "The Contested Values of Literature in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" at King’s College London. With Tim Girven and Montague Kobbe, she co-edited the anthology Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela (Ragpicker Press, 2016), for which she translated stories by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, Héctor Concari, Liliana Lara, Carolina Lozada, Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez and Slavko Zupcic.
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.