Victoria de Stefano: “I always leaned more towards authenticity”: A Conversation with Carmen de Eusebio

Venezuelan writer Victoria de Stefano. Photo: Martha Viaña.

Carmen de Eusebio: Victoria, you were born in Italy, at the age of 6 you moved to Venezuela and during long periods of time you had to live in many other countries and cities: Havana, Paris, Barcelona, Algiers, Chile. You know firsthand what exile and wandering mean. Could you tell us what those circumstances have represented for you and in your work?

Victoria de Stefano: I maintain very vividly the memory of the first trip a little more than a year after the war ended, passing from Rome, where I was living with my parents and my four siblings, to Naples, where my grandmother, my great grandmother and my aunt resided facing Mt. Vesuvius with its impressing smoking crater, to take the American Navy warship, precariously equipped for passengers, that would carry us to New York. After a week spent in New York, we flew to the airport of Maiquetía, our final destination, with a layover in Miami. That long trip by sea and by airplane I remember as an event loaded with the most varied and contradictory feelings, anxiety, dread, fear of the unknown, the airplane, the sea, the shipwrecks, but as the little girl that I was what most excited me was the idea of initiating myself in the great adventure of passage through the Atlantic to a new continent and a new life. On the other hand, I wasn’t indifferent to the pain of separation from their own that I perceived in my parents, especially in Papa upon seeing a tear fall when he said good-bye to his mother and his grandmother, whom he adored, without knowing if he would see them again. But the experience of the journey as adventure, that was always present in  me, I later transferred to the readings and fantasies that arose in the novels of Jules Verne, Emilio Salgari, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kipling: the fervor for reading perhaps began motivated by the journey, as a way to give it form and make sense of the break from the culture of the country torn apart by the war that it came from, and in some way to prepare the way for the encounter with the new. Precisely I read passionately The Mighty Orinoco, because my Papa used to tell us about the rivers, the jungles, the animals of the novel that he had read shortly before we traveled. Later that fundamental taste, basic, for the journey through the tropical jungle persisted with Doña Bárbara: A Novel, The Vortex and Deep Rivers by Arguedas. And when I was older I talked with my Friends that had supposedly had “normal” childhoods (lastly, “normal” childhoods are more infrequent), it seemed to me that I had double the experiences as them, that I had lived much more than them, but obviously, that immodest presumption I kept to myself. I tried to live the other exiles with the same brave attitude, I was still rather young, we know of the strength and vigor of youth, nevertheless, they were hard, with two young children, not poverty, but scarce resources, little help, solitude. I endured them by reading a lot, walking through the park hand in hand with my children, trying to write in the evenings, reading in French while they were sleeping, I got to reading it without the slightest difficulty, although the pronunciation was difficult for me. In that time, I read In Search of Lost Time and almost all The Human Comedy, I even read Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the kiosks in the metro and in the train stations were full of marvelous books at a very low cost. In the diary there are many references to that period in Paris. While I was writing it, the memories, emotional memories of friends and circumstances from that period bombarded me constantly. Paris was not a party, but it was a Discovery, especially of museums, of painting, that fascinated me, of parks, forests.

CdE: Venezuela is the country where you live, from where you feel, and where you have lived many difficult moments. What do you think about the current situation?

VdS: Exiles have always existed; the world has been and is less stable than what one still in that period believed. I would like to remember that in those years we still carried the conviction, Hegelian dialectic, to call it something, but it reality, common to almost all thought in the 19th century and part of the 20th, that the absolute spirit, the history, the scientific discoveries, in the last instance, the civilization achieved, went hand in hand with progress and the future. Nevertheless, if we think about the first five, six decades of the past century, as a small measure, with two world wars, genocides, extermination camps, gulags, bloodbaths, purges, famines, upheavals, confinements, expatriations of entire peoples the Great Jump Forward, the cultural revolution, the atomic weapons we didn’t have a way to justify such optimism.

I include myself among them that at the beginning didn’t believe we could get all the way to this disaster, we saw it, we felt it advance, it affected us profoundly, and even so it seemed impossible to us, but we didn’t take long to be contradicted by reality. Forty years of democracy, we said to ourselves, so, like that, wiped out, as if a fiction could be eliminated with a snap of the fingers… it couldn’t be true. The older adults had more conscience, I’m thinking about those that came from the Gómez dictatorship, although they were very young, or that simply had suffered it through the persecutions, the exiles, the imprisonments, the torture of relatives and acquaintances. The history of the country, the old and renewed sorrows that they carried on their shoulders obligated them to be less gullible. Once that story finished, son they faced the dictatorship of General Pérez Jiménez. And at the end of the nineties appeared the fundamentalists and our usual suspects…

CdE: When someone talks to us about the writing of a diary we immediately speculate about the motives that they have to write them, and we hope to find in them the attitude of the author about life. In the reading of your Diarios (1988-1989) [Diaries] La insubordinación de los márgenes [The insubordination of the margins], the authenticity is the first thing that traps us. What difference exists between authenticity and sincerity?

VdS: The diaries I wrote, as I explained in the prologue, to not lose the habit and the desire to write, finally, I liked to write, although it was for a few hours each day while I was going through some exhausting circumstances at work and in some way the emptiness that finalizing a novel had produced in me, a novel that was very difficult to publish and that I had already lost hope that I would be able to achieve. But as I kept writing I felt that the writing of the diary proposed for me, on the one hand, a style a more certain syntax, a sharper timbre, an air, the vibration of a tune, to say it musically, more personal, at the time that a greater challenge in the comprehension of what surrounded me, and I observed privately and silently. Also, the diary-writing was turning out to be enriching in reference to the loose notes here and there about intense reading, if well disciplined, demanded by the preparation of aesthetics classes and about theories and dramatic structures. I read almost all the philosophers and thinkers of the Enlightenment, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, D`Alembert, the brothers Grimm, also Germans, of course, Goethe, Schiller, especially on the topic of the aesthetic. I read a lot of drama, that on the contrary perhaps I would not have read with such dedication Shakespeare, Moliére, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Ionesco, Beckett, from whom I learned so much of the craft (more than what I could have imagined at the beginning). Soon I understood that the diary was a path of opening, an awakening of my interest for what was occurring outside of my immediate surroundings, of the country and in other places of the world. For me, seeing it in retrospect, it marked a change in the extent that it drove me to a much wider formal freedom and verbal intonation that I had not known nor enjoyed in the writing of my previous novels. In particular it took me to El lugar del Escritor [The place of the writer], a Historias de la marcha a pie [Stories of the march on foot], Lluvia [Rain] and so on in succession. I felt that with the writing of the diary I was liberating myself of a kind of straightjacket, I was liberating myself of many restrictions and insecurities.

In the diaries, as much as in my novels, I always leaned more towards authenticity than towards sincerity. I don’t believe my diary was confessional, a few fits of sincerity are revealed here and there, but no more. But everything that I write I make sure is genuine, in the sense of something lived. I believe that the excess of sincerity is fought with the empathy and the compassion we should embrace in order to understand our fellowman.

CdE: In the writing of the Diarios, apparently, it doesn’t seem that the author is conditioned by the reading public. Was that so?

VdS: I have never written anything based on the reader. None of my books, I believe not even the essays, has been conditioned by the reading public. Since I began to write, I did that, intuitively, not deliberately, based on myself as a writer and reader, not based on my empirical or psychological self, I believe that is what we could define as authenticity. But if I didn’t write based on the reader, if I found and I assumed that freedom so difficult to achieve, it wasn’t by virtue, but for the simple reason that to publish in those years of youth and even in those years of maturity was almost a miracle and also even if I was publishing I had very few readers. Only a few friends that had faith in me, counted on the fingers of my hands. The faith of my friends was able to move mountains. I believe that’s even why the will, the determination, the desire, whatever you want to call it, rarely abandoned me. In that I was fortunate. Never did something pass through my head even remotely similar to the worldly satisfaction of success. I could fantasize about writing what in the old days they called a great book, a great novel, a fresco, a saga, but not about anything like Rilke in the extraordinary, in the incomparable prose (“prose is the idea of poetry”, Walter Benjamin) of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which not even in dreams did I aspire to approach, I used to designate melancholically…the fame, that public demolition. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge I read it so many times in the refined and elegant and in my opinion unbeatable translation by Francisco Ayala from Alianza Tres, that of the book only pieces remained. The same thing happened with Nightwood by Djuna Barnes in the edition from Monte Ávila.

CdE: Another of the features of the Diarios is the admirable energy and determination with which it was carried out, in spite of the adverse circumstances in which you found yourself. What were you looking for with this writing?

VdS: I believe that in some way I already responded to this. Writers are more than going out to search jump into the encounter of whatever comes their way. We writers without a doubt compose, but we don’t plan, nor do we rationalize too much, at least not in the beginnings of the process of formation. Readings, age, intersubjective relationships, experiences, go imposing changes in us, sometimes profound, even radical, in our vision of the world and, obviously, new paths through which to venture, being as we are inevitably historical beings, social eminently mutable, but as for individuals if we are going towards something it is the inescapable conquest of our own voice. And the diaries, in this sense, are a privileged genre. In addition to the privileged, tempting due to the margin of autonomy that they possess and due to the possibility to have room for, together with the things of the present, to those of the past, is intrinsically memoristic aspect is not one of its lesser virtues. To write helps to remember, to write helps to think, to think helps to clarify. Finally, to read and to write, that always go together, are a great school of learning.     

CdE: La Insubordinación de los márgenes comprises a short period from 1988 to 1989, and edited represent 99 pages. Do more written pages of the book exist? Pardon my ignorance, but I haven’t found any publication that continues it, and in the case that it doesn’t exist, why did you not continue your writing? Does it have something to do with the tradition of the diary in Latin America being less important than in Europe?

VdS: The diary has many more pages, but it only covers those years. I hadn’t planned to publish it, it was simply about an exercise of writing. About seven or eight years ago I was invited to take part in an ambitious editorial project, four diaries of by an author that should not surpass one hundred pages, the project that was advanced could not be realized, the crisis, the costs of printing. This year the publishing house El estilete (The Stiletto) proposed to publish it. I had not written it on the computer and to transcribe more than the 97 pages a good part of the 50, 60 or maybe 70 remaining sheets was not in my intentions. At the beginning I had my doubts, I asked myself if it hadn’t aged a lot, I consulted three friends, that knew the diary, and they insisted that I publish it.

Without a doubt the tradition of the diary is less important in Latin America than in Europe, our great diary writer, authentic and sincere with an open heart, was Rufino Blanco Fombona, who spent a great part of his life in Europe, especially Spain. Also Alejandro Oliveros spent years writing, but his are especially literary diaries in the broader sense of the word. He is a poet and a reader of very vast interests, not only of literature, also of painting. Recently Rafael Castillo Zapata has written so many that I almost lose count, although I have read practically all of them, and once in awhile I open them again randomly and I entertain myself reading them. They are some particularly intelligent diaries, diaries of journeys, treaties, a genre that goes beyond everyday life, because also Rafael Castillo is a poet and in some way also a thinker, that is felt in the aftertaste and the pleasure of language, in the aftertaste and the pleasure of reflection, in the aftertaste and the pleasure of teaching and verbalizing. They are a genre in and of themselves.

CdE: In some moment of the diary you tell us, it is not textual, that it did you good to reread the pages that you had written because you could see the line of feelings that went in the same direction, the homogeneity in the style, the themes, etc. From this confession on deduces your commitment to literature. Isn’t that so?

VdS: Yes, my commitment to literature comes from much further back, but it is there from the first to the last page, day by day. When I finished reading the diary in its final stages, I thought that I had read it as if it dealt with the diary of another person, another writer and that pleased me. I could see the line of feelings that went in the same direction, the homogeneity in the style, the themes. I could see in that writer, in that I recognized myself without identifying myself, the lines of my life.

CdE: Your formation is philosophical, and your books have a reflective tone not only philosophical but also subjective reflections. What does that charge contribute to the characters?

VdS: Yes, my formation is philosophical, but literature has always been my vocation. So much so that the philosophers that I have read most were always masters of prose. In the first place, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Franz Overbeck, the theologist friend from Nietzsche’s youth, Schopenhauer, the great French essayists Paul Valéry, Albert Camus, Deleuze, Barthes, among the Germans Benjamin, Adorno, even Kant when he was a student seemed to me quite arid and terse. Those who teach have the obligation to study, I like to write, but also to study. I didn’t have what they call “a philosophical mind”, but if I had a temperament given to pondering and to thought, I believe that that was there and it was good that I didn’t push it aside, that I kept cultivating it.

CdE: You are the author of some books of essays, but especially you have written novels and some short stories. Is that reflective tone of your books an obstacle?

VdS: For me it is not, for some readers it might be, or has been in some moment. But for the younger readers it doesn’t seem to be. Many decades ago the short story and novels were closed off as canonical genres, with specific rules, plots, actions, types of characters, that shouldn’t and were not able to be transgressed. But writers are transgressors by nature. Nowadays, after so many works (novels?) that broke the greater part of the conventions in which the traditional narrative is sustained, like, for example, The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil, Malone Dies or The Unnamable, by Beckett, the works by Thomas Bernhard, the prose by Sebald, the takes by Kafka, I don’t believe that that reflexive intonation can be considered an obstacle.

CdE: That examining yourself and the attention that it pays to the everyday, has it paved the way for the themes that are dealt with in your books to be ones that encompass the human condition?

VdS: More than examining myself, I believe that I inquire about relationships with others based on my inner self. I hope to separately preserve interiority from exteriority, art and life.

CdE: To think, to bear witness and to imagine, those are, in synthesis, the pivots that sustain your work and in some way seem to transcend in your narrative. How does the tension live among the genres?

VdS: From a very early age I lived them, but I also quickly began to avoid the tensions and not the genres. That avoidance was arduous work, but few times did I stray from the “philosophical” vein of my novels, that I could express myself in a way organically with more freedom on a formal level, it helped me to explore other methods, to introduce stories, to string them together, to tangle them up, to diverge them and most importantly to intercept them, as I did, especially, in Historias de la marcha a pie and later in Paleografías [Paleographies]. Not even in the seventies and eighties when the departmentalization of genres was very imperative did I separate from my path. Later reading my friends writes, poets, essayists of a somewhat older generation, I realized that they marked their own way and they galloped straight ahead without hesitating, that they weren’t afraid to write what they desired and needed to write. From them I learned not to contradict what belonged to me by nature.

Interview published with permission of Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos

Translated by Christina Miller

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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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