The prologue to Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel takes the form of a diary. Some 450-pages long – more than double the length of the eponymous work that serves as the book’s second section – it is one of the great evasive acts of twenty-first century literature. Paralyzed by a recently awarded Guggenheim fellowship, Levrero begins the diary in lieu of the novel he is meant to finish. ‘The aim is to set the writing in motion, no matter what it’s about, and keep it up until I’ve got into the habit’, he explains. For just over a year, the prosaic features of his existence – his PC, to which he’s addicted; detective novels; dreams and interpretations; physical ailments; tango; pigeons; women with whom he enjoys varying levels of intimacy – are subject to the gentle, implacable pressure of sustained attention. For Levrero, the guilt of impasse is a generative literary mode. Distractions glitter with significance, blooming into chapter-length digressions or precipitating existential crises. Banality itself seems to illuminate some great, unspoken risk. Levrero establishes a mysterious periphery among the nodes of light concealed in the mundane, the corporate, the hopeless, and the absurd. Neither autobiography nor autofiction, his magnum opus is a kind of solipsistic anti-literature, an extension of Perecian daring, its prodigiousness enabled by its constraint. It is both a grotesque failure and a masterpiece, a fussy, limpid, gorgeous, grumbling work of love and obsession. It is a novel upon which cults are founded.
Mario Levrero was born in 1940, in Montevideo, Uruguay, and died there in 2004. A heart murmur precluded him from attending high school. He spent his teenage years in bed, reading and listening to the radio. His further education was a matter of autodidacticism and chance. (He is said to have discovered Joyce at a Montevidean tango club.) Despite the irreducible nature of his talent, Levrero has been grouped with ‘los raros’, or the strange ones, a multigenerational cohort of Uruguayan writers including Juan Carlos Onetti, Felisberto Hernández, and Armonía Somers. (Fittingly, he rejected the label.) After a brief stint in the Uruguayan Communist Party – he once ate chorizo poisoned by fascists during a march in support of Cuba – he remained staunchly apolitical in later life. His literary endeavours were unpredictable and haphazard. He described his first novel, The City (1970), as ‘an attempt to translate Kafka into Uruguayan’. He ran a used bookstore in his twenties, wrote comic books, articles, and short stories, edited a crossword magazine, and completed some twenty books. He was resistant to publicity, granting only a few interviews in his lifetime. Despite this reticence, his influence on Latin American literature has been enormous. Alejandro Zambra’s experimental formalism is unthinkable without Levrero, as is the light-footed recursiveness of César Aira. ‘We are all his children’, the Mexican novelist Álvaro Enrique has said.
There is a chaotic variance to his oeuvre, from the cerebral abstraction of his early ‘involuntary trilogy’, to the mid-career noir send-up Nick Carter Enjoys Himself While the Reader Is Murdered and I Expire (1985), to the later autobiographical novels Empty Words (1996) and The Luminous Novel, published posthumously in 2005, and now translated into English for the first time by Annie McDermott. (McDermott has written of Levrero’s self-described influences: ‘Mandrake the Magician, a comic-strip hero who hypnotized his enemies, along with Lewis Carroll, tango music from the 1940s, detective novels, the Beatles, and the early days of Tía Vicenta, a satirical Argentinian current affairs magazine.’) What unites these disparate works is a sensibility in which lightness and profundity are inextricable. Levrero’s unassuming prose style admits the quotidian and the speculative alike. He is both dilettante and savant. Levrero the novelist is also Levrero the physicist, the theologian, the literary critic, and the palm reader. The proper form eludes him. This is what makes his fictions so improvisational and exhilarating.
Levrero practices what Michael Hofmann, in reference to Robert Musil, has called an aesthetic of postponement. The Luminous Novel ritualizes the wastefulness, procrastination, and deferment that underlie the endeavour of fiction. The novel is bound by a curious theory of leisure. ‘Leisure doesn’t have its own substance, it’s not an end in itself’, Levrero writes. ‘It’s nothing: leisure is an attitude of the soul, and it can accompany any kind of activity.’ The Guggenheim (which Levrero won in 2000) affords him a large sum of money that should, in theory, free him to write. But this ostensible freedom is freighted with an expectation that confounds his literary impulse. He spends part of the grant money on two chairs (one for reading in, one for sleeping in), and an air-conditioning unit. He writes guilty letters to ‘Mr. Guggenheim’ apologizing for his laziness. Meanwhile the mysterious nature of The Luminous Novel – that is, the novel he should be writing – lurks somewhere farther within the diary. (For hundreds of pages, we have no idea what it is.) It seems to take shape only when he isn’t trying to write it. ‘I’ve developed a kind of contempt, or lack of respect, for the things you obtain through effort’, he writes.
His writing-toward-leisure is in constant tension with a lifestyle entirely unsuited to literature. Instead of writing the diary (itself a suspension of the novel), he stays up every night exploring what he calls ‘the world of the computer’. In Windows operating systems and the far-flung corners of the young Internet, Levrero discovers a vast, hermetic remove. ‘If I’ve gone over to live in the world of the computer, it’s because there’s almost no other world possible for me’, he writes. ‘Where else could I go, what else could I do?’ He plays endless games of Mine Sweeper and Free Cell, downloads hundreds of illegal programs, tweaks files and registries, defrags his hard drive, collects pornography on ancient storage mediums, and tracks the inexplicable blind spots in Word 2000’s dictionary (‘penis’, ‘brothel’, ‘incipience’). That such a world is incompatible with writing – and with life – seems to be its primary draw. His technologist’s zeal doubles as an avoidance strategy, a way to postpone erotic frustration, personal responsibility, and the vagaries of artmaking.
In a novel lacking the traditional materials to sustain forward motion, Levrero’s hypochondria serves as a propulsive narrative anxiety. His various health problems – high blood pressure, haemorrhoids, poor eyesight, bad posture, insomnia, toothache – are private dramas perfectly suited to cloistered, diaristic appraisal. (The diary has always been the hypochondriac’s preferred literary form: Kafka, Darwin, Boswell, and countless others have been seduced by the charitable tolerance of its intimate world.) The novel of ailments must be funny, lurid, or surreal to outpace the reader’s pity and boredom. Levrero uses his maladies as invitations to countervailing digression. Feelings of agoraphobia bring about tales of excursion. His poor posture urges him toward a disquisition on office chairs. There is a sense that life is teaching him something through these trials. A bizarre, inverted gratitude takes shape among them. (‘The name of wisdom is: arteriosclerosis’, he writes.) The taxonomizing of this pain is itself a kind of contestation. It gives Levrero grounds for dignity. He becomes legible in complaint.
Levrero wrote the novel while in his early sixties. Eros is still present, then, though somewhat neutered. Most of the young women Levrero spends time with are maternal figures, taking him for walks, or bringing him stews and milanesas. The one exception is a woman he calls Chl (which we later learn is short for chica lista, or ‘clever girl’). Their once-intimate relationship has over time become a chaste friendship, though Levrero has never abandoned the hope of its rekindling: ‘She’s still the only female presence that can move me to my very core’, he writes. Her appearances dictate Levrero’s emotional stability throughout the novel. He tends to overburden her with redemptive potential. She is linked indelibly to the larger melancholy of aging. Their relationship constitutes a transition between the ideal of spiritual and sexual congress, and the sordid reality of physical degeneration and failure. Levrero mourns in a horny, humiliated, postlapsarian present. Thus the world of the computer, the detective novels, the endless cataloguing of minutiae: insulation to mute the echo of erotic fascination.
Levrero’s secular mysticism lends the novel an astral quality. The diary itself is a sort of hesitant tarot. Prediction, coincidence and inexplicability reign. He is preternaturally attuned to the weird and the phantasmal. He interprets dreams, both his own and those of others. He sees projections of Chl and other figures wander the halls of his apartment at night. He connects telepathically with a bookseller. These instances are not relayed with any sense of winking irony. Levrero is simply undeterred by the outward appearance of things. He is a hermit in the desert electrifying reality with visions, intuitions, and fantasies. His spiritualism broadens his fictional impulse. Uncanniness establishes its own ordering principles, narrative lanes, and fictive speeds. The novel is one long psychical luge, slick with the residues of fate and consequence.
What follows the diary – that is, The Luminous Novel proper – is an unfinished work, only a few chapters long. Insofar as it’s about anything, it circles a few moments in the narrator’s life when a distinct change in perception was registered. ‘Have you ever been looking at an insect, or a flower, or a tree, and found that for a moment your values, or your sense of what’s important, have completely changed?’ he asks. If this sounds like stoner tosh, well, it is. But one goes along with it – indeed, is even moved by it – because Levrero has by now established the purity of his vision. He is the innocent of reality, shepherd of an interior pastoral. He has earned his wonder and his occasional triteness. The pain of perception – ‘an act of surrender’, he calls it – is never less than apparent. It is the pain of ephemerality, and of the writer’s necessary incapacity. ‘The luminous events, once written down, cease to be luminous; they disappoint, they sound trivial’, he writes. But the depletion of the luminous is the very stuff of literature. Even the most distinguished novels are artefacts of deficiency, misapprehension, compromise. Levrero’s gift is to articulate this inevitability in an interesting and sympathetic way.
The seeming pointlessness of the novel, its lack of a discernible narrative mechanism, is not a failing, then, but rather its very reason for being. The novel is:
a pointless task, and that’s exactly why I need to do it. I’m sick of going after things that have points; for too long now I’ve been cut off from my own spirituality, hemmed in by the demands of this world, and only pointless things, only indifferent things, can give me the freedom I need in order to get back in touch with what I honestly believe is the essence of life, its ultimate meaning, its first and last reason for being.
This freedom from form is the quintessential Levrerian pursuit. Form itself is often the unstated antagonist of his works. It seems to raise the spectre of completion or certainty, states incompatible with his vision for the novel. Only by eluding literature does he discover its possibility. This negative approach has been practiced to great effect – in the works of Fernando Pessoa, say, or Jacques Roubaud – though only Levrero is so uniquely and majestically unliterary. His late fictions are taxonomies of distraction, intimate networks of absurdity, beguilement, and (strangely, incredibly) latent romance. When subjected to such scrutiny, even DOS programs and dead pigeons emit ambiguity like a vapor. That it barely hangs together hardly matters. ‘This book, taken as a whole, is a display or even a museum of unfinished stories’, he admits in the epilogue. But to be unfinished is not to be excluded from a kind of wholeness. Levrero’s impossible project is a novel despite itself – and a luminous one at that.
Read on: Eduardo Galeano, ‘The Noose’, NLR 17.