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It’s still not rightAdam Thirlwell
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Vol. 42 No. 6 · 19 March 2020

It’s still not right

Adam Thirlwell

2638 words
Empty Words 
by Mario Levrero, translated by Annie McDermott.
And Other Stories, 152 pp., £8.99, May 2019, 978 1 911508 50 2
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In​ Mario Levrero’s novel Empty Words a writer, unable to change the vast mess of his life, decides to improve one small part of it: his handwriting.

My graphological self-therapy begins today. This method (suggested a while ago by a crazy friend) stems from the notion – which is central to graphology – that there’s a profound connection between a person’s handwriting and his or her character, and from the behaviourist tenet that changes in behaviour can lead to changes on a psychological level. The idea, then, is that by changing the behaviour observed in a person’s handwriting, it may be possible to change other things about that person.

This is the first of a series of ‘exercises’, small practice compositions – self-referential and encouraging, like this: ‘Now I’m trying to do three things: (1) keep the letters to a suitable size; (2) get back to real handwriting, without printed letters creeping in all the time; and (3) not lift my pen – that is, only dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s once I’ve finished writing the whole word.’ Each exercise is dated, beginning in September 1990 and ending a year later.

First published in Uruguay in 1996, Empty Words must have seemed a predictably unpredictable addition to Levrero’s obras completas. Jorge Mario Varlotta Levrero – Jorge Valotta in his everyday life, and Mario Levrero in his writing – was born in Montevideo in 1940 and died there in 2004. He began his career with what he later called an ‘involuntary trilogy’ of novels: The City, Paris and The Place, published between 1970 and 1982, which gave him a reputation as a careful stylist. He wrote articles and columns, set crosswords, made comic books, taught writing workshops and ran a secondhand bookshop – as well as producing around twenty novels, ranging from the abstraction of his involuntary trilogy to the detective parody Nick Carter Enjoys Himself While the Reader Is Murdered and I Expire (1975). What unites these books is a particular sensibility, a prose that’s both comical and grave – like the way in Empty Words the writer says he wants ‘to be very patient and concentrate hard, trying as much as possible to draw the letters one by one and giving no thought to the meanings of the words they’re forming – an operation which is almost the complete opposite of literature’. At least two comic riffs overlap here. There’s the allusion to an idée fixe in modernist literature, from Flaubert’s wish to write a book about nothing to the Surrealists’ experiments in automatic writing, or Isidore Isou’s lettrisme, now expressed in this deadpan, sincere and impossible desire to turn writing into handwriting. And then there’s the even more basic joke that runs through the novel: all these exercises to improve the narrator’s handwriting exist only in the medium of print.

Like any form of attempted self-improvement, the exercises are prone to self- sabotage: ‘I know full well that every step I take towards self-affirmation on the inside is harshly punished on the outside.’ And it’s these miniature acts of sabotage, the reader gradually realises, that form the detail and the exuberant pleasure of this novel. They can be roughly split into two. The first kind of sabotage is the interruption forced on the narrator by everyday life. ‘Until now, I’ve almost always lived alone and interruption-free,’ he writes. ‘These days I live with a woman, a child, a dog and a cat (and a maid, who comes every morning from Monday to Saturday).’ His mother has a stroke; the maid quits; his wife decides they should buy a new house. But the second, deeper threat is internal. He wants to write only about the process of handwriting, instead of paying attention to the meanings of the words he’s writing, but this is impossible because it’s so boring. ‘If I want my handwriting to be good, I can only write about my handwriting, which becomes very monotonous. But writing only about my handwriting keeps my mind on what I’m doing and means I form the letters properly.’ Distractions and digressions kidnap his attention; worse, it proves impossible to stop a haze of style or allegory or even content forming in the apparently empty sentences. Sadly, it seems, ‘you can’t write for the sake of writing, or think for the sake of thinking, without meaning being involved.’

Superimposed on the calligraphic exercises is another text, the narrator gradually realises, something free and surging and delinquent. And so, on 25 November 1990, he decides to divide them, to try to write two separate texts: the exercises, and their shadow text, ‘The Empty Discourse’.

I’ve never found emptiness particularly frightening; sometimes it’s even been a place of refuge. What I find frightening is not being able to escape this rhythm, this form that flows onward without revealing its contents. That’s why I’ve decided to write this, beginning with the form, with the flow itself, and introducing the problem of emptiness as its subject matter. I hope that this way I’ll gradually discover the real subject matter, which for now is disguised as emptiness.

The trick, he thinks, will be to find the true subject of this discourse by indirect means, by ‘filling it up with trivial things that have nothing to do with the matter at hand’. And so the novel continues, alternating the exercises with sections from ‘The Empty Discourse’ – the ‘free narrative act’ that is the novel’s hidden aim.

This elegant translation by Annie McDermott is the first English version of Levrero’s work. Even in Spanish, he has a reputation as one of the raros – a writer at once celebrated and occluded. I first heard of him from Alejandro Zambra, the Chilean novelist, who especially admires Levrero’s final work and masterpiece, La Novela luminosa, published posthumously in 2005. That novel is a collection of materials relating to Levrero’s failed attempt to write a novel after having been given a Guggenheim grant to complete it – the majority of its five hundred pages is made up of the diary the depressed Levrero kept after being given the money. In his essay collection Not to Read, Zambra discusses this novel without a novel, and what he has to say seems relevant also for the reader approaching Empty Words:

There is … a brief epilogue in which Levrero vents his doubts about the nature of the book: ‘I would have liked for it to be possible to read the grant diary as a novel: I had the vague hope that all the open plot lines would have some kind of climax. Of course, it was not to be, and this book, altogether, is an exhibition or museum of incomplete stories.’ But right away – contradicting his own words – the author demonstrates the evolution of some of those plot lines … While the incompleteness Levrero refers to may be the book’s prevalent characteristic, the plot lines are resolved.

All Levrero’s writing exists in this comic-tragic tension between resolution and incompletion. His subject is what he once referred to as ‘the eternal postponement of oneself’, the way we always defeat our own best efforts at self-knowledge, and he explores this in novelistic forms that flaunt their own defeat. At the beginning of his career he admitted his love of Kafka’s writing (his first novel, The City, he once said, was ‘almost an attempt to translate Kafka into Uruguayan’), and what he learned from Kafka was how to structure a narrative according to the zigzagging syntax of dreams, with all their impediments and shocks and dissolutions, as well as the wild contradictions of our everyday conscious thinking. He’s a metaphysical writer, a writer of the fantastic, but he refuses the idea that the fantastic should also be a ‘deformation of reality’. Aren’t there times, he once argued, when a fly is an extraordinarily fantastical thing? ‘You make me think of shoes in a store window and shoes “deformed” by use,’ he went on. ‘Would you call the shoes you use “deformed”? And the ones in the store window more “real”?’

One lesson of Levrero’s fiction, then, is that there’s no pristine rational real to which we have access. Instead, as the narrator of Empty Words explains, ‘the circumstantial [is] always displacing the essential; our existences endlessly revolving around stupid, pointless things; and life passing us by for other people to live, if they want to.’ No wonder, then, if even his dreams are frustrated acts of storytelling:

I made the full story too long and complicated, and no one would let me finish; they kept interrupting to talk about other things, and I got frustrated and angry. I was angry at myself, too, for not being able to condense my story, to go to the heart of what I wanted to say. I tried again and again, and every time I ended up going around in circles and getting lost in minor details.

And so, in the same way, the ‘exercises’ and the ‘discourse’ become contaminated by the interruptions to them, a crescendo of everyday frustration. He more and more frequently begins to describe his dog – whose fate he pities, and whose freedom he tries to enlarge by widening a gap in the fence between the garden and the street. Even though he tries not to – ‘I’m monumentally bored of talking about the dog. I feel as if my discourse has denatured completely’ – the narrator helplessly records stories about the dog, about the time it escaped, disappeared and returned apparently blind in one eye; or its constant battles for supremacy with the cat. Months later, he is still admonishing himself: ‘To be genuinely useful as discipline, these exercises need to be about forming the letters first and foremost, without me getting carried away by the content of the discourse. My handwriting needs to become larger and, of course, perfectly legible.’ The exercises become a list of broken promises, of resolutions that are never fulfilled, just as the Empty Discourse is distracted from its ideal emptiness. Meanwhile, the family finally moves into a new house, and his marriage starts to break down. This is where the novel’s second part ends, with the narrator once more back at his exercises:

I’m trying, then, to go back to my old handwriting work as a way of recovering my lost self more fully. I imagine that this habit, more than any of the other good habits I’ll try to adopt over the coming days, will give me a rhythm, a guide, a base on which to construct my way of life in this new house, and in this new time we’re beginning here.

It’s obviously no spoiler to say that no such rhythm is established. The third and final part is shorter, and increasingly noir: ‘I’m returning to these exercises today in a vain attempt to gather up the floating pieces of myself.’ ‘Today’s exercises are like a branch I’m clinging onto after falling off a cliff.’ ‘Not too long from now, I hope to have sorted out a place to work. Then I’ll be able to get down to these exercises, and everything else, in earnest.’

In the new house, there are new interruptions: the room he works in is too hot; his mother breaks her hip and he has to go and stay with her; there is an inexplicable buzzing noise coming from a substation next door, a noise that rivals the dog in its ability to distract the narrator from his writing, and which provides him with this clownish paragraph:

I don’t want to be too optimistic, but the latest news about the buzzing seems promising. The problem could be completely gone by tomorrow. (And at this very moment, as if someone’s watching what I’m writing so they can make fun of me – so they can hit me where it really hurts – the buzzing has started up at full volume.)

The more desperate the trap he finds himself in, the more hectic and comical the prose. The handwriting exercises become savagely obsessive and exasperated, as when Levrero (whose name has three ‘r’s) has his hero work on the deficiencies of the letter ‘r’:

For example, rhododendron, rower, sombrero, bra strap, parricide, reverberate, procrastinate, corduroys (I repeat: corduroys). (I don’t know why this word comes out so badly: corduroys, cor corduroys, that’s better, corduroys, corduroys.) Raspberry, crosscurrents, crosscurrents, extracurricular, extracurricular, extracurricular, extracurricular Transferable. Transferable, transferable, transfer, transfer, transfer, transfer, transfer. It’s still not right.

Empty Words ends with an ‘Epilogue’, a piece of abstract prose followed by a description of a dream. This dream is ‘about a group of priests in different-coloured robes. I remember one of them in particular, whose robes were a very bright purple. They adopted various positions, which in turn combined to form further positions, and I realised they were expressing the secret of Alchemy.’ It’s an image for the realisation reached in the previous section, that the notion of a renovated self, like a renovated handwriting, is impossible: ‘When you reach a certain age, you’re no longer the protagonist of your own actions: all you have left are the consequences of things you’ve already done. The seeds you’ve sown have been growing away, out of sight, and now suddenly they burst up in a kind of jungle that surrounds you on all sides.’ Life is formed by past compromises and chance events: ‘There’s an unhealthy equilibrium to this household and how it functions, the product of a set of habits that don’t do anyone any good … [The] idea of altering even one of them leads to unease, nervousness or even a crisis in any of the original members of the family unit.’ In this jungle, the last utopian possibility is the smallscale one of accurate self-contemplation: ‘What I can do is find my lost self among these new patterns and learn to live again, only differently.’

In an earlier section of the ‘Discourse’, the narrator observed that other people ‘think, almost unanimously, that what interests me is writing. But what really interests me is remembering.’ I registered a similar shift when reading Empty Words. It looks like a novel about handwriting, but really it’s a book about the self. And this means it’s also a novel about postponement, because for Levrero a self is defined by its efforts to postpone its own definition:

It could be that the self feels overloaded with responsibilities coming from the outside world, and so I myself don’t feel like taking care of things in the inner world, which is certainly what happens, for example, when it comes to literature. Every time I feel the urge to write a story or a novel, I repress it, thinking: ‘If I make a start on this, who knows if I’ll be allowed to finish it. I’ll be interrupted and the beautiful impulse will be left incomplete, frustrated and ruined.’

And so the impulse is left incomplete, frustrated and ruined – through fear of its being left incomplete, frustrated and ruined. This novel painfully and minutely records the process of incompletion, but it also shows the fragile, magical work that can be done by the novel as a form, the networks of meaning that are activated whenever fragments are collected in a collage. After all, a novel does its thinking differently from a person – whether on their own, in conversation, or on an analyst’s couch. In staging for the reader this melancholy record of sabotage and defeat, Empty Words triumphs in a way that represents the ultimate and total defeat of its narrator. It becomes literature.

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