An imaginary interview with Mario Levrero and Mario Levrero, translated and introduced by Annie McDermott.
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Mario Levrero – bookseller, cartoonist, crossword setter, leader of creative writing workshops, tango fanatic, and amateur mystic – was also the author of some of the strangest and most astonishing works in the Latin American literary canon.
He published his first novel, La ciudad (The City) in 1966, at the age of 26, describing it as ‘almost an attempt to translate Kafka into Uruguayan’. This novel is part of his hallucinatory ‘involuntary trilogy’: books set in tunnels, houses, and cities bound by unfathomable rules, which are Kafkaesque less because they’re something Kafka might have written and more because they’re something Kafka might have dreamed. As well as this trilogy, Levrero wrote rollicking detective-novel parodies with such titles as Nick Carter Enjoys Himself While the Reader Is Murdered and I Expire, and, in later years, several autobiographical works, among them Empty Words and The Luminous Novel. This last, a book with a 450-page prologue explaining why it was impossible to write the book itself, is his masterpiece, and widely regarded as a classic of Latin American literature.
The Luminous Novel, posthumously published in Spanish in 2005 and now available in English, is an anti-novel: the testament to a monumental failure which, as Adam Thirlwell writes in the New York Times, somehow still succeeds. In the words of the Argentinian author Mauro Libertella: ‘If Roberto Bolaño showed us it was still possible to write the great Latin American novel, Levrero told us it wasn’t necessary’.
The imaginary interview below dates back to the end of the 1980s, when Levrero was living in Buenos Aires, working in an office and struggling to write. Here, he is a writer pining for inspiration and resolute that, without it, no writing is possible. His later autobiographical works, however, which culminate in The Luminous Novel, show him exploring what happens to his writing when the inspiration isn’t there. This interview, then, is a kind of Luminous Novel in miniature: although it is about not being able to write, the writing takes on a life of its own.
– Annie McDermott
Imaginary Interview with Mario Levrero
To Lisa Block de Behar, who brought this about
Mario Levrero was born in Montevideo, on 23 January 1940. He began keeping the things he wrote in 1966, on the advice and encouragement of Tola Invernizzi. He has published a number of books (mainly fiction) and, under various pseudonyms, some mostly humorous journalism, as well as comic strips and puzzles. In 1985 he moved to Buenos Aires, where he is currently the editor-in-chief of a crossword magazine.
He receives us, with obvious irritation, in his apartment near the Congress building, and shows us into a spacious room almost entirely lacking in furniture and with nothing on the walls. The only features are a hi-fi, a small desk with a large typewriter on top, and the sofa bed, at this moment functioning as a sofa, where he invites us to sit while he makes us a coffee.
He seems tired, and though he gives his age as almost 48, he could easily be ten years older. As we prepare our tape recorder, he puts a cassette into his own and adjusts the volume so that the music – some excellent jazz – doesn’t disturb the conversation. We begin:
MARIO LEVRERO: What, for you, is literature?
MARIO LEVRERO: It’s the art that’s expressed by means of the written word.
And what, then, is art?
In my view, it’s the attempt to communicate a spiritual experience.
You’ll have to explain, then, what you mean by a ‘spiritual experience’.
Any experience, provided you can sense within it the presence of the spirit, or of my spirit, if you prefer. And before you jump in with another of your questions, let me expand on that: the spirit is something living and ineffable, something which forms part of the dimensions of reality that lie, on the whole, beyond sensory perception and even usual states of consciousness.
Meaning that literature is one possible way of communicating to other beings a personal experience that lies beyond the usual forms of perception.
I’d say you’ve grasped my meaning exactly; almost with the same words.
But this definition of yours, wouldn’t it rule out plenty of works that are considered to be literature?
So you’re denying the literary quality of such works as…
Not at all. You asked what literature was for me; at no point did I think about other people’s literature. And besides, I also said any experience. I think there’s artistic material in the most trivial, mundane experiences; the one requirement is that the artist’s spirit is present. For example, I could be standing on a street corner and looking at the traffic lights, waiting for them to change before I cross. In fact, I’m in that situation several times a day. And there could be a spiritual experience there; it depends what goes on with me while I’m standing on that corner. Or I could explain it in the exact opposite way, just as I remember reading it many years ago in Charles Baudouin, in a book that seems to have been unfairly underrated: The Psychoanalysis of Art. What we perceive in a work of art is the artist’s soul, in its entirety, through the phenomenon of soul-to-soul communication between the author of the work and the recipient. A work of art, then, is a hypnotic mechanism, which momentarily frees the soul of the person perceiving it and allows them to capture the soul of the author. It doesn’t matter what the work is about.
So the essence of art is communication.
But there are other forms of communication besides art.
Of course. Art can communicate on particular levels – the very deepest. However, those levels can also be reached in other ways, for example through conversation, as long as there’s ‘hypnosis’, i.e., a kind of enchantment (which is not the case in this conversation of ours).
And that would be the art of conversation.
It hadn’t occurred to me. I suppose so.
Is this interview bothering you?
No more than others. But I’m getting a bit bored.
What would you ask if you had to interview yourself?
Well…. There are three kinds of interviewers: the journalistic sort, the academic sort, and the sort that mix the two. The first ones are always after the new, the remarkable, some detail they think will catch ordinary readers’ attention. They’re the ones who insist on the business of ‘los raros’, the strange ones, in literature: why critics have considered me a ‘strange’ writer, etc. It would be far more interesting for them if, instead of writing, I had, for example, committed a murder. The second sort always want to know exactly where I’d place myself on some sociohistorical diagram, as if that were my job and not theirs. But once, curiously, I was interviewed by a man who had read my books, and who took a great interest in my personal life and creative mechanisms, and the relationship between the two. Unfortunately I still haven’t seen the magazine where it was published, so I don’t know about the final product; but I thought the intention was good, and original, at least. If I had to do an interview, I think I’d try and keep to the formula of that man, who, what’s more, doesn’t fit into any of the three categories I was mentioning just now.
Maybe we could have a go with the mechanisms of creation.
Sure, though it’s a rather unfortunate expression. Perhaps I should have said ‘the alchemy’ of creation.
Fine. How, then, does this alchemy work in your case?
Well, by definition these are secret, hidden processes. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, but I don’t have direct access to them. It’s like digesting food: I “do” it, but I don’t know how.
I imagine you begin by choosing a topic…
No, the topic, or rather the subject, normally chooses me. At some point, without me necessarily thinking in terms of literature, I notice that something is bothering me: an image, a series of words, or simply a mood, an atmosphere, an environment. The clearest example would be an image or mood from a dream, after waking up in the morning; sometimes you spend a long time almost tangled up in that dream-fragment; sometimes it fades in the end and sometimes it doesn’t. It can come back, whether spontaneously or evoked by something else, at other points in the day. When this goes on for several days, I take it as a sign that there’s something there that I need to deal with, and the way to deal with it is to recreate it. For example: I have a story, ‘The Crucified Man’, which stemmed from this kind of disruption, although it didn’t come from a dream. I noticed that for some days I’d had a crucified man in my head, someone whose arms were permanently outstretched. In fact, I didn’t realise the man had been crucified until I stopped to examine that disruptive image, because he was dressed; you could clearly see that he was wearing an old jacket. Looking more closely, I discovered that under the jacket he was nailed to the remains of a wooden cross, and right away I began work on that story. Another story, ‘The Sunshades’, arose from a phrase overheard in a dream: ‘Nohaymar’ [‘No hay mar’, or ‘There is no sea’]. In the dream, a girl was jumping on a bed and saying something like ‘nohaymar’, or rather I was hearing ‘noaimar’. While I was in the shower, that image and that phrase came back to me and I decided it meant ‘no hay mar’, and by the time I got out of the shower I already had a fairly well-structured story. My novel Displacements also arose from a brief scene from a dream: a woman in her underwear washing dishes in a kitchen. It took me about two years to unearth the whole little world contained in that image. And in case you take an interest in parapsychological phenomena, I’ll tell you something else that happened with ‘no hay mar’: a few days after the story was written, I ran into a friend who told me that he’d been writing a story himself at more or less the same time, and a character had infiltrated it with a kind of obsessive force. This character was called Mariano. As you may have noticed, ‘Mariano’ is a perfect anagram of ‘no hay mar’.
When you talk about ‘examining’ an image, or whatever else, what exactly do you mean?
Paying attention to it, or allowing it to live its life. And trying to become aware of that life. When, like now, I don’t have time to write, I try to recreate the dream-fragment, or whatever it is, by closing my eyes, calling up that image or mood and leaving my mind free for associations to arise. Then a kind of splitting occurs, a reflexive state, meaning that on the one hand I can make associations and on the other I can pay conscious attention to those associations. By doing that, it’s possible to free yourself from something that might otherwise keep bothering or obsessing you.
Are you addressing someone specific, or are you thinking of a public more generally?
I’ve found that all my texts are aimed at a particular recipient, though I’m not always aware of it. There’s always someone I want to tell something to; when I’m writing, I have a specific person in mind.
Is it always the same one?
No, almost never, or never, the same person twice.
And doesn’t that affect the language you use?
Certainly. You don’t address everyone the same way. And probably not only the language, but also the images, everything.
You were talking about a kind of relationship between your texts and your personal life. Should this be understood as an autobiographical form of writing?
It depends what you mean by ‘autobiographical’. I’m talking about things I’ve experienced, but generally I haven’t experienced them on the plane of reality that biographies tend to make use of.
Isn’t that a slightly convoluted way of describing your writing as ‘imaginary’?
The imagination is an instrument; an instrument of knowledge, despite what Sartre says. I use imagination to translate into images certain impulses – let’s call these impulses experiences, emotions or spiritual encounters. For me these impulses form part of reality, or of my ‘biography’, if you will. The images could easily be different; what matters is passing on, by means of images, which in turn are represented by words, an idea of that intimate experience for which no precise language exists.
For example, are your characters taken from real life?
Sometimes I borrow them from what you’re calling ‘real life’ but in fragments, like in a collage. For the most part, my characters are made up of various people I’ve known. But when they appear in my texts they’re not themselves; they’re no more than images, as I’ve been saying. I don’t want them to come across as flesh and blood; it’s more as if they’re made of cardboard.
Some people see your texts as versions of a reality that’s deformed, exaggerated, cruel, absurd, nightmarish, suffocating…
I can accept all of those adjectives except one: ‘deformed’. That’s usually a tool of science fiction. I wouldn’t talk about ‘deforming reality’ in my texts, but rather about subjectivism…. Think about shoes in a shop window and shoes ‘deformed’ by wear. Would you describe the shoes you wear as ‘deformed’? Are the ones in the shop window more “real”?
Where would you place your work in the panorama of contemporary Uruguayan li…?
Oh, oh. Et tu, Brute.
Sorry. I just wanted to shake you out of your narcissistic monologue for a moment.
Well… I… I mean…
You want to shake me out of my personal perspective; and put me in a perspective we might call academic. I’m surprised you’d make the same mistake as other journalists; I thought you knew me better.
Really I was provoking you, to make you confess once again to the weakness of your cultural education.
That doesn’t bother me. I’ll confess. I could also confess to the weakness of my education in a whole host of other areas. But it’s true: my total unfamiliarity with literature is, or should be, a disgrace. I think it’s down to lack of discipline; I’m too hedonistic, perhaps, and tend to read what I want to read and not what I should read; I also prefer to read people who write and not people who write about people who write. I loathe catalogues, lists, analyses, interpretations; what’s more, it feels like the critical perspective distances me from a work of art, instead of bringing me closer; it makes me read with only one eye, you might say.
And what about the other eye?
With the other eye I’m reading between the lines: here, where it says this, what the author is really saying is…. And that prevents me from falling into a trance. It prevents me from receiving the author’s soul, to use the language of Baudouin. What’s more, I think that’s the true function of criticism: preventing the craziness contained in a work of art from spreading through the whole of society like a plague. It’s a repressive function, a kind of policing, and I’m not saying it’s wrong; I think it’s necessary. But personally I find it irritating, because it happens to be repressing me, or at least what I write. It’s fencing me in, putting barriers between the reader and the writer. This, of course, actually ends up benefiting literature, allowing it to grow, to find new ways of saying what it wants to say – in the same way that policing allows different forms of crime to evolve.
There are other ways of putting an end to literature….
Yes. The publishing industry. But that doesn’t worry me. Books in themselves don’t worry me, and nor does literature in itself. What worries me is communication, but since it’s a vital necessity I’m sure it will always find a way of existing.
So, essentially, you’re not a man of letters.
No: I cultivate images, not letters; and the images are very close to the raw materials, which are experiences. But now we’re back to the ‘narcissistic monologue’, though I wouldn’t call it that. If you ask me, it’s an ‘introverted monologue’, which is something quite different. When I step into myself, I find that the outside world is there as well, only transmuted into a language that means I can see it better.
Why don’t we return to the topic of Uruguayan literature, from this new angle. Have you read any Uruguayan authors recently?
I’ve been reading Onetti and Leo Maslíah. The two extremes, you might say.
Well, I find Onetti always takes a lot of effort. He’s one of those authors with whom there’s no ‘enchantment’, who don’t hypnotise you or let you fall into a trance; Onetti comes complete with his own literary critic; he knows how to create an almost insurmountable distance for the reader. He makes you read him with only one eye.
Then I’m surprised you read him at all.
There’s a reason: I’m not sure why, but every so often, when I go through a ‘literary crisis’, I have a dream that features the ‘Writer’, an imposing figure, a kind of large, shadowy master, whom I approach; we don’t speak, he’s simply there, looking contemplative or self-absorbed, and I keep a respectful distance, observing him. Nothing else happens, but those dreams have an enormous power and I know that through them I resolve something that enables me to keep going. And although it’s not made explicit in the dream, when I wake up I know that the man is Onetti. And there’s another reason, too: much as I’m usually lazy when it comes to reading, I’m not always. Sometimes I want to read something that takes effort, or attention. And with Onetti it’s worth it.
I see Leo as a violinist playing a violin that has only one string. I’m amazed by everything he can do with a single string. That said, reading him also takes effort, and I find myself wishing that he’d done this differently here, or that differently there, but I suppose that goes with the territory if you’re a writer. Still, reading him is also a lot of fun, as entertaining as a detective novel, or more so. I experience something similar with Beckett. I don’t know, I think Leo is trying to make literature explode, and that’s healthy, part of a process of renewal. But then I think that this acceptance of mine isn’t very natural or spontaneous; that him making literature explode is painful to me and I’m too old feel any different.
In more than one interview, you’ve argued that your literature is ‘realist’. Is this part of that game, of taking the exact opposite stance to whoever you’re talking to?
Naturally, I place myself in ‘realism’ when people try to put me in science fiction or fantasy.
Where would you put yourself, then?
Why are you trying to pigeonhole me?
How would you explain, without any pigeonholing, what your work is like, to readers of this interview who aren’t familiar with it?
I think this interview forms part of what you’re calling my ‘work’. If you read it properly, you’ll find me here, in my entirety.
Do you like your books? What’s your self-assessment as a writer?
I like some of my books, sometimes part of my books, and sometimes I like them more and sometimes less. I don’t read myself very often, and when I’m not reading myself I tend not to think I’m very good. When I read other writers – good writers, I mean – I think I’m even worse. However, sometimes I pick up something I’ve written and find myself engrossed, excited, even amazed. I can’t believe that it’s come from me, come through me. The fact is, outside my inspired periods, I’m completely incapable of writing, and during my inspired periods I’m not exactly myself. When I read something I’ve written, except for a few things that seem systematically abhorrent, I feel as if I’m reading something by someone else, and when I become aware that it’s ‘mine’ (that it came through me, I mean), I’m usually astonished. But even when I’m astonished, I’m not deceived. I know my writing is a minor art. But I also know it’s an art. I value it as something authentic.
Speaking of all this, a priest friend once told me: ‘What matters isn’t that your cup is bigger than other people’s, but that your cup is full’. There are cathedral buildings that I admire and revere; but personally I look after a little garden, or a few plants in pots, if you prefer. But then, even plants that grow in pots have their ways of astonishing you.
Will you ever write again?
If it’s up to me, definitely. For the time being, it’s not up to me.
What advice would you give to young writers?
At this point, Levrero abruptly breaks off the interview and hurls his heavy IBM 82C typewriter in the direction of my head. Fortunately, it misses.
A full version of this piece is published in The Believer.
Mario Levrero was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1940 and died there in 2004. He wrote twelve novels and several short story collections and it was not long before he gained cult status amongst readers in Uruguay and Argentina, despite keeping a low profile. He has inspired Latin American writers such as Rodolfo Fogwill, César Aira and Alejandro Zambra. In 2000 he was awarded the Guggenheim grant that allowed him to complete work on The Luminous Novel, which was published posthumously.
Annie McDermott’s published and forthcoming translations include Mario Levrero’s Empty Words and The Luminous Novel (And Other Stories and Coffee House Press), Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (co-translation with Carolina Orloff, Charco Press) and City of Ulysses by Teolinda Gersão (co-translation with Jethro Soutar, Dalkey Archive Press). She has previously lived in Mexico City and São Paulo, Brazil, and is now based in London.
Photo credit: Eduardo Abel Gimenez