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The Diaries of Emilio Renzi:
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B+ : continuing the fascinating personal literary voyage
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The complete review's Review:
The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Happy Years continues Ricardo Piglia's experiment in revisiting the notebooks -- "an archive or register of my sentimental education [...] composed of reflections on my feelings, barely intersected by actions or events or words about myself" -- he started keeping more than half a century earlier, ascribed to lightly fictionalized alter ego Emilio Renzi.
The experiences are, indeed, Piglia's, but he presents them refracted through this alter-Piglia, a near-identical yet still other version of himself.
The first volume covered his (their ...) Formative Years -- Piglia/Renzi from 1957, when he began keeping these notebooks, to 1967; already back then he kept them -- and returned to them -- as both life-record and foundation for his work.
In rereading my notebooks, the continuity from 1958 to 1967 appears clear; that part would be volume I of my written life. The solidification of a young aesthete who comes back down to reality, lives alone, earns his living, and begins to publish.The Happy Years is the next stage, covering 1968 through 1975. In form and presentation Piglia continues more or less exactly as he had in the first volume. There's only a brief, separate introductory scene -- a few pages 'In the Bar' where he reflects on the on-going exercise, and where he suggests why he selected this title:
Maybe I'll call them my happy years, then, because I was amused while reading and transcribing them to see just how ridiculous one can be.Renzi still struggles to establish himself in these years (and money -- what he spends and what he earns -- is an ongoing preöccupation), but he already enjoys some success, and finds steady work, working for publishers and giving lectures, while also trying to find his way as a (creative) writer.
Repeatedly, he turns to his old notebooks, and to the continuing exercise of writing them -- reminding himself: "I must continue onward, recording what happens to me and never ceasing to record my life day after day". As he notes, in an entry from 1969:
By rereading my old notebooks, I find it confirmed once again that one only writes about what is taking place in the moment of writing, as though one were a device registering the world in the present and, at the same time, I find that a vast collage has been constructed, from which I alone am absent; I disappear among words that form a path, the meaning of which can only be understood much later.The repeated reëvaluation of the notebooks -- he keeps turning back to them, as they accompany him (and his writing) through all these years -- is an important part of his (writing) process -- indeed, he suggests he needs to digest and re-work them (as he eventually will, in these The Diaries of Emilio Renzi) in order to constructively move on, worrying (or believing) already in 1974: "Maybe once I've written the book of these diaries, I'll be able to write a novel".
It doesn't turn out quite that way -- Piglia published several novels before turning fully back to the notebooks with this career-culminating Emilio Renzi trilogy -- but clearly they are central to much of his creative output. (As was always in the back of his mind: "I can't rule out finding plots and anecdotes in these diaries that I can use in the future".) Already in the years covered in this volume he is working on Artificial Respiration (Piglia's first novel, which he would only publish in 1980), and his struggles with it are a constant -- though mostly in the background; occasionally he mentions general problems he is having with it (or his frustration growing to a point where he is ready to abandon it), but there are few specifics. He makes clear, however, the connection to these notebooks -- which inform the novel --, and the learning-process that comes with the writing and reading he is doing along the way; a 1970 entry sums up:
Artificial Respiration. A novel of the pure present, because that is my natural tense and that is the tense of this diary, not remembering, not thinking, just letting the future come. That is the logic of this notebook, in which I take notes according to the present moment, without narration.A passionate reader, Renzi's work in publishing allows him to indulge in it, as he puts together editions of works, especially in translation, and writes introductions and accompanying texts -- "Intense work. I write three back cover texts (Mailer, Vargas Llosa, and French writers of today) and several biographical notes (Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Le Clézio)", or: "back cover texts and introductions (Uwe Johnson, LeRoi Jones, etc.)".
He is primarily responsible for the 'Seria Negra' (and its satisfying success), which allows/forces him to be:
A person who reads detective fiction "professionally" because he is in charge of a collection receiving more than three hundred books every month, out of which he selects five.He engages with the form, and it obviously has an influence on him. He admires the greatest masters -- Chandler ("In his best moments, Chandler is as perfect as Borges") and Hammett among them -- but because of his job his reading ranges far; he is intrigued, for example, by James Hadley Chase, an author writing: "in many different registers" (and is often impressed: "I'm reading Eve by Chase. Striking. I'm going to publish it"). But Renzi insists:
I'm not interested in the detective genre; I'm interested in writing stories in the form of an investigation. Likewise, I see the detective as a modern Ulysses lost in a labyrinth (facts, clues, crimes) trying to decipher something through inquiry.Literature -- and the role of the author -- are central issues which he continues to mull over and (re)define. Suspicious of how people present themselves in real life, he argues:
In reality, literature shows the opacity of the world. One never knows anything about people, even those to whom we are close and those we love, and we only know what they tell us, but never what they think because they can always lie to us; in that sense, we read novel because they're the only way to see another person from within. I know Anna Karenina better than the woman I've lived with for many years.'The woman I've lived with for many years' (Julia) probably wouldn't be surprised by this; the limited references to her and to his other affairs of the heart in these pages suggest a preöccupation that remains first and foremost literary and intellectual rather than 'real'; certainly, Renzi has difficulty writing about his personal relationships -- and his 'feelings', in the most general sense. They don't seem absent from his life, and there are mentions of passions and intimacy -- as well as much time socializing more generally --, but there are few details of this human inter-action; the (literature-dominated) solitary interiority of the bulk of the diaries is hard to deny (though only rarely is it expressed outright -- though the point does come when he writes: "Books surround me, drown me. I am thirty-three, the age of Christ. I am alone in the city. I will be alone tonight and for all of my life").
Tellingly, too, when one of these women in his life tries to express herself to him -- in writing, no less, though not in the form of literature -- his reaction is
As I read what Julia had written, I once again understood that no one ever says what they should, that everything is a disastrous misunderstanding.In contrast, the engagement with literature -- reading, at least, if not always writing (which he sometimes struggles with) -- is something he is always pulled towards, and the most spirited and fascinating parts of the diary are these literary observations and discussions. Aside from the mentions of specific authors and books, they include more fundamental questions, as part of the difficulty Renzi seems to have in writing is in his uncertainty about what literature should be (and who the author should be). He suspects:
The future of writing will not depend on the imaginary construction of a map of events, but rather a combination of autobiography, observation, and reflection.As to the author, the example of the sometimes-admired Hemingway clearly concerns him:
An image of the writer who doesn't write and spends his life off hunting in Africa or fishing for sharks. It concerns a cult of the personality, putting literary figures in the place of movie stars, so that what is valued is the picturesque aspect of their biographies. Underneath lies the superstition that life legitimizes literature and replaces it. Soon there will be no need to write; it will be enough to lead a turbulent life and say you are a writer.His own success during these years -- based more on his editorial and essentially journalistic work (literary-focused, but still) -- while he struggles with what he wants to focus on -- his fiction -- leads to him to worry that:
The risk is always that of being so present in the media as to turn into someone "well-known," someone with a name but not a work.Although in the middle of the Argentine Literaturbetrieb -- an editor; someone who writes a great number of essays and a great deal of paratext; a lecturer -- Renzi nevertheless presents and sees himself out of step with contemporary writers. He claims:
My reading in the last few months (especially Joyce and Brecht) confirms to me that I am (at least) five years "behind" with respect to the rest of my generation. I'm always reading out of sync, and that reading is more productive; I always work on books out of context, in different relationships tied to my own rhythm and not the atmosphere of the times.So also when he is interviewed along with Adolfo Bioy Casares, David Viñas, and Osvaldo Soriano he thinks his "dry answers" will suggest: "I were one of them, but I am not. I belong to another stock".
Renzi is also keenly aware of the difficulties of translation, yet another form of separation from original intent and meaning. He understands that language both changes and is perceived differently, depending on the reader (and his or her time, locale, and background) -- and so also that: "books must be retranslated every so often because, without realizing it, translators repeat the models of what can be said 'literarily' at a given moment" (a rare occasion when Piglia is too presumptuous: surely most translators are well aware ...). And, as he notes:
Even when one reads authors in their own languages, one never understands the same thing that someone for whom that language is a mother tongue understands. I read Faulkner in English but understand something other than what an author of my age born in the southern United States understands.His own writing -- particularly the novel he struggles with, Artificial Respiration -- also sets, or leaves him somewhat apart -- yet arguably little more so than many of the authors he knows personally, as suggested by his brief encounters, professional and personal, with many of the leading (and secondary) lights whose struggles are often very much like his own. So, for example:
Yesterday a visit from Roa Bastos, he tells the beautiful story of the end of Solano López. He has written I, the Supreme, a masterwork, but that does not change anything. He is alone, sick, and penniless.Renzi is friends with many authors of the day -- Manuel Puig, for example -- and these frequently cross his path -- or flare up, briefly, on it. Among those he encounters is Juan Carlos Onetti, who he is a great admirer of, -- and, when he meets the master, they wind up talking detective fiction ("He's an obsessive reader of the genre; we both consider David Goodis to be the best of all. Let's not tell anyone, he said, with a complicit look in his dark eyes"). He's thrilled to receive, in his professional-editorial capacity, a letter from Sartre ("Incredible"), while a meeting with Umberto Eco disappoints ("Eco, superficial, a tourist").
More than in person, of course, it is the writing that matters to him, and he enthuses about a wide range of authors. Moving into a new apartment, among the few furnishings he describes is: "Faulkner's portrait on the wall"; while nearing the end of 1971 he notes: "My true discovery this year has been Bertolt Brecht" -- the prose in particular, rather than the dramas. Pavese -- especially the diary -- accompanies him for a long time, while among the rare longer passages -- over a page -- on any single topic is one on Leopoldo Marechal's Adam Buenosayres -- "the great novel of Buenos Aires".
Piglia/Renzi is an astute critic -- in 1968 already recognizing (in Marks of Identity) about Juan Goytisolo:
Of the writers of his generation (Viñas, Fuentes), he is the one who seems to have recovered best from the crisis that brought about "commitment" and the social novel. Here, he progresses in a new direction, political in the best sense of the word.And, in a book filled with concise observation and judgements there are some particularly nicely put pithy ones, such as:
Fitzgerald has such a natural grace that it seems calculated.The politics of the day remains very much background; Renzi does not ignore it but does not allow it to overshadow his relentless literary drive. Yet even he can't escape it. As he notes already in the brief opening section, a "key event" for him came in 1972, an army raid on the building where he lived with his girlfriend Julia; although he was not the actual, or original, target, he fled the scene: "Everything is suddenly unleashed". Yet even as he to deal with the annoyance of finding safe harbor, and a place to work, his focus remains on remaining in his rhythm, of work and reading -- though the interruptions and conditions lead even him to occasionally find: "It's impossible to write in these tumultuous times".
As the political situation becomes more fraught, even Renzi can't avoid growing concern: he isn't particularly involved, but while:
I'm not on the front lines, I'm not that well known and barely visible, though that doesn't guarantee anything.The diary concludes with a meaningful professional success -- and the promise of escape from the terrible walls that are closing in in Argentina at the time: a story that he wrote wins first prize in a competition -- one of the judges, as he repeatedly notes, being Borges -- with the prize a trip to Paris. The flight is booked for 5 January 1976 -- a perfect starting point for the final volume in this trilogy, as this one ends with 1975.
If, as the diary progresses, Renzi does (succinctly) note more of what is happening politically around him, overall he doesn't address much of his extra-literary activity or experiences. So also the greatest disappointment in this volume is with what is left out: the very short 1973 notebook -- a mere fifteen pages, and ending 24 June -- tantalizingly reports: "I'm traveling to China for five months". Piglia apparently did spend several months there, but beyond an account of meeting "Guo Moruo, the great writer" and a few other observations ("In China everything is direct and allegorical") there's practically nothing about his visit, and no on-site record at all ! How fascinating that must have been .....
The Diaries of Emilio Renzi continue to be a fascinating literary-autobiographical experiment, even more so here as Renzi (re)turns to the older material and constantly (re)ëvaluates his project(s). The Diaries show the process of Piglia becoming a writer and his awareness of the process, internally (writing) and externally (life), as the notebooks are an integral part of it:
I struggle -- clearly -- to find a tone for these notebooks, but that's exactly what I like about them; the prose is spontaneous and swift, and therefore it's very changeable, there's no common rhetoric. The best part is the continuity, the persistence, which are the great challenges of writing. [...] The expanse comes through accumulation, not because I give time to the writing and developing a subject to its end, and motifs appear but are not developed. ll that I've managed to do, I've done in the pure instant, without a future; for me, the future has always been a threat.Late in this volume he reminds himself -- not that he hadn't been following his prescription quite closely already --:
In these notebooks I must respect one rule: never write extensive texts. Everything I say must be less than three hundred words. Stories, memories, readings, reflections, meetings: I must discover a way to synthesize and concentrate; the diary is a fine-linked chain, like the chain my grandfather Emilio used to hold his pocket watch.It's a while in coming, but he finds: "I can see the narrator I have always sought appearing in these notebooks" -- and:
There's nothing like autobiography to confirm that the writer is not who he is.It's a fascinating continuing evolution and journey -- with interesting incidents and observations (if, alas, not enough about those experienced in China), and, especially, a wonderful immersion in literature itself. Of particular interest in showing the transition of Latin American (and specifically Argentine) literature -- no longer: "out of sync, behind, out of place" --, Piglia's range extends far beyond that too. Yes, most of this is presumably mainly of interest to the similarly literature-obsessed -- but Piglia makes it hard to imagine who wouldn't be.
- M.A.Orthofer, 19 November 2018
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Argentine author Ricardo Piglia lived 1940 to 2017.
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