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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Luminous Novel

Mario Levrero

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To purchase The Luminous Novel

Title: The Luminous Novel
Author: Mario Levrero
Genre: Novel
Written: (2005) (Eng. 2021)
Length: 530 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Luminous Novel - US
La novela luminosa - US
The Luminous Novel - UK
The Luminous Novel - Canada
Le roman lumineux - France
Il romanzo luminoso - Italia
La novela luminosa - España
directly from: And Other Stories
  • Spanish title: La novela luminosa
  • First published posthumously in 2005
  • Translated by Annie McDermott

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Our Assessment:

B : a convincing record of an author with a clear vision and his struggle to capture and convey it in in his writing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
il Giornale . 18/1/2015 Luca Doninelli
The Guardian . 13/8/2021 Sam Jordison
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/9/2021 Adam Thirlwell
El País . 30/1/2009 Nora Catelli
TLS . 30/7/2021 Michael Kerrigan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ecco quello che si può chiamare un capolavoro. Il romanzo luminoso si nega ogni esibizione di tecnica ed è un prodigio di tecnica; si nega ogni trama e la sua trama è fitta e persuasiva come poche; rifiuta ogni rappresentazione psicologica ed è uno dei migliori ritratti del nostro io così come esso è realmente, fuori da ogni infingimento. Ed è perciò parente -- diciamo nipotino -- di Guerra e pace, o dell' Ulisse. Leggendolo, nella sua singolarità, si capisce di nuovo che cos'è un romanzo: non l'ostentazione della capacità dello scrittore di governare un testo, ma un inno alla vita così come essa è e della sua forza immensa -- come la forza dell'erba che squarcia l'asfalto." - Luca Doninelli, il Giornale

  • "There are a certain number of recollections of dreams to endure. There are also plenty of absurd theories and questionable opinions. But it's hard to see such longueurs as faults, when they also help to complete this portrait of flawed and failing humanity -- and when we know, ultimately, where all this is heading. (...) Every wasted moment in this book feels precious." - Sam Jordison, The Guardian

  • "Everything is blockage, interruption: the comedy of infinite loops and recursion. (...) Once you're inside this patient record of daily existence, with all its interruptions and exhausting errands, you start to see corresponding hints of unexpected triumphs and illuminations. The diary may be a museum of unfinished stories, but a story, this book shows, doesn't need to be finished to have its own meanings -- the largest of which may be that the transcendental experience Levrero is after has been visible all along, in this diary of everyday disaster." - Adam Thirlwell, The New York Times Book Review

  • "La primera sección contiene el fabuloso despliegue de las reacciones del personaje -- en la computadora, en los sistemas de escritura, en los programas de Word, en la búsqueda de cuadernos, lápices y bolígrafos -- a la concesión de una beca Guggenheim. Este tramo es un prodigio, una auténtica disección de la identidad institucional del escritor y una deslumbrante exhibición del arte de la digresión. El segundo y también impresionante tramo -- poco más de cien páginas -- oscila entre la novela "oscura" -- que existe y que de tanto en tanto el narrador quema -- y la "novela luminosa" que es inalcanzable." - Nora Catelli, El País

  • "Altogether, then, it would be hard to overstate the banality of much of the material here. And yet it compels our continuing attention. More than this: as it lurches on in its awkward, clumsy way, with all the grace of a circus bear negotiating a tightrope, it grips our imagination in ways we cannot readily pin down. (...) His delivery is stolidly earnest, but we cannot help but ironize it, any more than we can help but sense the profundity beyond, and behind, his printed words. (...) No realm of gold, Levrero-land holds extraordinary treasures of its own. Prosaic it may be but Latin American literature has never seemed more unfamiliar or unfathomable than it does here; not so much lo real maravilloso as the miraculous mundane." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In a short 'Historical Preface to the Luminous Novel' author Mario Levrero describes the background and writing of his undertaking -- and concludes (or warns the reader ...) that: "This whole book is the testimony of a monumental failure". The failure is, at its most basic, Levrero's inability to finish what he had grandly conceived as his 'luminous novel'. As he explains in his Preface, he received a Guggenheim Foundation grant in 2000, to carry out a final edit of the five chapters of 'The Luminous Novel' he had already written, "and write the nine chapters necessary to finish the project". As the novel's table of contents already revealed, however, 'The Luminous Novel' didn't get much beyond those five chapters he already had, in some form: "all I managed to produce was a story called 'First Communion', which almost became the sixth chapter of the luminous novel but didn't quite".
       In part, The Luminous Novel is a chronicle of this failure: the book is basically divided into two parts: a Prologue-section titled: 'Diary of the Grant' -- which takes up over four hundred of the book's pages -- and then what there is of 'The Luminous Novel' (with the short 'First Communion' tacked onto that). As the heft of the book -- and particularly the length of the diary-section -- suggest, The Luminous Novel isn't your usual tale of struggling with writer's block: the words, at least, seem to have flowed, in abundance if not necessarily easily. But, obviously, things also didn't quite work out as Levrero had hoped.
       The long diary-section of the novel is a chronicle from August, 2000 to August, 2001 -- the year of the grant, with the money from the Guggenheim Foundation sufficient to keep him: "in a reasonable life of leisure", allowing him theoretically to concentrate on his novel. (As it turns out, he spends a considerable part of the first installment on some larger purchases, which does leave him, at least for a while in a somewhat precarious financial position.) He continues to give weekly writing workshops, but otherwise should have a lot of time for writing; diary-keeping does impose a bit of a writing-routine on him, but he is clearly not very productive. He fiddles around a lot with his computer, from playing (very basic) computer games to downloading pornographic pictures from the internet -- though, still relying on a dial-up internet connection, he doses his usage carefully -- to writing and downloading computer programmes. Occasionally, he berates himself -- "A whole day spent programming. Uncalled for. Inappropriate. Inadequate. This won't do" -- but the frustrations of various Windows operating systems are something he has a hard time letting be. (Forced to update his operating system to a more recent version of Windows (after holding onto Windows 3.1 ("so solid, so reliable !") for as long as possible) he fatalistically accepts: "it'll be traumatic, whatever happens".)
       Often there are errands to run and things to get fixed, but one of the difficulties he faces is his unusual sleep pattern, going to bed very, very late, and not waking up until well into the day, giving him only small windows of time when shops and offices are both open and he is actually up. If much of his awake-time is filled with mundane tasks, he does also chronicle and analyze quite a few of his dreams -- flights of fancy in what is otherwise a relatively humdrum life.
       There is a woman in his life -- Chl (an abbreviation whose origins he only explained deep into the novel) -- and his shifting relationship with her is among the major storylines over the course of the year. She is very much his significant other, though also leading a life very much her own; towards the end of the diary he still acknowledges: "She's still the only female presence that can move me to my very core; she's still part of me, body and soul".
       He has some medical issues - but also has a doctor who regularly makes house calls; here, too, he takes his time before revealing who the doctor is, another woman from his life. (Chl does not appreciate her still being part of his life: "I think there's a secret, silent war between the two of them, and I'm caught in the middle of it".)
       Other distractions include a dead pigeon, his efforts to get air-conditioning, and the amount of electricity he can get and use in his apartment. He barely describes his writing-workshop-work -- though he is impressed by the quality of the work of those he is teaching -- or much of his own (creative) writing: he has a concept for a 'luminous novel' but doesn't describe much of his actual efforts of working on it: as he writes in a diary entry written as a letter to Mr Guggenheim to explain how things are going with the project he got the grant for: "I'm doing all that's humanly possible, but I'm forever crashing into the pile of rubble that I myself once tipped into my path. I need to remove all that rubble before I can carry on". It is, of course, a Sisyphean task, as more rubble quickly replaces any he might have managed to remove .....
       He does read a great deal, and there is quite a bit strewn in the diary about what he is reading, and the books he buys and considers buying. Rosa Chacel -- specifically, her Memoirs of Leticia Valle -- is one discovery ("I identify with her. [...] It's ages since I've been this excited about an author"), though she ultimately also proves to be something of a disappointment, and most of his reading is of mid-twentieth century crime novels (though he gets to Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, W.Somerset Maugham, and William Burroughs, among others, too). Only occasionally is there more in-depth discussion of his reading, however (though he does nicely differentiate between James Ellroy and Thomas Harris, enjoying the Hannibal Lecter novels because they're so over the top while finding Ellroy unreadable, admitting: "he writes very well and is very talented; a shame he's a genuine psychopath who uses his talent to spread his horrible illness. Consuming one of his novels is like swallowing a bucketful of shit").
       Among his literary judgements is that:

When you're young and inexperienced, you look for dramatic plots in books, just as you do in films. With time, you come to see that the plot has no importance at all; and that the style, the way the story is told, is everything.
       The plot of The Luminous Novel -- at least the diary-part -- can be summed up as: man ostensibly tries to write book -- without making much headway. Given how little of consequence, especially surrounding the actual writing of the novel, actually happens over the course of the year that's chronicled, few readers are likely to pick up The Luminous Novel for the plot -- which leaves the style, of course. (Meanwhile, the reader can't help but notice that, as far as his own reading goes, he spends most of the year reading crime fiction -- very much plot-driven books.)
       Levrero lets his story unfold slowly; for all his effort (not so much about writing, but getting other, often day-to-day things, done), there's nothing rushed about the diary. Early on already he notes: "Be patient, reader, I can't discuss anything effectively today. It's all notes, notes", and while he does then elaborate often enough, it all moves at a very deliberate pace -- with room, too, for times when he simply admits: "I'm in one of those boring transition periods; there's nothing interesting to say". And he acknowledges his piecemeal and often indiscriminate presentation might prove more than trying: well into the novel, he allows: "I imagine the eventual, hypothetical, long-suffering reader got lost a long time ago".
       In keeping a diary of his grant-year -- this long Prologue is called 'Diary of the Grant' -- he has set himself a constraint of sorts; the hope, no doubt, was to complete the 'luminous novel' in exactly this grant-covered period, making for a neatly rounded text. Of course, it doesn't work out anything like that, and so near its conclusion he finds:
     I have a big problem with this diary. Before going to sleep I was thinking that its novelistic structure means it should be coming to an end by now, but its diary-like quality doesn't allow that, for the simple reason that nothing exciting has happened in my life for some time that would make a suitable ending. I can't just write 'The End'; there has to be something, something special, an event that enlightens the reader about all that's been said, something to justify the hard work of reading this mountain of pages. An ending, in other words.
       Early on he says he is determined not to reread what he writes (though he comes to waver on that later), so that:
this diary really is a diary and not a novel; that is to remove the need for continuity. I realised straight away that it will still be a novel, though, whether I like it or not, because these days a novel is practically anything you can put between a front and a back cover.
       The Luminous Novel is a struggle with and against form: he hopes, with the diary-approach, to find a different way of telling -- but has his doubts from the get-go. Yet then also in the chapters that make up what is 'The Luminous Novel' here -- to which the diary was only prologue ... --, which appear at least somewhat more novelistic in their basic layout, he maintains:
     The luminous novel, however, will never be a novel; I have no way of reshaping the real events in such a way that they become 'literture', any more than I can free them from a line of thinking -- not necessarily philosophy -- that inevitably connects them to one another.
       Yet the entirety of The Luminous Novel is an attempt at capturing and reshaping the real events. Among them, somewhat eerily -- The Luminous Novel was only published posthumously, a year after Levrero's death --, is also one particular preöccupation:
     I think the novel I am trying to finish because of the grant was originally written to exorcise my fear of death. And now comes this string of deaths among my friends. The topic is in the air ...
       (Death being the ultimate end suggests a good reason why Levrero was reluctant to bring both diary and novel-in-progress to clear conclusions.)
       If 'The Luminous Novel' more closely resembles traditional narrative, it nevertheless features a continued preöccupation with many of the same subjects, from writing (specifically, writing a 'luminous novel') to death -- and plays with some similar methods, including here even imagining the voice of the hypothetical reader, complaining, of course, about the text (and ready to switch to the Raymond Chandler novel s/he has on the bedside table ...), as in:
     'That's OK,' the reader tells me. 'I understand. But what I don't understand is why the hell you're dumping all this rubbish in your novel rather than talking it through with your therapist. Stop messing me around,' the reader adds, 'and write something that's actually entertaining: images, not sob stories.
       If 'The Luminous Novel' is then also an attempt that remains unfinished, Levrero at least offers a small bit of closure to the larger whole for readers with a short 'Epilogue to Diary', dated more than a year after the last diary-entry -- not tying up loose ends, as he explains, "but simply to show how things currently stand with some of them", an amusing overview of much of what pre/öccupied him over that year.
       The Luminous Novel is not merely about the (attempted) writing of 'the luminous novel' Levrero envisions, but rather feels like a part of an even larger whole, Levrero's entire writing-project and -life -- as Levrero also suggests in his preface, when he mentions having considered collecting additional texts of his here -- "since these texts are also, in a sense, a continuation of the luminous novel". In multiple ways, it is a project without end. Beyond that, too, the length of The Luminous Novel may eclipse its ambitions -- or be part of the point -- and there's no getting around that this is a rather long novel in which relatively little happens; this is not necessarily trying for the reader -- even at it's most everyday-mundane, the diary, for example, is a quite amusing read -- but this is a novel which certainly does take its good time; one suspects many readers look for more immediate (if not also obvious) gratification .....
       An expansive chronicle of what is ostensibly a failure -- the inability to write what the author conceives of as a 'luminous novel' --, The Luminous Novel succeeds as attempt (if not the complete abstract vision the author meant to realize). Certainly, it is worthwhile -- there is a lot to this work -- but it does make quite a few demands on the reader's patience.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 July 2021

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The Luminous Novel: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Uruguayan author Mario Levrero lived 1940 to 2004.

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© 2021 the complete review

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