Macedonio Fernández – Challenge to realism, to logic, and to structure itself: how to demolish the sense of fluidity of a normal novel

Macedonio Fernández, The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel) (Open Letter Press, 2010)

«The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel) is the very definition of a novel written ahead of its time. Macedonio (known to everyone by his unusual first name) worked on this novel in the 1930s and early '40s, during the heyday of Argentine literary culture, and around the same time that At Swim-Two-Birds was published, a novel that has quite a bit in common with Macedonio's masterpiece.
In many ways, Museum is an "anti-novel." It opens with more than fifty prologues—including ones addressed "To My Authorial Persona," "To the Critics," and "To Readers Who Will Perish If They Don’t Know What the Novel Is About"—that are by turns philosophical, outrageous, ponderous, and cryptic. These pieces cover a range of topics from how the upcoming novel will be received to how to thwart "skip-around readers" (by writing a book that’s defies linearity!).
The second half of the book is the novel itself, a novel about a group of characters (some borrowed from other texts) who live on an estancia called "la novella"...
A hilarious and often quite moving book, The Museum of Eterna's Novel redefined the limits of the genre, and has had a lasting impact on Latin American literature. Authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Ricardo Piglia have all fallen under its charm and high-concepts, and, at long last, English-speaking readers can experience the book that helped build the reputation of Borges's mentor.»

«I imitated him, to the point of transcription, to the point of devoted and impassioned plagiarism. I felt: Macedonio is metaphysics, is literature. Whoever preceded him might shine in history, but they were all rough drafts of Macedonio, imperfect previous versions. To not imitate this canon would have represented incredible negligence.» — Jorge Luis Borges

“When the first editor's note appears early in Macedonio Fernández's The Museum of Eterna's Novel, you aren't quite sure it wasn't written by the author in one of his alternate guises. But this is only the beginning of such playfulness. To American readers, Macedonio is not the household name that his former student and self-confessed plagiarist, Borges, has become. Yet his works circle, gambol, and swerve in an eminently familiar way. Macedonio stands (or more likely cartwheels) at the beginning of the Ultraist literary movement that made Borges possible, and his impact on the young Argentinean writer, as well as on later practitioners of experimental fiction, remains undisputed.
The Museum of Eterna's Novel, a sprawling, enigmatic work begun in 1925 and "completed" when Macedonio died in 1952, is the fount of that influence. The book's spirit is best captured in its last chapter: the "Final Prologue," addressed "To Whoever Wants to Write This Novel." In fact, prologues constitute almost half the book, bearing such titles as "Prologue of Indecision," "Prologue for a Borrowed Character," and "Prologue of Authorial Despair." These preambles take shape as metaphysical inquiries, character sketches, and desultory lectures on the nature of art, passion, suicide, and (inevitably) prologues. Readers of Borges's Labyrinths, or Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, or later self-reflexive novelists such as J. M. Coetzee and David Foster Wallace, will recognize the authorial game—finding new ways to break the fourth wall. Yet Macedonio also stands shoulder to shoulder with the original metafictional prankster, Laurence Sterne. The Argentinian even includes a couple of bare pages for the indecisive reader, perhaps in homage to the blank, black, and marbled folios of Tristram Shandy.
The Museum of Eterna's Novel is also reminiscent of that classic of avant-garde Italian theater Six Characters in Search of an Author. In Pirandello's tragicomedy, six strangers show up at a theater rehearsal, claiming they're looking for an author to complete their story. Many of Macedonio's characters are, alas, not even allowed to appear; in addition to "Real Characters," he gives us Nonexistent, Absent, Thwarted, and Awaited Characters and even two Fragile Characters, "owing to their vocation in life, because they believe they can be happy." When the novel proper begins on page 128, we find a handful of Macedonio's creations in an even more metaphysically challenging dilemma than Pirandello's: They have gathered at a luxurious country estate called La Novela, where they must learn "to change from living beings to 'characters,'" guided by a man known only as the President, who is himself in love with Eterna, the beautiful and elusive woman of the novel's title.
The episodes that follow are by turns poignant, absurd, philosophical, and banal, as Macedonio's characters move through the rooms of their well-apportioned prison—eating, drinking, flirting, gossiping, and all the while mulling over their fictional natures and discussing what fate awaits them at the novel's inevitable end. Macedonio gives the screw another turn with the entrance of a final character—the Reader—who craves something like the same fate: "Oh, if I could be a fly on the wall for your conversations, and in this way know for even an hour what it is to be a character!" If there are conflicts driving this elusive work, they are surely these: the joy one feels on immersion in literature and, from the perspective of the "active" world, the deathlike stasis of a life lived in books.
Macedonio is the sort of writer Ezra Pound would probably have classified as an "originator" rather than a virtuoso—the unwashed literary pioneer who invents a crude new form, which the most gifted of his followers (Borges) hammers into its perfect shape. Yet such a classification would not account for the most compelling feature of Macedonio's work. More than simply providing Borges a springboard, Macedonio's epic, quarter-century-long project is one of the peaks of a genre now rare in this age of irony: the paean to human passion.
Tales of Macedonio's odd, itinerant life—scribbling poems on napkins, trying to found a utopian colony, running for president of Argentina—have obscured his energetic devotion to craft, as well as the formal coherence of his fiction. The Museum of Eterna's Novel is the product of what the German painter Max Beckmann termed "disciplined intoxication"—a diligently cultivated awareness that frees one to be spontaneous. Macedonio shows us this in the disarmingly named "Also a Prologue," where he writes, in a language stripped of unnecessary ornament: "Outside the state of passion (only passion is altruistic), which is always a state of certainty, the only state of reality for dreams in which both lovers converge and in which everything must be risked, everything must be promised in full awareness, all happiness, all pain—outside of this, we must live in half light, and with half-actions, half-awake, without entirely knowing events and states, since outside of passion the probability is that suffering will prevail."” - Matthew Ladd

«Macedonio Fernández apparently began working on The Museum of Eterna's Novel around 1925, and kept on revising it until his death; it was first published posthumously. Regardless, it is and would have remained intentionally fragmentary, a pieced-together game in which some of the pieces might have been replaced, rearranged, or changed but the whole still remained much the same. The work it most closely resembles is the similarly playful and digressive Tristram Shandy.
The Museum of Eterna's Novel is divided into two not quite distinct parts. The first is a series of prologue-variations, in which the project and characters are introduced and discussed, from all possible perspectives. The second is the novel proper - more or less. Typically, the dividing line is an otherwise blank page titled in bold letters: WERE THOSE PROLOGUES ? AND IS THIS THE NOVEL ? and then, in italics:
This page is for the reader to linger, in his well-deserved and serious indecision, before reading on.
The author's presence (and whatever he is trying to do at any given point) figures in much of the text(s) - and the reader is very much taken into account throughout, too. In fact, Fernández isn't satisfied with merely addressing the reader, but rather draws him - several of them, actually - into the text itself. Yes, it's that kind of book.
Fernández's prologue variations - over fifty of them - are a fascinating lot. They include a 'Guide to the prologues (warning prologue)' as well as one in which he admits (way too late) that he has to take care in not getting carried away by all his prologuing, as the prologues threaten to become an end in and of themselves:
I must keep prologuing while avoiding the abuse of prologuing the prologues, and while I'm at that I have to make them prologues of something, that is they must be followed by something (a novel); meanwhile I can't permit my novel the caprice of prologuing itself (which is the equivalent of making biographical allusions in histories or doctrinaire declarations in the text of a novel in progress); meanwhile I must assure you, as I do now, that I am well on the road to auto-prologuery, which should definitely dampen the prologues' hopes (they complained once) for auto-existence (auto-existence is the ultimate response to the mystery of the world, which involves eternity), meaning they would not have to subordinate their existence to whatever follows
The prologues serve as a testing ground for characters: in 'A character, before first appearance' one asks:
"I want to know what kind of people I've ended up with here."
Another prologue is devoted to two rejected characters, another - 'The man who feigned to live' - is entirely in the form of a footnote.
Fernández promises (as if it needed saying ...):
All the events and characters in this novel are pleasantly impossible, they are fantastic with respect to reality.
He also promises (and warns) from early on:
An irritating read, this book will annoy readers like no other, with its false promises and inconclusive and incompatible methodology; nevertheless it's a novel that will not cause reader evasion, since it will produce an interest in the soul of the reader that will leave him allied to its destiny -- it's a novel that needs a lot of friends.
Fernández repeatedly admits to be drawn to the issue of how to engage the reader -- and chooses presentation and form over content in doing so: "I am interested in method", he admits, much more than story, and so, for example:
My tactic as a novelist is: the Reader only catches glimpses of the characters, but what he comes to know of them he knows so well that he is pricked by readerly irritation. He's left insatiable by his incomplete knowledge or "half-knowledge", yet loves their delicacy.
Midway through the book the prologuing is more or less done, but Fernández only partially changes tack. Certainly, the narrative does not become a conventional novel. The characters that have previously been mentioned and introduced are now the central figures, but this is still about fiction-creating. There's a locale -- the estancia "La Novela" -- but in getting their bearings and finding their roles the characters are still very much part of a creative process -- in which they, as well as the author (and the reader(s)) play a role. Yes: The Museum of Eterna's Novel continues to tie itself in self-reflexive knots.
Characters stray through the narrative on their own errands -- "I was looking for the part of the novel where I could have life of my own", one excuses himself -- and cite the author's own words (which pleases him: "they're making me famous"). Figures such as 'Author' and 'Reader' engage in dialogue and commentary. And it's not just a single reader: more are waiting in the wings -- as, for example, the "new reader" who lets it be known:
I'm anxiously awaiting my turn to descend into the pages of the novel. Am I not there yet?
It's all good if slightly overwhelming fun -- the kind of work that has, perhaps been over-written and -thought over the decades Fernández devoted to it. As is noted early on in the book:
This novel is enamored of itself and it is the sort of novel where mishaps and adventures happen, artistic indecisions, whether to get lost in art, to be silent, to be ignorant; even as it relates events it is swept away by others; it contains accidents and is the victim of accidents.
Fernández tries to have (and do) it every which way; it is fascinating -- especially in its details (or rather: its tangents) -- but it also proves utterly exhausting.
Among the many brilliant observations on offer is the admission:
Ever since I've been an author I've looked on in envy at the audience there is for auto accidents. I sometimes dream that certain passages in the novel had such a throng of readers that they obstructed the progression of the plot, running the risk that difficulties and catastrophes of the interior of the novel would appear in the forward, among the mangled bodies.
Fernández may be too enamored of such auto-accident passages: certainly there's a great deal here that stops one in one's tracks -- yet like gawking at a car accident, what can be taken from it is often limited, the disruption to the normal flow of life (or, in this case, of the text) ultimately memorable only as disruption and little else.
Fernández also obsesses about his readers, suggesting the different forms of reading possible here - and of readers, from the 'window-shopping'-one to 'the reader who skips around'. He even draws some hypothetical readers into the text itself, turning them into characters. And when he writes: "I'm confident I won't have a single orderly reader. An orderly reader could bring about my downfall", it's also because he has done his best to ensure that The Museum of Eterna's Novel can (or should) not be read in orderly fashion.
The Museum of Eterna's Novel is certainly a fascinating book, and successful on its own, self-defined terms (including the promise of being an irritating read...) - but it also loses itself in it's super-reflexive self-obsession.» - M. A. Orthofer

«In this extraordinary literary creation, Borges’ mentor, Macedonio Fernández, masters in the reader's playful engagement to games of the word and of the mind beyond literature and metaphysics. One of the great Argentine writers of the twentieth century, Macedonio (as he preferred to be called), wrote this novel (or anti-novel) with an originality and perversity second to none—way ahead of his time and beyond the avant-guard rupture with previous conventions. He redefined the genre and influenced the great literary geniuses among Hispanic-American writers, including Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Ricardo Piglia, and many others.
“Whoever preceded him might shine in history," Borges wrote, "but they were all rough drafts of Macedonio, imperfect previous versions. To not imitate this canon would have represented incredible negligence.”
The Museum of Eterna’s Novel is structured as a challenge to realism, to logic, and to structure itself, as if the author intended to demolish the sense of fluidity of a normal novel and its aesthetic tendency towards realism and the solemnity of style. Instead, we (the readers) are forced (as well as intelectually seduced) to immerse ourselves in continual digressions and discussions on the roles of authors, readers, critics, characters, theories on genres, etc., as if these topics were objects which are acquired and kept in a Museum. This Museum is also, as Adam Thirlwell writes in the foreword, a “laboratory for investigating whether every philosophical question can be observed through the condition of falling in love.
Museum starts by offering over 50 prologues with a wide range of themes: mortality and eternity; perspective and the viscitudes of the author (including authorial despair); critics; context; non-existence; and so on. Many of these themes have digressions containing dedications, salutations, and narratives on whether readers should accept or reject a chracter in an elaborate effort to playfully frustrate and challenge.
Following the prologues are twenty chapters concerning a group of characters (some borrowed from other texts) who live on an estancia called "la novella." Three sets of lovers (Eterna and the President; The lover—Deunamor—and his anonymous lover; and Maybegenius and Sweetheart) in different settings exemplify or put into practice or reason the so-called concept of “todoamor,"—“totallove"—which overcomes what the world calls death, merely “hiding/ocultación” in Macedonio’s vocabulary. He writes: “I do not believe in the death of those who love nor in the life of those who do not love.”
Thus the only death possible and present in this novel is the academic death of the characters. Critics have suggested that the long process of writing this novel from 1925 until his death in 1952 was Macedonio’s attempt to fight his pain and fear following the untimely death of his wife, Elena de Obieta, in 1920.» - Luis Alberto Ambroggio

«The Museum of Eterna’s Novel by Macedonio Fernández is engaging and hilarious, light-hearted and profound. The one non-contradictory aspect of the work is its overt attempt to win the reader’s time, attention, praise, and awe—a goal at which it succeeds beautifully. As the author himself describes it, “This will be the novel that’s thrown violently to the floor most often, and avidly taken up again just as often. What author can boast of that?” The novel is written in a unique form, consisting of dialogues between the author and his readers, which take place over a series of prologues.
The Museum of Eterna’s Novel is a meta-novel that goes so deep into the swirl of metas that it loses itself, its characters, and us in the process. And yet it is all about the relationship between reader and author, and what fiction can and cannot do. The Museum of Eterna’s Novel is a proverbial Wonderland of wit and explicitly enunciated confusion, where forward leads backwards, and where a word is synonymous with its opposite. As the novel progresses, Fernández constantly shifts voice and tone in a self-conscious attempt to disorient his reader.
Fernández writes in the first of about fifty playful prologues introducing his novel, “Let the Reader take charge of my agitation and trust in my promise of a forthcoming goodbad novel, firstlast in its genre, in which the best of the bad of ‘Adriana Buenos Aires’ and the best of the good of ‘Eterna’s Novel’ will be allied, and in which I will recollect the experience gained in my efforts to convince myself that something good was bad, and vice versa, because I needed it to finish a chapter of one or the other...” He then mentions that he wrote a page of the good novel and a page of the bad novel per day, and sometimes the pages got mixed up. It is now up to the readers, he says, to collaborate and sort out the confusion.
Fernández, born in Buenos Aires in 1874, worked on this novel between 1925 and 1938. A philosopher, humorist, writer and poet, he started The Museum of Eterna’s Novel when he was about fifty and rewrote it five times before his death. Fernández was very concerned about writing, but not nearly as concerned about publishing his own work.
Among English speakers he is better known, not as an author, but as a character in the works of Jorge Luis Borges. Fernández was a close friend of the South American literary giant, and Borges cites Fernandez as one of his most important mentors and influences. The two share a desire to discover what actually lies at the core of the accepted concepts of time, structure and pattern, and the less accepted ones of metaphysics and the unconscious mind. Borges draws the analogy that in his conversations with Fernández he was like Plato who listened to and transcribed the ideas of Socrates. The ideas of the latter were later used to form a new Argentinean literary movement. This new translation of The Museum of Eterna’s Novel marks the first opportunity for English speakers to read Fernández and encounter one of Latin America’s most influential writers.
The translator, Margaret Schwartz, has preserved Fernández’s subversively humorous tone, evident even in the titles of the prologues, such as, “Prologue to eternity,” “Letter to the critics,” “Prologue for a borrowed character,” “Prologue of authorial despair,” “What do you expect: I must keep prologuing,” and “Prologue that stands on its tiptoes to see how far away the novel begins.” The prologues continue for the first 122 pages, until Fernández includes a blank page with the question “Were those prologues? And is this a novel?” The fine print reads: “This page is for the reader to linger, in his well-deserved and serious indecision, before reading on.” What follows on the next page is not a novel but a love poem. When Fernández finally arrives at his novel, it is surprisingly short and just as self-reflexive, centering on a group of characters who live in a place called La Novela. In a final prologue, Fernández once again defies expectations, providing an open invitation for the reader to rewrite the whole thing.
As he plays with form and layers of meaning, Fernández generates utter chaos within his novel, but it is a kind of creative chaos. “The Museum of Eterna’s Novel” is a dismissal of the novel, but also a dismissal of the notion of being. It leaves things open and unfinished, because the claim that anything can be definite does not seem feasible. Yet at the same time as Fernández pushes and questions the limits, he shows that there are none. Out of non-sense, sense is born, and out of non-being, eternity.» - Elizabeth D. Pyjov

«Humans, breathers, those innumerable incessantly stirring the world's air, relentlessly ordering it into your chests, elevating your eternally open mouths to an eternal heaven, beings of the heartbeat and the voice that either brightens or breaks, which perhaps every day demands alternately an end or an eternity, there's beauty to give us all understanding of the Mystery, and to stop all pain. But where is it? Is it in Art, in Conduct, in Understanding, in Passion? In Cervantes, or Beethoven, or Wagner, or in some great delirium: in adoring intonation, dazzled by Walt Whitman's Man?
Argentinian author Macedonio Fernández (1874-1952), though largely unknown in the English-speaking world, has been something of a cult figure to several well-known Latin American authors of the twentieth century, including his protege, Jorge Luis Borges. Fernández's adult life began in conventional bourgeoisie comfort until the death of his wife in 1920, following which he abandoned his profession as a lawyer, sent his children to live with various relatives, and drifted through a series of boarding houses. Translator Margaret Schwartz likens his place in literary mythology to the role of Socrates: as the founder of a new, uniquely Argentinian way of looking at eternal things who dramatically influenced ensuing generations, his voice and teachings revealed through the writings of his students. Fernández was also noted for his eccentricities, such as the time he gave away his guitar to a random stranger in the street, and the other time he tried to establish an anarchist colony in Paraguay only to give up after one night of mosquitoes.
The Museum of Eterna's Novel was commenced in 1925, went through five drafts, and remained in an unedited, unfinalized state at the time of Fernández's death (similar to another great product of Latin American literature, Roberto Bolaño's 2666). Like his contemporary Louis Aragon, as well as many other writers of the Modernist era, Fernández sought to reinvent the rules of the novel, starting with a very basic premise: Why risk love when death is inevitable? In tackling a question that has haunted countless thinkers before him, Fernández takes a deeply metaphysical approach that influences the very form of his greatest work. Dedicated to the caprices of the "Skip-Around Reader," whom Fernández claims will unwittingly find themself reading in order, The Museum of Eterna's Novel is a work of philosophical metafiction that uses its medium to explore the cosmic complexities of human life and human love.
Fernández was of the opinion that Art should not imitate Life. "I want the reader to always know he is reading a novel and not watching the living, not attending to a 'life.' The moment the reader falls into Hallucination, that ignominy of Art, I have lost rather than gained a reader." In fact, the bulk of The Museum of Eterna's Novel is not a novel at all, but a series of prologues, some fifty in total, with titles such as "Prologue That Thinks it Knows Something, Not About the Novel (It's Not Allowed That), But About the Doctrine of Art," "The Essential Fantasmagoricalism of the World," "The Man Who Feigned to Live" (which is one big footnote), and "For Readers Who Will Perish if They Don't Know What the Novel is About." Some meditate on the process of creating The Museum of Eterna's Novel from the perspective of both the author and the characters, including the cook who decided to resign and left the remaining characters with nothing to eat. Other prologues, in dense and difficult but ultimately rewarding prose, set up the mystical underpinnings of the main story.
The actual novel takes place on an estancia called "La Novela," owned by the President, who has gathered together his closest friends, including Maybegenius, Sweetheart, The Lover, Simple, the Gentleman Who Does Not Exist, and Eterna, who is both the President's love interest and the personification of idealized beauty and eternal love. There, the characters exist in the moment and only for each other, spending each day in one another's company and speculating on the nature of companionship and eternity. And here we come to the crux of the matter: the definition of "Totalove," the theme connecting all the musings and mind exercises of both prologues and novel. Fernández describes it as "the Highest form of Daydream." It is a rapturous state of passion that prevails only in the present and is the ultimate form of love: for a beloved, for friendship, or for art and beauty. The problem then becomes how to sustain a moment that is only that: a moment. The Action is only one aspect of Totalove. There is also the anticipation, like the weeks building up towards Christmas and the sadness one feels after the presents have been opened and the rest of the day still remains. Once the Action has occurred, there is nothing left but loss or even death.
Hence the prologues: The Museum of Eterna's Novel is a novel that doesn't want to begin because in our beginning is our end.
The Action initiated by the President is the conquest of Buenos Aires by beauty, which is achieved by eliminating all references to history and the past, including statues of famous men and all homages to the memory of heroic deeds. Streets are given new names such as Peace, Hope, Happiness, The Bride, and Youth. "In the end, something happened to non-flowing time, like history, and there was only a fluid Present, whose only memory was of what returns to being daily, and not what simply repeats, like birthdays. That's why the city almanac has 365 days with only one name: 'Today,' and the city's main street is also named 'Today.'" But the Action fails to bring fulfillment to the President and his relationship with Eterna. He is unable to achieve Totalove and the result is a gradual break-up of La Novela and the final good-bye between all the characters. I realize you may want me to continue on, Fernández assures the reader, and force me to bring good tidings to all these characters you have fallen in love with, but Posterity likes tragedy and not comedy, and thus, we too must reluctantly take leave.
Clearly, Macedonio Fernández was a fascinating, complicated man. That is evident from this book alone, and not to mention his biography. The Museum of Eterna's Novel is a brilliant, thoughtful and frequently hilarious work that brings to mind everything from Mark Twain's irreverent humor to Jorge Luis Borges's mental labyrinths to Edgar Allen Poe's preoccupation with death and idealized beauty. It's definitely slow reading - Fernández's prose is often deliberately obtuse. Translator Schwartz describes it as "baroque" and likens it to Fernández's presentation of himself as a relic of the colorful past bumbling his way through sleek, fast modernity. But what struck me about The Museum of Eterna's Novel was how little it fit the image I had developed of Latin American literature, which I had classified as writers such as Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Roberto Bolaño (despite all their political and artistic disagreements with one another). The Museum of Eterna's Novel felt more like a work of a European avant-gardist, written in a cafe in Paris while hanging out with the Surrealists or the American expatriates. In fact, it fits into no box I can think of. I'll warn you: it's a difficult read and this review took me forever because I just couldn't figure out how to describe it. But if you're up to the challenge, this book is truly worth it.» - E. L. Fay

«In 1921, a well-to-do Argentine family arrived in Buenos Aires on a grand transatlantic ship, the Reina Victoria Eugenia. If they were on deck to watch the city come into view after seven years in Europe and a three-week ocean crossing, they would have first seen the curved art nouveau facade of the Argentine Yacht Club at the port’s entrance, its spire evocative of a lighthouse; then they may have noted the belle epoque customs house, which rose higher than the loading cranes and warehouses of the Dársena Norte port complex; and finally, once they arrived at the passenger pier, they would have seen the crowd eagerly awaiting the ship. On that pier, if we are to trust the memory of Jorge Luis Borges, began the most pivotal friendship in Argentina’s 20th century literary history.
The family on the ship was Borges’s: along with him traveled his father, mother, sister, and paternal grandmother. Among the friends and relatives waiting to greet them was one Macedonio Fernández, a longtime friend of Borges’s father who had graduated with him from the University of Buenos Aires law school. This Fernández may have been a lawyer by education, but he was a writer and philosopher by inclination, and had been recently widowed—all circumstances that would contribute to his affinity for the 22-year-old Borges, whom everyone called “Georgie.” Likewise, no one ever referred to Fernández by his last name; he was known by his beguiling and unusual first name: Macedonio.
Many years later, this is how Borges would remember his first meeting with Macedonio, who would become Borges’s mentor and a sort of intellectual guru to all the poetry and art-addled young men of 1920s Buenos Aires: “When we arrived, a miniscule figure in a bowler hat was waiting for us at Dársena Norte, and I inherited his sumptuous friendship from my father.”
The friendship, though it was definitely most intense in the 1920s and cooled afterward, lasted until Macedonio’s death in 1952. The words Borges delivered in a eulogy at Macedonio’s burial are the most eloquent confirmation of how important this bond was to Borges’s development. “In those years,” Borges said, referring to the 1920s, I imitated him, to the point of transcription, to the point of devoted and impassioned plagiarism. I felt: Macedonio is metaphysics, is literature. Whoever preceded him might shine in history, but they were all rough drafts of Macedonio, imperfect previous versions. To not imitate this canon would have represented incredible negligence.
Gabriel del Mazo, Macedonio’s cousin, remembers Borges’s speech by the family crypt for a different reason. It may have been the first time in the history of the Recoleta Cemetery, a decidedly somber if beautiful necropolis, that attendees at a burial burst into laughter. Borges accomplished this by recalling one of Macedonio’s jokes: that gauchos were invented as entertainments for horses.
Humor was one of the hallmarks of Macedonio’s writing—a refined and cerebral humor typically flavored with paradox (in one piece he describes a man who is always rushing around so as to be the first one to arrive late). The affinity for the paradoxical proposition is one of the many ways in which Borges took after his old friend, but hardly the only one. Both men were enamored of speculative philosophy, and arguably it was Macedonio who was responsible for making a metaphysician out of Borges. Both writers were incessant explorers of a handful of themes: the inexistence of the individual personality, the elastic nature of time, the permeability of waking life to dreams and vice-versa; one might say: the instability of reality in general. In both writers’ work the supposedly bedrock concepts by which we live are revealed to be unstable isotopes, slippery and layered, none being in essence what they appear to be and all of course eminently moldable, especially within the pages of a story, poem, or essay.
There is an ongoing debate in Argentine literary circles about the extent to which Borges was influenced by Macedonio, an eccentric genius who spent the final three decades of his life drifting through Buenos Aires boardinghouses and country hermitages, absorbed in writing and thinking. Some critics believe that without Macedonio’s influence, the Borges we know would have never existed. Noé Jitrik, who might be described as the dean of academic literary critics in Argentina, said last year in an interview with Buenos Aires’s leading newspaper, Clarín, that “Borges is a product of Macedonio.”
For other critics, Borges’s friendship with Macedonio is instrumental, but hardly determinant. They point out that Borges published his famous short stories in the 1940s, a decade or more after the period in which he was closest to Macedonio. Also, Borges’s own reading appetites were omnivorous and prodigious: Who’s to say whether he absorbed this or that idea from Macedonio or from a tome in his own library? Also, they regard the debate as somewhat spurious: even if the fodder for Borges’s iconic short stories like “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or “The Circular Ruins” came via Macedonio’s influence or idea bank, it’s certainly Borges’s consummate art as a stylist and storyteller that enabled him to fashion flawless prose from the material.
Whatever the outcome of this critical debate, if there is one, it’s clear Macedonio left a deep imprint on Borges, one of the 20th century’s great writers. And yet Macedonio Fernández’s name and his work are hardly known outside Argentina. What’s needed is a proper estimation of Macedonio’s legacy; toward this, it’s still useful to examine his friendship with the much better-known Borges, as well as the ideas they decanted together amidst the general intellectual ferment of 1920s Buenos Aires.
The flowering of the friendship between Borges and Macedonio was quick and intense. Memoirs of the 1920s recall a cafe in the Once neighborhood of Buenos Aires called La Perla where Macedonio would hold court on Saturday evenings. When not finding him in the cafe, young literary men would visit him at his boardinghouse rooms, where Macedonio would offer visitors gourds of yerba mate as well as cookie-like Argentine confections called alfajores, which he kept stashed in an old suitcase under the bed. More than one memoir recalls Macedonio’s alfajores had a funny tendency to emerge from storage as an unidentifiable blob of crumbs, dulce de leche, and chocolate.
Reminiscences also coincide in the portrait they draw of Macedonio: a small and slight but striking man with a dark mustache and flowing white hair, usually swaddled deep in a poncho, fond of strumming a guitar and sinking into silence to meditate upon some point of philosophy, only to emerge from absorption with a brilliant turn of phrase.
Borges was among his most assiduous visitors. In those days Borges had a habit of taking endless walks around Buenos Aires, calling on Macedonio at insomniac hours. Almost immediately, the two men began to exchange writing and ideas.
Before the end of 1921, Borges had included a poem of Macedonio’s in an anthology of contemporary Argentine verse he prepared for the Spanish magazine Cosmópolis. This publication is, for several reasons, an important indication of the intellectual infatuation the men shared. To begin with, the poem is titled “Al hijo de un amigo” or “To the Son of a Friend,” and so it is explicitly dedicated to Georgie. On the one hand the poem reads as a summation of Macedonio’s metaphysical interests: “Drunk with meaning / Reality works as an open mystery / And succeeds sometimes / In making not only dreams but life / Seem like a dream.” But the poem is also interspersed with tributes to Georgie’s youth and enthusiasm for life: “The way I saw him yesterday / Greet a woman soul to soul / I came to understand what greeting was.” The poem is shot through with affection, but so is the gushing biographical note appended to the end of it, penned by Borges himself:
Macedonio Fernández: perhaps the only genius in this anthology. Metaphysician, denier of the I ... crucible of paradoxes, just and subtle gentleman, undefeatable and polemic chess player, meditative and smiling Don Quijote... Macedonio is perhaps the only man—a definitive man and not a derivative or secondary thinker—who lives his life in plenitude, without believing that his moments are less real due to the fact that they do not intervene in others’ moments as books, fame or citations. A man who prefers to scatter his soul in conversation rather than define himself on the page. It’s licit to suppose that for centuries to come psychologists, metaphysicians and diggers in aesthetics will busy themselves rediscovering the bits of genius he already has found, has filed to sharpness, appraised, and not only that: silenced.”
The text is worth quoting at length because it is the first published piece of writing Borges dedicated to his mentor, and it already offers all the ingredients of the Macedonio myth that would later (in the view of critics specialized in Macedonio’s work) become a superficial caricature, to the detriment of Macedonio’s reputation as a writer. Borges conjures a romantic image of a wizened hermit, devoted to chess and esoteric speculation, a genius in the raw, who does not even bother to capture his creativity in writing or publish it.
The portrait is so compelling it would cling to Macedonio for the rest of his life—and much of his posthumous existence too. Again, those disposed to view Borges’s handling of the Macedonio myth with suspicion believe he too conveniently cast Macedonio as a kind of avant-gardist sideshow, rather than a literary innovator. Only posthumously, with the publication in the late 1960s and 1970s of the major novels Adriana Buenos Aires and Museo de la Novela de la Eterna (Museum of the Eternal’s Novel), did Macedonio begin to shake off this reputation as an eccentric footnote to Argentine literary history.
Both novels exemplify Macedonio’s implacable pursuit, similar to Borges’s, of literary forms that went beyond realism and plot, to investigate the bottomless combinatory delirium at the source of art and reality. His Adriana Buenos Aires was an experiment in parodying defunct novelistic forms handed down from gothic fiction and romanticism, while suggesting possibilities for literature light years beyond sentimentalism. Museo de la Novela de la Eterna, first published in 1967 and impossible to summarize, is best described as an extended experiment in writing an open novel analogous to a piece of music. The prose evokes a dizzying world of aesthetic associations and possibilities in the reader’s mind. At every moment it tests the limits between art and life, reality and fiction, as well as form and content.
Macedonio’s novels do not satisfy on a narrative level as Borges’s stories do, but instead engross us with their constant tinkering under the hood of fiction. They suggest a workshop full of previously unimagined literary contraptions. Even if most of these do not quite make it out of the garage, they still make mind-opening exhibits for anyone with time to visit Macedonio’s museum: a kind of early 20th-century World’s Fair for possible literatures.
The two men definitely had divergent artistic temperaments. Essentially, Macedonio was erratic and impassioned; Borges was methodical and restrained. Borges’s essays and short stories are painstakingly crafted and famously flawless, each carefully prepared for publication. Macedonio spent decades prolifically recording his thoughts and composing wildly experimental novels, but published only three books in his lifetime: a brief meta-novel, a collection of humorous writing, and a compendium of speculative philosophy.
What united the two men more than anything else was their proclivity for metaphysics, their unflagging interest in examining the nature of reality, the mystery of being, the fabric of time and space.
For the young Borges, still searching for his voice and subjects, Macedonio’s boardinghouse room clearly was a sanctuary, a place where he could unburden his heart and simultaneously soak in the consoling and vertiginous rush of philosophical discussion. In 1924, during another trip to Europe, Borges wrote a letter to Macedonio in which he said he would like to talk with him regarding a woman he loves, but then added he’d rather wait until he was back in Buenos Aires, “and say it to you in your berth on Rivadavia Street, amidst yerba, guitar and metaphysics.”
Extrapolating from this line, we can imagine many long nights of yerba mate drinking in which the two men engage in metaphysical flights of fancy while not forgetting to periodically descend to earth and talk about their troubles and frustrations. In short, they did what male friends do—banter endlessly, about everything under the sun.
This level of intimacy seems to have lasted until 1928. By this time, Borges had begun to distance himself from his early avant-gardist tendencies, meaning he already would feel less rapport with the perennially iconoclastic Macedonio. For his part, Macedonio had just published his first book, the collection of metaphysical texts No Toda es Vigilia la de los Ojos Abiertos (Not All Is Vigil with Open Eyes), and would have been particularly sensitive to any literary cross-currents.
But as is the case with most intellectual friendships that taper off, there was a catalyzing spat. In this case, it involved a less-than-reverential published reference to Macedonio written by Borges’s brother-in-law, the critic Guillermo de Torre. In an article published in Spain, he referred to Macedonio as a “man already advanced in years, a kind of frustrated semi-genius writer, whose attitudes have exercised a diffuse influence over the writers of the new generation.”
Some books by and about Macedonio This lukewarm appraisal enraged Macedonio’s disciples, who by that time did not include Borges among their inner circle, and they began to lump Borges together with his brother-in-law on the enemy side. One Macedonio devotee, Leopoldo Marechal, fired off a plucky response to the article. In the course of arguing that Macedonio’s influence over the new generation was hardly diffuse but ubiquitous and thorough, he also makes a pointed reference to Borges as Macedonio’s “spiritual son,” who perhaps could do a better job honoring his progenitor.
The spat carried over into other literary magazines, with Macedonio partisans here and there accusing Borges of a less-than-scrupulous appropriation of the older writer’s ideas. As one writer put it Borges was playing the role of an “unconfessed Plato” to Macedonio’s Socrates.
The two men would patch things up the next year, in 1929. Although they never regained the intimacy they once shared, the exchange in metaphysical ideas still went on. Into the 1930s Macedonio wrote Borges long letters full of scratched out and illegible words, letters detailing extravagant positions on metaphysical problems. In the last extant letter of their correspondence, dating to 1939, Macedonio wrote to console Borges after the death of his father the year before, and stated, among other esoteric asides: “I deny the world as unity, identity, continuity.” Toward the end of the letter he added: “I think death has a little twist to it.”
For anyone who has a passing familiarity with Borges’s career-making 1940s story collections Ficciones and The Aleph, the two statements above will strike a chord. Simply taking Macedonio’s propositions, and slightly reformulating them, one might come up with a one-sentence summation of many of Borges’s famous stories: they portray reality as endlessly mercurial and death as something slightly other than what we might make it out to be.
These two themes—the illusive nature of reality, the idea of death as a metaphysical rabbit-hole—are fused in “The Circular Ruins,” among the most anthologized of Borges’s stories. It is at once an allegory anatomizing religious belief and a devastating diagnosis of life, death, and individuality, which the story says may be nothing more than dreams—self-deceiving phantasmagoria. This is the story’s last line: “With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him.”
The idea of one’s reality as a dream (or someone else’s dream), which of course has ancient roots, is a favorite one with Macedonio. He fleshed it out as early as 1924 in Proa, a short-lived magazine founded and edited by Borges and a few other writers in his circle. According to an editor’s note preceding Macedonio’s essay (a note almost certainly written by Borges), it is a “hurried sketch” of Macedonio’s metaphysical position. Like much of Macedonio’s writing, the essay, titled “Metaphysics, Critique of Knowledge; Mysticism, Critique of Being,” is intricate, dense and brilliant:
...time, space, causality, matter, and I, are nothing, neither forms of judgment or intuitions. The world, being, reality, everything, is a dream without a dreamer; a single dream and the dream of one alone; therefore, the dream of no one, and that much more real to the degree it is entirely a dream.
Here, Macedonio is rendering a microcosm of all his metaphysical ideas, much as Borges’s Aleph is a concentration of all points in space at one ultimately indescribable spot.
If reality is a dream of “one alone,” as Macedonio’s essay claims, then it is is also the dream of “no one,” though this may at first appear paradoxical. In Macedonio’s world the individual personality does not exist; in his conception, reality as we know it is best described by what he elsewhere calls an “almismo ayoico,” or “I-less soulism,” a rush of sensation we only imagine to be connected to ourselves.
Although Macedonio admits there is a practical level to existence in which we must communicate through conventions such as personality, causality, and time, it is the mystical level that is of the essence. On this fundamental level, everything that is sensed must be treated as real but understood to be part and parcel of an endless dream, without knotting oneself up with silly questions such as, “Who am I?” or “What is the purpose of life?” or even, “Is this real?” For Macedonio, the primordial fact is that something is occurring as sensation in the present moment, whether it is dream or waking life. Everything else is sophistry. There is no reality outside of what each of us sense, outside the sensation itself. As he says, “We are everything, we don’t perceive it.”
Among the corollaries of this philosophy is a refutation of death, which Macedonio also explores in this essay. Based on the mystical position he has staked out, the only experience we can know is being in the now. Existence is a succession of present moments and so does not have a past or a future, which are illusions. Since death can only occur in the future, in the moments after we die, or in the past, in the instants or ages before we were born, it follows death does not exist. The Grim Reaper is a phantom we invent to romanticize our lives.
This philosophy, derived from a life reading William James, Immanuel Kant, and Arthur Schopenhauer, was unusual in the context of Macedonio’s milieu. It is evidence of Macedonio’s powerful and intuitive intelligence that an amateur philosopher studying on his own would have arrived at these idiosyncratic conclusions, albeit expressing them in lyrical language and without any pretense at academic rigor. The dominant philosophical school at the time in Argentina was positivism, diametrically opposed to Macedonio’s sketch of a radical, I-denying subjectivity. It’s not surprising then that beyond a small circle of writers and artists Macedonio’s ideas were assimilated mainly as eccentric expositions rather than serious philosophical reflections.
But clearly, Borges took these ideas seriously, at least as conceptual artifacts that might be induced to produce innovative literature. Whether it was Macedonio’s influence or not, he became in his own right a serious reader of philosophers like Schopenhauer (arguably Borges’s favorite, and Macedonio’s second-favorite after James). Few of Borges’s iconic stories lack a metaphysical inflection similar to that contained in Macedonio’s metaphysical writings of the 1920s. Again, whether these ideas were taken directly from Macedonio or emerged more spontaneously from Borges’s general immersion in the intellectual cutting-edge of his time is a matter for scholars to squabble over.
Neither writer believed in originality in art, so in the deepest and most important sense the question is moot. If Macedonio invented Borges the metaphysician, then it is probably just as valid to say Borges invented Macedonio, the literary man. By his own account, until he met Borges and other young writers and artists participating in the Buenos Aires avant-garde, Macedonio was still writing self-conscious poetry mired in fin de siecle conventions. However coy both writers may have occasionally been about influences, they were conscious of the debts owed one another. For Borges’s legions of readers it’s important simply to know Macedonio played a pivotal role in opening the younger writer’s eyes to a wider world, beyond appearances, through veils of illusion.
Reading Borges in the light of Macedonio’s ideas enriches Borges, fleshes out the context from which he emerged, and has the overall effect of making Borges more approachable. With Macedonio as a precursor, Borges seems less monstrous, less a preternatural intelligence emerging freakishly in splendid isolation.
There is no contemporaneous writer I have read that enjoys as many correspondences with Borges’s writing as Macedonio. With almost every other author, including those in the Argentine canon, Borges seems to offer far fewer point of contacts, or if they are to be found they seem far more subterranean and circuitous. Borges looms large as an influencer, but appears to have no clear genealogy and so remains fixed as a distant, cold juggernaut in the literary firmament.
Of course Borges claims certain influences—Edgar Allan Poe, R. L. Stevenson, H.G. Wells, etc—but these only get us so far. We read these authors’ work and Borges’s stories side by side and can’t quite fathom what might have triggered the quantum leap represented in stories like “The Aleph,” or “Funes the Memorious.”
Borges’s writing, so obnoxiously perfect, can seem an impenetrable construction, much like the city featured in his story “The Immortal,” built on a foundation that does “not reveal the least irregularity, the invariable walls not indulging a single door.” After a dose of Macedonio, though, the reader suddenly feels empowered to tunnel in with multiple points of entry.
Consider the 17 epic pages of “The Immortal.” The cross-references start even before the actual story begins. First, there’s the title of the story. Immortality, as before said, was one of Macedonio’s favorite ideas to toy with, since he believed death to be as illusive as most of the other concepts we fear or feel buoyed by in this life. Macedonio once described death as a “game... that happens and never kills.”
After the title we find hovering above “The Immortal’s” text one of Borges’s characteristically erudite epigraphs, this one from Francis Bacon, which begins: “Solomon saith: there is no new thing upon the earth.” The quote sums up the story’s deeper theme, which is how our notions of history and memory are turned to dust once we consider the mind-boggling ramifications of infinitely elasticized lifetimes: infinite destinies, transmigrating personalities, a leveling of ethics.
After reading this epigraph, a reader familiar with Macedonio can’t help but think of his “Prologue to Eternity,” included in the first pages of the Museo de la Novela de la Eterna, which explores a similar idea, only less solemnly:
A popular musical phrase was sung to me by a Romanian woman, and later I rediscovered it ten times in different works and composers from the last 400 years. Without a doubt, things don’t begin; or they don’t begin when they are invented. Or the world was invented ancient.
If the world emerged as an ancient thing, as Macedonio says, then clearly, as in “The Immortal,” memory’s depth perception is an illusion, and the distinction between remembering and foreseeing is doubtful. And both Macedonio’s novel and Borges’s short story take this idea of relativizing history into the aesthetic plane as well, where it instantly undermines any conception of authorial importance or artistic originality.
In Borges’s story, we learn that Homer’s poetic output would be reproduced by any human, given an immortal span, since an infinite lifetime necessarily contains all possibilities. In Macedonio’s novel, amid countless meta-narratives spinning here and there like so many tops, there’s one that plays with the idea of originality, “humanity’s eyes placed finally on something never seen,” a “novel like none that has ever before been written,” “the first good novel,” only to tragicomically deflate this utopian notion when the author admits in the end: “I leave behind a perfect theory of the novel, and an imperfect example of its execution.”
Other resonances: in “The Immortal” the protagonist explores a sinister palace, in which stairways’ steps are all of different heights and exhaust him. According to Borges himself, the idea for these irregular stairways emerged tangentially from Macedonio’s most well-known 1920s literary stunt, which seen through the lens of today seems nothing less than a conceptual art piece: his quixotic project to win the Argentine presidency.
To support the campaign, which of course never really got off the ground, Macedonio and his co-conspirators (among them Borges) invented a series of subversive pranks. These would supposedly frustrate citizens into voting for candidate Macedonio, who would then ascend to power and deliver them from the disruptions. Among the absurdist tactics conceived: trolley-cars’ handrails would be loosened, small-denomination coins would be minted to be absurdly heavy (recalling the metal cones in Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” that fit into the palm of the hand but are nearly too heavy to lift), mirrors would reflect only half the face, and stairways would be constructed so that none of their steps were of equal height.
Beyond these surprising biographical connections, there are lines in “The Immortal” that simply gleam as polished avatars, concise coinages, of Macedonio’s theories. At the pivot point in the story, when a central enigma is revealed via the unveiling of a troglodyte’s secret identity, Borges’s narrator states: “We easily accept reality, perhaps because we intuit that nothing is real.”
A bit later in the story we find a succinct and poetic rendering of Macedonio’s metaphysics canceling out death and individuality: “Nobody is somebody, one immortal man is all men... I am God, I am a hero, I am a philosopher, I am a demon, I am the world, which is a fatiguing manner of saying that I am not.”
The philosophical vein running through Borges and Macedonio might be described as mystically-inclined skepticism (though perhaps Macedonio drank more and more eagerly of his own Kool Aid than Borges did). Both were habitual doubters of their own existence, and by extension, also of their novelty as artists. Borges liked to say “I don’t write well, I plagiarize well.” Macedonio once wrote prophetically of Borges, “he will be what others thought I would be.” But if we accept the premise of “The Immortal,” perhaps it’s immaterial who wrote what, or who became what. Given immortality, there’s no doubt each would have written the other’s work, with an unshakeable, creeping sense of deja vu.» - Marcelo Ballvé


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