Sergio Pitol - His writing – the way he constructs sentences, inflects Spanish, twists meanings and stresses particular words – reflects the multiplicity of languages he has read and embraced –and perhaps, too, the many men he has been. Reading him is like reading through the layers of many languages at once
Sergio Pitol, The Art of Flight, Trans. by George Henson, Deep Vellum, 2015.
Winner of the Cervantes Prize in 2005 (the “Spanish-language Nobel”) and considered one of Mexico’s greatest living authors, Pitol makes his English-language debut with The Art of Flight. Also the first book in Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory,” which Deep Vellum has signed to publish in full, this collection of essays and stories blends the genres of memoir and creative essay in an imaginative swirl of reflection and contemplation as Pitol looks back on a life lived through literature and travel.
The Art of Flight, originally published in 1997, is the first book in Sergio Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory,” a collection of essays and stories that blends the genres of memoir and creative essay in an imaginative swirl of reflection and contemplation. Pitol, considered Mexico’s greatest living author, was honored for his lifetime achievements with the 2005 Cervantes Prize, considered the Spanish language’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. From the 1960s through the 1990s Pitol worked as a cultural attaché in Mexican embassies throughout the world, and served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia. An erudite scholar of literary history and world culture, Pitol is also renowned for his translations from Russian, Polish, English, and German into Spanish, including Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, and Witold Gombrowicz. A unique, timeless, international literary voice in the mold of Henry James, Thomas Mann, and Jorge Luis Borges, Pitol’s work has been translated into more than ten languages. The Art of Flight is Pitol’s first book published in English.
Sergio Pitol’s stories, essays and novels do not only travel through his many places of residence. His writing – the way he constructs sentences, inflects Spanish, twists meanings and stresses particular words – reflects the multiplicity of languages he has read and embraced –and perhaps, too, the many men he has been. Reading him is like reading through the layers of many languages at once.
It isn’t easy to explain the reason why Pitol’s imagination takes hold of his readers. Perhaps it is the way he’s able to delicately tap into the most disturbing layers of reality and turn our conception of what is normal inside out. Perhaps it’s because he’s always telling a deeper, sadder, more disquieting story while pretending to narrate another. Or perhaps it is merely that strange gift which very few possess: a voice that reverberates beyond the margins of his books.
Perhaps the difficulty in placing Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight within the genre of literary autobiography is that it is not exclusively autobiography. The book’s publishers, Deep Vellum, describe this first entry in Pitol’s three-volume “Trilogy of Memory” collection as a “career-spanning collage” and “an utterly unique hybrid.” While the two memoiristic sections—Memory and Ending—are composed of notebooks and diaries from the 1990s and predominantly focus on Pitol’s life during the 1960s and ’90s, the second and third sections—appropriately titled Writing and Reading—take the form of essays on their eponymous acts. Although the book as a whole is neither exclusively criticism nor autobiography, there exists a symbiosis between the two genres, each one prompting the other to exist.
When we first meet Pitol in Venice, a city that produces in him “the certainty of man’s biological unity with everything that surrounds him and his mythical fusion with the past,” we are told his motivation to recount:
Lately, I have been very aware that I have a past . . . I now know fragments of my childhood that until recently were off-limits to me. I can now distinguish the various stages of my life with sufficient clarity—the autonomy of the parts and their relation to the whole—which I was previously unable to do.Just as the parts of his book are both autonomous and interconnected, so are the experiences contained within them. The key Pitol required to unlock full understanding of his own life is a traumatic memory—the death of his mother—released from the dark corner it was sent during childhood, something he describes as “a source of agony, but also, secretly, the most extraordinary creative stimulus.”
This particular recollection offers perhaps the most personal understanding of Pitol as a person. Oddly enough, however, we do not learn of it until much later, while he is under hypnosis in an attempt to quit smoking, and is confronted with a repressed memory of himself as a child; “I feel possessed by the little boy I was and who is before my eyes,” and he realizes that beneath all his experiences resides “a nucleus of agony.” While The Art of Flight is infused with humor, self-effacing modesty, and sharp critical commentary, brief insights such as this offer us the most sincere sense of who Pitol is. Thus my hesitation to describe the book as wholly autobiography or memoir; throughout, we learn who influenced Pitol’s writing, what he thinks of Chekhov, Faulkner, and Joyce, the literati he has known, where he lived and so on, but seldom does he offer real personal closeness to the reader. As such, when intimacy is proffered, its scarcity makes it seem all the more sincere.
As Pitol weaves together memories, dreams, literary criticism, brief histories of twentieth-century Mexico, and odes to writers he regards as exemplary, The Art of Flight circumnavigates neat categorization. In trying to situate this book both culturally and historically, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives makes for an obvious if imperfect comparison, alongside Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part quasi-fictional bildungsroman My Struggle, Ben Lerner’s mesh of fiction and autobiography in Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, and, with Pitol’s fixation on place, even Hemingway’s memoir-cum-love letter to Paris A Moveable Feast. But despite attempts to locate the book among these, it resists comparison; The Art of Flight has none of the obsessive, Proustian detail of Knausgaard, or the metafiction of Lerner. It resists the light-heartedness of Bolaño’s depictions of youth and escapades, and the moroseness of Hemingway. Instead, it resembles a cloudy gemstone: at once glimmering and opaque, layered and precise.
All of which emphasize a book as unique and remarkable as its author. Born in the Mexican city of Puebla in 1933, Pitol served in the Mexican Foreign Service before embarking on a writing career in the ‘60s, and has since authored over two dozen books. Awarded the Herralde Prize in 1984, he later presented that same prize to Bolaño for The Savage Detectives. Pitol received the prestigious Cervantes Prize in 2005. He has also managed to make his name as a highly esteemed Spanish language translator. Enrique Vila-Matas—“perhaps Spain’s greatest living author”—wrote the foreword to this book. It is a late arrival on the English-language scene for Pitol; he is in the strange position of being compared to Latin American contemporaries such as Vila-Matas, Bolaño, César Aira, Valeria Luiselli, and Álvaro Enrigue, all of whom came to fame in Spanish after he did. But even this anachronism cannot mask the simple fact that The Art of Flight is sui generis; his publisher’s claim that Pitol is “quite simply the greatest living Mexican writer to have never been translated” is not without substance.
In his essay Why Write?, Sartre explores how a writer uses literature in order to “manage his escapes and conquests.” He describes how each writer “has his reasons: for one, art is a flight; for another, a means of conquering.” Such motivation as based partially in the writer’s belief that they are “essential in relationship to the world.” Giving permanence to an experience of our world through writing is a consequence of the writer imposing unity between their mind and the things they depict. “The operation of writing,” Sartre proposes, involves “an implicit quasi-reading which makes real reading.” An author does not see the words he writes as a reader sees them, as the words existed to him before he wrote them, while the reader’s perception of these words is unique.
This is apparent in The Art of Flight, as the elements of memoir are located in Pitol’s belief that everything in his life has been connected to literature, and they capture his attempt to give permanence to memories through the “operation of writing.” He explores how the creative act is shaped when one’s state as writer and reader are inseparable, and the ways in which this duality influences how a writer “recreates” what he or she reads. Pitol’s writing captures Sartre’s essential authorial relationship between mind and representation not only in the recollection of his life through detailed memoir, but explicit commentary on how these experiences informed his writing practice. For Pitol, “writing meant the possibility of embarking toward an elusive goal and fusing—thanks to that dark, inscrutable, and much talked-about alchemy one comes closer to the process of creation—the outside world and that subterranean one that inhabits us.” As his words travel from page to reader, they transform, and we experience unfamiliar places, people, and books. His writing brings us close, drawn in by vivid description and detail, while keeping us at arm’s length, for by definition memoir is personal and, in its very nature, ‘other.’”
The theme that imbues The Art of Flight most distinctly and consistently is travel. Pitol believed “writing in the same space where he lives was for most of his life equivalent to committing an obscene act in a holy place,” and found the basis for such conviction as a child, when reading Jules Verne “fuelled . . . a certain desperation to travel and become lost in the world.” Pitol takes us, in his book, from Venice to Warsaw to Rome, then New York, back to Mexico City, and on to Barcelona, a city that under Franco’s dictatorship invokes an almost comically negative reaction:
Every cell in my body rebels against the existence of this disgusting labyrinth: against the limping, midget, haggard-looking, hunchbacked whores who fill its streets when night falls . . . It feels like pus that’s impossible to wash off has splattered all over me.
Each place leaves a distinct imprint on Pitol, inking not just his memory but also his writing. Similarly to Bolaño, his recollections of mid-century Mexico City are of a lively, politically charged, turbulent place, with a bubbling undercurrent of radicalism and revolution. Here, his recollections include countless references to other Mexican writers, sometimes to excess; readers not conversant in Mexican literature may feel alienated despite the writers’ cultural importance. In contrast, Pitol effectively reconstructs plazas, streets, cafes, taquerías, and bookstores with such detail that we feel we are accompanying him as he darts from place to place. However, the execution by firing squad of revolutionary Rubén Jaramillo, his pregnant wife and sons in 1962 by the Federal Police was the turning point for Pitol, who grew disconnected from the country that allowed such an atrocity to happen. He left, and would not return again permanently until 1988.
Inextricably linked to place are the books read during his time spent there. For Pitol, “travel was the experience of the visible world; reading, on the other hand, allowed me to undertake an inner journey.” Venice in particular inspires strong literary opinions; within the “store of fiction set in Venice . . . it is considered more than just a setting; rather, it becomes a character.” The same could be said for the places in which he has spent his life, so connected are they to his motivation to write. In the same way, Pitol stresses that his personal development is linked directly to what he has read, perhaps akin to Sartre’s proposal that the act of writing involves “an implicit quasi-reading.” This belief is epitomized in his realization, after visiting New York’s Museum of Modern Art,
that nothing remarkable in the arts can happen if a connection is not established with past achievements . . . By failing to maintain a living dialogue with the classics, the artist, the writer, runs the risk of spending his life reinventing the wheel . . . The task of the writer consists of enriching tradition even if he venerates it one day and comes to blows with it the next.
It is clear in celebratory essays such as An Ars Poetica? and The Dark Twin that reading did not just hone his skill as a writer, but was the very foundation of his career. This is of course neither unsurprising nor unusual, but what Pitol explains in The Art of Flight is precisely how, in detail, his favorite authors and books influenced his writing practice. The reader actually learns relatively little about the substance of his own work—a pity, since this is his first book to be translated into English.
While most of these essays—for lack of a better word—are informative and excellently written, there are times where the temptation to skip ahead could arise. Perhaps this comes from a lack of familiarity with, or passion for, certain figures in discussion; the piece on Benito Pérez Galdós’s The Court of Carlos IV is somewhat unengaging, unless one is as passionate about the book as Pitol clearly is (and I am not). Perhaps this “dryness” is emphasized in comparison to Pitol’s lively examinations of Chekhov, which made me eager to revisit The Steppe, and the German painter Max Beckmann, in addition to numerous Latin-American writers previously unknown to me that I am now keen to read. So numerous are the references to his influences, it becomes difficult at times to keep up, or feel that much is being added by their inclusion. However, the majority of his readings would stand alone as pieces of critical writing, and add insight to the life of a writer relatively unknown in the English-speaking world.
In his discussion of Thomas Mann’s short bildungsroman Tonio Kröger, Pitol proposes “writing a novel solely about one’s own life, in most cases, is vulgarity, a lack of imagination.” The Art of Flight certainly adheres to his conviction. With this in mind, at times it appears Pitol is wary of talking of himself too much. On the one hand, he states, “I cannot imagine a novelist who does not use elements of his personal experience, a vision, a memory from childhood or the immediate past, a tone of voice captured in a meeting, a furtive gesture glimpsed by chance, only to incorporate them later into one or more characters,” while on the other, he displays an “insidious anxiety” regarding his own writing:
The places where life is, those things that don’t happen in this garret where I force myself as punishment, as penance, to lock myself up in front of a typewriter and dictionaries. Would I perhaps have to keep rummaging forever into my childhood and write about my life . . . I am sick of it.
More affectionate self-deprecation is found in my favorite anecdote from Pitol’s early attempts at love poetry: “My guardian angel protected and saved my literary future: I misplaced the poems. When I reread them thirty years later, I was petrified; to say they were atrocious would be to praise them.” Highlighting this disparity is not a criticism. The inclusion of essays and commentary enrich the book, evincing Pitol’s claim that reading has influenced his writing as much as experience. Indeed, Pitol’s readings have given creative energy to his own work. And we, as readers of the readings, are both twice removed from, and directly in contact with, his writing. Of Chekhov, he suggests, “the knowledge of the craftsmanship that he employed to write his remarkable stories surely intensifies the pleasure of reading them.” The same is true of The Art of Flight.
Returning to Sartre’s “why write?”, in Pitol’s case the answer could be: to find freedom, escape, or a sense of belonging. Bolaño wrote that “books are the only homeland of the true writer, books that may sit on shelves or in the memory.” Perhaps Pitol’s sense of disconnection with his native Mexico encouraged him to seek a home elsewhere, without ever being satisfied enough to settle in any one place—a state, as Vila-Matas says in his foreword, of “being Mexican and at the same time always being a foreigner.” Instead, Pitol found comfort in the walls he constructed around himself with books, which both protected him from rootlessness, and exposed him to the lives and minds of others.
Despite the literary essays and deep readings contained within The Art of Flight, what ties the book together is the glittering thread of himself that Pitol has sewn thoughtfully throughout. Although we meet him as a grown man, it is when recollecting his youth that Pitol seems most vulnerable, and consequently most open to identification. When triggered by the memory uncovered through hypnotherapy, realizing, “many things had become coherent and explainable: everything in my life had been nothing more than a perpetual flight,” it becomes clear for both Pitol and the reader that, while his mother’s drowning may have cast darkness over his life strong enough to hide the memory for decades, once exposed it reveals what he has been running away from for so long, and allows him to stop and take stock of his life.
Although this revelation lends a subtly melancholic undertone, the overall sense is not one of gloom but of vibrancy and vigor; Pitol describes the book as “an attempt to allay anxieties and cauterize wounds,” and indeed the overall feeling is celebratory, of a life fully lived. While disappointing that Pitol’s fiction currently remains unavailable in English translation, Deep Vellum is scheduled to publish the two subsequent volumes of this collection, which will hopefully serve as impetus for further translation of his work. The Art of Flight is rich with Pitol’s impassioned interrogations of others, woven into an intricate, if convoluted, web with memories, anecdotes, and confessions. Not all writers make great critics, nor the converse, but in Pitol’s case, one cannot exist without the other; to quote Borges, “we are all the past, we are our blood, we are the people we have seen die, we are the books that have made us better, we are gratefully the others.” - Rosie Clarke
I’ve just finished reading Segio Pitol’s The Art of Flight and my head really hurts. I’m not talking about one of those standard issue migraine headaches, with temples throbbing like they’re about to burst through my skin while I fumble with the child-proof cap on a bottle of painkillers, desperate for relief. No, this is something different, something a tad on the painful side, but mostly pleasurable in nature. My brain feels as though it’s literally expanding inside my skull from the sheer weight of the massive amount of knowledge that’s been imparted to it by this book. I love this feeling. I want to make it last for as long as I can. I’m also about to physically collapse in exhaustion from it. Beware the side effects.
How am I supposed accurately describe the contents of this book to people? I feel that other kind of more traditional headache muscling its way in as I agonize over this very thought. Perhaps it’s a task best left to the book publishing professionals and their publicists, but even they seem to struggle with this, placing the work squarely on the shelf labelled unclassifiable. Surely there has to be a way though? Once, for lack of anything better, I referred to as a historicaltraveldiaryessaybiography, but now, having finished the book, I realize that classification doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
What Pitol does over the course of 400 some odd pages is invite you, the reader, to inject yourself directly into his brain to explore his vast landscape of thoughts on a myriad of wide ranging subjects, as captured in brilliant essay-like snapshots that span decades of his life. The literary works of Thomas Mann and Antonio Tabucchi are analyzed. Reflections, hopes, and fears related to the 1994 Zapatista Uprising are chronicled through journal entries. The political merits of José Vasconcelos’s vast output are debated. Pitol’s own work as a translator and writer of fiction is explored in great detail. And on and on, with each subsequent piece being just as engrossing and engaging as the one that came before it. The sum achievement of the gratifying effect induced by these efforts is best described by the following quote:
We, I would venture to guess, are the books we have read, the paintings we have seen, the music we have heard and forgotten, the streets we have walked. We are our childhood, our family, some friends, a few loves, more than a few disappointments. A sum reduced by infinite subtractions. We are shaped by different times, hobbies, and creeds.
Yes! Go ahead and call the Art of Flight unclassifiable if you want, call it a historicaltraveldiaryessaybiography if you must, label it whatever or however you want to, but what it really is, pardon the alliteration, is a love letter to literature lovers everywhere. Even the most voracious of readers and most learned of scholars are bound to come up against some unfamiliar names within the pages of this book, but it doesn’t matter how familiar you are with the subjects or subject matter being discussed. Pitol—and let’s give credit where credit is due—translator George Henson have a rich command over language, one that keeps you enthralled through it all. You’re never spoken down to, you’re never handheld or held back by endless footnotes, and you’re never meant to feel ashamed for any literary shortcomings you might possess. Instead, The Art of Flight reads like a long overdue celebration for a timeless art form that is constantly changing, constantly reinventing itself through the years, but rest assured, will never die.
As much as The Art of Flight pleases, it also frustrates, but in the best possible way. Not because of what it doesn’t contain within its pages, but because of what’s shamefully unavailable for the dazzled reader to devour next. Where are the English language translations of Pitol’s novels and short stories? How are we to reconcile his thoughts on life and literature without being able to properly examine and critique his complete body of work as well? This volume serves as the first in his Trilogy of Memory series and publisher Deep Vellum is committed to releasing the next two (which can’t arrive soon enough) as well, but here’s hoping that someone out there also takes the time to get the rest of this Cervantes Prize winning author’s literary output translated and published sooner rather than later. - Aaron Westerman
Sergio Pitol, The Journey, Trans. by George Henson, Deep Vellum, 2015.
The Journey features one of the world’s master storytellers at work as he skillfully recounts two weeks of travel around the Soviet Union in 1986. From the first paragraph Pitol dislocates the sense of reality, masterfully and playfully blurring the lines between fiction and fact. This adventurous story, based on the author’s own travel journals, parades through some of the territories that the author lived in and traveled through (Prague, the Caucasus, Moscow, Leningrad) as he reflects on the impact of Russia’s sacred literary pantheon in his life and the power that literature holds over us all. The Journey, the second work in Pitol’s remarkable “Trilogy of Memory” (which Deep Vellum is publishing in its entirety), which won him the prestigious Cervantes Prize in 2005 and inspired the newest generation of Spanish-language writers, represents the perfect example of one of the world’s greatest authors at the peak of his power.
George Henson on the Linguistic Puzzle of Translating Sergio Pitol's The Art of Flight
In Spanish, the word for wound is herida, a noun derived from the verb herir, itself drawn from the Latin ferire, which means to wound, to injure, to hurt. The image is clear: a bloody cut or scrape. This word, herida, appears throughout Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight in a specific locution: the wound of time.
The phrase is incarnated upon one of Pitol’s return trips to Italy: “When I passed the bookstore, it was closed; what’s more, it was nonexistent . . . The sign with the bookstore’s name had disappeared. I felt the wound of time, its malignancy, with terrible intensity.” In this moment, Pitol’s wound appears congealed and crusted over, but also simultaneously fresh and raw and bleeding. If there is a way to stanch this wound, Pitol’s The Art of Flight suggests, it is through the active recollection of memories that otherwise would be gutted by the blunt reality of the present moment.
And so Pitol writes early in the first volume of his “Trilogy of Memory” that “Lately, I have been very aware that I have a past. Not only because I have reached an age when the greater part of the journey has been traveled, but also because I now know fragments of my childhood that until recently were off-limits to me.” What results from this declaration is a very unusual book that diverges from the standard tropes of memoir. Rather than attempt to divulge personal details or set the record straight, Pitol seeks to do something more personal and internalized: to fill in the gaps and holes of his memory before they grow bigger and deeper. The end result may have been aestheticized after the fact, but we are ultimately reading something that was written for the author alone. We are invited to forget ourselves, to put on the persona of Pitol himself and close up the wounds of time and memory by reading these words of his various travelings, readings, and meetings across the Western world.
After some four hundred pages of The Art of Flight, readers could be excused for thinking of The Journey’s 165 pages as a continuation of or an appendix to its predecessor. But to do so would be to underestimate the canvas on which Pitol is now working. When herida reappears in the middle volume of the “Trilogy of Memory,” it does so on a broader scale. In describing a Czech woman who would teach him Russian, Pitol writes that “Like all Czechs, she felt the wound of history in her marrow; she no longer believed in the possibility of a revival of socialism.” In this light, Pitol’s account of his travels across Eastern Europe read less as a memoir of singular, personal memories and more as a document that seeks to fill in the gaps history itself will create. Looking backward from our present moment in the year 2015, Russia and its dominion over adjacent lands has been greatly curtailed by the events of the post-Soviet era. Just as Ostalgie has risen in Germany—a nostalgia for the Communist relics of the years the country was split into Westen und Osten—so has a similar sentiment remained for the years of the Iron Curtain. But maybe the soft veil of nostalgia should not be permitted to obscure all that was difficult and unpleasant during those years, and it is this reality that The Journey seeks to preserve like a mosquito in amber.
“[I]t was just two years ago that Gorbachev began to cautiously introduce new terms into the official discourse,” Pitol explains in The Journey. “At that time the Baltic republics were the best allies, and there are now conflicts with them.” It is 1986, and “a number of writers [have now] become frightened by the pace of change.” The book covers the span of sixteen days—from May 19 to June 3—as Pitol travels from Prague to Moscow to the southern city of Tbilisi, near the border with Iran, encountering the soon-to-collapse Communist realm as a traveler wholly new to the experience. The cultural divide is disorienting: back home in Mexico, he tells us, “if someone brings up a political topic, even strangers say what they think. They are either followers or enemies of something.” But these foreign cities harbor equally foreign people: “When I have tried here to cautiously talk about what is happening in the country, I encounter evasion, silence, polite changes of subject . . .”
These moments that would easily, preferably be cloaked in silence give rise to The Journey’s strongest and strangest scenes. While staying in Moscow, Pitol realizes that he has misplaced a novel. He asks the matron (or, to use George Henson’s word, matryoshka, calling to mind the rigidity and curvature of Russian nesting dolls) holding all the door keys for his hotel floor if he might have left the book on her desk while retrieving his key. She pulls out “two Finnish pornographic magazines—one was obviously Tom of Finland, [featuring on its cover a policeman with] a tool capable of destroying an elephant’s vagina.” She threatens him for attempting to spread propaganda—I will refrain from quoting here because the full description of the incident is so funny and so impossible to excerpt in part—until he unwittingly reveals that he is a diplomat and therefore to be respected. The overbearing woman transforms into a quiet, almost-pleading shell of herself, and remains that way as a wealthy Finnish couple arrives, contemptuously unburdens her of the pornographic magazines, and leaves for their rooms. What has happened? Even Pitol wonders at the silence of these wealthy guests, who do not seem to be under diplomatic immunity. But he is in a country where things go unexplained.
For much of the book Pitol is more or less trapped in Moscow, waiting to travel to Tbilisi. There are inexplicable delays—delays that would be less likely in this hyperconnected decade, but which would still persist to some degree in any country with the massive bureaucracy the USSR boasted in the 1980s—and so Pitol invokes the final scenes from The Tempest to explain his resultant feeling upon entering Tbilisi. “If they had read Shakespeare well, Russian writers would not have placed so many obstacles and difficulties in my way to reach Georgia. Their strategy was wrong. They destined that I find all the virtues of the world in this place.”
At times, the book feels like a record of so many dreams. And dreams themselves do figure in the text. “Nowhere have I dreamt so much as in Russia,” Pitol insists. “I would wake up at night and write down the outline of a dream, I would climb into a car and although the ride would last only ten minutes, I would dream something. I dreamt during the siesta, in a boring meeting, at a movie, anywhere. Dreams appeared in bulk.” Why would so many descriptions of actual dreams ensue over the next few pages? Because Pitol’s stay in Moscow tends so closely to the nightmarish that he has difficulty dissociating his experience from the ones he undergoes as he sleeps? Perhaps dreams indicate another kind of wound that Pitol seeks to mend.
To close The Journey, indeed, is to feel as if a dream has ended and the reader is finally returning to the real world with its harsh surfaces and clear light. There are hints and clues throughout that we should read Pitol’s experience as some sort of fulfillment of a dream. The most notable comes when he describes, in a chapter called “Goldfish,” the rapturous experience of seeing a small reproduction of Matisse’s Goldfish as a child, and then much later how “as I entered a room in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, which houses some of Matisse’s most extraordinary oils, I suddenly came across the original of my goldfish. It was more than an aesthetic experience—it was a mystical trance, an instant reassessment of the world, of the continuity of time.” The key to the whole book, to the dreaminess of Pitol’s Moscow days and the relationship between The Journey’s historical canvas and The Art of Flight’s personal one, is only to be found in the very final chapter, where he describes his identification with a Russian face in a children’s textbook of human races. “Intuitively, I feel that my intimate relationship with Russia goes back to that distant source,” Pitol writes. “My problems with mythomania lasted a few years longer . . . The only exception was my identification with Iván, the Russian boy, which at times still seems to me to be the real truth.”
In this light, we might read The Journey as an attempt to repair both the wound of history and the wound of identity. Pitol is inextricably bound with his homeland of Mexico—so much that the famed critic Christopher Domínguez Michael made Pitol’s entry a crown jewel in his Critical Dictionary of Mexican Literature—but his visit to the lands behind the Iron Curtain amounts to a grappling with his deep-rooted sentiment that he is perhaps more Russian than Mexican. The result, encapsulated in The Journey is simultaneously bewildering and fascinating. - Jeffrey Zuckerman
Reading Sergio Pitol will make any serious writer want to write—and write better. One of the most prolific writers of his generation, Pitol’s influence in Spanish-language literature is both wide and widely acknowledged: in 2005 he received Spanish literature’s most prized accolade, the Cervantes Award. Yet in the Anglophone literary world he remains relatively unknown.
In The Art of Flight and The Journey, the first two parts Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory,” published by Deep Vellum, the English-speaking public finally has access to the work for which other writers so revere Pitol. But this work, perhaps, also provides the reason why those previously translated writers—e.g., Roberto Bolaño, Enrique Vila-Matas, Valeria Luiselli, Álvaro Enrigue, and others—have enjoyed some success in the Anglophone world, whereas Pitol himself has not. For, in these two volumes, Pitol does something brave and perspicacious for a renowned writer’s writer, but something that may not appeal beyond a narrow literary audience. He investigates a central, paradoxical idea: that writing does not capture life; rather, it captures the effort to capture life. Most importantly for writers, the aesthetics of Pitol’s investigation reflects this paradox by expressing with absolute clarity how writing fails to make life clear.
In The Art of Flight, while discussing how a single image prompted Faulkner to begin work on The Sound and the Fury, Pitol describes the “paths to creation” as
full of wrinkles, mirages, delays. They required the patience of a saint, a good deal of abandonment, and at the same time, an iron will in order to not succumb to the traps the unconscious lays to block the writer. It is well known that the struggle between Eros and Thanatos always lies at the root of creation. But the end of the battle is always unforeseeable.
For Pitol, that battle is writing; and he describes it with elegance and articulateness, in prose that Vila-Matas, in his introduction to The Art of Flight, describes as a stylistic means “to say everything, but not to solve the mystery.”
For Pitol the world is a mystery—specifically a literary one. The Pitol on display in The Art of Flight is the quintessential man of letters: his whole life, as described here, is dominated by constructing literature, responding to literature, and by responding to the mysterious world in literary ways. Unclassifiable other than as a volume of prose, The Art of Flight is a collection of essays, journal entries, memoirs, descriptions of his own fiction (which themselves become pieces of fiction), criticism, accounts of his reading, and even dream analyses. Through all of this, Pitol examines how writers attempt to respond to and understand the world through literature, and describes a process so continuous that his writing has a sense of the eternal: in Pitol’s aesthetic vision, there will always be books, time to read, time to write about what one has read, as well as time to write more books that will feed this process over and over again.
The title of the first volume of Pitol’s trilogy comes at the end of one of its shortest pieces, entitled “Test of Initiation,” an account of his first attempts at writing. The young Pitol, “an eighteen-year-old youth who suddenly decides to become a writer” after several failures, discovers that an article he has written has been published. But rather than excitement, he feels shame, and doesn’t want his success acknowledged: “any sign of surprise or celebration of his talent … would drive him hopelessly mad.” His misery is compounded when, on rereading his work, he finds—using a phrase he borrows from both Dostoyevsky and Flaubert—that he doesn’t “understand a lick” of it. Yet even this literary allusion does not reassure him. His cognitive faculties have failed him; and, worse, the literature he has written about in his article seems “as hollow and as ridiculous as his own prose.” He is temporarily destroyed.
As the man writing this note of memoir, Pitol suggests a reason for his adolescent distress: it was “his confrontation with the word, his printed word,” and his discovery that writing does not, and cannot, capture life. Writing’s futile battle for clarity makes it something profane; a deed polluted by its innate failure to achieve its object. To write at home, therefore, amongst those he loves, would be to commit “an obscene act in a holy place.” Pitol responded to this discovery by leaving home and traveling. Writing thus became “a joyful game of concealment, an approach to the art of flight [italics added]”: in order to write—to defile life by trying to capture it in words—he had to fly.
In this explanation, however, Pitol introduces his characteristic uncertainty: trying to find a reason for that early upset is “a pointless guessing game … [T]o continue it would send him into a labyrinth of astonishment. He would become lost in marshes without ever touching solid ground.” Nowhere else in Pitol’s work is there a better description of his writing.
As an adult, Pitol learned to delight in his writing “vice.” He acknowledges that the act of writing is a Sisyphean task; but for him its eternal qualities are what make it so addictive. This is, perhaps, why writers so adore his work: he not only loses himself in the “marshes,” but he wallows in their mud; seeking astonishment he throws away Ariadne’s thread and wanders deeper into the labyrinth. Throughout The Art of Flight we see Pitol feeding his addiction. He indulges in obfuscation by continually putting pen to paper; and he remains on his infinite journey—both around the physical world in his other career as a diplomat, and across the literary world through his reading.
In a series of diary entries spread over four years and collected in a piece entitled “Here Comes the Parade!,” Pitol demonstrates his addiction to writing and literature using a real-life example: the gestation and birth of one of his novels.
He begins with an idea for a detective story set in an apartment building. Then, after a discussion with his niece, he toys with the idea of something akin to Henry James’s The Aspern Papers. Another idea he entertains is to make it a political book, set in the 1930s or ‘40s.
A year later, still thinking of the novel, he appears to be in the darkest part of the labyrinth, the most unstable marsh, where he cannot yet see his characters: “The story unfolds at the level of masks. The faces will never be seen. The biggest enigma lies in the identity of the protagonist.” A month later he concludes that “the truth, the true truth of the truth is not likely to be within our reach.” But within three days he is on a completely new track—the novel’s main theme will be the relationship between a mother and her son. Two months later he confesses to abandoning completely his original apartment building idea. But then stories he hears, and documents he receives about German activities in Mexico in World War II, spark his interest again; and an exhibition of interwar photographs seems to provide the faces he has been searching for. At last, he enters a café “with a view of the river and the castle” and begins a rough outline—the “heavy carpentry” of the novel that will become El desfile del amor (Love’s Parade). Present are many of the elements Pitol has been turning over in his mind during the previous few years: the detective story, the apartment building, the interwar setting, the political discussion, the unmasking of characters.
Within a month, however, Pitol is fretting: is the novel’s writing going well, or is it “nothing more than an outbreak of graphomania”? But more reflective and positive journal entries see Pitol thinking about the book’s structure and its influences—how his reading and digestion of art breathe a “cheerful expressionism” into his book. And then, as he is approaching the final stages of the writing process, he considers how readers will receive the novel. He is sure they will recognize that the plot revolves around Mexico’s wartime fascist groups. But buried in this thought is his conviction that “the lack of clarity, the gap in the story, seems necessary to me.” A series of questions follow; but Pitol instinctively shies away from answering them in any definitive way. He wants, in Vila-Matas’s words, “to say everything, but not to solve the mystery.”
The finished book would go on to win the Herralde Novel Prize. It is still not translated into English.
The Journey, the second volume of the “Trilogy of Memory”—like the description of the writer’s process in “Here Comes the Parade”—is an extended discussion of Pitol’s literary concerns. But in this case Pitol has a real-life rather than an aesthetic adventure. At the heart of the book lie Pitol’s attempts to reach the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, at the invitation of a Georgian writers’ organization. But this apparently simple trip, like his description of Faulkner’s creative process, is full of “wrinkles, mirages, delays.”
Beginning in Prague in the mid-1980s, Pitol’s travels to Georgia are marred by the complex and fluid politics of the perestroika era. Shortly after the Georgian invite, he receives a parallel offer from the Soviet Ministry of Culture: is he being welcomed by the Russians or delayed? Once in Moscow, Pitol is not exactly held against his will, but it does seem that his Russian hosts are keen to prevent him from traveling to Tbilisi, one of the “strongholds of perestroika.” Pitol’s meetings with Soviet officials are awkward and his questions are evaded. In one hilarious scene, he is even accused of possessing illicit pornography. He is terrified: “All this for wanting to go to Georgia and not to the celebrations for Turgenev?” But the accusation is not the trap Pitol believes it to be; it is a simple—and for the official, embarrassing—mistake.
Characteristically, while waiting to be granted permission to continue his journey, Pitol spends his time in bookshops, theatres, and galleries. Most importantly, he reflects on the life and work of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva. One of the most important of Russia’s twentieth-century writers, a supporter of the White Army, and resolutely anti-communist, for five years after the 1917 revolution Tsvetaeva was trapped in Moscow, where she witnessed a terrible famine. Pitol’s response to his own predicament is to consider in detail her struggles and her literary output. Studying her last essays, he describes them as having “few details, more or less tics, eccentricities, digressions on writing, her surroundings, fragments of conversations, a sense of montage as effective as Eisenstein; nothing seems important, but everything is literature.” This could just as easily be a description of the ways in which Pitol himself views the world.
Pitol finally receives a plane ticket—but whether it is a return to Prague or a flight to Tbilisi, is still uncertain. Surprised to find himself at last at his intended destination, he compares his struggle to get there with one of Prospero’s schemes:
an intricate plot so that Miranda, his daughter, and the heir of the kingdom of Naples will fall in love. … If they had read Shakespeare well, Russian writers would not have placed so many obstacles and difficulties in my way to reach Georgia. Their strategy was wrong. They destined that I find all the virtues of the world in this place.
As the book’s title suggests, Pitol is celebrating the process rather than the destination—however full of “virtues” that destination might be.
What he finds in Tbilisi delights him, yet there is “something more that is a little difficult for me to describe.” Among the camaraderie of the Georgian writers, and the open and happy aspect of the city, most striking is his account of a communal lavatory:
a collective latrine, something I would never have imagined existed, outside correctional facilities … There was no collective shame. Belly laughs could be heard intermingled with belly noises. The cavernous stench was unbearable.
Here, the reader is reminded of his close reading of Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk in The Art of Flight, in which Pitol demonstrates how Svejk’s scatological obsessions evolve from “festive atmospheres derived from the old medieval and Renaissance tradition” to an illustration of the baseness of war, where the front is “an area of corporal expulsion, where one speaks only of urinals, enemas, diarrhea, suppositories, stained underwear, and fecal stench.”
In The Journey, however, Pitol’s revulsion at the Tbilisi communal latrine leads him not to a meditation on the USSR’s war-torn past, but to a memory of being potty-trained in a house where “[e]verything was neat, transparent, I was surrounded by happiness.” Once again, Pitol’s preoccupations surface: the literary and social pleasures he experiences in Georgia are linked to something unclean: the baseness of bodily functions. And those bodily functions in turn arouse in him a memory of purity and cleanness. In “Test of Initiation,” he realises he must escape home to indulge in the impurity of writing; in The Journey, literature takes him halfway across the world from his birthplace, only to be transported back there by shit.
In Pitol’s life and his writing, neither images nor thoughts flow naturally and automatically to their logical associations. The paradox is that these two books demonstrates this incongruity and the uncertainty it creates with absolute precision. Vila-Matas notes this paradox, describing Pitol’s style as “to distort what he sees.” It is Pitol’s perfection of this “distortion” that so well describes the futility of any attempt to represent the world accurately through literature. Instead, he suggests, literature can only accurately represent a written version of the world, or perhaps not even that—rather, a written version of an attempt to represent the world.
Writers see in this attempt the reflection of their own struggles. Perhaps if Pitol’s fiction were to also be translated and published outside of his native language, more readers will have access to Pitol’s unique brand of aesthetics: a refreshing and stimulating distortion of reality. - West Camel
The Journey, the second volume in Sergio Pitol's Trilogy of Memory, is part diary, part memoir, and part literary criticism. Deep Vellum, having already published the first book and planning to publish the trilogy in its entirety, is bringing a major Mexican author (winner of the prestigious Cervantes prize in 2005) to English readers for the first time. Most of the text is a diary, which takes place over the course of two weeks in 1986, during which Pitol was working as the Mexican Ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
What is most striking to readers, unless they are extremely well versed in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature, are Pitol's descriptions of cities, and his personal relationships to them. He admits in his introduction that, even though he believes Prague to be "an observatory and compendium of the universe," the city is absent in his notebooks. Ironically though, he has no trouble recalling: "In August, the residents of Prague go on holiday; if forced to remain in the city, they tend to withdraw into their homes and drink beer until the heat subsides. " One of his great strengths is to turn from comic sentences to those of poetic resonance with a seamless and subtle finesse.
He says of Moscow, when he first arrives: "The city imposes its urban design on me, its spectacularness and power. " When he arrives in Leningrad, "contrary to all expectations the weather is gorgeous, perfectly bright and almost warm. " There are constant waves of emotion for Pitol -- from boredom, wonder, anger, and melancholy to meditative brooding. After discussing the brutal life of Marina Tsvetaeva, one of Russia's greatest modernist poets, in the first of a two-part essay, titled "Family Portrait I," he says in the following chapter, "In the afternoon, a work of contemporary Russian theater about family problems, the lack of communication between generations; it bored me so much that I took advantage of the intermission to sneak out. " Despite his official government position, and his exhaustingly intensive knowledge of literature, one is empathetically drawn into the emotional malaise of conflict presented as personal confession.
Pitol as first-person narrator has a difficult time with the stark contrasts between a city's structures and its citizens. He believes Prague to be one of the world's most gorgeous cities, though simultaneously "[t]he hopelessness of its inhabitants creates a gloom that permeates everything and penetrates to the marrow." Álvaro Enrigue, in his introduction, emphasizes a scene in Pitol's own introduction, where the narrator sees a man in Prague who slips in his own excrement and continues to stumble, due to his intoxication. If this were not an apt enough metaphor for current global and domestic politics, Enrigue also makes the observation that The Journey is "like a hall of mirrors, in which a series of narratives reflect on each other: eschatological tales."
There is a personal, extended irony that carries throughout the text. In the last journal entry he says, "I left Moscow in a torrid heat." A sentence later, "They just announced over the loudspeaker that the temperature in Prague is 54 degrees. And it's also raining." Pitol is a tactful writer who masterfully handles hundreds of different subjects in a compact, novel-like form. George Henson eloquently translates the text, and has done the immense undertaking of bringing Pitol's Trilogy into English for the first time. I doubt I have done this book justice, but that is only because this and the preceding volume -- Art of Flight -- are some of the best to be published by a small press in the last few years. - Matt Pincus