Luis Chitarroni, The No Variations: Diary of an Unfinished Novel, Darren Koolman, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.
read it at Google Books
A self-negating series of notes for an unfinished work of fiction, this astonishing book is made up of ideas for characters and plots, of literary references both real and invented, and is populated by an array of fictional authors and their respective literary cliques, all of whom sport multiple pseudonyms, publish their own literary journals, and, in turn, produce their own ideas for books, characters, and poems . . . A dizzying look at the backrooms of literature, where aesthetic ambitions are forever under siege by petty squabbles, long-nurtured grudges, bankrupt publishers, and self-important critics, The No Variations is a serious game, or perhaps a frivolous tragedy, and is one of the great “novels” of contemporary Latin American literature.
“In this book—one of the most complex and challenging texts of Argentine literature in recent years — the Borgesian themes of erudition, tradition, and consecraton are sent through the shredding machine. The result is a ‘novel’ made up of diaries, notes, forgetfulness, articles, and poems created by writers invented by the author.”
I have a review in the Times Literary Supplement of Luis Chitarroni's The No Variations.
I note that The No Variations is "not a novel in the traditional sense":
Instead, it is the promise of a novel, notes and plans for a work of fiction which in each iteration is cut short by the author with a definitive “NO” – but the “NO” comes too late, for the reader has already experienced the rejected scenario, and thus joins the author in the complex realm of the artistic act. Consumers of art are usually spared the terrifying idea plaguing the artist: that for every creative decision taken, there are infinite, equally valid choices that could have been made instead.Chitarroni "challenges the novel by refusing to rise to the challenge of the novel, which is to say that he refuses to make a convincing whole of story, setting, and cast." It's not an approach that will please everyone.
The No Variations is thus writing about writing, the moment of creativity both expressed and scrutinised. The author’s annotations to himself demonstrate the underlying transience of what is eventually presented by novelists and publishers (and literary supplement reviewers) as practically inevitable.
I, for one, am very interested in notational story-telling (I find Maugham's A Writer's Note Book fascinating, for example, and I perhaps alone in thinking that the "Appendix" is what "makes" The Sound and the Fury); and yet because Chitarroni's work is defined not by a searching for solutions but rather by the inevitability of his "no", I was unable to get any traction as a reader.
For this reason I compare it unfavourably with Perec and Queneau. They applied arbitrary constraints to their writing as a means of transcending other, traditional restraints that had become invisible by being so long in view they stabilised on the retina of the imagination. These accepted conventions were held by Oulipo members to be equally as arbitrary – but they undermined them without sacrificing emotional engagement.
Some for whom reading is an intellectual game rather than an emotional experience will find The No Variations to be just the thing, and there's certainly something valid about having our readerly expectations challenged in this way – but must the challenge be so very dull? - T. Koelb
Because we were late in arriving, because we were late in departing, because we didn’t care that we’d be late, and, above all, because those from whom we waited turned out to be ourselves, which is to say, the others, the ones we called, ‘the slow ones.’ – The No Variations
Readers can only hope to be included in that community, that “we,” for the community described so affectionately here makes this one of the most memorable passages from The No Variations, Luis Chitarroni’s dense and often disorienting new non-novel. The passage appears early in the text, while expectations of narrative continuity still hold purchase. Lateness, in fact, extends hope for a plot, and with its charisma buys patience against the frustrations of plots subsequent absence. Instead of plot, the novel offers personality. The expansiveness and potential inclusivity of this passage pleasurably inscribes the writer himself; yet the same sort of expansiveness can slide easily into solipsism, an overindulgent memoirish quality.
The No Variations balances between anecdote and comprehensive narrative. The tension between the two appears as early as the subtitle, which includes two distinctive genres, the diary and the novel. Presumably about the process of finishing, or trying to finish a novel, the text lingers in the vicinity of narrative, very literally “about” a novel, but there is no plot proper to this text. The specter of a plot as the ideal end of these notes makes its absence in the text a frustrating element. Instead, Chitarroni offers vignettes of the protagonist, Nicasio Urlihrt, trying to revive a literary anthology with poems and prose by friends and colleagues. The compilation of these notes makes little sense, however, although it does collate little plots, some more realistic than others, and often narrating the obstacles of everyday life that make literary work so difficult: “There were whole days and nights,” Chitarroni continues, “During which we lost our way…during which we lost our purpose. We bummed around exchanging tales of days gone by, anecdotes, gossip.”
At times these fragments are satisfying and pleasurable. Furthermore, the text’s refusal to neatly organize the diffuse experience of living isn’t a particularly shocking or innovative technique. Instead, what makes the book so compelling is its identification with the protagonist’s sense of frustration of balancing writing and living. Occasionally he glamorizes the writer’s preoccupation with life, with a glow of pyrrhic consolation. He insists, in occasional bursts, that living is more important: “The writer doesn’t really want to write, he wants to be; and in order to truly be, he must face up to the difficult challenge of not writing at all—not even a single line—of not theorizing, of not lifting a finger.” The seduction of the first part of that assertion (that to be is better than to write about being) tends to overshadow the diarist’s assertion that not writing is also difficult. The protagonist goes on to claim that in order to strive to live rather than to write, he “became deaf” to the world around him, obliged himself to ignorance, rather than, presumably, be tempted by the desire to create or represent.
If, for Chitarroni, the distinction between writing life and living it is central, his text from the start sides with writing: it is, after all a diary, and life-writing is thus the ideally professed genre. One technique deployed by the diarist in evading responsibility for writing or failure to write, is to continually point to his use of a pseudonym. Nicasio Urlihrt’s adoption of a publishing name, “Hilaríon Curtis” allows him to claim, with measured if frustrating hilarity, that “although I’m not really a writer, I’ve had many things published in my name…The whys and wherefores of all this escape me, as they would anyone. But I’m not writing this to resolve them.” Perhaps to reconcile his disavowal with his profession, or to suggest a possible reconciliation, the narrator admits on the first page that Nicasio Urlihrt is an anagram for Hilaríon Curtis; it’s hardly difficult to notice then, that these are both anagrams for Luis Chitarroni. The alphabetical acrobatics suggest that the text perhaps really is an experience of real-life-writing, rather than just very close mimicry.
So if the adoption of not-quite-true, reassembled personalities is one way to write life while still living life, and to not let living become an obstacle toward the practice of writing, the prose also takes on the work of remixing and reassembling. Sometimes this happens locally: for example, two paragraphs after reminiscing about his clique’s self-designation as “the slow ones,” the narrator returns to the theme, but with a subtle and important shift in tense: “Because we’ll be late in arriving, because we are loath to depart, because we don’t care that we’ll be late.” The transformation from paste tense to anticipated future describes the present lovingly, the experience of a community loath to move forward. Together, these passages support the claim that yes, to live in the present is more valuable to write about it retrospectively from the future. In a less local register, Chitarroni returns to certain scenes across the course of the novel, and although they’re a little more difficult to identify, relying more heavily on the readers’ memory, the rewards and pleasures of noticing these passages are commensurately great. That pleasure balances the frustrations of searching for narrative, searching for cause and effect: instead, it’s differently pleasurable to identify a theme—several themes—and their variations.
The emotional effectiveness of these moments is in both this kind of recognition within the text and the hope of recognizing yourself in the characters. That double identification is essential in the genre of the “variation,” at least, as practiced by Chitarroni. It is a mode of life-writing that distills personal experience into the blocks of language that comprise it. As time passes, these elements—of a sentence, of a literary clique, or even of the name of an individual—rearrange themselves into new forms while preserving some trace of the original content. The moment of recognition involves the reader insofar as she is compelled to reach back into the elements of her own past, and begin to recognize these characters or these lines as shaping her lived experience beyond the pages of the book. In this way the claims of the text take on a life of their own, and the anticipated characters “will turn out to be ourselves.” - Ana Schwartz
In his Preface, translator Darren Koolman helpfully offers some context for this 'Diary of an Unfinished Novel' (so the sub-title -- at least on the cover: to add to the confusion the title page and copyright information call it a 'Journal of an Unfinished Novel': a work in flux indeed ...). As Koolman explains, Chitarroni's original intent was to: "write a hybrid of the preceding two" novels he had published (one of them: "a collection of satirical biographies of writers, both real and fictitious"). Instead, he eventually published this "omnium gatherum" of material that might have gone into such a novel -- and notes also that among Chitarroni's plans for future work is one consisting entirely of annotations to this one.
The resulting work isn't entirely a variation on negation, as the title might suggest -- though "NO" comes up a lot -- but also not your usual notes-for-a-novel. The proposed novel centers on a literary journal -- "Agraphia (Unwritten) [or Alusiva (Allusive) ?]" -- or an anthology of the writings from it, and/or the writers who contribute to it. Among the writers is Nicasio Urlihrt -- introduced as an anagram (and, yes, it is an anagram of the author's name) and pseudonym in a literary culture full of such false fronts.
In 1971 Urlihrt won a short-story competition held by the French magazine Alusif / Imposture where one of the goals was for writers to: "adulterate their story with the most references and allusions". The No Variations, then, takes that to the next level: it is a novel of allusive-overkill, built largely, if not entirely on reference and allusion -- though with the occasional bit of (hi)story woven in. What's particularly intriguing and impressive here is the range: among the pivotal texts is D.H.Lawrence's unlikely St Mawr (with Lawrence at one point described by someone as, of all people, "the English Arlt"), and while Chitarroni brings in the obvious -- from: "those hated novels 62: A Model Kit or Revol's Mutaciones bruscas" to: "the pungent brevity of the biforked: Piglia, Aira" -- his references also extend to the far more traditional (William and Henry James, for example) and even texts such as the English translation of Niilo Idman's (1923) Finnish Melmoth the Wanderer-author Charles Maturin-biography. One note suggests simply: "Giordano Bruno, John Florio, Philip Sidney" (and, in case you missed the point or significance, the mention is repeated four pages later: "Again: Giordano Bruno, John Florio, Philip Sidney"). And yet this is also a text that references Stewart Home and: "Good old Julian Cope !"
It's a game, of (various) sorts, and so, for example, a passage referencing "Kublai Khan's pleasure dome" and Xanadu that closes with the observation: "One hundred and seventy-four Scrabble points !" is followed by the observation: "But then somebody arrived from Porlock."
At one point the author notes:
For what it's worth, I wasn't trying to write something experimental (much less spontaneous) when I commenced this journal. I was trying to find a structure in the mass of [modest, always modest !] narrative/cyclical intermittencies.
Of course, that almost-apology is followed by a defiant: "NO" ..... And elsewhere the text reduces to:
Yes, Chitarroni plays all the games -- admitting also:
The loose modality, the essential tolerance of the novel form invites pleonasm.
And, yes, there is a lot here. Yet it's still novel enough: this isn't a David Markson-like collection of fragments, nor a more typical unfinished self-examination of a novel. Chitarroni continues to surprise, but also grounds enough of the text -- in the idea of the journal Agraphia/Alusiva, in some of the recurring references (right down to St Mawr) -- to provide a sense of stability. It makes for a very rich and often engaging text -- even as it also frustrates (on purpose, no doubt -- but that doesn't make it any less frustrating).
Readers should be aware of what they're getting themselves into -- but for those who like this sort of thing it's quite rewarding. - M.A.Orthofer
An unsettling sensation welled up from time to time, as I ventured into and struggled through Luis Chitarroni’s The No Variations, a novel disguised as the journal of an author working on a novel, a novel which, if completed, would have been disguised as a journal—a literary journal, to be precise. Somewhere, I fretted, in this dense and demanding assemblage of notes, narrative fragments, author biographies, etc., was a concise and scathingly satirical portrayal of this very review, which was then obviously unwritten. I had been reading too carelessly to notice it; somehow I’d forgotten where I saw it. How would I ever find it again? And there it would be for everyone to see, blatantly undermining everything I could possibly write.
This anxiety might be pre-coded into the flesh of the Argentine’s first work to be translated into English. The persistent recurrence of an all-caps “NO,” often interrupting passages, also seems to be aimed directly at the reader, abruptly ending, not only the contents of the book, but also the just-budding bits of response that might rise while the reader wades through the thick torrents. Fitting that the literary journal around which the unfinished novel swirls should be called Agraphia, named for a type of aphasia resulting in the incapacity to write. My first instinct was to submit for publication a diary of an unfinished review—how else to contain all the reasons to read, to read and—well, if you’re lucky, not to write about, this fucking book.
Although Agraphia provides a kind of nexus for the text, the journal—like the novel, like the diary—never arrives at a full instantiation. Instead, Agraphia hovers like the memory of a dream emptied of any recollected content, evoking naught save the fact that something significant has been lost. Which is not to say that the book is about nothing, or even that its subject plays second fiddle to its form. Indeed the brash cacophony of narratives without beginnings or ends, names without characters, pseudonym’s without names, antitheses without theses ultimately meld and form into a kind of formlessness perfectly suited to depict the “writers without stories”—a pejorative appellation applied to the exclusive, illusorily erudite clique comprising Agraphia’s contributors and editors.
These “characters” are the real satirical targets of Chitarroni’s prose: authors like Marina Ipoustedguy, in whose books there appear not “a word that couldn’t have been dispensed with,” or Remi Sabatani, whose final book is described as “a wondrous achievement of arrogant display and inanity.” These are editors like Nicasio Urlihrt who would like to “transform this journal, which is a pandemonium of columns and pillars with no personality or style, into a paradise where calumny is warranted and pillory is praised.”
This is a sort of literary figure we are all in danger of aping when we write, obscurantists with nothing to say, but arsenal aplenty to cover our asses, artists like Hilarion Curtis, who might, by reshuffling the letters in his name, morph into the diabolical author of these demons, Luis Chitarroni, himself. And it is tempting to re-ascribe these acerbic attributes back onto Chitarroni and his daunting project. After all, much like Belisaria Tregua’s 13 Attempts to Abolish the Present, The No Variations “is despite its ingenuous premise one of the worst books to read in the Argentine literary canon.” But please don’t let that deter you.
Because unlike the contributions to Agraphia, The No Variations is not only an exercise in impossibly difficult and needlessly obscure writing; it is also a work precisely calculated to repudiate the propagation of the kind of literature it presumes to be. The ultimate target of Chitarroni’s well-aimed agraphia is the reader—particularly if she or he has any intention of writing under the book’s influence. Thus arose the abovementioned unsettling sensation—if I pretended to have understood the book, did my best to disguise my bewilderment, what would have distinguished me from the absurd writers the book so clearly mocks?
But I was wrong when I thought the book had already prefigured my review. The portentous passage was, in fact, still to come, and it would be hard to miss, (though, admittedly, hard to understand) printed in all-caps near the end of the book:
DON’T BOTHER ME ANYMORE WITH YOUR DOUBTS AND JUST PAY THEM FOR THE TRIP. IF YOU DID IT WITH THE MAGNANIMOUS AND SPECULATIVE IGNORANCE OF AN INVOLUNTARY PARIAH, LEAVE IT TO THEM TO DO THE WORK OF TRULY APPRECIATING IT. BLESSED BE THE LAST PAYCHECK.Let me admit forthwith, I did not understand this book, and almost certainly did not abandon myself to the herculean task of “truly appreciating it.” As Darren Koolman, the impetuous translator, points out in his generous preface, even a partial list of annotations would bloat the volume of the book to three times its current length. I do not mean to deter a more careful reader, should she find herself with the patience and smartphone I lacked. Every name and obscurity is a cryptic weave of allusions and puns, which expand indefinitely inasmuch they are parsed and penetrated. And it’s painful to admit I didn’t untangle very many.
But neither do I wish to discourage a reader like myself. Even the involuntary pariah will have the pleasures of encountering fragments of a story involvign a sex cult based on a D.H. Lawrence novella, or a minute-by-minute diaristic account of an increasingly inebriated and hallucinatory boat ride through the canals of Xochimilco. Even a reader as indolent as I, might be arrested by bouts of significance like: “Memory is the least attractive of the muses. And although she always changes her appearances, I only ever remember the least appealing,” or, “…love, the only condition for which reciprocation isn’t a law…?” or, “My splendid art, my sad profession.”
And at the torn and tattered heart of this work is a vengeful critique of this literary profession, a critique founded on a firm love for this art. For the fictional affiliates of Agraphia, the community figures more like an arena than an alliance. The contributor to Agraphia doesn’t read her peer’s work in order to appreciate it, or to learn from it, but like, Elena Siesta, to acquire “hints, indications, suggestions, and ritornelli for the enrichment of her conversation.” This is a kind of savage war, differing only insofar as the tools and techniques of disempowerment and death have been refined—here defeat takes the form of admitting not that you have lost, but that you are lost, that you have not understood.
The oft-dreaded all-caps passage, quoted above, not only confirmed my anxieties—I had been tremendously lazy in my reading—it also assuaged them, challenging the assumption that I had done something deplorable. Perhaps there is something magnanimous about not possessing a replete understanding of a work of art, as magnanimous as not possessing an understanding of a friend or lover. I cannot use Chitarroni to boost my sense of self-worth. My pride is wounded. But I’m okay with that. Read The No Variations. Be defeated by it. Become, like this reviewer, another involuntary pariah—and it would be damn difficult not to be—another casualty of Chitarroni’s devastating art.
- Jesse Kohn
The No Variations (originally published in Spanish in 2007), is described in Darren Koolman’s Translator’s Preface as “an omnium gatherum of obscure references, cryptic anagrams, parenthetical remarks, indecipherable aide-mémoire, overblown critical extracts, imperfectly-wrought poems, bewildering drafts of unfinished stories, characters with unpronounceable names…everything, in other words, a reader might expect to find in the diary of an impenetrably difficult unfinished novel, the result being a book that seems to resist all acts of interpretation” (VI). I think the key words in there, for me, are “bewildering” and “impenetrably difficult.”
This book was a slog for me: I struggled to find a way to approach it, to follow it. It’s not particularly linear or narrative; plots are introduced and cut off by the NO of the title. It’s not character-driven, either: there are plenty of names, but I didn’t really get a sense of any of the characters as distinct people: they’re all contributors to a fictional literary journal that’s big on plagiarism and pseudonyms, but we don’t learn much more than that. There are some brief early character sketches (in which we learn, for example, that one character “is short and stocky” and “writes in longhand” and that another “affects elegance to conceal indigence”) and there’s a list, later, of which characters like which alcoholic beverages (“Red without question. And lots of it” for one; “Fernet or Negroni” for another), and I could maybe tell you which pairs of characters were lovers or spouses, but I don’t have a sense that I’m meant to understand any of these characters as people (4-5, 41). A lot of the book is concerned with writing and style, and sometimes this leads to humor: there’s mention of a book “in which there wasn’t a word that couldn’t have been dispensed with” (11); different versions of the same paragraph appear multiple times at different places in the text; there’s a section of the book in the style of Henry James. There’s a concern with what gets said: in the Jamesian section there’s a bit about the story a writer/narrator originally wanted to tell vs. the story he now wants to tell vs. the story he is actually telling. There are lists: I particularly like a list titled, in part, “List of places in London I should have seen during my first visit and their order” (185) and another list of “Ceremonies/Liturgies” that includes such items as “On Elena’s way of cutting the uncut pages of a book” (189). Overall, though, I am definitely not this book’s ideal reader, and ended up feeling fairly overwhelmed by it. - www.lettersandsodas.com/books/?p=5538
‘His cryptic style made the writing seem almost inscrutable, the references almost undetectable, but with occasional lapses of more direct and coherent prose.’ So the narrator of The No Variations describes the work of his anagrammatic character Nicasio Urlihrt, but he might as well be talking about himself. Indeed, this ‘diary of an unfinished novel’ is such a self-referential piece of work that one could easily compose a long-form review of it consisting entirely of quotes lifted from within. That this should be so is only appropriate: for The No Variations is centred on the workings of a fictional literary journal, Agraphia, which specialises in exactly such experimental, vaguely plagiaristic reviews.
The text itself is larded through with plagiarisms and suggestions for future plagiarisms. ‘Luini isn’t tall,’ writes Chitarroni. ‘Neither is he short. In fact, no one quite knows his height [see Kenner on Pound].’ Chitarroni makes frequent use of these square brackets: with them, the direction of the narrative voice moves away from the reader and toward the writer at work. Of all the techniques in use here, it is these brackets that do most to give The No Variations the provisional, unconstructed feel of a notebook. ‘He noticed [the soft glint of stealth in motion? Try thinking a concrete comparison] the slow descent of a spider.’ Such comments suggest what the text might have been, and so, like a meta-narrative, they inform how we read the text as it stands. But whereas meta-narrative generally works to dissemble an already assembled whole, Chitarroni’s square brackets serve to assemble a disassembled series of variations. They are the building blocks lying loose around the site of this unfinished project. They come before the text is ready. They constitute its proto-narrative.
To speak like this of a proto-narrative implies an existent narrative for it to come before. And yet, self-referential to the last, the text itself disaffirms this very notion. There is, we read, ‘no core narrative in these stories’. Such claims are ultimately self-defeating, however: the lack of a core narrative becomes the core narrative. It is probably for this reason that the text is most boring at precisely those ‘occasional lapses of more or less coherent prose’. We’re not too pushed about the story told because the real story here is that the story is not being told. In The No Variations the fully formed appears as fragmentary. In formally dramatizing the artistic process, Chitarroni makes digression core. - Kevin Breathnach