The First Good Meta-Novel?

By Ralph Dumain

“. . . the only genuine way to practice futurism is to put it off for later.”

            — Macedonio Fernández

“One day, Ralph, you will write a twenty-volume preface to an introduction.”

            — Michael Colquhoun, circa 1971

Someone beat me to it.

Macedonio Fernández (1874-1952), known for his influence on Jorge Luis Borges, is finally getting due recognition in the English-speaking world with the recent publication of the English translation of his avant-garde novel The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel), begun in 1925, worked on for the balance of his life, and published in 1967.

The novel is an extreme case of metafiction, I imagine truly novel from the vantage point of 1925. Before the novel actually begins, there are 57 prefaces by my count. (See my construction of a table of contents, below.)  Were it not for Macedonio’s wit and style, I would have found the chore of reading this too much to bear. Though a central theme is the struggle between love and mortality, I cannot justify 238 pages (in English) of prose (with a little poetry) based on the premise of this novel.

Still, the prefaces are highly amusing, not least of all through the sheer number and variety of appeals to the reader. Macedonio is forever anxious about his novel and its reception. His characters don’t sit comfortably within a traditional narrative. There are characters who are dropped from the novel, characters who resign from the novel, all kinds of games played with the reader. It is very amusing, at times poetic, but by the time the novel itself begins, I am worn out.

And the novel proper is not really a novel; it too is metafiction. There are characters like Eterna, the President, Federico, Sweetheart, Maybegenius . . . if there is a meaning to this or a symbolic structure underlying the relationships among the characters, I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care. I also don’t see the similarity to Borges, who is never incoherent or boring.

However, there are gems; there are intriguing passages in this novel.  I generally make note of philosophical points of interest, though I rarely comprehend them. I noted of interest to me prefaces 13-17, 23, 29-31, and 33; chapters 16 and 18, and the final prologue “To Whoever wants to write this novel.”

Prologue 13 has multiple references to William James (who was, note, also an influence on Borges). Macedonio thinks he resembles Poe. “The truth in these pages will not be resented even if they appeared in an edition of Kant or Hegel as a part of their work.”

Prologue 14 begins: “The present tentative aesthetic is a provocation to the realist school, a total program to discredit the truth or reality of what happens in a novel.”  Macedonio elaborates. He also issues a funny diatribe on being and non-being, parodying  Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. He also thinks it’s high time to take Kant down a peg.

In Prologue 15 (remember, the numbering is mine, not the novelist’s) Macedonio outlines his ambitions for his characters, apparently giving his characters autonomy, questioning being, and of course negating verisimilitude.

I have excerpted a section from Prologue 16, “Prologue to the never-seen.” In this section Macedonio makes a number of amusing remarks that respond to my interests. He makes some tongue-in-cheek references to futurism. He jocularly ponders reader reception, the role of the audience. Without the seductive music of language and an audience, there would be more beautiful works of art, several Cervantes, Heines, etc. Again we find an attack on realism. I find this interesting, if unconvincing, not only for the reference to Heine and other great artists, but for my (and Borges’) interest in combinatorics. There is also an amusing musing about the creation of neologisms, with reference to the artist and language inventor Xul Solar. Invention for Macedonio precedes and supersedes what we call reality.

In Prologue 17 Macedonio ruminates again on the border between being and non-being. He declares to the reader that (s)he will find him and the novel unforgettable. We find here another negation of the inevitability of death.

Prologue 23 is a “Metaphysical prologue.” Here Macedonio declares:

Materialism is a metaphysics; it’s not science; its concern is the same as that of Idealism, the essential metaphysical quandary: the astonishing inexplicability that anything “exists.” Science is a pastime that describes Being, with practical ambitions, and without the astonishment-of-being. Materialism, like idealism, and like all clearly-defined metaphysics, concludes by declaring the complete intelligibility of being, its absolute knowability. In this it differs from positivism and science, which attend to the how of the world, of being, and declare the how of how being is possible inaccessible to Intelligence, how being is given and not nothing, whether it is given in the first place, how  something can happen, be, or feel. It’s equivalent to a belief, to conceive that there could be a non-being, that one morning, space, things, and sensations could stop, or that one day they began, out of nothing.

The next paragraph goes on about physicists, and once again about metaphysics and the nonsensical (to physicists) assertions of idealism. For Macedonio’s part, not existing is unimaginable. As his argument unfolds, what we call materiality becomes a dream. Everything becomes nothingness. This is all nonsense, but perhaps it influenced Borges, who accomplished more with these conceits?

We find in Prologue 29 a list of characters and the reasons for rejecting two characters from participation in the novel. Several characters bid for inclusion. There are further musings on identity and metaphysics. In Prologue 30 Macedonio is concerned with his struggles with readers and critics and with his characters.

Prologue 31 sees a return to an interesting if obscurely addressed subject: “For those not expert in metaphysics.” Here Macedonio is preoccupied with “Totalove” and “totalpossibility,” and contemplates how Daydream can defeat the sadness and limitation accompanying reality.

We can all cultivate this constant and powerful daydream that dulls the sharpness of an adverse reality. Religions, patriotism, humanism, all do this in some way; most of all religions.

I have the energy to address one more prologue only, no. 33: “The essential fastasmagoricalism of the world,” presented all in italics. This is a meditation on reality and dream. “How can the gray matter, where thought is said to reside, think of itself, while the eyes cannot see themselves directly; we see everything through the brain, and yet we don’t see the brain itself?” At the end we find a negation of death: “. . . I don’t believe that totalove can flourish in beings who believe that they are fleeting.”

By the time I got to the actual beginning of the “novel,” I was too exhausted to care much anymore, though I continued to find poetic and amusing content. I will now skip to Chapter 16: “(Today there’s more past than there was yesterday).” Eterna addresses the reader. The President, the Lover, and Maybegenius play a part.  None of this makes any sense to me or arouses much interest. The chapter ends with a small section consisting of a dialogue between Author and Reader.  The Author appears to be anxious. The Reader is attempting tolerance.

Author: “Reader, sometimes your presence is requested in my pages and you are absent: your face comes close, and mirrors the dreaming in these pages, and you are absent. What bothers me is the reader: you’re my problem, your existence is invincible; the rest is just a pretext to keep you within earshot of these proceedings.”

The title of Chapter 18 is almost as long as the chapter itself: “A brilliant little heap of deliberation spoken in whispering gusts, by the characters, who rally to give Eterna life.” The other characters struggle to give Eterna life. But they can’t, as none of them have life. Does Eterna want life? The President doesn’t want to hear any more of this: “She would want life if there were someone in the world worthy of her love. But this hasn’t happened, and until then her only ode of happiness is that of the character.”

The author’s last word is the post-chapter “To Whoever wants to write this novel (Final prologue.).” The author claims that this may be the first “open book” in literary history. The character-reader may weave in and out of existence, nudged by non-being. The author seeks to undermine both being and non-being. The concluding words are (spoiler alert): “There is nothing more than not-being; the character’s non-being, the non-being of fantasy, or of what’s imagined. He who imagines will never know non-being.”

The final sentence reads as an act of the artist’s defiance of mere actuality. There is something heroic about it, beyond the artist’s solipsism. Though I find Macedonio’s experiment wanting, to some extent I can still feel his struggle. The edifice he builds on—or deconstructs, as some would say now—I find rather flimsy. Art itself, like the mind, may be considered an act of negation. [1] There is much more to be said about what is worth saying. Reflexivity in art, science, mathematics, and philosophy is the watchword of the 20th century, but, like irony, it needs to be founded on something more than itself. Still, let’s make whatever use of this we can, and move on.

[1] Kurrik, Maire Jaanus. Literature and Negation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.



Macedonio Fernández, The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel), translated from the Spanish with an introduction by Margaret Schwartz, preface by Adam Thirlwell .Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2010. Contents:

A Preface for M.F. / Adam Thirlwell

Translator’s introduction / Margaret Schwartz

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel w/ subtitle

Dedication to my character Eterna

[Prefaces:]

1.    What is born and what dies
2.    Prologue to eternity
3.    Perspective
4.    Prologue to my authorial persona
5.    Onward
6.    The author also speaks
7.    To the critics
8.    Letter to the critics
9.    Introducing Eterna
10.  A home for non-existence
11.  We are a limitless dream and only a dream. We, cannot, therefore, have any idea of what non-dreaming may be
12.  For Readers who will perish if they don’t know what the novel is about
13.  A new problem to my authorial persona
14.  Prologue that thinks it knows something, not about the novel (it’s not allowed that), but about the doctrine of art
15.  The characters’ novel
16.  Prologue to the never-seen
17.  Salutation
18.  Another attempt at a salutation
19.  How, in the end, the perfect novel is possible
20.  The Lover
21.  A character, before her first appearance
22.  Also a prologue
23.  Metaphysical prologue
24.  The man who feigned to live (the only character who needs explaining, he’s already been explained twice. He lacks existence, but he abounds in clarifications.)
25.  Guide to the prologues (warning prologue)
26.  At the gates of the novel (in anticipation of the story). How, as a true novelistic artist, to extricate oneself from the reader who skips to the end. Remedy for this readerly blockage.
27.  Frederico’s entrance in the novel, as prologue
28.  To the window-shopping reader
29.  Two rejected characters
30.  First Prologue of the novel for the abridged reader
31.  For those not expert in metaphysics
32.  Description of Eterna.  (Sweetheart says she doesn’t know Eterna; here I’ve noted what she’s like, so that Sweetheart can meet her, since it pleases me to appease the curiosity of my characters.)
33.  The essential fastasmagoricalism of the world
34.  Prologue of indecision
35.  Another prologue
36.  This novel began by losing Nicolasa, its “cook character,” who resigned for the noblest of reasons
37.  Novel of cloistered things, of mutenesses, of secrets, of hidden fragrances, of words that have no sound because they depend on the lips of a face or smile to speak them and this smile is not given
38.  Eterna and Sweetheart (Duration of scene: that of a flower’s opening.)
39.  Prologue for a borrowed character
40.  To the owner (of the novel) has nothing happened to you?
41.  Prologue of authorial despair
42.  Maybegenius laments his name
43.  For the characters in my novel
44.  Prologue read in recompense for the author who forbids a boy from entering the novel
45.  What do you expect: I must keep prologuing
46.  What’s happening to me
47.  Prologue that feels like a novel
48.  Prologue of the kettle and the wardrobe
49.  Witty letter that I would like one of my characters, the President, to write to Ricardo Nardal
50.  Does simply “coming before” make a prologue?
51.  The model prologue
52.  Fourfold prologue?
53.  The President and death
54.  For the reader who skips around
55.  A curse on the orderly reader
56.  Prologue that stands up on its tiptoes to see how far away the novel begins
57.  First: postprologuery note; and second:  prenovelistic observations

Were those prologues? And is this the novel?

Awakening. Novel-time begins. Movement

1.    Chapter  1 (Time, the cause of tears, flows)
2.    Chapter II (The novel’s time begins, and less of it remains)
3.    Chapter III
4.    Chapter IV. Letter to the distant shadow of Eterna’s admirer, the young Porcio de Larrenave, as it lengthens with the past, as he forgets her.
5.    Chapter V
6.    Chapter VI (To fill six years’ absence, and its doubts)
7.    Chapter VII (Life tries to force its way into the novel)
8.    Chapter VIII (No.)
9.    Chapter IX (In the time between Federico’s two expulsions , since he approaches the deserted “La Novela” twenty times a day)10.  Chapter X (A meeting back at “La Novela”)
11.  Chapter XI (A parenthesis in the novel, wherein a fragment of an essay is inserted that treats of the following: a theory of the “read by characters from another novel” novel)
12.  Chapter XII (Prototype of one of the novel’s loose pages)
13.  Chapter XIII (Novels in “La Novela”)
14.  Chapter XIV (Still.) And the President? And Eterna?
15.  Chapter XV. For ever-changing Eterna, an endless, immutable poem
16.  Chapter XVI (Today there’s more past than there was yesterday)
17.  Chapter XVII (A minute more, or a minute less, remains in “La Novela.”)
18.  Chapter XVIII. A brilliant little heap of deliberation spoken in whispering gusts, by the characters, who rally to give Eterna life.
19.  Chapter XIX. What’s here? Pain Chapter with its back turned Truncated
20.  Chapter XX. Epilogue

Attempt to heal the wound incurred

The novel in stages

To Whoever wants to write this novel (Final prologue.)


From “Prologue to the Never-Seen”
by Macedonio Fernández

Excursus on Bachelard’s The Philosophy of No (Excerpt)
by Maire Jaanus Kurrik

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

History of the Professional Writer & Reading Public / Audiences
—The Romantic Era / The Working Class Reader / Literary Form / Division of Labor

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & Interlingvistiko

Offsite:

Xul Solar @ Ĝirafo

The Museum of Eterna's Novel - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Macedonio Fernández - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"Macedonio Fernández: A Museum of Possible Literatures"
by Kate Bowen, The Argentina Independent, 29 December 2011


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