All Writing is a Kind of Realism
In Conversation with Rodrigo Fresán, author of The Invented Part
Rodrigo Fresán was born in Argentina in 1963, spent much of his adolescence in Venezuela, and moved to Barcelona in the late 90s where—apart from a brief stint in the US as an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program—he has lived ever since.
He published his first book of fiction, Historia argentina, in 1991 to great critical and commercial success, making him a reference point in a new generation of Argentinean and Latin American writers eager to escape the typecasts imposed by the global success of the Latin American Boom writers. Since that time, Fresán has published nine more books of fiction. His stories have been widely anthologized and his books translated into a variety of languages.
Across his expansive body of work, Fresán explores myriad subjects (Argentina’s dirty war and globalism in the 1980s in Historia argentina and Esperanto, religion and pop art in Vidas de santos, Mexican identity in Mantra, Peter Pan and the lysergic 1960s in Kensington Gardens, and science fiction and 9/11 in The Bottom of the Sky, for example) invariably linked to his own obsessions and preoccupations—childhood, memory, the pitfalls of idealism, great literature, writers’ lives, art, and pop culture to name a few—with an approach marked by an insatiable curiosity and an irrepressible compulsion to tell stories.
In a way, The Invented Part (trans. by Will Vanderhyden)—Fresán’s ninth book of fiction and second to be translated into English—subsumes all the books that preceded it. His most overtly autobiographical work to date, this novel—now merely the first book in a trilogy whose second volume has already been published in Spanish and whose third is well under way—is an exploration of the capacious mind and creative process of an aging writer, jaded by readers’ tweet-length attention spans and his own struggle to find a way to feel relevant and to keep on writing. That struggle plays out on the page, across seven novella-length sections that, in one way or another, are descriptions of the novel the writer is trying to write. All of it amounts to a novel (can I call this a novel?) that is quintessentially Fresanian: a carefully orchestrated yet tornadic crescendo of big ideas, leitmotifs, extended metaphors, humorous lists, surreal and satirical set pieces, reflective digressions, story sketches, and “referential mania,” revolving around questions about what it means to live and create art in our globalized, hyper-mediated, and technologized post-millennial world.
Will Vanderhyden: To what extent do you consider yourself an Argentine writer? I know it’s facile to reduce writers to their nationality, but Argentina’s literary tradition is a unique one and your work seems both bound up in it and somehow external to it. What does that tradition mean to you and where do you fit in it?
Rodrigo Fresán: I consider myself very Argentine in the sense that I don’t consider myself Argentine at all. There’s nothing more Argentine than this, I think. Among the many and exceedingly varied disadvantages of having been born where I was born there is—if you’re a writer—one great advantage, which Borges describes in his essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” and which, for me, is something like the trade’s tables of the law for someone who starts out writing as an Argentine in order to, suddenly, right away, as quickly as possible, turn, Argentineanly, into something else. There he writes:
What is Argentine tradition? I believe that this question poses no problem and can easily be answered. I believe our tradition is the whole of Western culture, and I also believe that we have a right to this tradition, a greater right than that which one of the inhabitants of one or another Western nation may have [. . .] Everything we Argentine writers do felicitously will belong to Argentine tradition, in the same way that the use of Italian subjects belongs to the tradition of England through Chaucer and Shakespeare [. . .] Therefore I repeat that we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject.
And, it seems to me, there’s nothing more to add . . .
WV: You have described yourself as “a reader who writes.” Is that a better way to think about where you fit in terms of Argentine tradition, among writers whose work is grounded less in their nationality and more in their library?
RF: Yes, another very Argentine trait. In a way, all the writers I admire and am interested in (the aforementioned Borges, Bioy Casares, Cortázar, Piglia, Pauls, Pron, Saccomanno, and on and on) are overflowing with books and writers. I have said it many times in too many interviews: I think that, while other literatures from Latin America and even from Spain have their roots firmly in the ground where they take place, Argentine literature’s roots are buried in the wall and, more concretely, in the wall of the library. The tradition of the Argentine writer is built more on the foundation of the figure of the reader than the figure of the writer. And this seems good to me, because when it comes down to it, to tell the truth, everyone who ends up writing does so because they started out reading. The true homeland of writer is his or her library. And a writer’s library is also an important part of his or her biography: a liferary. Nabokov said that the only possible biography for a writer would have to pass through the history of his or her style. I agree, but an important part of one’s style is formed and informed and deformed by the history of one’s readings.
WV: I remember hearing an interview with David Foster Wallace where he responds to a question about whether or not he’s a realist by saying that he doesn’t know any writers—even so-called postmodernists like himself—who don’t consider themselves realists, in terms of writing about what life really feels like to them. He goes on to say: “I mean, a lot of stuff that is capital ‘R’ realism just seems to me somewhat hokey, because obviously realism is an illusion of realism.” The narrator of The Invented Part, The Writer, seems to have similar ideas, even ironically coining the term “logical irrealism” to contrast his own writing with “magical realism.” He says: “If magical realism is realism with irreal details, then logical irrealism is its twin opposite: irreality with realistic details . . . And yet, is there anything as irreal as so-called realism? Those stories and novels with dramatic pacing and a perfectly calculated and managed sequence of events. Like Madame Bovary. Or the neat structure and the precise pacing of most detective novels. But reality isn’t like that. Reality is undisciplined and unpredictable . . . There is more realism and verisimilitude in single day of the free and fluid and conscious drifting of Clarissa Dalloway than in the entire prolix and well-measured life and death of Anna Karenina.” Can you talk about what these various classifications mean to you and how they relate to your work?
RF: I agree with Wallace: there are many realities that are in this one just as there are many worlds that are in this one. Nabokov (a writer I’ve gone back to in recent years, more dazzled than ever), again, is useful when it comes to positioning myself on this issue in an interview: “Reality is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates it’s own special reality having nothing to do with the average ‘reality’ perceived by the communal eye. [. . . ] You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you can never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless.” And let’s go a little further: “The most we can do when steering a favorite in the best direction, in circumstances not involving injury to others, is to act as a breath of wind and to apply the lightest, the most indirect pressure such as trying to induce a dream that we hope our favorite will recall as prophetic if a likely event does actually happen. On the printed page the words ‘likely’ and ‘actually’ should be italicized too, at least slightly, to indicate a slight breath of wind inclining those characters (in the sense of both signs and personae),” he points out as a sort of editorial advice in Transparent Things. “I am no more guilty of imitating ‘real life’ than ‘real life’ is responsible for plagiarizing me,” he explains in the preface to the collected stories Nabokov’s Dozen.
And more, even more Nabokov: that flower plucked by Nabokov, in that interview, as an example of how “reality is a very subjective affair” and that “I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization.” That, again, reality is nothing but “an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms.” And that, of course, there is a neutral reality that includes and involves all of us; but that, in the next breath, each of us has our own reality and entirely personal perception of that flower. And that there’s no such thing as “everyday reality” which is a term that “presupposes a situation that is permanently observable, essentially objective, and universally known.” And still more: “‘Reality’ (one of the few words which means nothing without quotes),” he concludes in the afterword to Lolita.
The thing about “logical irrealism” was just a joke (I hope a good one) to escape from the “magical realism” that—when I first started to write and publish—every foreign publisher and academic and critic seemed to be searching for, even though it wasn’t there, in Argentine literature just because it was Latin American. In any case, Colombian or Chilean or Mexican or Peruvian writers of my generation had it much worse in that sense because their past and present were much more irradiated by their totemic writers and by the luminous shadow of the Boom. In Argentina, we were never that concerned with/interested in the Boom and, besides, all the great writers from my country embraced the fantastic genre as one/another facet of reality.
WV: Now, this is a question that, in a way, the book takes as its point of departure—so it might make a good segue into talking about to what extent The Invented Part is autobiographical, to what extent the book’s primary narrator, The Writer, is you—but: what made you want to be a writer? Or, to put it another way: how and why did you end up pursuing a career/vocation as a writer? And: how is the reality of that story different from The Writer’s origin story in the book?
RF: It isn’t autobiographical, but it is the most personal in certain respects. In ways that have more to do with what I have written than what I have lived, in the sense that it is about how a writer, who is also me, thinks. In other words: I don’t have a mad sister, but I do have a very sensible son; my parents weren’t killed during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s, but we did have to flee the country and barely made it out (the most precise version of that story is told at the end of Historia argentina, my first book). In terms of what it was that made me into a writer, I don’t have a precise memory of that. I always wanted to be one. Even before I learned to read and write. That’s why, in The Invented Part, I invented en epiphanic instant in the life of the book’s narrator when his writerly vocation is activated after he almost drowns . . . As far as I’m concerned, I have always considered it a great privilege and gift to get to live and not have to betray my childhood dream of what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” Not many people get to keep and concretize that. But maybe, yes, it’s all linked to my own almost-death: I was born and declared clinically dead. I had a very complicated birth. And, mysteriously and miraculously, I came back from the other side. I lived to tell the tale. To tell it and to write it.
WV: The Invented Part, like many of your books, has a three-act structure, with the long middle section divided into five subsections. Although there is a narrative arc that develops in a quasi-linear way throughout the book, there is also the sense that all seven parts are happening simultaneously: they overlap, riff off each other, and sometimes tell different versions of the same events. Where did this structure come from? To what extent was it planned and to what extent improvised? How was it written? Did you start at the beginning and write through to the end or was the final structure something that you came to later on?
RF: I always think in trios, triads, triptychs, triangles. I fear that it has to do with the influence resulting from very early exposure to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Once I said that I write the way The Beatles recorded and it was misinterpreted in the sense that I was accused of considering myself as great as The Beatles. Well, no . . . The truth is, I said what I said thinking more about George Martin (The Beatles producer) than about The Beatles.
Anyway, the headline was misinterpreted. People today just read headlines and feel compelled to retweet them right away without reading the entire interview. I wasn’t saying that I write with the same degree of genius and talent that The Beatles had, not at all. I was saying, and I explained this in the interview, that after reading a memoir by Geoff Emerick, The Beatles’ sound engineer, the thing about equalizing and utilizing different channels on the sound mixer ended up having a great deal to do with the way I wrote The Invented Part, whose seven parts I wrote simultaneously.
I had seven files open, and I worked on a different one each day. And, at the same time, I didn’t really know where that novel was going, until my son provided me with the key, the little toy figure that appears on the cover of the original edition, which has now become a kind of little literary icon . . . I was bogged down. I had spent years writing a novel, I knew what I wanted to say, I even had a plan, but it wasn’t coming together. I was stuck in uncertainty, I had 500 pages of nothing, and then my son, Daniel, who was five years old at the time, told me he had found the cover for my next book. We saw it in the window of a stationery shop on the way to his school. It was a windup toy: a traveler wearing a raincoat and hat, carrying a big suitcase. We bought it. “I want him to be the hero too,” Daniel said. I ended up discarding that last idea, but I hung onto the toy. And that’s when it happened: it was as if I’d been wound up and set in motion and I didn’t stop until I got to the end.
WV: In this book and elsewhere you tell an anecdote about a conversation you had with the Irish writer John Banville in which you ask him what is more important, plot or style, and he responds by saying: “Style goes on ahead giving triumphal leaps while the plot follows along behind dragging its feet.” Can you talk about this idea and how it relates to your work?
RF: What Banville said seems to me a great sentence. And a great truth. And it was a great privilege to be there and hear him say it. But in The Invented Part, I reproduce it and, I hope, politely and respectfully add to it. I’ll cite here what I say in the novel: “Later he wondered whether it might not be possible for style to go back a few steps and lovingly lift the plot up in its arms, as if it were a brilliant and complicated child, and turn it into something new, different: into a stylistic plot, into the most well-plotted of styles.” In my life as a reader, the truth is that it’s harder and harder for me to read anybody who doesn’t rely on style.
WV: Your fiction wears its influences on its sleeve, but not only do you fully acknowledge your literary forbearers, you repurpose, and—à la Borges, when he wrote: “Every writer creates his own precursors”—(re)create them. Your books, both in form and content, revolve around and play with the work and lives of other writers, both real and invented: your narratives are full of ersatz and factual stories of great artists and writers; your writing is riddled with quotations, allusions, and rewritten/recycled/re-contextualized ideas. But out of this bricolage of references you create your own sensibility, your own voice—an undeniably original style. Can you talk about what style means to you and where you think it comes from?
RF: Ah, that is the great mystery. Over the years I have come to realize that personal style is nothing more than the way in which the wounds of successive failures stop bleeding and scar over. Out of all those things that never turn out how you thought or hoped they would, if you persevere, in the end your own style will emerge, inside of which, yes, in my case (and in everyone’s case; I just don’t have any problem admitting it and acknowledging it) many other voices coexist. I am a referential maniac. And I’m very proud of it.
Feature image by Gabriel Sainz.