Why Eccentrics Find a Natural Home in Fiction
Carlos Fonseca Finds a New Language in the World of the Outcast
“Which book are you reading?” asked my father. And I couldn’t quite figure out how to explain, without seeming mad, that the book I was reading was the epic of a man who had left university life behind in order to solely devote himself to the monumental yet senseless task of constructing for his beloved sister, in the middle of the Kobernausser forest, a mathematically perfect building baptized by him as “the Cone.”
So I opted for the easy way out, blurting out the title, the author and an empty reference:
“Nothing, just Correction, one of Thomas Bernhard’s books, a slightly twisted rendition of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life.”
And it worked. My father stopped asking and I returned to my book, knowing that the awkward scene would soon repeat itself. For I often find myself in a hard spot trying to explain the plot of some of my favorite novels and films to people.
Hearing myself speak, I become self-conscious of the strangeness of their storylines: an Irish rubber baron dreams of establishing an opera house in the Peruvian Amazon (Fitzcarraldo); two Parisian clerks become enthralled by the idea of creating a total encyclopedia just to figure that it looks more like an anthology of stupid quotations (Bouvard et Pécuchet); a writer obsesses over the possibility of narrating the absolute instant (Farabeuf); a man becomes an outcast once he has seen a point in the universe that contains all others (The Aleph).
Sometimes the complicity is immediate, but more often than not, the person facing me perplexedly stares back as one would gaze at a man who has calmly professed a proclivity for visiting mental asylums.
What is it that fascinates me about eccentrics? And, not only me, but what is it about eccentricity that has seduced so many writers? Bernhard, for example, not only returned, once and again, in novels like Correction and Wittgenstein’s Nephew, to the figure of the odd Austrian philosopher, but also wrote his way into the madness of another great genius: the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. The romantic fascination with the oddities of genius clearly paves the way for an explanation, but remains far away from explaining a tradition that sometimes feels as long as the history of the novel.The romantic fascination with the oddities of genius clearly paves the way for an explanation, but remains far away from explaining a tradition that sometimes feels as long as the history of the novel.
Don Quixote, Captain Ahab, Kurtz, Glen Gould, Lispector’s G.H. or Duras’ lovers: the cast of eccentrics that populates some of our greatest novels and short stories seems marked by an oddity that is not merely that of genius, but that of obsession. Like Don Quixote, rendered incomprehensible by his monomania, these protagonists seem to be led astray by their idées fixes.
Their journeys are often as pointless as they are epic, as passionate as they are conceptual. They all seem to vainly aim, like Jay Gatsby, for that green light that is never quite within reach, and their futile search risks turning them into monsters, speaking an incomprehensible private language.
When I think about the three novels I have written, I can now see my characters bathed under the eccentric shadow of Gatsby’s green light. In Colonel Lágrimas, the protagonist is an old man who has decided to seclude himself in the French Pyrenees in order to write, in a sort of private code, a great historical encyclopedia of otherwise useless facts. Inspired by the great mathematician, eccentric and hermit Alexander Grothendieck, that first novel was my initial way of writing about this tradition of outsiders that had fascinated me for so long.
Reading about Grothendieck’s fascinating life story—his parents’ involvement in the Bolshevik revolution, their terrible fate during the Holocaust, his emergence as one of the greatest geniuses of the century, and his raising political awareness after the Vietnam War—I was left wondering why such a figure, so profoundly touched by history, would one day suddenly decide to leave it all behind and live as a hermit.
It is easy to shroud these sorts of figures in the aura and allure of madness. It is harder to try to understand them from within, deprived of such romantic framing. What leads someone into eccentricity and what view of the world is suddenly opened by that perspective? Eccentrics refuse to take the world for granted, they reject the quotidian. There lies their great lucidity: they seem to see and perhaps even understand something beyond our day to day.
While writing the novel, it became apparent that what interested me about someone like Grothendieck was this unexpected clarity of purpose and the ways in which it paradoxically seemed to condemn him to incomprehension and solitude. Like Don Quixote, Lispector’s G.H. and Duras’ lovers, here was someone whose fixed ideas had driven to the limit of sense, doomed to remain opaque and enigmatic.
The opaqueness and the enigma of the eccentric is that of one who harbors secrets. To write eccentricity is not, however, trying to lay bare that secret but rather attempting to do it justice. Reading Duras or Melville, Lispector or Conrad, what seems admirable is their capacity to follow their eccentrics to the very ending without destroying the secret that drives them. That capacity to portray, without dismantling, the veil of secrecy that shrouds eccentricity, without romantically succumbing to its hallucinatory quality is perhaps one of the hardest things to negotiate while writing about such characters.
If Colonel Lágrimas had shed light into the strange lucidity of the eccentric, Natural History was my attempt to delve into the world of a family’s past and their secrets. The novel tells the story of a wealthy family—a mother, a father and a daughter—who see something in the Central American jungle in 1978 that leads them astray.
As a result of such vision, each of them become outcasts in their own way: the mother becomes a conceptual artist hidden in a half built tower in Puerto Rico, the father changes his name and hides in a town where underground fires begin to pop up, the daughter becomes a fashion designer. Each of them tries to negotiate, from the margins of society, that secret truth they seem to have seen in that distant jungle. Each of them puts on a series of masks—new names, new professions, new projects—that allow them to simultaneously both hide from and to understand that past.
More often than not, while writing the novel, I felt tempted to lift those masks and to bare these characters to their truth. Every time I tried to do that, I immediately understood that this would signify, at the very end, a betrayal. The eccentric’s truth speaks a different language, one which defies the world of simple and clear facts, and asks instead for the power of fiction. A language that makes them irresistibly fascinating yet threatens to lead them into the dead end of solipsism and loneliness.
It’s not easy to talk about eccentrics because they seem to play a never-ending game of hide and seek. I wonder what I would have said if, instead of having eschewed my father’s question about the book I was reading, I had tried to answer it honestly: it is a book about mania, yes, a book about madness, yes, a book about death and the vain efforts we make to leave a mark on earth, yes, but most fundamentally it is a book about love, about the love between siblings and about the secret language in which we express our love for those we care about.
Thinking now about Bernhard’s character it strikes me that they often seem stuck in what Wittgenstein himself once called a private language: they seem trapped in their own worlds, struggling to express themselves in words and gestures that only they seem to understand.
Eccentrics are led by their idées fixes into labyrinths of their own making, where they become lost in private languages like the ones the Austrian philosopher imagined. That marks their incomprehension, their distance and their aura. Wittgenstein himself once suggested that perhaps pain could be the type of limit phenomenon—beyond our comprehension—that opens the way for a private language. Pain defies the objectivity of linguistic expression, it forces us to speak of an internal world that refuses to translate neatly into an exterior reality.
This manifested in the writing of Austral: What had begun as a historical obsession in my debut, and what had later developed as a journey into secrecy in Natural History, here finds itself transfigured into a political question: how is it that pain turns us into outcasts, struggling to share our agony with others? How is it that pain, nonetheless, opens a new space of empathy, where our sense of community is reconfigured and a new language is formed?I sometimes think of the novel as a genre in those terms: as the great shelter for the eccentrics of the world and the imagination. The novel as the haven where the outcasts, wanderers, obsessives, outsiders and freaks of the world find a new community.
These questions are posed in different ways by the predicament of each of the three protagonists that punctuate the plot of the novel: a last speaker of an indigenous language from the Peruvian Amazons, a survivor of the Guatemalan genocide trying to recover his wartime memories, and a writer battling with aphasia.
In each of their cases, their painful struggle is that between linguistically losing a world and the desperate attempts to recover that same world via language. Theirs is the predicament of the outcasts of globalization, errant orphans within a world that excludes them from its future plans.
Writing, in this sense, sometimes feels like approaching a madman who is speaking to himself and trying to understand that language. The writer must struggle to hear that pain and to attentively build a new language from the foreignness of their babble. I sometimes think of the novel as a genre in those terms: as the great shelter for the eccentrics of the world and the imagination. The novel as the haven where the outcasts, wanderers, obsessives, outsiders and freaks of the world find a new community.
A space both for Don Quixote and for Roithamer, for the outcasts of Lispector’ novels and the lovers in Duras’. The novel as a temple of iconoclasts not unlike that which the Argentine writer José Rodolfo Wilcock once imagined. They aim to destroy this world and to construct a new one instead, one in which one could still hear the murmurs, howls, and babble of their private languages and construct, out of them, a new language and a new world.
Removed from the aura and allure of genius, the eccentric’s loneliness is a call to the world: to pay attention to what seems unintelligible and to welcome the outsider as one would welcome family.
Austral by Carlos Fonseca is available via FSG.