Holiday Reading – Piglia and Vila-Matas

I had travelled to Saint-Mézard, a remote commune in southwestern France, bringing with me books by Ricardo Piglia, Enrique Vila-Matas, Renee Gladman and Lucy Ellman. As is often the case, I read less than expected, preferring for much of the time to lose myself in contemplation, sitting quietly listening to the birdsong and observing the landscape. As Vila-Matas wrote, “Here in this village . . . where the hours pass in a slow but lively fashion, I think only about life.”

What little I read, Piglia’s diary, in which he fictionalises himself, and Vila-Matas’ novel in which he pretends to be writing a private diary that is trying not to become a novel, made me think mostly of the absurdity of all the time I spend deciphering symbols on a page that purport to represent life. It seems a decidedly odd way to use the apparently endless, but definitely finite and limited time alive, particularly during a week in which a radical, hard right—unelected—administration has taken control of this country.

Writers like Piglia and Vila-Matas—both books, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi and Mac & His Problem are brilliant—highlight this absurdity. In both cases, thought itself is given a fictional characteristic and placed into a character (or series of characters). In this way the history of fiction can be represented as a progression that represents the idea of the Other. Both books express the Other by means of varied signs that mark distinct ruptures in the idea of writing and the nature of fiction. I’m doubtlessly explaining this badly. It made more sense as a conversation over a glass of local wine. Camus wrote, “We can only ever have a dissonant relationship with the world because we seek out truths about it that we cannot find or verify.”

“Of course, it is impossible to live without others, without the body. And solitude is false, an illusion, like magic, as it was for Plato and the Platonists, for the mystics who cast off and condemn the body, not as an austere sacrifice, but for the great pride of being able to surpass physical ‘limitations.’ Living life outside of the world, being hermit in the desert—these are sealed exits. What then? To understand that you are—if you can be—the shape of the face, the ineptitude, the restlessness.”

— Ricardo Piglia, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years (trans. Robert Croll)

“The point could be the following: to destroy—to attempt to destroy—personal fate as manifested in the repetition of events. We know that we repeat actions but do not remember. In this case, the point would be to deliberately remember some incidents from the past, over and over again. It might be a single event—for example, an afternoon playing chess at the club—remembered with the intention of reconstructing everything surrounding the scene. Another alternative would be to reread these notebooks, to choose something recorded there that you no longer remember and try to do the same thing again—that is, to try to reconstruct everything around that event. Of course, there is no assurance that you can overcome the repetition of events by remembering (for example, in my case, by remembering my tendency toward isolation), which has persisted since childhood, but, in any case, it would give a new dimension to the events. It’s like the reaction of a cat, scratching or biting when it is stepped upon by accident. Memory works in this way: you step on the toe of a memory and then the scratch and the blood come. Nevertheless, there doesn’t appear to be a solution; it is impossible to rectify the past. And there in the past is the event, one which you have forgotten but which is repeated in other ways—yet always the same, again and again.”

— Ricardo Piglia, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years (trans. Robert Croll)

“One of the lessons—if there really are lessons, because deep down it is idiotic to think you can learn from experience—is the fluctuation between what can be done or said and what can be neither said nor done. A diary should be written about the second part of the sentence; that is, you should ultimately write about the limits or the frontiers that make certain words or actions impossible. But where do those obstacles come from, the feeling that there is something—a space, a person, a series of actions—’that cannot be done?’ It wouldn’t mean a ‘real’ impossibility but rather a place it is prohibited to enter. Then we ask whom it is prohibited for and start again . . . It’s also true that my past (what Pavese calls personal destiny) allows me to see or define what I can do; the rest of the alternatives and options I could never see nor conceive of directly. Literature could be, among other things, helpful as away of discovering or describing these blind spots.” p.220

— Ricardo Piglia, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years (trans. Robert Croll)

Blind spots. “In the end, I will always be an outsider to things.” How to be known? My only regret is that I didn’t bring the second volume of diaries with me.