Brick 105 cover

What Stories Know about Us


Brick 105

I.

A year ago, almost to the day, my friend Enrique de Hériz—novelist, translator, clarinet player, amateur magician, knowledgeable sailor, and marathon runner—was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had been my only acquaintance when I arrived in Barcelona in October 1999 with one idea in my head: to earn a living from literature (whether reviewing, translating, or teaching it) while I dedicated every second of my waking life, including those spent earning a living, to the all-consuming task of becoming a novelist. I was twenty-six years old; at thirty-five, Enrique was much more than a host: he was a guide and an accomplice. He gave me and my wife a place to stay while we found something of our own; on his grandfather’s desk, a massive beast that seemed to have occupied the same spot since the dawn of time, I wrote a short story that didn’t make me blush: its title, “The All Saints’ Day Lovers,” would end up on the cover of my first acknowledged book. In the two decades that followed, Enrique became an unofficial godfather to my twin girls, and my wife and I became godparents to his children. We read each other’s work and discussed the works of others, and prose fiction, every discovery and infatuation and corroboration and disappointment, was always at the centre of our talk, of our friendship, of our way of being in the world.

Last February, five months after the cancer diagnosis, I took two days off a scheduled trip to Lisbon to visit him in Barcelona. At the time, I was taking notes for this piece, trying to go deeper into my subject—indeed, trying to find what my subject was. During the past two years I had been obsessing about what I perceive to be the fundamental conflict of our times: what I have come to call “the breakup of the narrative contract.” The narrative contract is an agreement that we understand reality through stories, and that even if stories contradict each other, we all accept that reality is still there: that there is such a thing as truth. Our narratives interpret truth differently because language contains or reflects experience, which is personal and unique like a fingerprint. But this has changed lately because truth is in crisis.

In 1964, Hannah Arendt published “Truth and Politics,” a marvellous essay meant to confront “the enormous quantity of lies used in the controversy” that, years before, had surrounded Eichmann in Jerusalem. At some point in that essay, Arendt reflects about a quality of political thought that she calls representative; that is, the fact that we form political opinions after consideration of several different points of view, those of people who are not here, whom we represent. She writes:

 

This is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or to feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion.

 

I couldn’t help noticing a kind of novelistic gesture in these words, even if the notion of empathy, which to me lives firmly at the centre of fiction as I understand it, was thoroughly dismissed by Arendt. Imagining how I would feel and think if I were in their place: isn’t this precisely what fiction is about? Is it possible that there is an answer to be found in fiction, in the dedicated imagination of other people’s lives, to the crisis of reality and truth? These were my thoughts as I arrived in Barcelona to visit Enrique.

I didn’t go to see him right away. His daily routine, dominated by his illness, allowed for only a few minutes of social life in the afternoon. I walked around that city I knew well with a kind of anxiety I had never known before; Barcelona, in my mind, was inextricably linked to our friendship, and the boisterous city felt now strangely commanding, like the room next to which a patient is resting. As I climbed up the four flights of stairs to Enrique’s apartment, wondering what I would find, I was aware of doing something that was already beyond his physical abilities. I knew he was not well. His chemo was not working; it had been replaced by immunotherapy, and now that wasn’t working either. I knew all of this. But nothing could have prepared me for the brief conversation we had, whose import and density of meaning would only be apparent to me much later.

I asked him if he had any intention of writing about his illness. The question felt natural because this is what I would have done; but the way Enrique shook his head, in silent exhaustion, made me regret it. A chasm of experience had opened up between us, and his circumstances—his thoughts, his fears, his emotions—were for the first time out of my reach. He had become opaque. The conversation moved on and I asked him if he was working on a translation, even if only to keep busy. Didn’t he have books to turn in? He said he had told his editors he would stop for a while. And this is when I asked him about his novel, the one he had been working on, the first pages of which I already knew and had discussed with him. In an email he had written: “Among other things, the novel will investigate my very private obsession with voice (in a physical sense, but also in every symbolic sense). Voice as proof of life.” It was now painful to hear his own voice, thinned down by the disease, tell me that he didn’t plan to continue. His children were in their rooms and Yolanda, his wife, was fixing dinner, so I was alone with him when he looked me in the eye, with perfect awareness of what his words meant to me, and added, “I don’t want any more stories.”

Later I would realize, not without a sense of shame, that nothing had brought the truth home to me with such effectiveness as those words. I’d felt Enrique’s depleted body when I embraced him; I’d seen this eloquent man reduce his conversation to its essentials because of shortness of breath. But only those words, I don’t want any more stories, spoken with great effort in a voice that was definitely not a proof of life, carried with them the palpable possibility that a deeper transformation was taking place, that Enrique was turning away from life as we knew it. Because the mind of a reader often works in preposterous ways, I found myself abruptly remembering Joan Didion’s volume of collected non-fiction: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. Enrique, by his own account, had stopped telling stories to himself; he had also lost the desire or the drive to tell them to the rest of us. No reader of fiction can entertain the illusion that we can fully know somebody else, whether it be our partners, our parents, or our friends. But this transformation seemed to me unlike any I had seen before: of a different order, and also of a different magnitude. Either my friend was becoming somebody else or he had ceased being the person whom I knew. It was also possible that I was reading too much into his words. Maybe, I thought as I walked down the stairs from his apartment, I was quite simply overblowing the metaphor.

I never saw Enrique again. Two weeks after my visit, he was admitted to the hospital with symptoms of severe asphyxia; one week after that, a mutual friend called me from Barcelona to let me know that Enrique was being sedated. That happened in the afternoon of Thursday, March 14, still morning in Colombia. I was working on this piece, taking notes about the political use of narrative, going back to my Orwell and my Arendt. That morning, as witnessed by my notebook, I was remembering the ominous epigram in Nineteen Eighty-Four that I have quoted so many times: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” I wanted to contrast those clairvoyant words with Arendt’s reflections on political lies in general and the Pentagon Papers in particular; and I wanted to use these works to open my way through a reflection on the role of storytelling in the manufacturing, right here, right now, of a falsified reality. And there I was, looking at Winston Smith hard at work in the Ministry of Truth, distorting history and normalizing lies, when that same mutual friend called again to tell me that Enrique had stopped breathing.

The news of his death pushed me away from the desk, if for no other reason because memories had started flooding in and I didn’t want to think about anything else. (Deep sadness, of the kind you know you will only feel a few times in the course of a lifetime, is a selfish feeling.) What I did after a while was what I always do when writers die, if they have mattered to me: I take their books from my bookshelves and spend some time with them, browsing, looking at the words I have underlined in past readings, asking for quiet conversation. In one of my favourite poems, Francisco de Quevedo explained it well:

 

Withdrawn into the peace of this desert,
along with some books, few but wise,
I live in conversation with the deceased,
and listen to the dead with my eyes.

 

I sat down in my reading chair with Enrique’s books around me, listening with my eyes to the voice of my friend, painfully realizing that he was, from now on, one of my dead. I opened his novel Lies and read the first few words, which I had known in manuscript fifteen years before and utterly forgotten.

“Dead?” says or writes his narrator. “Me, Isabel, dead? Not a chance. Not while I still have something to say about it.”

There was an echo in those lines, an inverted rendition of the words I’d heard from Enrique’s mouth: I don’t want any more stories. I almost heard Enrique say, in flagrant contradiction of his narrator, “I have nothing else to say about it.” It being, of course, life.

And this was problematic. No, not problematic: that contrast between the exhausted voice of my friend and the vitality of his character’s became to me nothing short of haunting. Isabel is a woman in her sixties who has been declared dead while she’s alive and well in the Guatemalan jungle; telling her story will be the way to claim control over her life, to come back to life. Enrique, at fifty-five, had devoted his whole adult life to fiction, as a novelist or an editor or a translator or a reviewer, and at some point had decided to renounce—at least in my interpretation of his words—everything that his life had been about. That’s what he was when I last saw him: a man in retreat from himself. I don’t want any more stories.

I discovered that attempting to understand exactly this, the place within my friend where these words came from, allowed me a kind of sustained contact with his memory; most importantly, the effort seemed to address meaningful issues for me, although I wouldn’t have been able to name what they were. In other words, I realized I was trying to find an answer but had not been able to formulate the question.

I took the notes I’d been scribbling for this piece and set them quietly aside. I returned those books to their bookshelves. And then I started writing the pages you have just read.

 

II.

It’s quite likely that the reason I was so bothered by Enrique’s words was that they questioned, or rather confronted, some assumptions that have informed my life as a novelist. You see, fiction, at its core, has always seemed to me one of the most forceful rebuttals of death we human beings have come up with. Joan Didion’s title feels accurate for any serious reader of fiction, but what does it ultimately mean? Perhaps that we always want to say more. To tell stories (about ourselves, about others) is to be entrenched in life, indisputably a part of it; at the simplest level, an appetite for stories means an appetite for life: the testimony that we still have something to say about it. Yes, that’s what it is: voice as a proof of life.

We also read and write stories because life, as bestowed on us, fails to satisfy us. I want to live more lives, we say. I want to know more things. Life’s fundamental limitations are twofold: we only have one, meaning that it ends with biological death; and we only have one, meaning that we are trapped in a single experience, a single set of existential coordinates. There is little or nothing I can do to change the fact that I am male, white, and forty-six years old. Reading fiction, however, I have come reasonably close to being(I make good use of my italics here) a Latin American dictator in his old age, a Russian student who is a murderer, a black woman who is a slave, a teenage girl of French descent who discovers sex in Asia, a teenage boy of Jewish descent who discovers sex in New Jersey, an orphan growing up in sixteenth-century Spain, an orphan growing up in nineteenth-century London, a German poet, a German war criminal, a man who turns into vermin, a man who turns into a nose, a man who turns into a Mexican fish, a Mexican fetus who has not been born, a Roman soldier who will never die.

I am grateful to James Wood for calling my attention to these words of George Eliot: “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” That amplification of experience, that extension of human contact, is not unique to narrative fiction, but it always requires two components without which narrative fiction is unable to illuminate or discover anything: observation and imagination. “One must paint the peasants as if one were one of them, feeling, thinking as they do themselves,” said Vincent van Gogh, probably discussing TheAngelus he painted after Millet in 1880. Feeling and thinking as somebody else, of course, is best achieved after watching them closely. Van Gogh could do it, and Caravaggio before him, and Lucian Freud after him. Their powers of observation are of the same nature as those of Chekhov or Joyce or Proust, or Toni Morrison or Javier Marías or Alice Munro, but the way we inhabit their creations is different because fiction is made of language.

Take, for instance, the opening of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I would submit to you that no two readers share an identical definition of what a family is, let alone what happiness or unhappiness is or feels like. When we read Tolstoy’s words, we fill them with our own private experience, our memories (suppressed or not), our idiosyncrasies (hidden or apparent), our intuitions of the inner workings of human beings. Words are vessels; we pour our humanity into them; but, since they are being used in a context, since they come to us charged with their own knowledge and experience—the meaning that those words, family and happiness and unhappiness, have for the Oblonskys—our intimate understanding is enlarged. Of course, by the time the novel ends, none of the Oblonskys will have the same relationship with those words. Those words will have changed painfully for the Karenins as well as for Vronsky; they will have changed for the reader. We feel we know more things; we feel we have lived more lives. This is probably why we sense, when reading great fiction, that the words know more about us than we do: that the novel is reading us.

The same phenomenon is probably familiar to most writers. We know that Tolstoy began writing Anna Karenina with the idea of a fallen woman whose suicide was the necessary punishment for her adultery. His very first idea, as expressed in 1870 to his wife, was about a woman more pitiful than guilty. But his moral stance changes when he begins writing; in the early drafts, Anna was vulgar and unattractive and her husband was smart, humble, a true representative of Christian values. As the novel progressed, Anna grew in complexity, depth, and even beauty, while her husband became petty, insincere, a slave to the hypocrisy of others. The novel began exploring the hidden aspects of human behaviour—its contradictions, its mysteries—transcending the social commentary or moral fable that it started out to be and complicating Tolstoy’s rather simple premise. This is probably what Milan Kundera means when he says that novels are more intelligent than their authors. Failed novels, I’ve always felt without a single shred of evidence, are written by novelists who always know more than their stories, who are always one step ahead. The task of the novelist, in this sense, would be to find a form—in style and architecture—that allows the novel to think for itself, to explore places the novelist wouldn’t have dared to visit or maybe didn’t even know existed.

Nabokov famously mocked the impulse we have, as readers, to identify with fictional characters: his was the elegant cynicism of an aesthete. I’ve always suspected this refusal is at the root of his inability to fully appreciate Miguel de Cervantes or Fyodor Dostoyevsky. When he disparages Don Quixote as primitive, when he calls Dostoyevsky mediocre and sentimental, he is fundamentally accusing them of not caring enough about form. And, yes, there’s no baggy monster as loose as Cervantes’s novel; and Crime and Punishment proclaims on every page the fact that it was dictated, rather than composed, by a novelist drowning in debt and unable to rewrite or reconsider. But I would be hard-pressed to think of a writer as generous or compassionate as Cervantes, capable of penetrating the moral realities of just about everyone his knight encounters in his quest: a female shepherd, a captive soldier, a university student, a puppet master who is a con artist. And if being sentimental and mediocre won’t impede a legacy that includes the Underground Man or Alyosha Karamazov, then I would like to sign up to that club with no further delay. Nabokov constantly censures Dostoyevsky for not clearly seeing either his scenes or his characters. There’s a moment in Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature where he draws a sketch of the sleeping-car in which Anna Karenina is travelling from Moscow to Saint Petersburg; nothing of the sort could be done with, for instance, the place where Stavrogin meets the bishop Tikhon in Demons. It is true that we don’t usually know what precisely Dostoyevsky’s characters are wearing; but nothing of their hearts and minds escapes us. No moral or emotional stone is left unturned; and it’s a dangerous exploration, for Dostoyevsky opens his eyes where the rest of us would have rather closed them.

There’s a wonderful documentary about Svetlana Geier, Dostoyevsky’s translator into German. She calls his great novels “The Five Elephants.” I will dare any reader to take a ride on them, one after the other, and hop down without feeling that their life is utterly transformed. “One doesn’t translate this with impunity,” Geier says, pointing at the five published monsters she has authored. I can assure you no one reads them with impunity either.

It’s this inhabiting of another’s existential coordinates, this metaphysical sleight of hand, where we find some of the greatest satisfactions (and the most urgent assistance) that fiction is able to provide. And although the magic, admittedly, doesn’t always happen, it is still true that in the care of a certain kind of writer we occupy someone else’s consciousness, and dwell in it, in a way that is nothing short of supernatural. Perhaps this is as useful a yardstick as any other: literary greatness measured by the depth and richness with which a writer’s language enlarges our sense of the human, pushing back the limits of what can be felt and thought, discovering new territories. Henry Fielding remembers somewhere that the Latin word inventio, in its etymology, means “to discover.” Fiction discovers: the past, in Proust or Marguerite Yourcenar; the present, in Joyce or Woolf; the future, in Orwell or Atwood. Without García Márquez or Borges, whole territories of the human experience would be unavailable to us. In a sense, what we call human experience is the summation of our stories, the stories we tell, whether they are made up or not. But when one of those experiences is important and it has been fixed in a durable form, both beautiful and efficient in language, structure, and dramaturgy, fully observed and adroitly imagined, we the readers feel that, as Adolfo Bioy Casares fittingly put it, a room has been added to the house of life.

We read fiction because we are thirsty for knowledge of a particular kind that we can’t get elsewhere. Or, should I say with a little hubris, that only happens in imaginative writing: the things we learn in fiction can only be found there. The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’s philosophical essay about the concept of the absurd, doesn’t offer us the same kind of information that is to be found in The Stranger, which is usually taken to be a narrative discussion of the same themes. But fiction is never about one thing only; its concerns, because of the way imaginative prose goes about its business, are ambiguous and often contradictory. We read The Stranger because it satisfies different curiosities than The Myth of Sisyphus. Meursault’s story speaks to a different part of what we are as human beings, among other reasons because it is Meursault’s story, not Camus’s meditations. Most importantly, because where the philosophical essay tries to provide an answer to difficult questions, the novel is reticent: it denies the reader any kind of definitive resolution. Why did Meursault kill the Arab? We’ll never know; but it is through that withheld motive that the novel says what it has to say. Why was Joseph K. arrested? We’ll never know; but if Kafka had given us an answer—shoplifting, say, or possession of pornography—The Trial would not be the visionary fiction it is, capable of discovering a new world, so distinctive and necessary that we had to invent an adjective: Kafkaesque. If we had that little piece of useful information,The Trial wouldn’t read today as a port of entry to an undiscovered country but merely—and woefully—as a very weird version of Les Misérables.

This is what the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas, in a superb book of essays, calls “the blind spot” of the novel. The expression comes from a place in our optic disc that lacks light detectors; no image can therefore be seen there. Since the blind spots of our two eyes don’t coincide, one eye sees what the other doesn’t, and we remain unaware of this blindness; but what matters most for our purposes is that the human brain, gathering the available information, is able to, as it were, fill in the blanks. For Cercas, this ophthalmological curiosity amounts to a metaphor of what novels are and of how they work, or at least a certain family of novels toward which he feels a particular attachment. There is a spot in the novel’s eye where nothing can be seen: we don’t know what crime Joseph K. committed; we don’t know why Meursault kills the Arab. But it is precisely through that blindness that the novel is able to see; it is through that silence that the novel speaks. At the heart of these novels, Cercas writes,

 

there is a question, and the whole novel consists of a search for an answer to this central question; when this search is finished, however, the answer is that there is no answer, that is, the answer is the search itself, the question itself, the book itself. In other words: in the end there is no clear, unequivocal, emphatic answer; only an ambiguous, equivocal, contradictory, essentially ironic answer, which doesn’t even resemble an answer.

 

On my copy of Cercas’s book, after my first reading, I transcribed these words from a letter Chekhov wrote to Alexei Suvorin in 1888: “You are right to demand that an author take conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly.”

One of the stories Cercas discusses, albeit briefly, as examples of the blind spot is Bartleby, the Scrivener:

 

We will never know the truth of who this man is or what he represents, this man who has no family and speaks only to reply and never goes outside and spends his time off staring blankly at a blank wall and nobody knows where he came from or where he’s going; we’ll never know why his soul is sick or what kind of illness he suffers from or why he is “the saddest of men”; we’ll never know whether he’s absolutely mad or totally sane, or if he’s the very personification of rebellion or of conformity.

 

Melville’s long short story, that cryptic masterpiece of melancholy, has always been a favourite of mine, and I have always read it with as much admiration as uncertainty; but earlier this year it gained an altogether new pertinence in my life. The following rationalization is imperfect, but it is the only one I can give right now.

 

III.

A week or so after my visit to Enrique, our mutual friend, the publisher Pere Sureda, called me with a proposal of sorts. For several years he had been commissioning new translations of significant books from his closest collaborators; he had published my translation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for instance, and Enrique had translated several books for him. Over the phone he told me something that Enrique had withheld from me: that he had turned in his most recent commission a couple of months ago but had not been able to revise it, out of physical and intellectual fatigue, and was unwilling to let anybody else do it: he loved that story too much. The book—for it would be published as an independent volume—was Bartleby, the Scrivener. “You’re the only person he would suffer to touch his work,” Pere said to me. And this was his proposal: that I revise Enrique’s translation and write a preface in as short a time as possible, so that the book could be hurried to press and presented to our friend as a gift. The implications were clear: he didn’t think Enrique had long to live.

With that in mind I read Bartleby again, maybe for the tenth time in my life. And for the eleventh time too: because first I went through Melville’s words and then over Enrique’s Spanish version, as moving and precise as the original. Now, one of the most bewildering properties of great fiction—also of great poetry—is that it changes as we change: whoever reads The Divine Comedy at twenty and then at forty will read two different, almost incompatible books. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel remembers what Woolf says in an essay about Charlotte Brontë: that reading Hamlet every year and writing down our impressions is almost like writing our autobiography; for as we live on, we discover that Shakespeare also talks about what we have just learned. So yes: it was predictable that Bartleby should have changed for me too. But will you believe me (no, will you forgive me) if I confess that I wasn’t quite aware, until the very last minute, of the nature of that change? The story of the clerk who refuses to write spoke to me in different ways this time around, not only because the words I was reading had been chosen, every single one of them, by Enrique de Hériz but also because Bartleby’s reply, the all-too-famous “I would prefer not to,” had become a chamber in which another reply, disquieting, uncomfortable, could be heard: “I don’t want any more stories.” Reading fiction entails risks because our deepest emotions are always in play, ready to surface, the language becoming emotionally charged, capable of reaching into hidden or forgotten regions of our consciousness. In a way, it was Enrique’s voice, broken by cancer, that I was hearing now over Bartleby’s words. I felt as close to the narrator as I could ever be, both inquiring into the mystery of another.

On the last page of the story, Bartleby has already died and been buried. The lawyer-narrator declares his curiosity for the enigmatic man and for his enigmatic past; that curiosity, he says, he is unable to satisfy. And yet he feels the need to share with us a rumour that has contained for him “a certain strange suggestive interest.” Apparently, Bartleby used to work as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office, whose task is to sort and finally burn the missives that never reach their destinations. “Sometimes,” he reflects,

 

from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

 

The narrator finds something illuminating in that discovery. I do too. The narrator is unable to put his finger exactly on what that discovery illuminates. So am I. A kind of consolation is all I can get from the words of Melville, which are also my friend’s words.

And it is quite enough.

 

Brick 105

Juan Gabriel Vásquez was born in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1973. He is the author of the novels The InformersThe Secret History of Costaguana, and The Sound of Things Falling, and has translated works by Victor Hugo and E. M. Forster, among others, into Spanish. His work is published in fifteen languages.