“Para o substituir (de outro modo) há Moniz Barreto, implacavelmente psicólogo, e tão terrivelmente homem-de-livro, que quando a gente diz ‘está calor,’ ele acode logo – ‘já leu sobre isso tal e tal? leia sobre isso tal e tal!’ É pavoroso!” – Carta de Eça de Queiroz à esposa, 24 de Julho de 1893.

22 de janeiro de 2018

Dons and cons

Many thanks to the Obooki’s Obloquy blog owner, who kindly offered me his copy of Don Juan.


Your guide is an anonymous narrator who describes himself as “nothing more than a modest intellectual from a country where intellectuals earn little, and belong to a poor but proud race the pillars of whose moral code are independence and poverty.” He shares your greatest fear abroad. “I’m only at ease with the French of other foreigners who speak it as imperfectly as I do.” The guided trip takes you through a patchwork Paris pillared with personal reminiscences, bookish references, literary grudges. Around the corner there’s a whiff of nostalgia for pre-war Bohemia. Walk a hundred steps and you’ll come across a reference to 19th century trivia. “When in these same streets Baudelaire flaunted his green hair-do, he was a much freer man.” If you turn your head at the right moment you might catch a glimpse of a washed-out celebrity called Theology of Teilhard de Chardin. The 1960s have just started; it’s finally safe to make fun of Sartre. “A hundred yards or so down from Saint Sulpice, dozens of young couples are kissing and caressing away, in a manner both crude and unceremonious, but philosophically irreproachable. If one were to ask them about the nature of their feelings, they would answer with quotes from L’Être et le Néant.” Careful, though, Sartreans are still everywhere; you may walk into a restaurant chockful of somber students salivating at existentialism: “Those funereal people seemed like characters from a tragedy on some erotic holiday, judging by the way they all but made love as they ate. They seemed to be saying: ‘As soon as we finish eating we’ll commit suicide, even if in between we find a minute or two to make love. Not for long though – just enough to make sure our libidos don’t get in the way of our final meditations on nothingness.’”

On the other side of the border, Franco rules Spain; but the invasion of France is underway. Not of tanks and rifles, but of characters from Spanish classic literature. A sleazy Italian man walks into a bookshop specialized in religion, and this isn’t the start of a joke; it’s how he introduces himself to your narrator as Leporello, the immortal servant of the immortal Don Juan. Your narrator, a Catholic journalist, has written an impressive article on the famous lover, and in this playful Paris that gets him a ticket to the premiere of a play put on and acted by Leporello and his master, called The End of Don Juan. Your perceptive skills, when the time comes, will point out to you that the play does take place at the end of Don Juan. You want plot but get structure instead. Writing literature in Franco’s Spain is dangerous; it gets you arrested, fined, fired, ostracized, maybe killed. In Paris it gets you involved in an intellectual game that blurs the line between magical realism and an elaborate con.

Your narrator isn’t doing much in Paris anyway, so he has spare time to think that things are wrong with people around him:

It is by no means inconceivable that a genuine Anglo-Saxon butler, or one created by Huxley, for example, should be keen on Theology; but this customer of the Saint Sulpice bookshops was not a genuine butler. I have to admit that I went so far as to think that that fellow was not a genuine anything, not even a genuine Italian, but rather somebody in disguise, a deliberate falsification. The attitude he struck as he flicked through theological texts showed an excessive intellectual curiosity, and a superior stance as if the subjects studied in those books were beneath his level. He made selections rapidly and judiciously, stacking his chosen volumes, enquiring after others, and occasionally exchanging a few apt remarks with a young English Dominican on the modern bibliography on the Holy Trinity. The Dominican was surprised only at the great knowledge shown by this layman on questions verging on the esoteric: he hadn’t noticed the contradiction between the being and the external appearance of the Italian.

You can tell this novel was written by a novelist; not many are. Your narrator not only thinks of a butler, but of a butler as conceived by Aldous Huxley. Allusions are the atoms of this universe. Your narrator has a repository of Western culture where characters tend to have personality. Pulled into this game, he spends his remaining days in Paris trying to assess the reliability of this new acquaintance. “He gives me the impression of being a walking lie. At first I thought he was perhaps going about under a disguise; now I doubt his reality. If I had to define him somehow, I’d say he was a ghost,” he says after their first meeting, oblivious to his own ontological flimsiness. For this novel is also a meditation on nothingness, not of the existentialist variety, but the ages-old question of how something comes out of nothing. What poses puzzling paradoxes in philosophy, in literature it’s a mundane miracle. Books build worlds with nothing but words and whoppers. If your narrator’s cavorting with a possible literary character doesn’t put him on guard about his own fictionality, his language contains less awe than shoptalk: “A man who claims to be Don Juan is of precious little interest to a playwright or a novelist, and still less to a theologian. He must be soft in the head.” Leporello processes experience also only through comparisons to fiction. “I’m not surprised to see you a little unhinged these days. It’s perfectly understandable, really. As if you’d been walking along a road and suddenly bumped into don Quixote.” When Leporello prepares to tell him how Don Juan met Marianne, his previous girlfriend, in the Resistance, he’s interrupted. “Please, don’t start telling me some episode from the Resistance! Mr. Sartre has told them all already.” The possibility of Leporello being a devil is workshopped. “The presence of a devil in Don Juan’s story diminishes its originality, it makes it resemble too close the story of Faust. I remember an old friend of mine, a teacher with a great deal of insight, saying how when modern writers re-invent Don Juan they either produce a new Faust or a new Hamlet. You’ve opted for a new Faust.” So much self-awareness cancels ordinary concerns. After Don Juan’s current girlfriend, Sonja, shoots him, Leporello takes the opportunity to reflect on the impact of firearms in plots:

Previously a woman who had been deceived had either to stab the seducer, which is not a very ladylike thing to do however you look at it, or poison him, which was devious and distasteful, or else run to daddy, the brother or the husband to get them to avenge her. So things used to be very complicated, and often very theatrical. Now everything is so much simpler, as you can see: one hole in the chest, another in the back, and a bloodstain. One could never make a poem out of that.

Characters are treated like characters. “He turned Marianne into a being capable of sacrifice and Sonja into a homicide. If a good novelist had invented them, he would have allotted the crime to Marianne and the sacrifice to Sonja; if he had done it the other way round, the critics would have criticized him for it.” When your narrator considers that Sonja may have really slept with the Don Juan, “at that moment I didn’t really think I was standing in front of another human being, but rather in the company of a literary character.” When Leporello laughs, he laughs like “a melodrama villain,” for he’s an actor in multiple roles: a devil pretending to be an Italian valet to an immortal nobleman; a 17th century relic dressed in contemporary duds who makes slips like saying alchemy instead of chemistry; or a con man terrorizing a writer. Because he’s a villain he has an origin story; stories are to be told; and since he’s on a stage at all stages, “his voice, normally so spontaneous, changed: he spoke with that affected tone adopted by Spanish actors when performing classic plays; that tone which, for some unknown reason, our great-great-grandparents are supposed to have used.”

Don Juan is a straightforward bourgeois love triangle; it’s only three tweaks away from being one of Alberto Moravia’s decorous drudgeries. But it is, more importantly, a comedy about the art of fiction. In it a character interrupts an apparent human-interest story to expose yet another identity, that of Black Sheep, a devil sent from Hell to earth to bear witness on a game between free will and forced will involving Don Juan Tenorio’s soul. Here the narrative takes a Swebenborgian turn if Swedenborg had had a sense of humor. Instead Swedenborg had a novelist’s eye for detail, that’s why his Hell has weight and width like any other world out of an inkpot. After the novel has conjured an unlikely Paris out of bits and pieces of literature, it performs another miracle and renders a Hell with hierarchies, bureaucracy and its own schisms. Black Sheep’s job was to possess human bodies in the vicinities of dying people in order to help their souls move to hell quickly:

He would never lose sight of his patient: indeed he would be there to answer his every need, and when the moribund soul was heaving its last sighs and the ground having been well prepared by his subordinates, Black Sheep would deftly deliver the coup de grâce, or otherwise dispatch the soul off to the gates of hell with all its entry papers in order. As his reputation for expeditious efficacy spread far and wide, Black Sheep only intervened in momentous combats with spirited bulls, that is to say, with persons of substance, esteemed in hell, whose acquisition mattered on account of the quality of the prey, his notoriety, or because the Opposing Party had gone to great lengths to wrest him from their clutches.

While wintering inside a friar’s body, Black Sheep received a new mission from a co-worker, Little Moth, a demon who converted to Calvinism after he “was assigned to a French Huguenot for several years and he ended up convincing me!”

“That’s daft! We’ve always been Catholics.!
“That was before. Starting with Luther, some extraordinary points of view have been discovered. Of course Lutheranism can never convince us; it’s too sentimental. But, my friend, Calvin’s logic is implacable! Even we could not reason better. And what things he says of the Enemy!”
The Sheep gave him a scornful look.
“You’ve never heard Padre Maestro Téllez. He has real logic and profundity, and wisdom! I have ascertained that nobody in the world knows more about God than him.!
“Catholicism is out of date,” he insisted, “and I intend to recommend that greater attention be paid in Hell to new heresies. From our point of view, they are much more convincing.”
“If there were an inquisition in hell, I would denounce you to it forthwith. Well, there’s a new one for the books, a heretic devil!”

This chapter does serve a purpose in the plot, it explains why and how Black Sheep becomes Don Juan’s servant, it fills the backstory; but it’s more crucial than that: the fantastic world it creates is made from the same stuff the as the Paris the characters live in without astonishment. Black Sheep’s Hell is a trick of language readers would only be too happy to be victims of more often. And yet your narrator’s greatest fear is being tricked. “The feeling of being faced with a distinctly farcical set-up vanished when I realized I wasn’t so much faced with it as in the middle of it, maybe as a target, or at least as the butt of some practical joke.” When Leporello invites him to meet Don Juan, the narrator refuses for “fear that between my master and I, you’ll end up having your leg pulled.” When he finally enters Don Juan’s apartment he has “the feeling of being on a theatre stage, or on something that, even if it were not in a theatre, was at any rate a stage, yet which was nonetheless neither make-believe nor false, but rather utterly authentic.” In spite of his skepticism, he becomes alarmed at the “growing and irrational belief that they could be Leporello and Juan Tenorio, just as I believe that ghosts may well exist, that the dead come back from the other world with messages for us, and many other things I’ve never quite managed to banish from the darkest corners of my soul.” Your narrator, like you, reader, goes around assigning different levels of authenticity to unreal things just because some unreal things are more honestly unreal than others. The novel closes with his “sensation of being ridiculed, the conviction that I was mixed up in a farce whose contradictory nature made it unintelligible to me, but which ceased to be so if I accepted the absurd idea that that man was Leporello and the other, Don Juan.” Tricks must exist in a novel about the Trickster of Seville. Both Paris and Hell, both Sonja and Black Sheep, are equal fictions. If you believe in one more than the other, it’s not the novel that’s tricking you, it’s you who’s tricking yourself.

When Don Juan came out in 1963, readers and novelists were waking up to the evident truth that literature are layers of lies stacked one upon another. If Leporello is a con man, he’s one of the many con men who preyed in the paragraphs and punctuation of ‘60s fiction, a relative of Maurice Conchis and Charles Kinbote. Its creator could not know that he was placing a milestone in contemporary Spanish fiction; in the beginning he just wanted to tell telltales. Once upon a time, that wasn’t an easy thing to do.

II

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’s Don Juan harkens back to his Modernist youth. “When my master is sad, I read him some Góngora, for his poetry cheers him up – or maybe, as with your Gardel tangos, it takes him back to his early youth. When my master was twenty years old he was a passionate advocate of avant-garde poetry.” He was born in 1910 and his maturity coincided with the reign of Ortega y Gasset and his magazine Revista de Occidente. The Occident, the West, is what Spain craved in the 1920s. Closed upon itself for centuries, self-sufficient with its saints and sanbenitos, a backward bulwark of faith that had fostered a Black Legend and now festered under it, Spain was not beloved by Spanish thinkers. Europe had become a myth for them, and Ortega y Gasset’s a window into it, showing them modernity, new artistic movements, new ideas in philosophy, new literature. GTB, as his name was popularly abbreviated in the press, liked to claim that he was the first Spanish novelist to use James Joyce’s techniques, a statement whose veracity matters less than how important it was for GTB to create a literary persona as a writer in constant revolt against the establishment. Doing poetry around him were Modernist poets like Federico García Lorca and Rafael Alberti; in France the émigrés Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí were inventing surrealist cinema; Pablo Picasso was a national treasure. You had to be blind or Mr. Bennett not to see art changing around you. GTB came of age at a crossroads: he was young enough to claim the avant-garde legacy and travel to Paris after Modernism; but he was too old stay outside the Civil War. He had to choose a side; he chose the nationalists. It did not advance his literary career: his first published book, a biblical play called El viaje del joven Tobías, drew complaints from the Catholic Church; Javier Mariño, a sympathetic portrayal of a nationalist intellectual, was removed from bookstores within days of publication. His involvement in politics was quick and equivocal.

Having fallen out with phalangists, he couldn’t however return to the pure literature advocated by Ortega y Gasset’s The Dehumanization of Art. The avant-garde now had enemies on both sides, and the idea of a detached writer in the 1930s began seeming outrageous in Spain as it did everywhere else; once politics forced the writer first to choose a side and next to destroy the other, so began the long dark night of the novel. Out was Valle-Inclán and Miguel de Unamuno; in was the Marxist novelist, indoctrinated against high-fallutin’ nonsense, and armed with a disastrous aesthetic doctrine geared up for political fighting and revolution. In the USA they called it social realism; in the USSR they called it socialist realism; in Spain they called it neorrealismo, because it was a new type of realism, not to be confused with the 19th century one that favored bored philandering ne’er-do-wells and their high-class whores stashed in in luxurious pads; neorrealismo had low-class whores and fewer luxury goods, like Franco’s famished fiefdom. Neorrealismo was literary realism bought at a dime store: it was cheap, crudely made, produced in mass quantities, and not expected to last long. The novels written under its aegis were made for the moment, statements against a specific political situation, not autonomous containers of Beauty primed to pass the test of Time. The neorrealista was animated by the optimism that his writing was powerful enough a tool to change society; at least it could bear witness. The aristocratic Ortega y Gasset had described modern art as “unpopular,” “antipopular,” fated to “always have the masses against it.” This was anathema to the new politicized novelists who wrote for those masses, wrote about their plight, and wrote to rouse them into political action.

But as the forties faded into the fifties, the novelist’s main concern after the political crisis was the crisis of the novel; it was growing clear that turning the it into a political pamphlet, for all its laudable goals, had happened at the cost of Art. The genre had stalled, stagnated in a swamp of clichéd settings, stock characters, and denunciations of the same injustices against the proletariat. The matter was serious enough in 1963 for the University of Madrid to invite Torrente Ballester and Nathalie Sarraute to a conference on “Realism and reality in contemporary literature”. As novelists looked to France for new ideas to reinvigorate a genre whose death was being announced, discussing the merits and demerits of literary realism became an activity with life-and-death intensity, passion, and actual stakes, that makes contemporary essays like “Two Paths for the Novel” look like the frivolous afterthought they are.

Criticizing literary realism opened many new fronts: what is appropriate language? Is the narrator supposed to be invisible? Is representation of the concrete the only goal? Is realism the end of an evolutionary process? Is realism really that real? Rejecting journalese led, for instance, to Oulipo and a new appreciation for stylists like the world hadn’t known them since the 17th century. Giving the narrator more to do led to metafiction. Moving away from the representation of the quotidian led to magical realism. Repudiating realism as the triumph of a finished process led to the rediscovery of the novel's past prior to the 19th century that up until then had been dismissed as a mere footnote to the Golden Age of the Novel. Thinking that realism was itself a stylization of external reality led to the nouveau roman, which at its core is an attempt at representing reality at a higher realistic level.

Neorrealismo, so complaints went, had extirpated La inspiración y el estilo which is the title of a book written by Juan Benet and published in 1966 not incidentally by the Revista de Occidente. Although Benet reintroduced style and inspiration in literary debates, the book is mostly a historical theory for why Spanish novelists had become so politcally committed. However, it evinces a turn towars greater preoccupation with language. This was one possible path for the avant-garde; it was not the path GTB chose for he was never a stylist in the sense of one who fusses over sentences until they’re strings of self-centered splendor.

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester had not seen good days yet. The Spanish novel slumbered along without his services. Always himself, he had taken the opposite direction from the literary establishment. One of his earliest books, Ifigenia, was a rewriting of ancient Greek myths. El golpe de estado de Guadalupe Limón imagined a revolution in an imaginary country. That was too Valle-Inclán to be noticed. Ifigenia had been intended as part of a series called Historias de humor para eruditos, humorous tales for the learned. But the learned were humorless; in 1952 or 1953 his editor turned down one of those tales called La Princesa Durmiente va a la escuela (Sleeping Beauty goes to school). Around this time, as literary realism began its decay, GTB postponed his book on the myth of Don Juan and took upon himself the challenge of writing a sprawling realistic novel in the vein of Benito Pérez Galdós, updating the formula without the features that made 19th century realism seem so naïve, trite, unrealistic. The result was a trilogy called Los gozos y las sombras; the first volume sold so badly, like every other previous book, that he decided to quit writing; but a timely prize in cash gave him encouragement to persevere; and in this manner he stayed busy between 1957 and 1962.

Two thousand Spaniards had read the trilogy, by his estimation; he was certain that his next novel, Don Juan, would be the first hit of his life. It was a passionate affair; realism was something he could master just to prove that it could be done well; but his loyalty went to lies. He had originally conceived it as a play; its inception dated back to the 1940s when he got a job as a theatre critic; for years he kept notes and immersed himself in the entire canon that had been expanding this myth for the past 300 years. He blamed Don Juan on “an indigestion of realism.” (The English translation has “overdose”, which is inaccurate and less funny.) He meant not only the 1300 pages in realist mode that he had written but the environment in Spain itself. This novel was new, different, it felt modern, it was what so many wanted: a rupture with depleted models. He submitted it to the censor, he censored 140 pages; GTB phoned a minister who had been his student, the 140 pages were uncensored; the novel was published, readers and critics ignored it. The Spanish novel still slumbered along without his services. He packed and took a teaching job at the University at Albany. In America, where his students couldn’t read Don Juan, he gave a lecture about the creation of a novel that Spaniards could read but hadn’t.

GTB wrote the trilogy as a polarized literary world warred in magazines and newspapers. New talents uncontaminated by the old vices were wanted. In 1958 the best Spanish novelists were considered to be aging Camilo José Cela and the promising Juan Goytioslo, who in his first phase did not question neorrealismo’s underlying premises. He believed in it, in its political necessity, even if he demanded higher literary standards for it. Unlike others, the avant-garde did not excite him. Everything bad for Spain came from France: Napoleon, Catholic Nationalism, and now the nouveau roman. In his first book of essays, Problemas de la novela, published in 1959, Goytisolo criticized Alain Robbe-Grillet’s plans for the novel as too hermetic, his gaze upon objects instead of people too lifeless in a tyranny where people were already treated like objects. Formalism reeked of Ortega y Gasset, whose book The Dehumanization of Art made Goytisolo consider him the biggest reason “for the divorce between the novelist and society.” Although Goytisolo in his final decade took it upon himself to beleaguer mediocrity, claiming that “difficulty is the writer's courtesy towards the reader,” which is a very Ortega-y-Gassetian idea, he began his career against such elitism. In his early years he was content with the traditional business of representing society in all its existential and verbal monotony. La Isla, from 1961, exemplifies the perception of a man for whom reality was a superficial, plotless bourgeois existence filled with meaningless activities that converge in dissipation and the epiphany of the inherent hollowness of the bourgeoisie class that supports Franco’s regime.

Goytisolo didn’t distance himself from neorrealismo until 1966 when he published Marks of Identity, but he never converted to experimentation for its own sake. Goytisolo was a child of the Civil War’s carnage; his mother had died in the 1938 bombing of Barcelona. Guernica, before it was a painting, was a pile of corpses. He hated Franco, he hated the Catholic Church, he hated Spain’s bloodthirsty history, he hated Spain. Hatred was his best asset, but the realist style subdues hatred. Hatred is a tone, but the realist records, photographs, and a photo is atonal. Instead of giving up realism, he transformed narrative into an unclogged channel for his rage. His solution to the tradition-versus-experimentation debate was to aestheticize his hatred, to create an alter ego, Álvaro Mendiola, freer than his discrete narrators had been till then, free from plot constraints to speak directly to the reader, free to navigate through history, to mix it with his subjective experience, to explain his hatred of Spain from within, not from without. It’s appropriate that Goytisolo was an émigré by then and that these novels were forbidden in Spain until 1976, for they no longer had the miniscule perspective of a man inside the regime but of a witness hovering in judgement above it, taking it all in at one glance.

GTB, however, revered Ortega y Gasset and in interviews called him the man who taught his generation how to think. Don Juan, dedicated to him, was very much a novel made under his precepts: it eschewed social usefulness, it was apolitical, it created a self-contained world sustained by philosophical coherence rather than sensorial details; it invited contemplation, not sympathy; it was an elaborate intellectual game, too intellectual for its time. In a conference in 1966 he griped that Spaniards “don’t accept either the intellectual or the fantastic.” For him the point wasn’t tradition versus the avant-garde; it was which avant-garde to follow. The nouveau roman didn’t enthuse him either; he liked plot and character too much to embrace it. He didn’t think the novel was broken or in need of being mended; he didn’t examine its general assumptions. He was against the novel being expunged of everything until it became a “mere linguistic adventure.” His reading of Severo Sarduy’s Cobra was an occasion to make a distinction between what Barthes called “le plaisir du texte,” deriving pleasure merely from words even when “nothing important happens” in the novel, and what GTB called “le plaisir du récit,” joy in the telling since “it occurs to me that the organization of imaginary material, once invented and chosen, is more attractive. Told with different words, a narration can be the same; organized in another way, it’s a different narration. In passing it into another idiom, the word changes, but the composition, the gradation, the architecture remain.” In 1975, already famous and being solicited to read neophytes’ books sent to him by his editor, he vented in despair. From his description it’s clear that a neophyte had applied the tenets of the nouveau roman, since it was one of those books “where nothing is told about nobody.” “Given samples or sketches like this, I feel almost reactionary. Haven’t we perhaps reached such a point when the only way out is to go back?” He preferred this path.

Although Don Juan passed unnoticed in 1963, it has gained a place in history for its role in riding the avant-garde wave in the Spanish novel. His fantastic tales “were not, as one might suppose at first sight, mere bookish fantasies, but rather reality, or at least truth. Or a truth.” A new category was needed to replaced realism, since it could no longer represent reality; flat-out fantasy could say something truthful about it too. This was similar to the point Robert Scholes would make in 1967; had he known of GTB by then he would have included him in The Fabulators.

He mixed genres, paid attention to structure, and struck a note of disunity. His novel is divided in five parts, three set in modern Paris, one an oral account by Leporello, another a manuscript biography written by Juan Tenorio. The novel comments on itself. “My thesis adds nothing new,” says Sonja about her master thesis about Don Juan: “it compiles, orders and assembles material never before collected together; it organizes it and establishes connections. It is a modern, scientific piece of work.” GTB’s purpose was the opposite, to present a “particular intuition concerning the being of Don Juan, or his significance,” a new way of reading an old myth. If to himself he had shown that the 19th century novel could be rehabilitated, so could a story rewritten by many before him. He exalted its freedom from moral or social responsibility. “Like all the rest, it is nothing more than a humorous fancy,” he explained in America.

His appropriation, pastiche and rewriting of other books, his breathing life into a myth that had been squeezed so many times not even the dry pulp remained, puts his Don Juan in the same category as Italo Calvino’s Our Ancestors, John Barth’s return to Henry Fielding’s picaresque in The Sot-Weed Factor, John Fowles’ meta-Victorian novel The French Lieutenant’s Wife, and Angela Carter’s erotic retelling of fairy-tales. His Ifigenia had set a precedent for himself, but it had taken Homer’s characters for granted and respected traditional notions of drama, setting and verisimilitude. Don Juan undermined itself, negated itself, even as it exhibited an encyclopedic knowledge of the versions of the myth by Tirso de Molina, Antonio de Zamora, José Zorrilla, Baudelaire, Mozart, Kierkegaard, Molière; each reference reinforced the fact that Don Juan was not a slice of life, but a literary subject. It was not a social novel since there weren’t mouthpieces. “From the outset I had set myself the task of writing this story without letting any one of the characters – not even that anonymous narrator to whom I nonetheless lent some of my personal circumstances – become my spokesman,” said GTB. It was what Spain hadn’t seen in a long time: a novel about literature.

Barth, in “The Literature of Exhaustion”, had suggested that a higher degree of consciousness about the novel’s rich history could help overcome the seeming impasse in which the genre was stuck in 1967. Barth has the merit of putting into words something other novelists had understood implicitly. GTB looked past his peers’ obsession with the present into the past, at the self-consciousness at work in Unamuno’s Mist and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In Spain, however, when novelists weren’t still entrenched in the realist mode, they followed instead the nouveau roman: rather than going back to the past, why not detonate everything from that past and build something from the rubble, if possible? My guess as to why Don Juan failed in 1963 is that GTB chose an avant-garde that was unpalatable to his countrymen, even to those who thought they were in the cutting edge.

Its failure made him move to America in 1966. He took with him a new book, Off-Side, which he published in 1968; it was another failure. He didn’t stay long. There he planned a new novel, but didn’t start it until his return to Spain. It was another intellectual game, and twice as long as Don Juan. Its title was La Saga/Fuga de J. B. and its author was so certain that it was going to fail again that he told his editor he understood if he didn’t want to publish it. It was published in 1972 and was GTB’s first commercial hit, a success with critics and sales. He was 62 years old and suddenly a superstar. It led to his most productive and interesting period from the 1970s to the late 1980s. It also allowed Don Juan to find a new audience. The lecture he gave in American on its composition has become the preface in standard editions. They read it in Spain now; in America it’s still not read although a most curious translation exists.

To date there’s only been one serious attempt at bringing GTB into English, and it wasn’t an auspicious start. The King Amaz’d, released by Everyman in 1996, is a short novel belonging to his late period when his best writing was behind him. In a fair world, La Saga/Fuga de J. B, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, would be a priority for New York publishers. But if nobody wants to take the risk of publishing this complex 800-page novel, publishing Don Juan may present an easier solution.

Cover of the Spanish edition
Its translation into English in 1986 is an implausible story; it was translated by the most unlikely of publishers: Iberia, a Spanish flying company; and it has enough typos and poor production values to prove it. There’s a swath of pages printed twice; the graphic layout seems to confuse a novel’s page with a brochure. Bernard Molloy, the translator, wasn’t even credited; I assume he’s the same Bernard Molloy who translated Eduardo Mendonza’s The City of Marvels. Its distribution was not aimed at bookstores, but at passengers during flights, a bold new direction for airport literature. For that reason it’s nearly impossible to find a copy, quite a blessing since the physical object is an ugly ogre. But Molloy’s translation, which I’ve been using, is good; GTB is not a difficult writer to translate; his strengths are not his style, quite naturalistic, but his humor, philosophical dialogues, and strange twists. His translation needs to be handed to a real publisher that knows how to publish books; then English-language readers could read at last one of the greatest novelists of the previous century. Don Juan would be a good introduction to this magnificent writer for as he once wrote it’s an assemble of what he loved most about fiction:

For many reasons, Don Juan is, from amongst my works, my favorite: I believe it’s decisively and resolutely manifest in it my distancing from the most recent tradition and from the styles then in vogue, as well as my will to find my own path; I rehearse in it the use of materials that would come to be my favorite, imagination, experience, humor, and the procedures and attitudes which I’ll end up using to the exclusion of any others: intelligence and lyricism before or against passion and ethics.

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