The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel) Paperback – Feb 15 2010
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"One gets the sense that Fernández would be disappointed in the "progress" of the contemporary novel. Ours is a culture that values orderly stories, but "skip around" readers will enjoy meandering about Fernández's cabinet of wonders."–Jim Ruland,
About the Author
Macedonio Fernández was one of the most influential-and strangest-Argentine authors ever. He was Borges's mentor; he campaigned for president by leaving notecards with the word Macedonio" in cafes; he started a utopian society. He also wrote the "Last Bad Novel" ( Adriana Buenos Aires ) and the "First Good One" ( The Museum of Eterna's Novel ).
Margaret Schwartz is an assistant professor at Fordham University. She was a Fulbright fellow to Argentina in 2004, during which time she researched the life and works of Macedonio Fernández.
Adam Thirlwell is the author of the novels Politics and The Escape. His book about literature and translation, The Delighted States, won the Somerset Maugham Award in 2008. He has twice been named as one of Granta 's "Best Young British Novelists."
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The bulk of "The Museum of Eterna's Novel" is not a novel at all, but a series of prologues, some fifty in total, with titles such as "Prologue That Thinks it Knows Something, Not About the Novel (It's Not Allowed That), But About the Doctrine of Art," "The Man Who Feigned to Live" (which is one big footnote), and "For Readers Who Will Perish if They Don't Know What the Novel is About." Some meditate on the process of creating "The Museum of Eterna's Novel" from the perspective of both the author and the characters, including the cook who decided to resign and left the remaining characters with nothing to eat. Other prologues, in dense and difficult but ultimately rewarding prose, set up the mystical underpinnings of the main story.
The actual novel takes place on an estancia called "La Novela," owned by the President, who has gathered together his closest friends, including Maybegenius, Sweetheart, The Lover, Simple, the Gentleman Who Does Not Exist, and Eterna, who is both the President's love interest and the personification of idealized beauty and eternal love. There, the characters exist in the moment and only for each other, spending each day in one another's company and speculating on the nature of companionship and eternity. And here we come to the crux of the matter: the definition of "Totalove," the theme connecting all the musings and mind exercises of both prologues and novel. Fernández describes it as "the Highest form of Daydream." It is a rapturous state of passion that prevails only in the present and is the ultimate form of love: for a beloved, for friendship, or for art and beauty. The problem then becomes how to sustain a moment that is only that: a moment. The Action (in this case, the conquest of Buenos Aires by beauty, initiated by the President) is only one aspect of Totalove. There is also the anticipation, like the weeks building up towards Christmas and the sadness one feels after the presents have been opened and the rest of the day still remains. Once the Action has occurred, there is nothing left but loss or even death.
Hence the prologues: "The Museum of Eterna's Novel" is a novel that doesn't want to begin because in our beginning is our end.
Clearly, Macedonio Fernández was a fascinating, complicated man. "The Museum of Eterna's Novel" is a brilliant, thoughtful and frequently hilarious work that brings to mind everything from Mark Twain's irreverent humor to Jorge Luis Borges's mental labyrinths to Edgar Allen Poe's preoccupation with death and idealized beauty. I'll warn you: it's a difficult read, but if you're up to the challenge, this book is truly worth it.
* Review copy *
The novel consists of two roughly equal parts. The first is 50 prologues to the novel, followed by the novel itself. It is for the prologues that this book is rightly respected and given a (small) place in the history of the novel. Traditionally the prologue is where the novelist is given the opportunity to address the reader mano a mano and set the scene for the novel to follow. Fernandez takes this opportunity to engage with the reader in every possible way he can envision.
Unusually, the novelist sets out three very distinctive levels of existence in the book: reader, writer, novel. The novel is an entity with a defined reality, it is a set number of words on pages. But what interests the novelist is how that thing, that novel, exists in the world. Its metaphysical, psychological, physical reality. And in order to explore this the writer needs a partner for these conversations, these explorations. And we the readers, the Readers, are benighted with that role.
Fernandez scribbled away for decades, and after his death his son lovingly, obsessively, prepared the notebooks for publication. During his life he was primarily known as a conversationalist. He read widely and with eclectic interests, he and his friends would sit and debate in the various cafes of Buenos Aires. A few of these cafes still exist in the city, dusty semi-museums to the glory days of Buenos Aires in the 1930s through 1950s when the intelligentsia was both cosmopolitan and avant. You can taste the intellectual confidence and hunger of that time and place in the seduction and demands with which the author addresses the Reader. This gives the prologues a vital, alive feeling that pulls you into the cacophony of perspectives explored.
On the other hand, it is hard to say anything positive about the novel itself, and without the prologues this work would never have been published (let alone translated) except as a historical curiosity. As Adam Thirwell explains in the preface, this is a novel of characters, and characters are different from persons.
Fernandez has so many ideas about so many things related to literature that he is compelled to experiment with them. What if you have characters that are expelled from the novel? What if the place the characters live in is called The Novel? Oh it goes on endlessly. And there is a thrill when a writer brings the reader into his experiments with the confines of a novel. Lawrence Sterne would serve as a good example of a novelist who successfully did this in the 18th century. So this isn't a new concept. But the problem with this particular novel is that there is no novel upon which to test the boundaries. Absolutely everything is a game, a test to see what he can pull off. At core, there is simply no novel. There are no living breathing persons inhabiting the novel, and it is thus simply a curiosity, not a successful book.
Fernandez sets high standards for his novel. "My quest is that every reader should enter my novel and lose himself in it." Sorry, but not this reader.