“Felisberto Hernández is a writer like no other,” Italo Calvino announced once, “like no European, nor any Latin American. He is an ‘irregular,’ who eludes all classifications and labelings–yet he is unmistakably on any page to which one might randomly open one of his books.” This is a sharp eulogy by the author of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and as trustworthy as they come, for I’ve tried it myself: I’ve browsed aimlessly at the impish Spanish prose in Felisberto’s three-tome Obras Completas, released in 1983, some twenty years after his death, and the effect is daunting: The voice is unlike anything one comes across anywhere in literature–a voice broadcast direct from the unconscious, poignant, “irregular” in the best sense of the term. Rubén Darío, Nicaragua’s famous modernista poet, used the term el raro–the eerie–to describe the disposition of people like Edgar Allan Poe, the Comte de Lautréamont and Paul Verlaine. Felisberto would have made the cut too.
Since his death in 1964, at the age of 62, a Felisberto cult has developed, not only in his native Uruguay but all across Latin America and in certain regions of Europe–a club for the initiated in the occult exercises of his imagination. This cult has been prolific of late: At least half a dozen biographies of him have appeared in the past couple of decades or are in preparation, as well as a significant number of academic studies. This isn’t quite an industry, but it is surely a sign of increasing enthusiasm. It is an enthusiasm that began beyond Felisberto’s own borders, when Borges published one of his stories in the elite journal Sur. Since then others have paid tribute to this author of the legendary novella The Daisy Dolls: Puerto Rican writer Rosario Ferré has a study titled El acomodador, a sort of explicative meditation that is succinct and thought-provoking; and Julio Cortázar…ah, who would Cortázar (another raro in Darío’s canon) have become had it not been for Felisberto? Cortázar stories like “House Taken Over” and “Blow Up” can be said to have a Felisbertian drive. Cortázar acknowledged that the Uruguayan exerted so powerful a spell over him that, in retrospect, even his own masterpiece, Hopscotch, reads like a variation of Felisberto’s enchanted tales like “No One Had Lit a Lamp,” and bewildering essays such as “How Not to Explain My Stories.”
Felisberto was first and foremost a pianist–not of the type that ends up in Carnegie Hall but of the ones that accompany silent movies. He gave a concert in a club in the Argentine city of Chivilcoy in 1939, where Cortázar worked as a college teacher at the time. “Do you realize how close we were?” the author of Hopscotch wrote in a letter-qua-prologue. “I believe we would have recognized each other in that club where everything would have projected us towards each other, and I would have invited you to my little room to offer you a caña and show you some books and maybe, who knows, some of the stories I was writing then and never published.” A few lines later, Cortázar shrieks: “Felisberto, I will always love you.”
Esther Allen, whom I’ve learned to trust as a translator of Javier Marías and José Martí, ought to be thanked for this fine collection of two novellas and four stories. Almost a decade ago, Luis Harss, famous for the groundbreaking collection of literary reportage Into the Mainstream, issued a volume of Felisberto’s tales under the name Piano Stories. It included one of his most celebrated pieces, “The Flooded House,” a Kafkaesque parable with political undertones about a home inundated with water. The imagery developed is a feast in surrealism: disjointed, dreamlike and macabre. Harss’s volume also contained The Daisy Dolls, a critique of fetishism and capitalist society, in which a bizarre couple exists surrounded by life-size dolls that awaken feelings of adultery and incest in them. Hernández makes us feel that the dolls are alive. Day and night they bask in “covetous looks and those looks nested and hatched in the air.” They come alive frighteningly, like “creatures in a trance, on unknown missions, or lending themselves to evil designs.”
Allen has been careful not to replicate the material in the previous collection. It is always difficult to attempt a summary of a plot delivered by Felisberto, simply because his stories are as close to plotlessness as is possible without succumbing to utter chaos. A handful of leitmotifs run through them: autistic behavior, the piano, outbursts of faked emotion. I have read one too many atrocious nouveau romans that, I realize, might be described thus: uneventful, impressionistic. I fear for the comparison, which might deliver the mistaken impression that Felisberto doesn’t write and instead simply types. In the masterful “The Crocodile,” for example, a good-for-nothing man becomes a traveling salesman. He finds it impossible to sell his merchandise: women’s stockings. In despair, he dreams of flying into nothingness until he chances upon a superb solution:
I felt unusually impatient; I longed to leave that shop, that city, that life. I thought about my country and about many other things. And suddenly, just as I was beginning to calm down, I had an idea. What would happen if I started crying right in front of all these people? It struck me as a very violent thing to do, but I’d been wanting to do something out of the ordinary, to put the world to the test, for a long time. I also needed to prove to myself that I was capable of great violence. And before I could change my mind I sat down in a little chair backed up against the counter and with all those people around me I put my hands to my face and began emitting sobbing noises. Almost simultaneously, a woman let out a loud cry and said, “A man is weeping.”
To do something out of the ordinary, to put the world to the test, the protagonist is soon turned into a model salesman inside the company, admired by his peers. People call him “the crocodile” because of his talent for spilling empty tears. And he, in satisfaction, perceives himself as “a bourgeois of anguish.” The desire to perform violent acts is turned by Felisberto into buffoonery: He makes fun of bravery among the wealthy and educated, ridiculing their environment as flaccid and unexceptional.
In “Mistaken Hands,” orchestrated as an irrelevant exchange of correspondence between two society ladies, he pokes fun at the tradition of the epistolary novel made famous by, among others, Samuel Richardson and Choderlos de Laclos. Irene and Margarita, the protagonists, have a trite objective: to write letters. They need not be about anything in particular, as long as they are sent and received. “The external result of this desire,” Margarita states, “is that I take immense joy…a feeling of calm, slow delight that wants to go forth and encounter unexpected things and, at the same time, awaits them.” Curiosity is at the heart of their dialogue, but it is a curiosity that is a target in itself: dissolute and self-absorbed. Again, a critique of the Uruguayan bourgeoisie is at the core: life for the correspondents has too much time to waste, too few goals in sight. At one point, Irene lists the events she would like to happen. Her bucolic description is a triumph of platitudes:
I would be sitting on the grass in the woods.
I would be thinking of other things that had nothing to do with the woods.
But suddenly I would be distracted and would scan the great trees from top to bottom.
After that, the trees’ great trunks would interrupt my view of the people going by some distance away.
One of those people would stir up some dust as he walked, and I would realize that he was walking down a dusty path.
The Uruguayan left us with a total of ten books, of which only two are novels. He paid for the publication of the first four himself. His style was compressive: Nothing he wrote is longer than 100 pages. Allen, in her prologue to Lands of Memory, suggests that he required absolute silence in order to write. This is ironic, since he was far happier as a musician than a literati. At 9 he began to play the piano, at 12 he was a regular in cinemas and at 20 he was touring small towns. The musical choice wasn’t entirely his own: In school he was a poor student and was easily distracted. He gave this description of a recital at a convent school: “When I sat down at the piano and realized I was distracted, I began summoning myself with all my force, as if I were struggling to wake up from a dream. Once I’d been playing a while and was fully within myself, I looked at all the girls’ faces, and their attention wasn’t scattered any longer; now they were paying concrete attention to me, now they were observing the mystery that was mine.”
Felisberto had come under the wing of Jules Supervielle and Roger Caillois. Supervielle understood Felisberto well after reading Around the Time of Clemente Colling, which is the lengthiest in Allen’s selection. This novella is a disquisition…on what? It is narrated in the first person by the same naïve, innocent, imbecilic voice that often appears elsewhere in Felisberto’s work. It is shaped as a reminiscence of music lessons, recitals and the apprenticeship and initiation of a young musician into the artistic world. Clemente Colling, its center of gravity, is a blind teacher of piano and harmony, known as Mesiu Colén. The evocation and explanation of Colling’s mysterious manners give room to a tempo that throws the reader into a state of somnambulism. Although nothing much happens, we feel exhausted at the end. “You achieve originality without seeking it in the least, by a natural inclination toward depth,” Supervielle wrote to Felisberto. As for Caillois, who was instrumental in introducing Borges in France, he hoped to do the same with Felisberto: make a name for him in Europe. He orchestrated an anthology of the Uruguayan to be translated by his wife, Yvette, but the project never materialized. At the time it is known that Felisberto was immersed in Proust, and that he read Freud too. It might be said that his landscapes were those of psychoanalysis, but I find this suggestion ridiculous: Felisberto was, like all hunger artists, in touch with profound chambers of the mind. If his creatures perform acts decipherable to Freudians, it is because his was also the realm of dreams, and in dreams, as Yeats had it, and Delmore Schwartz after him, begin responsibilities. By the way, like all hunger artists, Felisberto died impoverished and unknown. Along the way, he considered himself an inventor, was the owner of a failed bookstore and married and divorced a number of times. His wives supported him and also lo soportaron, e.g., bore his countless improprieties. “If all my life and my being were judged by a few incidents,” Felisberto once wrote, “it would rightly be determined that I was a complete imbecile.”
Allen offers us a catalogue of Felisberto’s obsessions, which include: a black cat, balconies, raised platforms, upper tiers, blindness, trains and streetcars, and a glimpse of his own face in two mirrors that meet at a right angle, showing half his head attached to the ear of the other half. The list is useful, since blindness and sound serve as dialectical counterpoints in Lands of Memory: Characters seek light but live in obscurity; they are driven by the inner sound they hear, like free spirits dancing around a bonfire. Earlier on I used the term Kafkaesque to describe him, which might be misleading if not explained more fully. Kafka depicted a somber universe with no room for redemption. There is little humor in him, at least from my viewpoint. Felisberto is kin when it comes to the eerie and the uncanny, but his is a joyful, not a terrifying, disposition. He appears to laugh at his own condition, or at least to indulge in its jazzy rhythms without much anxiety. His images are irrational, disconnected, funky. “At a given time,” he once wrote, “I think a plant is about to be born in some corner of me–I must take care that it does not occupy too much space or try to be beautiful or intense, helping it to become only what it was meant to be.”
Edmund Wilson, in his piece “A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka,” collected in Classics and Commercials, stated that Kafka appears to be “a human shadow thrown on the mist in such a way that it seems monstrous and remote when it may really be quite close at hand, and with a rainbow halo around it.” He questions if we must really accept the plight of Kafka’s creatures as parables of our predicament. In Felisberto’s oeuvre, the characters, trapped in absurd circumstances, desperately seek ways of escape. If they find them, they turn out to be nothing but subterfuges. This is because his universe, it strikes me, is a hall of mirrors, hallucinatory. His stories are meaningful precisely because they appear so meaningless on the surface, affixed with the trivial.
In his attack on Kafka, Wilson quotes one of the Czech’s aphorisms. “One must not cheat anybody, not even the world of its triumph.” Aphoristically, Wilson wonders “what are we writers here for, if it is not to cheat the world of its triumph?” This lucid, memorable thought might be used as the motto of the Felisberto cult, for what is his literature about if not cheating us out of ourselves? This raro does so splendidly and loquaciously, with flair, respect for the nonsense of life and a titter or two.