While it is a truism that every artist constructs the aesthetic by which he or she wishes to be judged, I never tire of reading books like Cercas’s The Blind Spot, as these kinds of apologia pro [scribo] vitae sua (don’t ask me if I conjugated that correctly!) give what I would like to think of (however erroneously) as real insight into what practicing writers think of the phrase (one either abhorrent to or simply ignored by most scholars) literary value. For in books like this thoroughly amicable one we may not get quite at the truth about what drives a particular artist to create in the ways that he or she does, but we do get the artist’s public, conscious version of what drive’s him or her.
For Cercas (as for Milan Kundera, to whom the first part of this book is heavily indebted), the novelist is an explorer of the human condition, and the sole moral absolute that all would-be serious authors must adhere to is to go exploring in new directions. Like Kundera, Cercas locates the Ur-novel in 17C Spain, with Don Quixote, which ushered in a century-and-a-half of transgressive, digressive, genre-blending, formal literary freedom (in northern Europe at least, if, paradoxically, not in Spain), before this freedom was curtailed in the 19C by Realism’s quest for “constructive rigour” in the interest of bringing the novel its [allegedly] longed-for “purity, status and nobility”(27).
Cercas as a young writer wanted to tap back into what Kundera calls this largely “unacknowledged legacy of Cervantes” (Art of the Novel), and what I found most interesting in the first third of this volume was how Cercas details what it wa s in Cervantes (and, later, in Borges) that made him want to write in the way that he supposedly does (I must admit that this not only is this the first book of his that I have read, but also that I often like to read an author’s essays before diving into their fiction) (also: that I am writing this here in somewhat of an imitation of Cercas’s love of the parenthetical aside, a love that I cannot help but share).
Cercas’s quest is to blend the absolute authorial freedom granted by Cervantes and Borges (specifically, the Borges of “The Approach to Al’Mutásim” and “Pierre Menard: The Author of Don Quixote”), both of whom perpetuate a kind of ingeniously generative deception:
…four centuries apart, modern narrative [cf. Cervantes] and postmodern narrative [cf. Borges] are born out of two frauds…Two paradoxical frauds besides. They weren’t trying to pass off unliterary writing as literature, but to pass off literature as unliterary writing. Which confronts us with a fundamental fact: by breaking with the literary rules of its era, all authentic literature presents itself as, or is considered to be, not literature, and its new form an absence of form. (35)
What is compelling here is that to be a literary explorer means to be always in search of a “new form”, a form which will inevitably not be recognized as such by those to whom “the literary” is a matter of working within already extant forms, and varying only the “content” that fills those forms. Literary innovation, in other words, is neither recognized by nor welcomed by the reigning literary orthodoxy. Cercas’s own novels (again, which I have not read, but now aim to!) , such as The Soldiers of Salamis and The Anatomy of A Moment themselves bring novelistic techniques to bear upon the a terrain previously controlled by academic historians, and the result was, Cercas maintains, that they were initially not recognized as novels because they were, regardless of how they were written, manifestly not fiction.
But if novels aren’t necessarily fictional, what is their sine qua non—of what, exactly, are they made? Cercas maintains (again, following, I feel, Kundera) that what makes a novel a novel is its radical ambiguity. Kundera calls it “polyphony”, for Cercas it is “the blind spot”, the paradoxical, unsolvable riddle, the defining aporia that is at the heart of the truly literary novel. If conventional (often conventionally realist) novels like to keep things understandably tidy, coherent, loose ends all tied up and questions answered, Cercas maintains that the only thing that “blind spot novels” (novels that cannot quite see what they are most in search of, novels that [loosely quoting him quoting Faulkner] light a match in the darkness so that “we can see the darkness”(83), that heretofore still undiscovered country of our souls) do is ask us still more questions (or perhaps even only a single, overwhelming question, rolling the human universe into a ball that is then tossed at us readers, who must do something with this “enigma with no [apparent] solution”), but always in the most complex way possible.
The kind of novels that do just that should come as no surprise to many of you who are in the small, but still significantly-sized club that values the literary innovators of modernism-and-after: those by Melville, Musil, Kafka, et al. For these are writers who not only seek to “make time live, to make it more intense and less trivial”(51), for any good realist novel should aspire to do at least just that, but also to:
change the reader’s way of perceiving the world; that is: they serve to change the world. The novel needs to be new in order to say new things; it needs to change to change us: to make us what we’ve never been.
To my surprise, however, Cercas then spends a sizeable chunk of this slim volume extolling the virtues of a writer who would not normally be counted among the great literary innovators of the past: Mario Vargas Llosa, whose The Time of the Hero (orig. The City and the Dogs in Spanish)— yet another book among the much-much-more-than-1002 essential reads that I have not yet read, by the way—is at first and even second glance a thoroughly realist novel.
I love reading these kinds of essays: extended reflections on novels that I haven’t read and which, though they hardly displace the actual reading of them, nevertheless allow me to vicariously participate in their reading. Nay: in their writing. For Cercas reads The Time of the Hero as if writing it, or with the attention to detail, to shifts in tone and to elegant variations of structure of an expert art conservationist, lovingly and painstakingly examining every inch of the threatened masterpiece’s canvas. I won’t get into the details, but this part of Cercas’s book was the most riveting for me, probably exploring that which I have not yet myself personally explored, the topology of this great Peruvian novelist.
But what surprises most in this reading of Vargas Llosa is how, almost as if against that author’s own intentions, his realist novel is shown to be a blind spot novel, one riven by ambiguity, by questions in search of answers that are never quite within reach—because the answers are themselves no more than questions, questions which take the form of none other than the novel itself.
Finally, Cercas closes the book with an extended appreciation of Sartre the novelist, which is another surprise, not least because Cercas himself confesses to having had, in his youth, the most profound antipathy toward that Parisian eminence. This is because of Sartre’s steadfast commitment to art that commits itself socially and politically, to artists who are engagé. The younger version of Cercas though that that French word meant having to create are that was tendentious, that gave answers instead of asked questions, that subordinated aesthetics to ethics or politics. But the mature Cercas is determined that we should look at Sartre (and, by analogy, at the nuances of any artist whom we have perhaps, in our callowness, unfairly pigeon-holed or overlooked) afresh:
Sartre’s premises are
Not at all distant from the ideas of the Russian formalists, in particular Victor Shklovsky: according to him, the mission of art consists of deautomatising reality, of making normal and familiar things that we see all the time appear strange and singular…[to] allow us to look at reality—physical reality, but also moral and political reality—as if seeing it for the first time, with all its edges, full of all its marvels and all its horror, tearing off the automatised mask of habit. “To name is to unmask”, is how Simone de Beauvoir summed up the thinking of her eternal companion Sartre, “and to unmask is to change”.(138-39)
By so disturbing our moral and political complacency, the committed novelist can be seen as being like Socrates’ gadfly, biting both the individual and the state, challenging its received wisdom—even though the contents of his or her novels is not overtly political. And irony is the novelist’s chief weapon in this war against cliché, for the univocal mask that polyvalent truth wears must always be torn asunder, to reveal the “equivocal and multiple” truths that we often find so inconvenient to consider. Thus “irony is not the opposite of seriousness, but perhaps its maximum expression”.
So, if you like these kinds of books, this is a pretty good one to add to your queue. I would just recommend reading Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Testaments Betrayed first (not to mention Sartre’s What is Literature?), as Cercas’s book is in dialogue with them, both consciously and unconsciously.