The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol trans. George Henson (Deep Vellum, April 2015)

The Art of Flight
by Sergio Pitol
trans. George Henson
(Deep Vellum, April 2015)

Perhaps the difficulty in placing Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight within the genre of literary autobiography is that it is not exclusively autobiography. The book’s publishers, Deep Vellum, describe this first entry in Pitol’s three-volume “Trilogy of Memory” collection as a “career-spanning collage” and “an utterly unique hybrid.” While the two memoiristic sections—Memory and Ending—are composed of notebooks and diaries from the 1990s and predominantly focus on Pitol’s life during the 1960s and ’90s, the second and third sections—appropriately titled Writing and Reading—take the form of essays on their eponymous acts. Although the book as a whole is neither exclusively criticism nor autobiography, there exists a symbiosis between the two genres, each one prompting the other to exist.

When we first meet Pitol in Venice, a city that produces in him “the certainty of man’s biological unity with everything that surrounds him and his mythical fusion with the past,” we are told his motivation to recount:

Lately, I have been very aware that I have a past . . . I now know fragments of my childhood that until recently were off-limits to me. I can now distinguish the various stages of my life with sufficient clarity—the autonomy of the parts and their relation to the whole—which I was previously unable to do.

Just as the parts of his book are both autonomous and interconnected, so are the experiences contained within them. The key Pitol required to unlock full understanding of his own life is a traumatic memory—the death of his mother—released from the dark corner it was sent during childhood, something he describes as “a source of agony, but also, secretly, the most extraordinary creative stimulus.”

This particular recollection offers perhaps the most personal understanding of Pitol as a person. Oddly enough, however, we do not learn of it until much later, while he is under hypnosis in an attempt to quit smoking, and is confronted with a repressed memory of himself as a child; “I feel possessed by the little boy I was and who is before my eyes,” and he realizes that beneath all his experiences resides “a nucleus of agony.” While The Art of Flight is infused with humor, self-effacing modesty, and sharp critical commentary, brief insights such as this offer us the most sincere sense of who Pitol is. Thus my hesitation to describe the book as wholly autobiography or memoir; throughout, we learn who influenced Pitol’s writing, what he thinks of Chekhov, Faulkner, and Joyce, the literati he has known, where he lived and so on, but seldom does he offer real personal closeness to the reader. As such, when intimacy is proffered, its scarcity makes it seem all the more sincere.

As Pitol weaves together memories, dreams, literary criticism, brief histories of twentieth-century Mexico, and odes to writers he regards as exemplary, The Art of Flight circumnavigates neat categorization. In trying to situate this book both culturally and historically, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives makes for an obvious if imperfect comparison, alongside Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part quasi-fictional bildungsroman My Struggle, Ben Lerner’s mesh of fiction and autobiography in Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, and, with Pitol’s fixation on place, even Hemingway’s memoir-cum-love letter to Paris A Moveable Feast. But despite attempts to locate the book among these, it resists comparison; The Art of Flight has none of the obsessive, Proustian detail of Knausgaard, or the metafiction of Lerner. It resists the light-heartedness of Bolaño’s depictions of youth and escapades, and the moroseness of Hemingway. Instead, it resembles a cloudy gemstone: at once glimmering and opaque, layered and precise.

All of which emphasize a book as unique and remarkable as its author. Born in the Mexican city of Puebla in 1933, Pitol served in the Mexican Foreign Service before embarking on a writing career in the ‘60s, and has since authored over two dozen books. Awarded the Herralde Prize in 1984, he later presented that same prize to Bolaño for The Savage Detectives. Pitol received the prestigious Cervantes Prize in 2005. He has also managed to make his name as a highly esteemed Spanish language translator. Enrique Vila-Matas—“perhaps Spain’s greatest living author”—wrote the foreword to this book. It is a late arrival on the English-language scene for Pitol; he is in the strange position of being compared to Latin American contemporaries such as Vila-Matas, Bolaño, César Aira, Valeria Luiselli, and Álvaro Enrigue, all of whom came to fame in Spanish after he did. But even this anachronism cannot mask the simple fact that The Art of Flight is sui generis; his publisher’s claim that Pitol is “quite simply the greatest living Mexican writer to have never been translated” is not without substance.

In his essay Why Write?, Sartre explores how a writer uses literature in order to “manage his escapes and conquests.” He describes how each writer “has his reasons: for one, art is a flight; for another, a means of conquering.” Such motivation as based partially in the writer’s belief that they are “essential in relationship to the world.” Giving permanence to an experience of our world through writing is a consequence of the writer imposing unity between their mind and the things they depict. “The operation of writing,” Sartre proposes, involves “an implicit quasi-reading which makes real reading.” An author does not see the words he writes as a reader sees them, as the words existed to him before he wrote them, while the reader’s perception of these words is unique.

This is apparent in The Art of Flight, as the elements of memoir are located in Pitol’s belief that everything in his life has been connected to literature, and they capture his attempt to give permanence to memories through the “operation of writing.” He explores how the creative act is shaped when one’s state as writer and reader are inseparable, and the ways in which this duality influences how a writer “recreates” what he or she reads. Pitol’s writing captures Sartre’s essential authorial relationship between mind and representation not only in the recollection of his life through detailed memoir, but explicit commentary on how these experiences informed his writing practice. For Pitol, “writing meant the possibility of embarking toward an elusive goal and fusing—thanks to that dark, inscrutable, and much talked-about alchemy one comes closer to the process of creation—the outside world and that subterranean one that inhabits us.” As his words travel from page to reader, they transform, and we experience unfamiliar places, people, and books. His writing brings us close, drawn in by vivid description and detail, while keeping us at arm’s length, for by definition memoir is personal and, in its very nature, ‘other.’”

The theme that imbues The Art of Flight most distinctly and consistently is travel. Pitol believed “writing in the same space where he lives was for most of his life equivalent to committing an obscene act in a holy place,” and found the basis for such conviction as a child, when reading Jules Verne “fuelled . . . a certain desperation to travel and become lost in the world.” Pitol takes us, in his book, from Venice to Warsaw to Rome, then New York, back to Mexico City, and on to Barcelona, a city that under Franco’s dictatorship invokes an almost comically negative reaction:

Every cell in my body rebels against the existence of this disgusting labyrinth: against the limping, midget, haggard-looking, hunchbacked whores who fill its streets when night falls . . . It feels like pus that’s impossible to wash off has splattered all over me.

Each place leaves a distinct imprint on Pitol, inking not just his memory but also his writing. Similarly to Bolaño, his recollections of mid-century Mexico City are of a lively, politically charged, turbulent place, with a bubbling undercurrent of radicalism and revolution. Here, his recollections include countless references to other Mexican writers, sometimes to excess; readers not conversant in Mexican literature may feel alienated despite the writers’ cultural importance. In contrast, Pitol effectively reconstructs plazas, streets, cafes, taquerías, and bookstores with such detail that we feel we are accompanying him as he darts from place to place. However, the execution by firing squad of revolutionary Rubén Jaramillo, his pregnant wife and sons in 1962 by the Federal Police was the turning point for Pitol, who grew disconnected from the country that allowed such an atrocity to happen. He left, and would not return again permanently until 1988.

Inextricably linked to place are the books read during his time spent there. For Pitol, “travel was the experience of the visible world; reading, on the other hand, allowed me to undertake an inner journey.” Venice in particular inspires strong literary opinions; within the “store of fiction set in Venice . . . it is considered more than just a setting; rather, it becomes a character.” The same could be said for the places in which he has spent his life, so connected are they to his motivation to write. In the same way, Pitol stresses that his personal development is linked directly to what he has read, perhaps akin to Sartre’s proposal that the act of writing involves “an implicit quasi-reading.” This belief is epitomized in his realization, after visiting New York’s Museum of Modern Art,

that nothing remarkable in the arts can happen if a connection is not established with past achievements . . . By failing to maintain a living dialogue with the classics, the artist, the writer, runs the risk of spending his life reinventing the wheel . . . The task of the writer consists of enriching tradition even if he venerates it one day and comes to blows with it the next.

It is clear in celebratory essays such as An Ars Poetica? and The Dark Twin that reading did not just hone his skill as a writer, but was the very foundation of his career. This is of course neither unsurprising nor unusual, but what Pitol explains in The Art of Flight is precisely how, in detail, his favorite authors and books influenced his writing practice. The reader actually learns relatively little about the substance of his own work—a pity, since this is his first book to be translated into English.

While most of these essays—for lack of a better word—are informative and excellently written, there are times where the temptation to skip ahead could arise. Perhaps this comes from a lack of familiarity with, or passion for, certain figures in discussion; the piece on Benito Pérez Galdós’s The Court of Carlos IV is somewhat unengaging, unless one is as passionate about the book as Pitol clearly is (and I am not). Perhaps this “dryness” is emphasized in comparison to Pitol’s lively examinations of Chekhov, which made me eager to revisit The Steppe, and the German painter Max Beckmann, in addition to numerous Latin-American writers previously unknown to me that I am now keen to read. So numerous are the references to his influences, it becomes difficult at times to keep up, or feel that much is being added by their inclusion. However, the majority of his readings would stand alone as pieces of critical writing, and add insight to the life of a writer relatively unknown in the English-speaking world.

In his discussion of Thomas Mann’s short bildungsroman Tonio Kröger, Pitol proposes “writing a novel solely about one’s own life, in most cases, is vulgarity, a lack of imagination.” The Art of Flight certainly adheres to his conviction. With this in mind, at times it appears Pitol is wary of talking of himself too much. On the one hand, he states, “I cannot imagine a novelist who does not use elements of his personal experience, a vision, a memory from childhood or the immediate past, a tone of voice captured in a meeting, a furtive gesture glimpsed by chance, only to incorporate them later into one or more characters,” while on the other, he displays an “insidious anxiety” regarding his own writing:

The places where life is, those things that don’t happen in this garret where I force myself as punishment, as penance, to lock myself up in front of a typewriter and dictionaries. Would I perhaps have to keep rummaging forever into my childhood and write about my life . . . I am sick of it.

More affectionate self-deprecation is found in my favorite anecdote from Pitol’s early attempts at love poetry: “My guardian angel protected and saved my literary future: I misplaced the poems. When I reread them thirty years later, I was petrified; to say they were atrocious would be to praise them.” Highlighting this disparity is not a criticism. The inclusion of essays and commentary enrich the book, evincing Pitol’s claim that reading has influenced his writing as much as experience. Indeed, Pitol’s readings have given creative energy to his own work. And we, as readers of the readings, are both twice removed from, and directly in contact with, his writing. Of Chekhov, he suggests, “the knowledge of the craftsmanship that he employed to write his remarkable stories surely intensifies the pleasure of reading them.” The same is true of The Art of Flight.

Returning to Sartre’s “why write?”, in Pitol’s case the answer could be: to find freedom, escape, or a sense of belonging. Bolaño wrote that “books are the only homeland of the true writer, books that may sit on shelves or in the memory.” Perhaps Pitol’s sense of disconnection with his native Mexico encouraged him to seek a home elsewhere, without ever being satisfied enough to settle in any one place—a state, as Vila-Matas says in his foreword, of “being Mexican and at the same time always being a foreigner.” Instead, Pitol found comfort in the walls he constructed around himself with books, which both protected him from rootlessness, and exposed him to the lives and minds of others.

Despite the literary essays and deep readings contained within The Art of Flight, what ties the book together is the glittering thread of himself that Pitol has sewn thoughtfully throughout. Although we meet him as a grown man, it is when recollecting his youth that Pitol seems most vulnerable, and consequently most open to identification. When triggered by the memory uncovered through hypnotherapy, realizing, “many things had become coherent and explainable: everything in my life had been nothing more than a perpetual flight,” it becomes clear for both Pitol and the reader that, while his mother’s drowning may have cast darkness over his life strong enough to hide the memory for decades, once exposed it reveals what he has been running away from for so long, and allows him to stop and take stock of his life.

Although this revelation lends a subtly melancholic undertone, the overall sense is not one of gloom but of vibrancy and vigor; Pitol describes the book as “an attempt to allay anxieties and cauterize wounds,” and indeed the overall feeling is celebratory, of a life fully lived. While disappointing that Pitol’s fiction currently remains unavailable in English translation, Deep Vellum is scheduled to publish the two subsequent volumes of this collection, which will hopefully serve as impetus for further translation of his work. The Art of Flight is rich with Pitol’s impassioned interrogations of others, woven into an intricate, if convoluted, web with memories, anecdotes, and confessions. Not all writers make great critics, nor the converse, but in Pitol’s case, one cannot exist without the other; to quote Borges, “we are all the past, we are our blood, we are the people we have seen die, we are the books that have made us better, we are gratefully the others.”

 

Rosie Clarke is a writer, a critic, and works for Asymptote. Her writing has appeared in The White Review, The Quarterly Conversation, and Electric Literature.