Mario Levrero in Conversation with Mario Levrero

"What is essential, not just to writing but to being truly alive, is leisure time."
Photo by Eduardo Abel Gimenez

Mario Levrero—bookseller, cartoonist, crossword setter, leader of creative writing workshops, tango fanatic, and amateur mystic—was also the author of some of the strangest and most astonishing works in the Latin American literary canon.

He published his first novel, La ciudad (The City) in 1966, at the age of twenty-six, describing it as “almost an attempt to translate Kafka into Uruguayan.” This novel is part of his hallucinatory “involuntary trilogy”: books set in tunnels, houses, and cities bound by unfathomable rules, which are Kafkaesque less because they’re something Kafka might have written and more because they’re something Kafka might have dreamed. As well as this trilogy, Levrero wrote rollicking detective-novel parodies with such titles as Nick Carter Enjoys Himself While the Reader Is Murdered and I Expire, and, in later years, several autobiographical works, among them Empty Words and The Luminous Novel. This last, a book with a 450-page prologue explaining why it was impossible to write the book itself, is his masterpiece, and widely regarded as a classic of Latin American literature.

The Luminous Novel, posthumously published in Spanish in 2005 and now available in English, is an anti-novel: the testament to a monumental failure which, as Adam Thirlwell writes in the New York Times, somehow still succeeds. In the words of the Argentinian author Mauro Libertella: “If Roberto Bolaño showed us it was still possible to write the great Latin American novel, Levrero told us it wasn’t necessary.”

The imaginary interview below dates back to the end of the 1980s, when Levrero was living in Buenos Aires, working in an office and struggling to write. Here, he is a writer pining for inspiration and resolute that, without it, no writing is possible. His later autobiographical works, however, which culminate in The Luminous Novel, show him exploring what happens to his writing when the inspiration isn’t there. This interview, then, is a kind of Luminous Novel in miniature: although it is about not being able to write, the writing takes on a life of its own.

Annie McDermott

Photo by Eduardo Abel Gimenez

Imaginary Interview with Mario Levrero

To Lisa Block de Behar, who brought this about —M. L.

Mario Levrero was born in Montevideo, on January 23, 1940. He began keeping the things he wrote in 1966, on the advice and encouragement of Tola Invernizzi. He has published a number of books (mainly fiction) and, under various pseudonyms, some mostly humorous journalism, as well as comic strips and puzzles. In 1985 he moved to Buenos Aires, where he is currently the editor-in-chief of a crossword magazine.

He receives us, with obvious irritation, in his apartment near the Congress building, and shows us into a spacious room almost entirely lacking in furniture and with nothing on the walls. The only features are a hi-fi, a small desk with a large typewriter on top, and the sofa bed, at this moment functioning as a sofa, where he invites us to sit while he makes us a coffee.

He seems tired, and though he gives his age as almost forty-eight, he could easily be ten years older. As we prepare our tape recorder, he puts a cassette into his own and adjusts the volume so that the music—some excellent jazz—doesn’t disturb the conversation. We begin:

Mario Levrero: What, for you, is literature?

Mario Levrero: It’s the art that’s expressed by means of the written word.

ML: And what, then, is art?

ML: In my view, it’s the attempt to communicate a spiritual experience.

ML: You’ll have to explain, then, what you mean by a “spiritual experience.”

ML: Any experience, provided you can sense within it the presence of the spirit, or of my spirit, if you prefer. And before you jump in with another of your questions, let me expand on that: the spirit is something living and ineffable, something which forms part of the dimensions of reality that lie, on the whole, beyond sensory perception and even usual states of consciousness.

ML: Meaning that literature is one possible way of communicating to other beings a personal experience that lies beyond the usual forms of perception.

ML: I’d say you’ve grasped my meaning exactly; almost with the same words.

ML: But this definition of yours, wouldn’t it rule out plenty of works that are considered to be literature?

ML: Quite possibly.

ML: So you’re denying the literary quality of such works as…

ML: Not at all. You asked what literature was for me; at no point did I think about other people’s literature. And besides, I also said any experience. I think there’s artistic material in the most trivial, mundane experiences; the one requirement is that the artist’s spirit is present. For example, I could be standing on a street corner and looking at the traffic lights, waiting for them to change before I cross. In fact, I’m in that situation several times a day. And there could be a spiritual experience there; it depends what goes on with me while I’m standing on that corner. Or I could explain it in the exact opposite way, just as I remember reading it many years ago in Charles Baudouin, in a book that seems to have been unfairly underrated: The Psychoanalysis of Art. What we perceive in a work of art is the artist’s soul, in its entirety, through the phenomenon of soul-to-soul communication between the author of the work and the recipient. A work of art, then, is a hypnotic mechanism, which momentarily frees the soul of the person perceiving it and allows them to capture the soul of the author. It doesn’t matter what the work is about.

ML: So the essence of art is communication.

ML: Yes.

ML: But there are other forms of communication besides art.

ML: Of course. Art can communicate on particular levels—the very deepest. However, those levels can also be reached in other ways, for example through conversation, as long as there’s “hypnosis,” i.e., a kind of enchantment (which is not the case in this conversation of ours).

ML: And that would be the art of conversation.

ML: It hadn’t occurred to me. I suppose so.

ML: Is this interview bothering you?

ML: No more than others. But I’m getting a bit bored.

ML: What would you ask if you had to interview yourself?

ML: Well… There are three kinds of interviewers: the journalistic sort, the academic sort, and the sort that mix the two. The first ones are always after the new, the remarkable, some detail they think will catch ordinary readers’ attention. They’re the ones who insist on the business of “los raros,” the strange ones, in literature: why critics have considered me a “strange” writer, etc. It would be far more interesting for them if, instead of writing, I had, for example, committed a murder. The second sort always want to know exactly where I’d place myself on some sociohistorical diagram, as if that were my job and not theirs. But once, curiously, I was interviewed by a man who had read my books, and who took a great interest in my personal life and creative mechanisms, and the relationship between the two. Unfortunately I still haven’t seen the magazine where it was published, so I don’t know about the final product; but I thought the intention was good, and original, at least. If I had to do an interview, I think I’d try and keep to the formula of that man, who, what’s more, doesn’t fit into any of the three categories I was mentioning just now.

ML: Maybe we could have a go with the mechanisms of creation.

ML: Sure, though it’s a rather unfortunate expression. Perhaps I should have said “the alchemy” of creation.

ML: Fine. How, then, does this alchemy work in your case?

ML: Well, by definition these are secret, hidden processes. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, but I don’t have direct access to them. It’s like digesting food: I “do” it, but I don’t know how.

ML: I imagine you begin by choosing a topic…

ML: No, the topic, or rather the subject, normally chooses me. At some point, without me necessarily thinking in terms of literature, I notice that something is bothering me: an image, a series of words, or simply a mood, an atmosphere, an environment. The clearest example would be an image or mood from a dream, after waking up in the morning; sometimes you spend a long time almost tangled up in that dream-fragment; sometimes it fades in the end and sometimes it doesn’t. It can come back, whether spontaneously or evoked by something else, at other points in the day. When this goes on for several days, I take it as a sign that there’s something there that I need to deal with, and the way to deal with it is to recreate it. For example: I have a story, “The Crucified Man,” which stemmed from this kind of disruption, although it didn’t come from a dream. I noticed that for some days I’d had a crucified man in my head, someone whose arms were permanently outstretched. In fact, I didn’t realize the man had been crucified until I stopped to examine that disruptive image, because he was dressed; you could clearly see that he was wearing an old jacket. Looking more closely, I discovered that under the jacket he was nailed to the remains of a wooden cross, and right away I began work on that story. Another story, “The Sunshades,” arose from a phrase overheard in a dream: “Nohaymar” [“No hay mar,” or “There is no sea”]. In the dream, a girl was jumping on a bed and saying something like “nohaymar,” or rather I was hearing “noaimar.” While I was in the shower, that image and that phrase came back to me and I decided it meant “no hay mar,” and by the time I got out of the shower I already had a fairly well-structured story. My novel Displacements also arose from a brief scene from a dream: a woman in her underwear washing dishes in a kitchen. It took me about two years to unearth the whole little world contained in that image. And in case you take an interest in parapsychological phenomena, I’ll tell you something else that happened with “no hay mar”: a few days after the story was written, I ran into a friend who told me that he’d been writing a story himself at more or less the same time, and a character had infiltrated it with a kind of obsessive force. This character was called Mariano. As you may have noticed, “Mariano” is a perfect anagram of “no hay mar.”

ML: When you talk about “examining” an image, or whatever else, what exactly do you mean?

ML: Paying attention to it, or allowing it to live its life. And trying to become aware of that life. When, like now, I don’t have time to write, I try to recreate the dream-fragment, or whatever it is, by closing my eyes, calling up that image or mood and leaving my mind free for associations to arise. Then a kind of splitting occurs, a reflexive state, meaning that on the one hand I can make associations and on the other I can pay conscious attention to those associations. By doing that, it’s possible to free yourself from something that might otherwise keep bothering or obsessing you.

ML: In what way?

ML: By coming to understand the message of the so-called “unconscious,” which generally relates to important events in a person’s life that they’ve allowed to take place without ever dealing with them, and without being aware of their true importance. Needless to say, this is a fairly superficial kind of self-therapy; but I find it useful.

I’m very lazy; I write when it feels imperative, or unavoidable, in the same way that I do anything else when it feels imperative or unavoidable.

ML: Do you see literature, then, as a kind of therapy?

ML: Let’s not simplify things. I was talking about a particular way of dispelling an annoyance before it turns into an obsession, which I often make use of when I can’t write. When I can write, the phenomenon becomes more complex. Recreating the dream-fragment, the disruptive image or mood, whatever its origin (and after all, the origin is always the same: it comes from the so-called “unconscious”), is no longer an attempt to dispel the annoyance by answering its call in the urgent, immediate sense, but rather to deepen and extend that mood in order to recover a whole story, a small world, something we could call “a complete experience”; only by now it’s not the “unconscious” acting freely, as if in a dream, but rather there’s an interaction with the consciousness, which imposes the demands of waking logic, of coherence with waking life. The associations are disrupted, so to speak, by convenience; they’re limited, controlled, and to an extent directed or stimulated. The end result may vary in length, but it’s always something complete.

ML: And does that solve the problem?

ML: Of the disruption? I think so, because the disruption goes away. But it probably causes other problems, and it probably solves other problems as well. Sometimes it’s years before I understand the relationship between a particular text and the personal questions connected to it; what it was that I resolved or tried to resolve with that text. Often I don’t discover anything; the text seems to have a life of its own, quite separate from mine. But at any rate, that’s not the literary intention; it’s not, as you put it, a kind of therapy. We were talking just now about communication. It’s no longer me alone with the disruption, seeking to free myself from it, but rather it’s me trying to communicate, creating a structure that represents me to someone else.

Photo by Eduardo Abel Gimenez

ML: Are you addressing someone specific, or are you thinking of a public more generally?

ML: I’ve found that all my texts are aimed at a particular recipient, though I’m not always aware of it. There’s always someone I want to tell something to; when I’m writing, I have a specific person in mind.

ML: Is it always the same one?

ML: No, almost never, or never, the same person twice.

ML: And doesn’t that affect the language you use?

ML: Certainly. You don’t address everyone the same way. And probably not only the language, but also the images, everything.

ML: You were talking about a kind of relationship between your texts and your personal life. Should this be understood as an autobiographical form of writing?

ML: It depends what you mean by “autobiographical.” I’m talking about things I’ve experienced, but generally I haven’t experienced them on the plane of reality that biographies tend to make use of.

ML: Isn’t that a slightly convoluted way of describing your writing as “imaginary”?

ML: The imagination is an instrument; an instrument of knowledge, despite what Sartre says. I use imagination to translate into images certain impulses—let’s call these impulses experiences, emotions or spiritual encounters. For me these impulses form part of reality, or of my “biography,” if you will. The images could easily be different; what matters is passing on, by means of images, which in turn are represented by words, an idea of that intimate experience for which no precise language exists.

ML: For example, are your characters taken from real life?

ML: Sometimes I borrow them from what you’re calling “real life,” but in fragments, like in a collage. For the most part, my characters are made up of various people I’ve known. But when they appear in my texts they’re not themselves; they’re no more than images, as I’ve been saying. I don’t want them to come across as flesh and blood; it’s more as if they’re made of cardboard.

ML: Some people see your texts as versions of a reality that’s deformed, exaggerated, cruel, absurd, nightmarish, suffocating…

ML: I can accept all of those adjectives except one: “deformed.” That’s usually a tool of science fiction. I wouldn’t talk about “deforming reality” in my texts, but rather about subjectivism… Think about shoes in a shop window and shoes “deformed” by wear. Would you describe the shoes you wear as “deformed”? Are the ones in the shop window more “real”?

ML: You said you’re not writing at the moment. Why not?

ML: You know perfectly well that I have a job.

ML: And is the job incompatible with writing?

ML: In my experience, yes, at least so far. I’m not a weekend writer. Writing isn’t sitting down to write; that’s the final stage, and perhaps not essential. What is essential, not just to writing but to being truly alive, is leisure time. Leisure, or idleness, allows you to harmonize with the spirit, or at least pay it some of the attention it deserves. I’m not a professional writer, I don’t set out to fill a certain number of pages, and I neither can nor want to write without the presence of the spirit, without inspiration. I have a text here by Raymond Chandler, one of Chandler’s letters, in fact:

I’m always seeing little pieces by writers about how they don’t ever wait for inspiration; they just sit down at their little desks every morning at eight, rain or shine, hangover and broken arm and all, and bang out their little stint. However blank their minds or dull their wits, no nonsense about inspiration from them. I offer them my admiration and take care to avoid their books.

You see, I’m very lazy; I write when it feels imperative, or unavoidable, in the same way that I do anything else when it feels imperative or unavoidable. I live from stress to stress. My ideal life would be one of absolute repose. I can’t do anything without some kind of stimulus, and in the case of writing the stimulus has to be two-pronged: the need to bring something to light, and the need to communicate it to someone. At the moment, these stimuli aren’t present, or indeed are very weak compared to others, such as the imperative need to survive in a very difficult environment.

ML: But during your time in Buenos Aires, haven’t you felt the need to write?

ML: Not at first, but recently I have. More and more strongly. You see, I want to describe lots of things I’ve lived through; and yet not only can I not describe them, I can’t even think about them; I experience things very superficially, without stopping to absorb them or let them settle. As a result I’ve lost almost all sense of time. My first year in Buenos Aires (and therefore in my office job) seemed to last no more than a week or two. It was a kind of insubstantial, poor-quality time. There’s still a bit of that now, but in some mysterious way I’ve managed to make myself feel that the time has more consistency. This past year has more or less resembled a year. Still, now that I’m somewhat divorced from my “unconscious,” every experience, even the most seemingly complex and appealing, feels incomplete, as if I’m missing out on something essential. Not long ago, a series of notable experiences took place, and luckily I was able to recover them, to “give them substance,” by writing either short passages, like a diary, or letters to friends. But it’s all very fragmentary and very “current”; the literature isn’t there.

ML: Could we say something like, “If you don’t write it, you don’t live it”?

ML: Something like that; perhaps not so extreme, but something like that. Or at least, “If I don’t think it, I don’t live it.” But I reassure myself that I can think about it later on, and recover it then.

ML: Where would you place your work in the panorama of contemporary Uruguayan li…?

ML: Oh, oh. Et tu, Brute.

ML: Sorry. I just wanted to shake you out of your narcissistic monologue for a moment.

ML: Why?

ML: Well… I… I mean…

ML: You want to shake me out of my personal perspective; and put me in a perspective we might call academic. I’m surprised you’d make the same mistake as other journalists; I thought you knew me better.

ML: Really I was provoking you, to make you confess once again to the weakness of your cultural education.

ML: That doesn’t bother me. I’ll confess. I could also confess to the weakness of my education in a whole host of other areas. But it’s true: my total unfamiliarity with literature is, or should be, a disgrace. I think it’s down to lack of discipline; I’m too hedonistic, perhaps, and tend to read what I want to read and not what I should read; I also prefer to read people who write and not people who write about people who write. I loathe catalogues, lists, analyses, interpretations; what’s more, it feels like the critical perspective distances me from a work of art, instead of bringing me closer; it makes me read with only one eye, you might say.

ML: And what about the other eye?

ML: With the other eye I’m reading between the lines: here, where it says this, what the author is really saying is… And that prevents me from falling into a trance. It prevents me from receiving the author’s soul, to use the language of Baudouin. What’s more, I think that’s the true function of criticism: preventing the craziness contained in a work of art from spreading through the whole of society like a plague. It’s a repressive function, a kind of policing, and I’m not saying it’s wrong; I think it’s necessary. But personally I find it irritating, because it happens to be repressing me, or at least what I write. It’s fencing me in, putting barriers between the reader and the writer. This, of course, actually ends up benefiting literature, allowing it to grow, to find new ways of saying what it wants to say—in the same way that policing allows different forms of crime to evolve.

ML: There are other ways of putting an end to literature…

ML: Yes. The publishing industry. But that doesn’t worry me. Books in themselves don’t worry me, and nor does literature in itself. What worries me is communication, but since it’s a vital necessity I’m sure it will always find a way of existing.

ML: So, essentially, you’re not a man of letters.

ML: No: I cultivate images, not letters; and the images are very close to the raw materials, which are experiences. But now we’re back to the “narcissistic monologue,” though I wouldn’t call it that. If you ask me, it’s an “introverted monologue,” which is something quite different. When I step into myself, I find that the outside world is there as well, only transmuted into a language that means I can see it better.

ML: Why don’t we return to the topic of Uruguayan literature, from this new angle. Have you read any Uruguayan authors recently?

ML: I’ve been reading Onetti and Leo Maslíah. The two extremes, you might say.

ML: And?

ML: Well, I find Onetti always takes a lot of effort. He’s one of those authors with whom there’s no “enchantment,” who don’t hypnotize you or let you fall into a trance; Onetti comes complete with his own literary critic; he knows how to create an almost insurmountable distance for the reader. He makes you read him with only one eye.

ML: Then I’m surprised you read him at all.

ML: There’s a reason: I’m not sure why, but every so often, when I go through a “literary crisis,” I have a dream that features the “Writer,” an imposing figure, a kind of large, shadowy master, whom I approach; we don’t speak, he’s simply there, looking contemplative or self-absorbed, and I keep a respectful distance, observing him. Nothing else happens, but those dreams have an enormous power and I know that through them I resolve something that enables me to keep going. And although it’s not made explicit in the dream, when I wake up I know that the man is Onetti. And there’s another reason, too: much as I’m usually lazy when it comes to reading, I’m not always. Sometimes I want to read something that takes effort, or attention. And with Onetti it’s worth it.

ML: And Maslíah?

ML: I see Leo as a violinist playing a violin that has only one string. I’m amazed by everything he can do with a single string. That said, reading him also takes effort, and I find myself wishing that he’d done this differently here, or that differently there, but I suppose that goes with the territory if you’re a writer. Still, reading him is also a lot of fun, as entertaining as a detective novel, or more so. I experience something similar with Beckett. I don’t know, I think Leo is trying to make literature explode, and that’s healthy, part of a process of renewal. But then I think that this acceptance of mine isn’t very natural or spontaneous; that him making literature explode is painful to me and I’m too old feel any different.

Photo by Eduardo Abel Gimenez

ML: And what else have you read recently?

ML: Detective novels. Tons of detective novels. And a fair bit of Henry Miller, though skipping a lot of pages; sometimes I can only salvage one brilliant chapter from an entire book; sometimes just odd fragments of chapters. Of everything I’ve read by Miller, I think only Tropic of Cancer achieves the perfect balance. Though of course, that’s already saying a lot.

ML: Why the detective novels?

ML: I find them the most effective way of escaping reality. And before you ask why I want to escape from reality, let me remind you that I’m living through a period of self-kidnap: I’m making myself work in order to earn a living, because for a while now the conditions in our country haven’t allowed for the marginal subsistence which, at one point, enabled me to write.

ML: Your favorite detective novelists?

ML: Chandler, who I reread pretty often, as I do Simon Himes, Rex Stout, Anthony Gilbert, Dickson Carr, and many more, both of the classic English variety and crime thrillers.

ML: Don’t detective novels disappoint you?

ML: Individually, they do; practically all of them. But strangely enough, as a genre, they don’t. The disappointment usually comes at the end (if it comes at the beginning, I stop reading), when you realize that all your attention has been caught and held, often masterfully, for a number of hours, only for you to emerge empty-handed. Exactly like with crosswords or logic puzzles. However, that disappointment must mask feelings of guilt or something like that, because during the course of the novels you receive a lot of enjoyable things. The irresolvable problem with detective novels is that they inevitably have to be “closed”; the riddles they pose need to be perfectly resolved, because if not the novel fails or you feel angry, or swindled, or both. And a “closed” novel leaves you with an empty sensation, because it’s utterly incapable of mobilising the reader. It makes you anxious, and then it takes that anxiety away; it doesn’t leave you with a free-flowing anxiety that you can use to make changes in your life, as happens with true literature.

ML: Have detective novels influenced your writing?

ML: According to some critics, yes. And I think so too. Rather ignoble things are often mentioned as sources of my writing, and detective novels are among them. Pornography too, though that’s a mistake: I detest pornography. Another mistake is expecting literature to come only from literary sources, like expecting a cheesemaker to eat nothing but cheese. Before writing I tried to make films, but then I realized that was impossible in Uruguay. I ended up writing because it was much cheaper, and because I didn’t have the discipline to learn music or painting or to be a doctor or a psychologist. After you find a mode of expression, it feels easy and you have trouble moving away from it, but I wouldn’t want to entirely rule out the possibility of starting again, with another means of expression. Nor would I like to entirely rule out the possibility of doing nothing at all. But I’m always struck by that widespread short-sightedness, that desire to build a coherent but false world where writers are all pinned onto a map, in a web of similarities and influences. I think films, music, friends, women, ants, the sea, etc., have influenced me at least as much as books have.

ML: On the topic of pornography and women: leaving aside other people’s opinions, would you agree that there’s a lot of sex in your writing, and that it’s often expressed pretty directly, if not brutally? Doesn’t this contradict what you said at the beginning of this interview, about the “spiritual experience” that literature should convey?

ML: Not in the slightest. The contradiction lies in certain religious dogmas that aim to separate, or isolate, the spirit. I think erotic experiences are essentially spiritual, and for that very reason they’re prohibited. What’s more, the current “sexual liberation” does nothing but emphasize the contradiction in the dogma and reinforce the prohibition of the spiritual.

ML: Isn’t it exactly the other way round?

ML: No. We live in a time when materialism reigns supreme. Sex is permitted as long as it remains strictly within the limits of materialism. Eroticism, i.e., communication, is still forbidden. That’s why pornography is flourishing, and erotic art remains marginalized. Leisure time is also becoming less possible and more suspect by the day. All of which suggests that a time of spiritual flourishing isn’t far away; you only need, as Lao Tzu said, to reach the highest point in order to begin to fall. And since we’re quoting, let me mention those verses by Ezra Pound that were the motto of the short-lived magazine Opium: “Sing we for love and idleness, /
Naught else is worth the having.”

To return to your question, however, I don’t think the sexual references in my writing are any more direct or brutal than the other references; they probably stand out more, but you’ll have realized by now that I’m not a stylist or, for the most part, someone who says things in a roundabout way.

A priest friend once told me: ‘What matters isn’t that your cup is bigger than other people’s, but that your cup is full.’

ML: What’s your view on political literature?

ML: As a subgenre, it doesn’t appeal to me. I prefer detective novels.

ML: Because political literature makes you confront the very reality you want to escape?

ML: No. I only want to escape from the reality of myself—in certain circumstances, when I don’t have the opportunity to work with it. No, what puts me off “political” literature is that, on the whole, there’s more “politics” in it than literature. It’s part of a similar process to bestsellers: the books are written in order to be bought by a specific public, and not with the aim of establishing the communication that defines art.

ML: Does that opinion not put you on the political right?

ML: Some people on the left have told me I’m impossible to talk to because I’m “too rebellious.” In fact, my political position varies; it tends to be the exact opposite of that of the person I’m talking to—whatever their position might be. The thing is, I understand nothing about politics, and with time I understand less and less. And not only about politics; I understand less and less all around. I’m not aware of a single truth; I think the world ought to be grateful to me for having abandoned any intention of improving it many years ago.

I don’t recognize fixed ideas. One of my great pleasures is realising my own mistakes. I don’t trust ideas; they’re like a cage. But going back to “political” literature: there are exceptions, of course. There are “political” masterpieces, mostly written by people with genuine convictions, and not by salesmen or social climbers.

ML: In more than one interview, you’ve argued that your literature is “realist.” Is this part of that game, of taking the exact opposite stance to whoever you’re talking to?

ML: Naturally, I place myself in “realism” when people try to put me in science fiction or fantasy.

ML: Where would you put yourself, then?

ML: Why are you trying to pigeonhole me?

ML: How would you explain, without any pigeonholing, what your work is like, to readers of this interview who aren’t familiar with it?

ML: I think this interview forms part of what you’re calling my “work.” If you read it properly, you’ll find me here, in my entirety.

ML: Do you like your books? What’s your self-assessment as a writer?

ML: I like some of my books, sometimes part of my books, and sometimes I like them more and sometimes less. I don’t read myself very often, and when I’m not reading myself I tend not to think I’m very good. When I read other writers—good writers, I mean—I think I’m even worse. However, sometimes I pick up something I’ve written and find myself engrossed, excited, even amazed. I can’t believe that it’s come from me, come through me. The fact is, outside my inspired periods, I’m completely incapable of writing, and during my inspired periods I’m not exactly myself. When I read something I’ve written, except for a few things that seem systematically abhorrent, I feel as if I’m reading something by someone else, and when I become aware that it’s “mine” (that it came through me, I mean), I’m usually astonished. But even when I’m astonished, I’m not deceived. I know my writing is a minor art. But I also know it’s an art. I value it as something authentic.

Speaking of all this, a priest friend once told me: “What matters isn’t that your cup is bigger than other people’s, but that your cup is full.” There are cathedral buildings that I admire and revere; but personally I look after a little garden, or a few plants in pots, if you prefer. But then, even plants that grow in pots have their ways of astonishing you.

ML: Will you ever write again?

ML: If it’s up to me, definitely. For the time being, it’s not up to me.

ML: What advice would you give to young writers?

ML: Look…

At this point, Levrero abruptly breaks off the interview and hurls his heavy IBM 82C typewriter in the direction of my head. Fortunately, it misses.

Translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott

A version of this piece is published in PEN Transmissions.

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