When the first editor's note appears early in Macedonio Fernández's The Museum of Eterna's Novel, you aren't quite sure it wasn't written by the author in one of his alternate guises. But this is only the beginning of such playfulness. To American readers, Macedonio is not the household name that his former student and self-confessed plagiarist, Borges, has become. Yet his works circle, gambol, and swerve in an eminently familiar way. Macedonio stands (or more likely cartwheels) at the beginning of the Ultraist literary movement that made Borges possible, and his impact on the young Argentinean writer, as well as on later practitioners of experimental fiction, remains undisputed.
The Museum of Eterna's Novel, a sprawling, enigmatic work begun in 1925 and "completed" when Macedonio died in 1952, is the fount of that influence. The book's spirit is best captured in its last chapter: the "Final Prologue," addressed "To Whoever Wants to Write This Novel." In fact, prologues constitute almost half the book, bearing such titles as "Prologue of Indecision," "Prologue for a Borrowed Character," and "Prologue of Authorial Despair." These preambles take shape as metaphysical inquiries, character sketches, and desultory lectures on the nature of art, passion, suicide, and (inevitably) prologues. Readers of Borges's Labyrinths, or Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, or later self-reflexive novelists such as J. M. Coetzee and David Foster Wallace, will recognize the authorial game—finding new ways to break the fourth wall. Yet Macedonio also stands shoulder to shoulder with the original metafictional prankster, Laurence Sterne. The Argentinian even includes a couple of bare pages for the indecisive reader, perhaps in homage to the blank, black, and marbled folios of Tristram Shandy.
The Museum of Eterna's Novel is also reminiscent of that classic of avant-garde Italian theater Six Characters in Search of an Author. In Pirandello's tragicomedy, six strangers show up at a theater rehearsal, claiming they're looking for an author to complete their story. Many of Macedonio's characters are, alas, not even allowed to appear; in addition to "Real Characters," he gives us Nonexistent, Absent, Thwarted, and Awaited Characters and even two Fragile Characters, "owing to their vocation in life, because they believe they can be happy." When the novel proper begins on page 128, we find a handful of Macedonio's creations in an even more metaphysically challenging dilemma than Pirandello's: They have gathered at a luxurious country estate called La Novela, where they must learn "to change from living beings to 'characters,'" guided by a man known only as the President, who is himself in love with Eterna, the beautiful and elusive woman of the novel's title.
The episodes that follow are by turns poignant, absurd, philosophical, and banal, as Macedonio's characters move through the rooms of their well-apportioned prison—eating, drinking, flirting, gossiping, and all the while mulling over their fictional natures and discussing what fate awaits them at the novel's inevitable end. Macedonio gives the screw another turn with the entrance of a final character—the Reader—who craves something like the same fate: "Oh, if I could be a fly on the wall for your conversations, and in this way know for even an hour what it is to be a character!" If there are conflicts driving this elusive work, they are surely these: the joy one feels on immersion in literature and, from the perspective of the "active" world, the deathlike stasis of a life lived in books.
Macedonio is the sort of writer Ezra Pound would probably have classified as an "originator" rather than a virtuoso—the unwashed literary pioneer who invents a crude new form, which the most gifted of his followers (Borges) hammers into its perfect shape. Yet such a classification would not account for the most compelling feature of Macedonio's work. More than simply providing Borges a springboard, Macedonio's epic, quarter-century-long project is one of the peaks of a genre now rare in this age of irony: the paean to human passion.
Tales of Macedonio's odd, itinerant life—scribbling poems on napkins, trying to found a utopian colony, running for president of Argentina—have obscured his energetic devotion to craft, as well as the formal coherence of his fiction. The Museum of Eterna's Novel is the product of what the German painter Max Beckmann termed "disciplined intoxication"—a diligently cultivated awareness that frees one to be spontaneous. Macedonio shows us this in the disarmingly named "Also a Prologue," where he writes, in a language stripped of unnecessary ornament: "Outside the state of passion (only passion is altruistic), which is always a state of certainty, the only state of reality for dreams in which both lovers converge and in which everything must be risked, everything must be promised in full awareness, all happiness, all pain—outside of this, we must live in half light, and with half-actions, half-awake, without entirely knowing events and states, since outside of passion the probability is that suffering will prevail."
Matthew Ladd's poetry and essays have appeared in the Paris Review, the American Scholar, and Yale Review, among other publications.