Mario Levrero, Empty Words, Translated by Annie McDermott. Coffee House Press, 2019. 152 pp.
I have to concentrate on my handwriting; that’s the point of all this. I have to let my inner self change and grow under the magical influence of graphology. Big writing, big me. Small writing, small me. Beautiful writing, beautiful me.
“Graphology” – the pseudoscientific art of handwriting analysis and self-betterment – is in theory the basis for this playful novella by famed Uruguayan author Mario Levrero. The Spanish language original was published in 1996, yet this translation by long-time collaborator Annie McDermott has just been released by Coffee House Press . At only 152 pages, one might think it a fast summer read, but Levrero and his disarmingly titled Empty Words have other plans for readers, taking them on a meandering treatise on the nature of life and art, and our human inability to control either.
I was drawn to Empty Words because of my love of Chile’s Alexjandro Zambra work (Levrero was said to have influenced Zambra); Levrero was unknown to me, as he may well be for many English-language readers. Yet, he is widely considered a master of modern Latin American literature; his writing in league with Argentina’s Rodolfo Fogwil and the intensely prolific César Aira. A writer and translator myself, (and admittedly not a scholar of Latin American literature), in this book I saw the chance to step into the life and process of another writer, a chance to learn if others who wrestled with the same craft also made acquaintances with the same creative demons.
Levrero was widely known to be a reclusive, self-effacing philosopher, so it should come as no surprise that something as solitary and eccentric as graphology would appeal to him. This is a deceptively straightforward novel in three parts (plus a prologue and epilogue), written as a diary. Some days are missing and Levrero recounts their omission in great detail, while he simply skips others without explanation. Through his mostly-daily practice, Levrero writes about this exercise of futility and fruitfulness; his mind focused on the process, yet also wandering just outside of it.
Yet the seemingly mundane is also rich for consideration. His entries about the “family dog” and its various trials are at once literal and figurative. As much as he is discussing a real live dog, Levrero is also considering the nature of the muse – that elusive, unseen, unquantifiable thing that spurs the creation of art, that at once arouses, frustrates, and rewards an artist. His ruminations on relationships of all kinds feels familiar to those of us who’ve had just enough therapy to have a permanent psychoanalyst echoing through our heads, noting patterns in ourselves and others (often with chagrin). Levrero’s self-critiques are at once hilarious and poignant. Of a “bad day” for writing exercises, he writes:
On I go, trying to write about uninteresting things, perhaps heralding a new era of boredom as a literary movement.
There is also a tenderness and honesty in Levrero’s work: Empty Words is a sincere offering, a gentle yet thorough contemplation of life’s immensities.
Often people even say: “There’s a plot for one of your novels,” as if I went around in search of plots for novels and not in search of myself. If I write it’s in order to remember, to awaken my sleeping soul, to stir up my mind and discover its secret pathways. Most of my stories are fragments of my soul’s memory, not inventions.
Levrero processes the subterfuge of every part of his wild and feral life, and the book is a study in contrasts and diametrically opposed goals. He attempts to will creativity through the rote exercises of the practice of handwriting.
To answer the question you’ve surely been wondering about: does this exercise work after all? I’ll let Levrero speak for himself:
There’s a way of going with the flow that means you end up in the right place at the right time, and this “going with the flow” is what allows you to be the protagonist of your own actions— — when you’ve reached a certain age.
A few days ago, I dreamed about a group of priests in different colored robes. I remember one of them in particular, whose robes were a very bright purple. They adopted various positions, which in turn combined to form further positions, and I realized they were expressing the secret of Alchemy.