David Hebblethwaite reviews Mario Levrero’s Empty Words
(trans. Annie McDermott)
Mario Levrero’s reputation precedes him. In an article published online at Granta in 2013, the Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos writes:
…even before I’d read anything by him, Levrero’s name occupied a special place in my head: I knew he was a ‘strange’ writer, unclassifiable, with a boundless imagination, who was creating one of the most intriguing, thought-provoking bodies of work in the Spanish language.(trans. Rosalind Harvey)
At that time, none of Levrero’s work had been translated into English. He didn’t arrive until 2015, when a short story appeared in Asymptote, and now we have a novel, Empty Words. Translator Annie McDermott’s introduction bears out the image of Levrero as an unusual figure, with its eclectic list of items in his archive and details of the extreme measures he took to avoid publicity (such as speaking so quietly in interview recordings that his words could not be heard). McDermott says that, prior to his death in 2004, Levrero became a cult figure in his native Uruguay, and after reading this book it’s easy to see why.
Originally published in 1996, Empty Words is one of Levrero’s later novels. It consists of a diary of writing exercises, dated across a period of just over a year in the early 1990s, in which the narrator dwells on the deeper significance of writing his exercises by hand. It is autobiographical, insofar as the details of the narrator’s family life correspond, as far as I can tell, to Levrero’s; and the author’s foreword says the published entries are “faithful to the originals.” But the foreword also indicates that this material has been shaped and selected to an extent, so there’s an unresolved question at the heart of the novel over exactly where fiction ends and reality begins. This reflects the tension between text and event which animates Empty Words.
At the start of the first of many sections entitled ‘Exercises’, the narrator outlines his purpose:
My graphological self-therapy begins today. This method (suggested a while ago by a crazy friend) stems from the notion — which is central to graphology — that there’s a profound connection between a person’s handwriting and his or her character, and from the behaviourist tenet that changes in behaviour can lead to changes on a psychological level. The idea, then, is that by changing the behaviour observed in a person’s handwriting, it may be possible to change other things about that person.
By writing a little every day and focusing above all on carefully forming the letters, the narrator hopes to improve his habits elsewhere in his life. Straight away we run into one of Empty Words’ little ironies: we’re reading printed pages. Aside from the occasional crossing out or underlined word, we are unable to distinguish one bit of the narrator’s handwriting from another. “I also notice that the letters are more ‘separate’, more spaced out within each word, less bunched together than before”, the narrator says at one point. Maybe so, but it’s (literally) all the same to the reader. This is not just a throwaway gag: it represents a layer of the novel beyond the reader’s grasp.
Actually, the whole structure of Empty Words means that aspects which might be the stock-in-trade of a conventional novel become distant. An example of this appears early on, when the protagonist writes:
I’m returning to my handwriting therapy after an extended interruption, since my mother’s stroke took me away from home. During that time I really missed this daily discipline: though I haven’t been doing these exercises long, they’ve already started to seem like an entirely positive — and enjoyable — habit…
Where a serious family event may generally be expected to provide drama in a work of fiction, here it is treated as a distraction. The narrator’s mother’s stroke may well have affected him deeply; it’s just that documenting his feelings is not the purpose of the text in front of us. Everything that “happens” in Empty Words happens to the extent that it impinges on or infiltrates these writing exercises. This has the effect of displacing the novel’s emotional weight, something that comes across powerfully when the protagonist is at his lowest ebb:
Nothing about the present looks like happiness, not for a moment; there’s no peace or respite, no dreams to remember — my spirit’s like an arid pasture, like a desert. And there’s not the slightest glimmer of a future, of any desirable future whatsoever. The whole thing feels like I’m hurling myself vertiginously downwards through days, weeks, months and years that pass without a trace, completely empty of content, toward death, the only certainty.
Bleak though this undoubtedly is, in context it is not the most chilling part of the passage. That comes a few lines later:
After all, this is just a handwriting exercise. There’s no point worrying about making its contents more concrete. It’s just filling a sheet of paper with my writing.
The narrator will not allow what he’s writing to bear the weight of the feelings he describes — this is a mere piece of paper, it’s nothing — and so the full emotional impact of those words is kept at bay. For Levrero’s narrator, the mechanics of writing these exercises are more important than their content:
The important thing is to be very patient and concentrate hard, trying as much as possible to draw the letters one by one and giving no thought to the meanings of the words they’re forming…
He observes that this method of writing is directly opposed to the method of writing literature (which he defines as “the act of saying something and the question of how to say it”) — small wonder, then, that we end up with some aspects of the conventional novel flipped about. The problem for the protagonist is that content keeps creeping in: whether it’s his attempts to program his computer or the mischief his young son Ignacio is getting up to, the narrator can’t help but write about something — and so his own writing draws his attention away from his formation of the letters.
A couple of months into the narrator’s project, the writing exercises inexorably become more literary (as per his definition, quoted above) and so we infer that a change is in order. The protagonist still has a general urge to write, so he decides to start what he refers to as ‘The Empty Discourse’:
There’s a flow, a rhythm, a seemingly empty form: the discourse could end up addressing any topic, image or idea. … What I find frightening is not being able to escape this rhythm, this form that flows onward without revealing its contents. That’s why I decided to write this, beginning with the form, the flow itself, and introducing the problem of emptiness as its subject matter. I hope that this way I’ll gradually discover the real subject matter, which for now is disguised as emptiness.
In the discourse, then, Levrero’s narrator is giving himself freer rein to write than he does in the exercises, and there is a more relaxed tone to these sections as he concentrates less on the physical act of writing. But the narrator is still concerned about avoiding content, and is finally dismayed to find himself writing about the family dog when this new discourse is supposed to be empty.
Why does all of this matter to the narrator, anyway? It matters because of what writing means to him:
I want to get in touch with myself, with the miraculous being that lives inside me and is able, among so many other extraordinary things, to fabricate interesting stories and cartoons. That’s the point. That’s what it’s all about. Reconnecting with the inner being, the being which is part, in some secret way, of the divine spark that roams tirelessly through the Universe, giving it life, keeping it going, and lending reality to what would otherwise be an empty shell.
Writing is life for this man, so that a problem on the page is also a problem in the world. When the narrator expresses his hope that practising his handwriting will “help me improve my concentration and the continuity of my thoughts, which are currently all over the place”, he unknowingly reveals the key to his whole enterprise. It’s all about control: get the handwriting under control and the protagonist’s wayward personal habits should follow.
But there is more at stake in Empty Words than whether the narrator can give up smoking or put his thoughts in order. Ultimately, he is seeking to gain control over his whole life and world. He can’t cope with too much disruption: “It’s not interruptions or changes in activity that upset things, but rather sudden interruptions and forced changes when I haven’t had the chance to complete a psychological process”, he says. This puts pressure on his relationship with his wife, Alicia, because he perceives that she is comfortable with the kind of spontaneity that’s so challenging to him; he describes Alicia as “a fractal being… with a fractal pattern of behaviour. And since she decides what goes on in this family, everything that goes on is fractal…” The couple have been discussing a move into a new house, with Alicia wishing to relocate quickly and the narrator preferring a more considered approach. He returns to this subject throughout the book as a key locus of his anxiety.
The battle between disorder and control underlies much of Empty Words, especially its middle section. In ‘The Empty Discourse’, the narrator writes about trying (and largely failing) to control the dog’s comings and goings around the house. Subjects from the discourse occasionally bleed into the exercises. The experience of reading the discourse alongside the exercises is one of an ordered narrative interrupting a more haphazard text — though, paradoxically, it’s the attempt at controlled writing which produces the more disordered strand (the exercises) while the freely written discourse appears more cohesive to the reader.
This writing project comes to play a central role in the narrator’s life — and also becomes his main obstacle to self-improvement. When his writing exercises evolve into his main way of communicating with Alicia (which is not so bad, as long as she reads them), his discourse takes off in an unexpected direction and he wonders what he has set in motion:
I’ve inadvertently come up against a secret mechanism, a secret way things have of working… gripped by the magical fear that my apparently private, personal and innocent act has put me in touch with a formidable and dangerous world, a world I can’t control and can only barely, uncertainly, feel is there.
As the book approaches its end, however, the narrator turns a corner, both in life and in his writing exercises. He realises that he can still focus on the quality of his letters, but not by aiming for perfect calligraphy so much as loosening up and relaxing his muscles. In the rest of his life, he finds a balance between looking out for himself and letting go. Finally, as the narrator wishes, content recedes from his exercises. The tone of his writing becomes noticeably more upbeat, and there is a palpable sense of release.
In a way, it is hard not to wish for things that the structure of Empty Words leaves out: to know how the changes in the narrator’s behaviour play out in family life, for example, or to see what Alicia makes of it all. However, the sense of the narrator’s emotional transformation is there, glimpsed through the pages of handwriting practice and anecdotes about the family dog. While Levrero’s narrator may be trying to escape literature, his inability to do so leaves us, in a strange way, with the satisfactions we expect of the novel.