David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: bioy casares

Leo Perutz: The Master of the Day of Judgment

Perutz was an Prague-born, Jewish Austrian writer who wrote a number of short books. He emigrated to Palestine in 1938 and lived there until his death in 1957. His background only shows up indirectly in this novel, which falls under the “metaphysical mystery” category. It shows in the foreign background of our narrator and protagonist, the Baron, who has had an affair with the wife of a famous actor named Bischoff. Bischoff commits suicide under mysterious circumstances shortly after the book begins, after telling the Baron and a few other guests of the mysterious suicides of a soldier and his cousin. The Baron is accused; he is innocent, but the suicide does not seem to have been of Bischoff’s own volition either. The Baron then accompanies an engineer (another outsider) in his investigations into the murder.

This all plays out rather glacially, and the Baron contributes a cryptic introduction that reveals that the engineer too will die in his pursuit of the solution to these (induced) suicides. Before long we are in the realm of gnostic doings and a frightening, long-dead painter who claimed to have been able to bring people to their final judgment. The solution is not supernatural, though it is a bit untenable, but Perutz then undercuts that explanation itself with a coda that places an entirely different interpretation on what has gone before. I won’t give too much away if I say it jumps from gnosticism to Freud.

The asymmetry of these two accounts, and how each is incommensurate with the other, is the most unique point of the book. It does not leave a sense of satisfaction, but it did leave me impressed with what Perutz had managed, as well as wondering exactly what his intent had been. The two accounts really don’t mesh; they could come from different centuries.

The book reads like an antecedent to Borges, especially “Death and the Compass” (with a little of “The Aleph” thrown in), and also to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ early novels like The Invention of Morel. Borges praised Perutz, so I gather he and his friend Bioy Casares must have read this book and appreciated its attempt to mix the gothic, the gnostic, and crime. The admixture is compelling precisely because it is so awkward. The crime aspect, in particular, always seems to jut out. I’m not at all a reader of mysteries, and when the heavy stuff is introduced in Master, it makes the crime seem rather trivial in comparison.

The tradition continued with Carlo Emilio Gadda’s works, where the crime really does get smothered by Gadda’s own philosophical obsessions. Stanislaw Lem took it up from Borges (his admitted idol) in his mystery novel The Chain of Chance, which, bizarrely enough, features a solution quite similar to one of Perutz’s two resolutions in The Master of the Day of Judgment. Lem’s thematic, metaphysical concerns (science, probability, technology) are completely different from Perutz’s eschatological ones, yet the forms of the two novels are the same: the concerns are piggybacked onto the narrative until they overshadow it.

Umberto Eco also took the blueprint for his entire career in fiction from this tradition. The latest exercise of this sort that I can think of is Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching, in which Rembrandt places the solution to a covered-up murder in the details of a painting. The difficulty, to me, still seems to be keeping the elements in balance without the whole work turning trivial.

Marienbad and Morel

Adolfo Bioy Casares’s excellent science-fiction novella The Invention of Morel was recently reissued by NYRB Press. Borges originally led me to it by claiming it a perfect masterpiece in one of his essays, and there is a hard beauty to it that leaves its stripped-down premises quite vivid.

But its relationship to Alain Resnais’s ever-cryptic Last Year at Marienbad is more complicated. (Consult Lawrence Russell’s article on Marienbad for a good overview.) Whatever its meaning, Marienbad is about a man who desires a woman, and how memory, the past, and the present confound his desire. Bioy Casares’s novella can easily be read as a metaphor for film watching: the man who falls in love with a woman, only to find out that he is watching a real-time, three-dimensional movie of her, and sacrifices his life so that he too can enter the movie, by synchronizing his movements to appear to be interacting with the woman of the film.

(I recently saw Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., which attempts the opposite effect. It has an extended dream sequence where Keaton “enters” the screen of a movie and interacts with the scenery, which abruptly changes behind him and sends him reeling. Strange stuff.)

Last Year at Marienbad has something in common with Morel, and Thomas Beltzer has written on the links in Last Year at Marienbad: An Intertextual Meditation:

Last Year at Marienbad buries its association with its "low brow" science fiction text; nevertheless, they are relatives all the same. I discovered the kinship by accident on the dust jacket of Casares&#x92 A Plan for Escape, a novel written in the early 1940&#x92s, which also bears an interesting affinity with Last Year at Marienbad. Dust jackets of novels are occasionally mistaken, but I was able to confirm the information by consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica which states that "The novel formed the basis for Alain Robbe-Grillet&#x92s film script for Last Year at Marienbad". The high modernist masterpiece is "outed" as a postmodern, science fiction film.

Beltzer’s analysis of the union of literary and filmic approaches is provocative, as is his statement that the Frenchmen sought to obscure the links to the “lowbrow” fiction of Bioy Casares, but the parallels deserve more examination.

Morel posits two levels of reality: the man observing the movie, and the movie itself, reflecting an earlier chain of actions. By inserting himself into the movie and seeming to take part in its events, the main character creates a third reality, a revision of the movie, a film of the film with additional overlaid content (a la Mystery Science Theater 3000), though intended to be as transparent as possible. Marienbad is considerably more oblique. The three main characters, X (the protagonist), A (the woman and object of desire), and M (A’s husband and X’s nemesis), all break continuity with the background at various times, most strikingly when other people in the frame freeze while X, A, or M go about their business. But there are also times when M or (especially) A seem themselves frozen or unresponsive while X interacts with them. I’m certain that there is a conceptual schema that would explain these relations, but I’m also sure that there would be no proof of its validity to be found in the film itself. I believe that the movie is not meant to be understood in the same way as The Invention of Morel can be; it lacks the definiteness of a single interpretation.

Where does that leave us? Bhob Stewart has a key bit of information presented on Prefuse:

In the mid-Fifties, when Casares’ novel was translated into French, it was read by Robbe-Grillet. We know this since he wrote a favorable review of the book in 1955. In 1961, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were interviewed by filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who commented on the link between MOREL and MARIENBAD, parallels briefly acknowledged by Robbe-Grillet (who didn’t elaborate). Resnais and Robbe-Grillet had evidently =never= discussed this, as indicated by Resnais’ comment that he was unfamiliar with the book! An English translation of this interview was readily available to all New York critics in 1961, but none of them picked up on the significance of those few sentences.

It’s fitting that Resnais was not familiar with Bioy Casares’s story when he took the script. I don’t know further details; I have to guess based on my impressions of Robbe-Grillet and Resnais. I imagine Robbe-Grillet appreciating the beauty of the desire of the main character of The Invention of Morel, and also appreciating the pure surface aspect to it: since he can never speak with the object of his desire, she remains forever a collection of purely observed moments. I imagine Robbe-Grillet muddying this, seeking to show X relating, and then not relating to A, and M drifting in and out of the active picture as A and X do and do not relate to him. I imagine Resnais seeing Robbe-Grille’s oblique script and taking it as a blank slate, overlaying a formalist visual approach that does not gibe in the least with the original source of the script. I imagine Resnais as the main character of The Invention of Morel not interacting with the buried meaning of Robbe-Grillet’s script, but inserting himself and his visuals among its surface features and crafting a new meaning from it.

“The Invention of Morel”, Adolfo Bioy Casares

By far Bioy Casares’ most famous story, “The Invention of Morel” is still fairly obscure, despite being plugged (and strongly influenced) by his friend Borges, and supposedly being the basis for Last Year at Marienbad. I don’t know that it is the perfect work of genius that Borges claimed it is, but it’s certainly ahead of its time for 1940, and the ideas that fuel it are a grade above what Bioy Casares typically used in his work. Bioy Casares lacked Borges’ intensity and his sheer inventiveness, but in “The Invention of Morel,” he used what he had well.

The nameless narrator is a fugitive who has escaped to a remote, abadoned island that has the stigma of disease over it. He sees himself as an outcast, and the story begins to play out a ultra-Robinson Crusoe scenario, as the narrator’s links to reality appear to be severed in Wittgensteinian fashion. Will he lose his capacity for language? Will he lose his humanity? Yes, but this process is interrupted, then furthered by the sudden appearance on the island of a number of refined sophisticates, including the beautiful Faustina, whom he falls in love with. This despite the fact that none of them will acknowledge his presence. Other strangeness occurs, notably the presence of two moons and two suns in the sky.

It’s impossible to go further without revealing the main conceit, which is held back for over half the story, but there’s a pleasure to be had to it being revealed over the course of the story, so please imagine a tacky little spoiler warning here.

The narrator’s inability to relate to the others seems to be symbolic. He could be dead and existing as a ghost similar to the narrator of Nabokov’s The Eye (my favorite of his works, incidentally). His unspecified crime could have cast him out from the fabric of humanity and left him socially invisible. He could be imagining or recreating life on the island when he is in fact alone. But these are all wrong; the hints of anomie are, ultimately, a blind. The explanation is that he is not seeing people, not quite; what he is seeing is a projection of a recording made of past events, but a projection that has its own reality and is being superimposed on the island (hence the two sun and two moons). The leader of the group, Morel, concocted the invention, which will endlessly replay the week they spent on the island years ago. The downside is that at the time of projection, the force of the superimposed reality is so strong as to draw the life from those recorded and place it in the projected copies. Morel says, “When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges,” and he means it literally: the recreation in reality of the past events supplants the current reality of their participants.

Bioy Casares combines two themes in unorthodox fashion. There is the circular time/eternal recurrence theme that so fascinated Borges. In 1941 he wrote:

In times of ascendancy, the conjecture that man’s existence is a constant, unvarying quantity can sadden or irritate us; in times of decline (such as at the present), it holds out the assurance that no ignominy, no calamity, no dictator, can impoverish us.

And Bioy Casares evokes both the horror and the wonder that a week of reasonable existence with only minor troubles should become an eternal prison for its unknowing participants. The second theme is the transmigration of consciousness from the original person to the replica, which then plays out its part endlessly, never knowing that it has done it countless times before, nor that is not the original person–partly because it is. Bioy Casares uses a consciousness thought experiment decades before they came into vogue: if you were to create a copy of a person in an identical context, what would there be to differentiate the copy’s consciousness from the original’s? Since Bioy Casares adopts an emergent view of consciousness in the story (see Morel’s quote above), the answer is that they cannot coexist. It takes the inversion of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” where the picture and not the man is subject to time, and inverts it again, so that the playback of a recording of events takes on greater reality than the continued existence of the subjects.

The injection of ideas on consciousness is brief but it elevates the story from pure fantasy to the level of, say, Borges “Funes the Memorious.” There, a man remembered everything and was crippled by it; here, people have the identical set of empirical situations played out for them, with no additional memory of it, while the metaphysical conditions change totally. Morel claims his machine creates nothing, only replicates what exists, but Bioy Casares makes it clear that the machine restructures reality. Bioy Casares also implies epiphenomenalism–the idea that internal experience supervenes on material reality without being able to affect it–since under the new conditions of Morel’s machine, the participants are absolutely unable to acknowledge that anything has changed.

The basic concepts here were used in many, many science-fiction novels later on (though not so many beforehand, as far as I know); the story is unique for its alienation from the consciousness that persists on in the projections. In nearly all other stories of shifting metaphysics, the characters still obtain a working knowledge of the problem at hand, which ultimately provides their only satisfaction; here, Bioy Casares sets up a situation in which they cannot. Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation provides the closest echo I can think of, and it too gets around the self-knowledge issue by giving the reader more information than any character has. “The Invention of Morel” plays utterly fair and is more successful in contradicting any conception of what the “consciousness” of its characters could be.

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