Estado: impecable (tapa dura, cocido, le falta la sobrecubierta).
Editorial: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc. New York 1971.
Traducción: al inglés de Suzanne Jill Levine.
Betrayed by Rita Hayworth
Leaving out Borges, Argentine literature of the 20th century is not exactly required reading for the global village. For reasons I do not quite understand, it seems on the whole to be choked with metaphysics and cosmic skycraping — the tragedy of modern man without a God, bleak encounters with the void, the Pascalian silence of the spheres — the whole bit. Nada. Wheezy angst this, and even in Borges, who has made a comic and burlesque cosmos out of just these fatal symptoms. Imagine what it must be like to write in Argentina with Borges still around. It’s true that there are now two recognizable generations of writers after Borges (some nobly engage and even openly revolutionary); but he seems to lurk everywhere, if only the victim of a patricide by younger valiants who want something more “real.”
Now Manual Puig is a gifted young Argentinian novelist who happens not to really care for Borges’s work, or even for the gods Sartre, Camus and the whole existentialist crew that has plagued the River Plate for so long. What’s more, he has written a masterpiece. How is this done in a country known for its insufferable snobbishness in matters of culture and literature? Recent Argentinian novels indicate that it isn’t easy, but “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” is a triumph.
The idea of the novel is simple: the drama and pathos of moviegoing as a way of life in the provinces, where often people get to respond to life itself with gestures and mock programs taken over from film. Although the book is crowded with diaries and monologues of a whole generation of children, adolescents and adults in Argentina during the thirties and forties — all moviegoers — the book is essentially the story told by Toto, a boy born in 1932 in the bleakest flatland pampas of the Argentine, the pampa being the perfect projectional screen for any fantasy whatsoever — reality is scarce. Toto’s screen (the “silver” screen) is the local movie house, attended religiously with his mother. He and his friends talk of their lives through film, and thus the melange of cheap hopes and soap opera ethos that so brilliantly infests this novel.
There are marvelous set pieces — a swooning diary by one Esther, unhappy in love and full of filmic imaginings; a magnificently orchestrated schoolboy essay by Toto on “The Movie I Likes Best,” a fluffy takeoff on the life of Johann Strauss (“The Great Waltz”) — in sum, the soft underbelly of Argentine popular culture, composed of equal parts movie addiction, Peron, soccer and the tango. The only sense of life having been lived lies in remembering Valentino, or how mean Rita Hayworth was to Tyrone Power in “Blood and Sand,” or how glorious was “The Great Ziegfeld,” and how they could (and in their minds, do) aid the blonde heroine in distress, and how they themselves are done in by the cinematic ogres (generally dark and Hispanic looking, by the way). It is audience participation on a total scale. They live only for the screen.
Naturally, the first thing that comes to mind is camp, and in effect, Puig does camp it up in a fabulous way, full of literary allure, magnetic glower, smoldering good looks and plenty of plain panache and strut. Within this mass portrait of the dime-store psyche in Latin America, there lurks a continent of submerged lumpen who live only because Hollywood supplies sufficient blatant fantasy of them to continue to go through the parodies they think of as life — and that is sad, sort of. But “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” is a screamingly funny book, with scenes of such utter bathos that only a student of final reels such as Puig could possibly recreated for us. His characters turn out to be contemporary proto-Bovarys and proto-Quixotes, all pouring their heart out in prose you haven’t seen since last leafing through a pulp movie magazine or True Romances.
En fin, a dazzling and wholly original debut by Senor Puig, who obviously loves us madly; and a hand too for the translator, Suzanne Jill Levine, whose transfigurations of infantile Americanese deserve all praise.
The New York Times, September 26, 1971
Alexander Coleman, critic of Latin-American literature, teaches at New York University.
The Cursi Affair: On Manuel Puig
The Latin Boom writers failed to appreciate the work of fellow novelist Manuel Puig, who wrote about housewives and homosexuals.
Manuel Puig occupies a curious place in Latin American literature. Chronologically, he should be a member of the Boom generation, but he’s rarely included in the usual catalog of Boom writers (Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes). This is not because he was less prominent, though since the 1980s his reputation has faded a little. His novels—especially Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976)—were internationally acclaimed and widely read. He was a genuinely popular writer while at the same time a radical innovator, with a subversive take on sexual and domestic affairs. Kiss of the Spider Woman was notorious for its frank depiction of a love affair between two prisoners; Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968) and Heartbreak Tango(1969), his first two novels, are kitschy tributes to the Argentina of his youth; his third, The Buenos Aires Affair (1973), is a frothy, Freudian noir.
From the perspective of some critics, the trouble with Puig wasn’t that he wrote about homosexuals and housewives. It was that he didn’t write about them seriously. His protagonists weren’t so much persecuted heroes or twisted victims (though they were that, too) as they were creatures of sentiment—and, often, figures of fun. What disqualified Puig (implicitly) as a member of the Boom was his lack of gravitas, both in fiction and in life. In a New York Timesreview of Suzanne Jill Levine’s highly entertaining and essential biography, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions (2000), Vargas Llosa writes disapprovingly about what he sees as Puig’s lack of dedication to the world of books: “Of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig (1932–90). He never talked about authors or books, and when a literary topic came up in conversation he would look bored and change the subject.” As Francisco Goldman points out in his excellent introduction toHeartbreak Tango, one of three Puig novels recently reissued by Dalkey Archive, this was unfair and ungenerous. Of all the writers of the Boom, Vargas Llosa might have been expected to understand and appreciate Puig, because he too has occasionally embraced what might be called the literature of cursi.
Cursi is possibly my favorite word in Spanish, and one of the most difficult to translate. Depending on the context, it might mean sentimental or prissy or precious or affected. It is the polar opposite of macho, which is the more familiar strain (at least abroad) of Spanish and Latin American culture. And yetcursi has a substantial history in Spanish-language fiction and poetry. The nineteenth century was its heyday, with novels like the tragic idyll María by the Colombian writer Jorge Isaacs and verse by the arch-cursi Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Not coincidentally, Puig refers to Isaacs and Bécquer in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and The Buenos Aires Affair, respectively, the other two novels republished by Dalkey Archive. The literature of cursiblossomed again in the twentieth century, with Puig’s novels and work by writers like Alfredo Bryce Echenique, the delicious Jaime Bayly (as yet untranslated; for those who read Spanish, Yo amo a mi mami is the one to start with) and—yes—Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, most felicitously, but also the more recent The Bad Girl).
As Levine’s biography demonstrates, Vargas Llosa’s claim that Puig was uninterested in literature is untrue. As a boy in General Villegas, a backwater town on the Argentine pampa, Puig read the European novelists of alienation then in vogue (Hesse, Huxley, Sartre, etc.); while writing his first novel, he immersed himself in Argentine literature (much of which he characterized as “pretentious crap”) and the Modernist Hispanic poets. His literary ambitions are plain in his elaborately structured novels; the books are not, as Vargas Llosa claimed, “light literature [with] no other purpose than to entertain.” And yet there is something to Vargas Llosa’s assertion that Puig didn’t care about literature. He never relished reading in the way that he relished the movies. As Levine describes his library in later life, “the only…books he collected were biographies of producers and actresses—and most of the shelf space in the apartment was devoted to his growing videoteca.”
Puig learned to love the movies at the theater in General Villegas, which he visited almost every evening with his mother. The movies he saw were the classics of the 1930s and ’40s, especially the melodramas; his favorite actresses were Luise Rainer, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Greer Garson. He didn’t like Rita Hayworth at first, finding her “beautiful, but not trustworthy,” according to Levine. But later he learned to appreciate her, and even to identify with her, torn as she was between Hollywood and her Hispanic roots. For the rest of his life, he would view everything through the filter of the celluloid screen. It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly his life was suffused with the lore of classic Hollywood. Acquaintances were assigned actress alter egos (Puig was Sally, after Sally Bowles from Cabaret, and later—naturally—Rita); arguments over performances could ruin old friendships (“he was allowed to berate his ladies, but no one else could,” Levine writes). His novels are drenched in references to films, and they make constant use of movie-script pacing, Hollywood stage-setting and cinematic imagery.
Until he was 30, Puig planned to make a career for himself in the movies as a director or screenwriter. He won a scholarship to study film in Rome, but he was discouraged by the crushing dominance of neorealist filmmaking. Still, he didn’t give up. For years he labored over screenplays, translating subtitles and taking odd jobs to make a living. Though his film career eventually fizzled, his sojourn in Rome was the beginning of a globe-trotting existence that would take him to London and then to New York, where he found a day job that suited him nicely: as an Air France desk clerk at Idlewild, where he could chat with starlets and rack up free flights. Air travel was as glamorous as the movies in those days, but the job would eventually provide the literary establishment with another excuse to sneer at Puig. Somehow, nothing could seem further from the center of the Boom than a small apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens.
Sometime in 1962, one of the screenplays Puig was working on turned into a novel. The catalyst was a voice—that of Puig’s aunt, gossiping in the laundry room. The words just kept coming until they had filled nearly thirty pages. “By the second day it was clearly a novel…. I needed to explain my childhood and why I was in Rome, thirty years old, without a career, without money and discovering that the vocation of my life—movies—had been a mistake.” This was the genesis ofBetrayed by Rita Hayworth, which is the most autobiographical of Puig’s novels. It found its first champions in France, where the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy helped get it published; but it encountered more hurdles in Argentina, where it appeared to little fanfare in 1968. Heartbreak Tango, however, was a bestseller there, and Betrayed by Rita Hayworth soon followed suit. The Buenos Aires Affair came out three years later, in 1973, but was censored on the eve of military dictatorship in Argentina.
* * *
One day, while writing this review, I was distracted in a café by a conversation about a woman engaged to be married. “I don’t know much about him,” said one gossiper about the woman’s fiancé, “but what I do know is all bad.” “Maybe happiness isn’t her main priority,” replied the other. “She’d rather have nice things.” “She knows that she’s making a mistake, but she doesn’t care.” Before five minutes had gone by, a novel (even a Puig novel!) was taking shape.
For many people—and certainly for Puig as a boy in small-town Argentina—the first and most absorbing form of storytelling is gossip: tales (almost always told by women) about romances and breakups, scandals and humiliations. There is an endless fascination in parsing other people’s lives, comparing them to ours, rendering judgment and imagining how our own lives might be judged. In Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Puig captures the human inclination to peer and weigh and compare, while taking advantage of that same inclination in his readers. The novel revolves around Toto Casals, the pampered son of a relatively prosperous family in a town like General Villegas, but it is told mostly in the voices of those around him: Toto’s nursemaid, Felisa; his mother, Mita; his cousin Teté; and his piano teacher, Herminia, among others. By narrating in the form of conversations, letters and monologues, Puig turns the reader into an eavesdropper, a recipient of confidences.
The novel shows an instinctive sympathy for those who are playing a part or searching for the proper trappings for the lives they hope to lead. Nearly all the characters shift back and forth between reality and a fantasy existence that unspools simultaneously, playing out on an inner screen. This fantasy existence may be just a notch above reality (Delia, a penny-pinching Casals family friend, visualizes cannelloni stuffed with “expensive really expensive meat”) or dizzyingly Hollywoodesque (9-year-old Toto fantasizes about life with a friend’s handsome uncle and Luise Rainer in a cabin in a snowy forest). Esther, one of Toto’s schoolmates, bitterly abandons dreams of jazz clubs and mink muffs for a more utilitarian Peronist vision of becoming a “little lady doctor.” Despite all the fantasies (or as a result of them), a recurring theme is resignation. Character after character comes to terms with a disappointing fate, as Puig was coming to terms with the failure of his movie career.
Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is perhaps Puig’s most lyrical novel, with its series of interior monologues. Because Puig’s writing (here and elsewhere) relies so heavily on voice, it presents serious difficulties for the translator. Puig recognized as much when he had to deal with the translation of Kiss of the Spider Woman into English: “The kitsch aspect of Molina’s voice doesn’t come out in direct translation, it has to be completely re-created…. There’s so much to rethink in English it gives me mental cramps.” For his first three novels, he worked closely with Levine, who does an exemplary job (it helps that she and Puig share a gleeful love of wordplay and innuendo). Still, there’s no denying that the literature of cursi, light and delicate as a soufflé and just as sensitive to jiggling, suffers more in translation than more ponderous fiction.
One of the first sections of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth takes the form of a one-sided telephone conversation, in which the reader must guess at what her interlocutor is saying. This is a typical Puig device, in which he uses his natural talent for ventriloquism to draw us in while artfully deploying a series of ellipses to keep us guessing. There’s something flirtatious about this technique, and it isn’t surprising to learn that he arrived at it through insecurity. As Levine explains in the biography, Puig was afraid that he would make mistakes or sound silly if he wrote in a standard third person, so he channeled his writing through the voices of the people he knew growing up, writing in “voice-over,” as he put it. Especially early in his career, he seems to have been uncomfortably conscious of playing the role of “author,” as if it were just another fantasy existence he was trying on for size.
Heartbreak Tango is also elaborately structured, this time in “episodes,” like a radio serial, though they may be styled as letters, police reports or conversations. All of this scaffolding supports a tale of unrequited love—or several of them, all centered on an unworthy love object: lazy, shallow Juan Carlos Etchepare, who is slowly wasting away from tuberculosis. Juan Carlos’s most sincere pursuer is Nené Fernández de Massa, a packer at the general store. She is interesting by virtue of her sheer ordinariness, which Puig conveys with poignance and delicacy. His moment-by-moment chronicle of her thoughts is perfectly banal, and yet it absorbs us in the same way that we are absorbed by our own thoughts.
What elevates Nené is the intensity of her longing for Juan Carlos, which persists for ten years after their unhappy parting. When she receives news of his death, she begins a correspondence with his mother, confiding in her all the disappointments of married life (because Nené, in the end, settles for a man she doesn’t love). Throughout his fiction, Puig is fascinated by the divide between those who pair off and embark on a life of domesticity and those who choose (or are fated) to remain alone. Nené is perhaps his most fully imagined exemplar of the domestic life, the path Puig never chose, though he did fret about ending up an “old maid.”
Nené aside, the other characters in Heartbreak Tango are somewhat cartoonish: consumptive layabout Juan Carlos; his broad-shouldered working-class friend Pancho; spiteful spinster Mabel; wide-assed, mulish maid Fanny. “Cartoonish” is a complicated label to apply to Puig, because his real-life persona was even more extravagant than his fictional creations. One of the lessons to be learned from reading Puig is that gushy sentiment can also be genuine sentiment, and that currents of real longing can be hidden behind showy displays of emotion. Then again, sometimes a performance is just that. Kitschy posturing gives way to real poignance in a late chapter, when Mabel comes to visit Nené in Buenos Aires. Both women were once in love with Juan Carlos; Nené is now married with two small children and Mabel is engaged. Nené lives in an ordinary middle-class apartment and her children are “a bit homely,” by Nené’s own admission. Mabel has settled for marriage to a man she doesn’t care about in order to escape spinsterhood. Puig ends the chapter with a crude joke, making a mockery of Nené’s adoration of Juan Carlos; but her love nonetheless burns pure in the novel, not spoiled by her marriage of convenience but rather enshrined and gradually replaced by a more ordinary love of family.
Love—and particularly love in the form of longing—is a dramatic mainstay of Puig’s fiction, but the gravitational force of his novels is companionship. Even when Mabel and Nené are trading barbs couched in the form of polite conversation (“With profound satisfaction Nené confirmed that they were talking from one humbug to another”), the reader settles happily into their comfortable back-and-forth. Conversation is the most convincing representation of affection in the novels. Their most memorable scenes are all scenes of conversation: the lengthy prison exchanges between Molina, a homosexual convicted on morals charges, and Valentín, a leftist revolutionary, in Kiss of the Spider Woman; the gently bitchy back-and-forth between two elderly sisters in Puig’s last novel, Tropical Night Falling; the conversation at the start of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth around Toto’s grandmother’s table.
* * *
If Heartbreak Tango is a study of domestic life, The Buenos Aires Affair is an exploration of the fate of loners. Gladys Hebe D’Onofrio, a complex-ridden 35-year-old sculptor living with her mother, becomes involved with Leo Druscovich, an art critic afflicted by outbursts of sadistic rage. Each character’s story is presented in the form of a case study, punctuated by new iterations of Puig’s familiar devices: interviews, phone conversations, newspaper excerpts. Vargas Llosa judges this to be the best of Puig’s novels, and it is especially polished and structurally complex. It is also Puig’s most intellectually ambitious novel, with its explorations of politics (Peronism) and psychology (Freudianism).
There’s a scene from the novel that gives a good sense of Puig’s particular brand of audacity. In it, Gladys masturbates while running through a fifteen-page series of fantasies—from visions of a bricklayer moonlighting as a nude model to images of a janitor hauling boxes—complete with running footnotes on her progress toward orgasm (“Gladys again introduces a finger into her sex organ”). Scenes of men masturbating have plenty of comic currency, but scenes of women masturbating are still rare, even nearly forty years after the publication of The Buenos Aires Affair. Here and elsewhere, Puig has a knack for demurely courting scandal. His success at this has to do with his blend of sentimentalism and clinical detachment, which gives a prickly edge even to tame scenes.
Leo’s story reads a bit like a Freudian primer: his inability to climax sexually except in situations where violence is threatened is explored at length. (Puig was very interested in psychoanalytic explanations of human behavior: a number of readers urged him to cut his lengthy scholarly footnotes to Kiss of the Spider Woman, but he was adamant about educating the public.) Gladys, too, is frustrated by a lack of sexual fulfillment. Puig details her less-than-satisfactory relations with six men in the United States (“Gladys had sexual intercourse with six men in the following order…”), where she goes on scholarship; her romantic failures lead to a breakdown and subsequent return to Argentina. It doesn’t help that she’s attacked and loses an eye in the United States (her eye patch gives her a camp allure). Naturally, sadistic Leo and masochistic Gladys embark on a doomed romance.
Puig’s pseudo-scientific yet sympathetic portrayal of characters with marked vulnerabilities and pathologies finds an echo in novels by younger writers (notably Roberto Bolaño, especially inNazi Literature in the Americas, and David Foster Wallace, who was a confirmed admirer of Puig). Gladys and Leo are hardly likable characters, and their unpleasant quirks and failures are satisfyingly unromanticized. This doesn’t mean that they’re exactly realistic. Gladys may be a thoroughly modern creation, as evidenced by her search for meaning in a series of emphatically untranscendent sexual encounters, but she also inhabits a Hollywood fantasy world, especially in the scenes set at the Argentine beach house from which Leo abducts her. Puig’s rolling pan through spaces and rooms described like static stage sets give the novel a weird, unsettling air.
* * *
As Puig got older, his life revolved more and more around movies. In her biography, Levine amusingly chronicles his eager early adoption of the VCR. From his apartment in Brazil, where he moved in 1980, he set up a worldwide network of friends (his esclavitas, or little slaves) willing to record televised movies for him. Often, he accepted speaking gigs only because they coincided with video conventions. His videoteca, while extensive, was far from archival quality: he liked to fill every cassette completely, frequently recording two movies and part of a third on one tape. These assiduously collected films were viewed at his apartment, where he presided over a “cine club” for family and friends.
At some point in my reading of Puig, I began to wonder what these movies looked like to him. Clearly he saw the artifice and appreciated it as such, but his beloved Hollywood productions were also more real to him than life itself. They weren’t realistic, but at the same time they contained moments (Hedy Lamarr adjusting her hat, for example) that encapsulated a reality more intense than anything one could possibly experience in daily life. Movies weren’t a model for living. They were too perfect for that. The only way for a human to approach their heightened reality was to talk about them, and the purest form of talking about them was simply to retell them. It’s no accident that Kiss of the Spider Woman, which is almost entirely a series of retellings of movies (real and invented) is also—paradoxically—Puig’s most realistic novel.
Those Hollywood movies were fundamentally cursi, of course. Actresses flounced and glared and tossed their hair. Actors smoldered and cursed and bantered. Puig borrowed from their ranks to assemble a giddy MGM lineup of Boom writers for his friend the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Cortázar was Hedy Lamarr (“Beautiful but icy and remote”); Fuentes was Ava Gardner (“Glamour surrounds her but can she act?”); García Márquez was Liz Taylor (“Beautiful face but such short legs”); Vargas Llosa was Esther Williams (“Oh so disciplined (and boring)”). He included himself, as Julie Christie: “A great actress, but since she has found the right man for her (Warren Beatty) she doesn’t act anymore. Her luck in love matters is the envy of all the other MGM stars.”
This fluff has bite, and the same can be said about Puig’s novels. The cursi literature of Latin America (with Manuel as one of its matriarchs) will strike readers who’ve only read the more familiar contemporary Latin American classics as bracingly new but also familiar—even homey. Its strangeness lies in the details of life as lived by others who greatly resemble ourselves but whose assumptions (personal and cultural) are ever so slightly different. It is as startling as a conversation overheard that at once confirms and adjusts our perception of ourselves.
Betrayed by Rita Hayworth – Manuel Puig
MARIO VARGAS LLOSA
Of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig (1932-90). He never talked about authors or books, and when a literary topic came up in conversation he would look bored and change the subject. In ”Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman,” her well-researched and carefully documented biography, Suzanne Jill Levine asserts that at certain moments in his life Puig read a great deal, but her own book seems to contradict this in creating the background of her subject; the most frequent references are to films, actresses, performances and, very often, popular music. Only rarely, like poor relations, do any authors appear (usually the person, not the work). A young Argentine writer who visited him in Rio de Janeiro was surprised to find that in Puig’s apartment, where he had acquired a video library of some 3,000 films, there were only a handful of books; aside from his own works in Spanish and in translation, these consisted almost exclusively of biographies of film producers and actresses.
He was not an uncultured writer. On the contrary, he was very knowledgeable, not about literature but about films and all the mythology and gossip connected to them. He was a man of the movies, or perhaps of visual images and fantasy, who found himself shipwrecked in literature almost by default. Levine relates how Puig came to his literary vocation gradually and almost by accident; after his frustrations as a film student in Italy and his failed attempts to have his scripts produced and to find work as a director, he moved almost imperceptibly from writing for the elusive screen to writing for himself, composing an autobiographical text based on his childhood memories of the tales he had seen in the movie houses of General Villegas, a small town on the Argentine pampa. Over the years the text evolved into his first novel, ”Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” (1968). With this book he began a sui generis literary career that a few decades later would catapult him into worldwide fame, thanks to the extraordinary success of the stage and film versions of his most popular novel, ”Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1976).
The degree to which Puig felt at home in the fictional world of celluloid images is demonstrated by this marvelous anecdote: It is midnight in New York in 1978. The Spanish cameraman Nestor Almendros, a close friend, had just arrived from Paris, and Puig presses him to come to his apartment to talk about movies even though Almendros has already comfortably settled in for the night in his hotel room. Almendros agrees, and the conversation lasts for hours. At about 2 a.m. an impassioned Puig sings the praises of Lana Turner, whom he called a ”sensitive woman” who tried to do her job. Almendros replies that he thinks she is ”a lousy actress, a whore” and says that he despises her. Puig opens the door and throws him out: ”A person who hates Lana can’t remain under my roof. You’re like all the other French women, nasty and bitter.” With his suitcases under his arm, Almendros has to leave and find a cab in the cold streets of Greenwich Village. For months after the argument the two friends were estranged.
Levine’s biography is filled with anecdotes, some amusing, like the one I’ve just recounted, others moving, even tragic, all of them drawing a lively, convincing profile of the author of ”The Buenos Aires Affair” (his best novel, in my opinion). A good part of her research is based on Puig’s correspondence with his family — his mother in particular, with whom he maintained a continuing, exhaustive dialogue regarding the movies he saw and the lives and miracles of Hollywood actresses, which he followed with religious devotion — and with many friends. As a consequence, her book documents in great detail the genesis of each of Puig’s works as well as his private life, his residences in Argentina, Italy, the United States, Mexico and Brazil, and his constant travels throughout the world. Countless writers, actors, directors, musicians, editors and adventurers from at least half a dozen countries show up in its pages, giving her book the air of an immense and entertaining fresco of the comings and goings, the intrigues, failures and accomplishments of literary and artistic fauna on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970’s and 80’s. The rich homosexual life of the period appears as well, sizzling with anecdotes, for Puig gave himself over to that life with almost as much passion as he brought to films. He had innumerable relationships, from casual encounters — Levine’s gimlet eye has discovered that Puig’s ”many conquests” included Stanley Baker and Yul Brynner — to liaisons of several months’ duration. But he never could form a stable relationship, though he always longed for one. (In his later years he complained bitterly of having spent his life ”in an unsuccessful search for a good husband.”) These circumstances contributed to the sense of solitude that seems to have enveloped him in his youth, intensified over time and practically turned into a neurosis at the end of his life.
This fascinating book is indispensable for anyone interested in Puig’s work (which Levine, the translator of several of his novels into English, knows to perfection) and in the close connection between film and literature, a defining characteristic of cultural life in the late 20th century; both are described with intelligence and an abundance of information. I found occasional errors, but these in no way diminish the virtues of a book in which rigor and readability walk arm in arm.
Still, having recognized these virtues, I ask myself if Puig’s writing has the revolutionary transcendence attributed to it by Levine and other critics. I’m afraid it doesn’t; I believe it is more ingenious and brilliant than profound, more artificial than innovative, and too dependent on the fashions and myths of its time to ever achieve the permanence of great literary works like those of a Borges or a Faulkner. Great books, unlike great movies, are not made of images but of words — that is, ideas that grow from a series of images and eventually constitute a vision of the world, of life, of the human condition, of the flow of history. This vision blossoms in the reader’s spirit, summoned by an intellectual effort called to life by the richness and effectiveness of a language and a style, and produces the fascination of a literary work. In Puig’s writing there are careful, skillfully constructed images but no ideas, no central vision that organizes and gives significance to the fictional world, no personal style. There are phantoms and displays of wit, some shadow puppets that the writer’s formal sleight of hand occasionally endows with a semblance of reality, but then, a few pages later, they vanish like the waterfalls in a mirage. Life never actually breaks through: it is cut off by superficiality, an attitude that confounds substance with appearance and, in an inversion of values, gives priority to seeming, not being.
Because of these characteristics, Puig’s work may be the best representative of what has been called light literature, which is emblematic of our time — an undemanding, pleasing literature that has no other purpose than to entertain. This literature rejects as arrogant and stupid the effort of those wide-ranging authors who believed that writing could change the world, revolutionize life, transform values, teach how to feel or how to live. No, no, none of that. Literature must accept how unimportant books are now in people’s lives and not set itself impossible goals; accept that entertainment — helping a person to pass the time in a pleasant, absorbing, engaging way, as the most popular movies and television programs do — fulfills a respectable, honorable function, which is the task of literature in a fast-moving, preoccupied time like ours. With so much work, so many pressing concerns, so many pleasures and diversions, our citizens hardly have the time to become serious and reflect, or to read novels that may give them a headache.
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.
ENTREGA A DOMICILIO (OPCIONAL – CAP. FED.) $50.