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December 2021 Issue [Readings]

The Licentiate’s Children

From a speech published in the book El arte de la distorsión. Vásquez is the author, most recently, of the story collection Songs for the Flames. Translated from the Spanish.

Reading fiction is a vice. As such, any attempt to explain it will run sooner or later into the wall of the irrational. In a much-quoted interview, Philip Roth says that reading novels is a “deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity that does not require any more moral or political justification than sex.” The meaning of this statement has changed over time, mainly because it now seems we all need a moral and political justification to read Philip Roth. But let that be. I was eleven when Roth said those words; I had grown up in an environment where reading novels required no explanation, and reading was fortunately never presented to me as healthy or beneficial, like exercise or broccoli. These days, we now concede, without any apocalyptic zeal or whimsical laments for the state of the culture, that society’s interest in imaginative writing—the laborious recounting of things that never happened to people who never existed—has been displaced to the periphery. The population for whom routine and sustained contact with these inventions is a fundamental and irreplaceable part of their lives increasingly looks like a cult. Faced with this reality, I recently found myself picking up a book I hadn’t read since I was about twenty years old.

The scene takes place in Valladolid, probably at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and its protagonists are a licentiate and an ensign. The ensign has just come out of a long convalescence at the Hospital de la Resurrección; he is pale and weak, so the licentiate invites him to his house for a meal, where the ensign shares a manuscript. It relates a conversation the ensign heard through the hospital window while he was convalescing: an impossible conversation about an outrageous life, full of picaresque adventures from impersonation to witchcraft, a story that would be shocking enough even if the two in conversation—the one recounting his life and the one listening and commenting on it—weren’t dogs. The ensign swears the manuscript is a faithful transcription of the dogs’ conversation; the licentiate is skeptical and a bit mocking. After debating the likelihood of talking dogs, the licentiate ends up reading the manuscript while the ensign takes a nap. And then we, readers of The Exemplary Novels of Cervantes, reach the following ending:

The licentiate finished reading the dialogue, and the ensign his nap, both at the same time.

“Although this conversation is imagined and never happened, it seems to me to be so well composed that the Señor Ensign can go ahead with the second part.”

“Given that impression,” replied the ensign, “I’m encouraged and willing to write it, without further dispute over whether the dogs spoke or not.”

“There is no need to argue that again,” said the licentiate. “I admire the art and the invention of your dialogue, and that is enough. Let us go to the Espolón, and gratify the eyes of our bodies, as I have already gratified those of my mind.”

The tradition of Western novels begins—at least for us Spanish speakers—with an individual driven mad by reading; it should come as no surprise, then, that over the ensuing centuries the relationship between fiction and those who use it has been full of tension and misunderstanding. The image of the reader in the last of the Exemplary Novels appears as a plea, almost a demand: Become this kind of reader. Cervantes’s ideal reader could surrender to the power and intelligence of artifice. Perhaps he asked himself the same questions we ask ourselves every day. How do we read a story, and why? What is this emptiness in our lives that fiction manages to alleviate to the point of becoming, for some of us, a kind of drug? The licentiate’s skepticism is still intact at the end of the story: his enjoyment of the tale doesn’t mean he believes that dogs can talk. But he knows that this fact, the intellectual and physiological capacity to articulate words, is what matters least in this whole affair, and that the importance of the colloquy is elsewhere, somewhere beyond the story, in an imprecise area of human knowledge. He has understood that the elaborate fabrication has left him with a new truth, impossible to reduce to words other than those used by the ensign, impossible to catch with means other than those of fiction itself. He has discovered, as Vargas Llosa says, the truth of lies.

Readers of fiction are this licentiate’s children. We allow ourselves to be hijacked by a world where dogs talk, and then we come back loaded with baggage we never quite manage to justify, transformed in some way but unable to explain the transformation. “I admire the art and the invention of your dialogue, and that’s enough,” says the licentiate. Those two words, “that’s enough,” are overpoweringly eloquent to a true reader: they stand for fiction’s autonomy, its rebellion against everything that seeks to convert it into an instrument for something else. Artifice is enough for me, says the licentiate, invention is enough for me: today he would be accused of escapism. And yet nothing is less escapist than the dialogue of those dogs, so full of political satire, of cutting social criticism. What the licentiate wants to stress is that all this comes to fruition thanks to the art of the narrator, the great craftsman. Nabokov says that in every writer there is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter; but it is the enchanter in him that will make him great. The licentiate would have agreed.

The fiction reader is a nonconformist, a rebel, and the reason for his rebellion and nonconformity is the unbearable straitjacket of human life: the fact that we have only one life—meaning, there is no other after death—and also that we have only one life—meaning, we cannot be more than one person at the same time. “I read fiction,” says Philip Roth (again), “to be free from my own suffocatingly narrow perspective on life and to be lured into imaginative sympathy with a fully developed narrative point of view not my own.” Reading fiction is an experience of guided imagination, or perhaps an experience in which another’s imagination (an imagination of greater richness, greater penetration, greater associative capacity than ours) leads us by the hand to places where we have not been. We read to leave our attention and our conscience in the hands of someone who will take them to good places, we read to be possessed by that way of knowing the world that is only available through the language of fiction.

The thirst for experience, that curiosity for the unknown or the different, is at the source of the stories we tell. It was present in the songs of the poet or poets we call Homer, and on the stages where Euripides or Aeschylus put on their tragedies. But today’s reader, the descendant of the licentiate, the reader of whom I speak and to whose family I belong, is radically different from the man who listened to those songs or attended those tragedies, and his activity, what he does and what he stops doing when reading, is also different, because this reader is alone. This, of course, changes everything.

Reading in solitude is deeply subversive: it is in their respective solitudes that Alonso Quijano and Emma Bovary decide to be someone they are not, and thus forfeit control over their lives, but also present a challenge to society, its organization and well-being. Feigning insanity for the first time, Hamlet walks around with a book in his hand, and we know his ruse succeeds when his mother exclaims, “Look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading.” Cervantes could have made the ensign read the manuscript aloud to the licentiate. Instead, he chooses to send the ensign to take a nap while the licentiate, in solitude and silence, discovers the conversation between the dogs. Yes, this is a lonely vice, which makes it doubly suspicious. This is what Proust, assiduous guest of dances and salons, seems to acknowledge in “On Reading”:

The essential difference between a friend and a book is not in their greater or lesser wisdom, but in the manner with which they communicate with us, since reading, unlike conversation, consists for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought while remaining alone, that is to say, continuing to enjoy the mental powers we have in solitude and which conversation immediately dispels.

With a greater or lesser sense of guilt, the reader is torn between his love of the people around him and a different kind of communion that takes the shape of the volume awaiting him. This communion can be intellectual or moral or, as Nabokov wanted, aesthetic; but it will always come, at least in part, because of the reader’s solitude. In a world where everyone constantly tries to convince the reader of something, fiction becomes for him the place where he is truly free. Proust again:

This is one of the great and wondrous characteristics of good books (and one that will make us understand the essential and limited role that reading can play in our lives), which for the author could be called “Conclusions,” and for the reader “Provocations.” We feel that our wisdom begins where the author’s ends, and we would like him to give us answers, when all he can do is give us desires.

I sometimes fantasize about Chekhov answering Proust with the words he wrote in one 1888 letter: “You are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author.” That is why we feel irritated, almost insulted, by those fictions that engage in any form of evangelism: we feel that they violate an ancient agreement between the reader and the story; we feel that they pervert that relationship which, when it works best, is for many of us the closest thing to the notion that life has meaning.

Saul Bellow called distraction one of the great enemies of contemporary life. “Distraction” means everything—from the society of endless entertainment to the ubiquitous harassment of technology—that prevents us from paying sustained and dedicated attention to what is essential. The public’s attention: that is the fiction writer’s greatest prey. To seduce that attention, to manipulate it for a few hours and then let it return, perhaps transformed, to the real world: that is the writer’s goal. Great works of fiction are places of heightened human attention, where nothing that is fundamental has escaped the writer’s mysterious intelligence; as readers, we have the rare privilege of living there for a few moments, of entering a state of intimacy with that attention, of sharing such an intense level of consciousness. We recover or remember those things—ideas, emotions, small or large truths—that are a permanent part of our condition, but which distraction has hidden from our sight. And all this happens there, in the solitude of reading, while the ensign takes a nap.

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December 2021

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