Juan Benet

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

A tendency characteristic of much literature that might be subsumed under some awful moniker like “postmodern” has been the adoption of formal or stylistic tics that once served for the creation of written artifacts consciously destined for a canon still viewed in a positivist light, and their deviation into something resembling a form of madness. What begins as a characteristic adornment grows like a tumor, bursts the bounds of restraint and order, and makes a monster of the book in question. Beckett’s logorrhea in Not I and How It Is, Virginia Woolf’s lush synesthesia veering into catastrophe, or the stereotyped obsessions and demented aphorisms of Bernhard are good examples. The syntax of Juan Benet, the most complex and nuanced in twentieth-century Spanish prose, must be considered in a similar light: subtlety, by dint of innumerable shadings and qualifications, is rarefied into a verbal vapor lying at the very border of meaning and its absence; at the same time, the capacity of an individual phrase to shore up the semantic burdens it is freighted with is stretched to the point of collapse.

Evidence, perhaps, against the charge, frequently leveled against the author, of deliberate obscurantism, is his own apparent bafflement at the aesthetic dictated by his particular genius. In response to a critic who stated he was sure Benet was a great writer, but could not say so from experience, being himself incapable of reading past page fifteen, Benet wrote:

If my work is so entangled that the average reader needs a mentor in order to penetrate it, why didn’t I, at the time of writing it, draw upon that mentor or, better yet, with a bit more effort, embark on the path of clarifying it and making it accessible to the average reader and, at the same time, try to preserve its value as much as possible?

The effect of reading Benet is comparable, perhaps, to De Quincey at his most ornate, though whereas De Quincey’s involuted periods, with their inevitable peppering of fancy words, eventually wind their way around to an elegant and satisfying end, Benet’s have an almost aggressive aspect:

They came in exhausted, doubtlessly saddled with a sensation of futility and stagnation provoked by the indecisions of the cyclist or the mass of inhibitions imposed by decency, and in the shadows of the sitting room, thick with the scent of pavement and the aspidistras that had been watered at midday, they collapsed without gasping into the old wicker armchairs to concentrate on the child a unanimous gaze in which was distilled all the fury, the deferred hope, and the resentment of an unresolved conclusion to unite with the man for fear of losing his money: here is the ray that the child’s mind will aim forever into the horrendous negative –– a ring of mute and admonitory gazes in the depths of the summer penumbra, with the whisk of the fans and the quivering breath of the breasts rising and falling in mourning –– the indelible sign of his own formation: he will reveal it again, years later, in the moments of combat; before the gaming table, throwing himself down over a pile of nacre gambling chips, foreign, always foreign, to the face of the woman who retreats through the empty rooms while the public races to the table where his hand has been run through with the knife; on the haunches of the laggard mule, the mind (spurred onward by the vengeful and rancorous echo of the fans) concerned only with the weight of the coin that he never managed to clutch in his hand.

Juan Benet's infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Juan Benet’s infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Benet was an engineer by profession (and built the dam that would flood the birth village of writer Julio Llamazares, as recounted in this article), and his descriptions of landscape and structure reflect his formation. Nabokov has spoken eloquently of the importance of spatial imagination in the appreciation of fictional worlds, and Martin Amis, among countless others, has stressed that good writing consists in the annulment of clichés: but Benet’s descriptions of settings, often more prominent than the actions they foreground, make one wonder at which point the substitution of the precise for the approximate leads literature to stray from its vocation:

…the Hercynian efforts of the Westphalian momentum have taken form (it seems) in the Asturo-Leonese region along a geosyncline the axis of which ought to have passed through some point in Galicia, where it would terminate in a family of anticlines running parallel in an east-west direction, drawing to a close in the west of Asturias as they run up against the resistance of the massif and displaying a marked convexity on the Galician side.

For some time, I have made halfhearted attempts to convince publishers of Benet’s importance. I should have tried harder, but his writing is very difficult, translating it is slow going, and he is not the kind of author who shines in the ten-to-twenty page samples most often used to assay a writer’s suitability. This past week, I finally translated something complete: his book The Construction of the Tower of Babel. In its erudition, its refinement, its capacity to weave from the threads of history and observation a parable of doom, it seems to herald, in miniature, Sebald’s Austerlitz, which would appear almost two decades after Benet’s death. Here are the first few paragraphs:

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Even when overcome by the recollection of other more troubling and dramatic paintings, what visitor to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna can forget the impression produced by Brueghel’s Construction of the Tower of Babel? In the company of such important works as The Peasant Wedding and the autumn and winter landscapes –– in the description of which art’s treatisers have spilled so much ink –– the sight of the great tower under construction surprises, no doubt by its simplicity; as it is, in appearance, the representation of an inanimate object –– and in spite of the great curiosity the tower has aroused in all eras –– there is reason to suspect that the master wished, in this case, to relinquish his talent for the dramatic to the end of arriving at, and bequeathing, a painstaking description of the building itself, in an atmosphere of frontal serenity. In this painting, there are none of the axial deviations, whether geometric or chromatic, that Wölfflin has indicated as one of the master’s great resources for forcing the attention of the spectator toward certain points; there are no severe contrasts of light and shadow; nor is there that diffusion of dynamic elements throughout the landscape that so often makes of the rectangle of vision an image bereft of linear constraints. The building is represented in conical perspective, its vertical axis coincident with the perpendicular bisector in the lower half of the canvas, while the line of the horizon is situated approximately two thirds of the way up from its base, in such a way that the vanishing point ––if the painting is hung correctly, as is the case in the museum in Vienna –– it is at eye-height for a viewer of ordinary stature, who is thereby confronted with the doubled arch, like two eyes with red sockets, with which the tower responds to his curiosity, in order, equivocally, to lay bare its unfathomable mystery. It is here, more or less in the center of the balcony under construction on the third floor, that the focal center of the painting is located. A greater degree of frontality is impossible.

The tower is shown on a calm day, the sky furrowed with the odd innocuous cloud that serves to sieve the light of morning and evade, thereby, a profusion of scattered shadows; judging by those cast, albeit timidly, by the counterforts, one may assume the hour is near to midday. At this moment, the King of Babylon casts a gaze over his works (contemplating them, like Philip II in the Escorial, from the elevation of a nearby hill), in the company of the master builder who introduces him to a number of stone masons who kneel, paying him homage. Here the incident concludes; both by its setting in the foreground, in perfect obedience to the rule of repoussoir, as well as by the size of the figures, the group composed of the royal entourage and the stone masons is employed by the artist to minimize the anecdotal and place all the emphasis on the sovereign edifice that occupies nearly the whole of the landscape, from the earth to the sky, the seaside to the ramparts.

This may be said to be the first painting in European art that takes a building in the role of protagonist. The appearance of architecture in painting, assigned customarily to the Proto-Renaissance, will certainly evolve, with the building progressing further into the foreground until what lies behind it is abandoned and it comes to occupy the center of attention. And yet this movement is not, in general, accompanied by a greater emphasis on the protagonism of the building itself, which rarely serves as more than a framing device for the scene at hand; when the painter does accord it a leading role, this is generally done through interiorization, as in the Dutch views of churches and synagogues from the XVI and XVII centuries; as if facades and apses wanted for the virtues requisite to the fulfillment of such a calling. It merits mention that for centuries, the plain and simple representation of buildings was restricted to the art of engraving, as if to evade the potential of color, and the artist had preferred to subject it to those canons governing an elevation; this is the tradition maintained from Giulio Romano to the publication of Piranesi’s famous album, the influence of which, first of all in England, will be translated into the Romantic suspension of the prohibition, beginning with the cathedral views of Constable or the fantasias of Schinkel. Only rarely –– in keeping with this thesis –– did the urban landscapes of the XVIII century Venetians, so meticulously faithful to architectural composition, for the execution of which the artists made use of artisanal camerae obscurae and a precursor technique to photographic film, focus on a single building, greatly preferring the animation procured by a group of them –– set back from the perspective of a canal, a street, a plaza, or a dock –– to the stern solitude of one standing alone, even when it presented a variety of styles and shapes, as is the case of the basilica of Saint Mark’s.

A documentary on Juan Benet, in Spanish, produced by the College of Engineers of Roads, Canals, and Ports

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