For the past two months I have been reading, in a typically overcompensatory fashion, the complete works of Juan Benet, to prepare for the foreword I will append to my translation of his Construction of the Tower of Babel, which I believe will come out in early 2017. Benet is a remarkable writer, peerless in twentieth-century Spain. His mind was nimble, his curiosity nearly boundless, his syntax as intricate and subtle as DeQuincey’s and his vision as unique, though far more extensive and recondite, as that of Rulfo, Faulkner, or Bernhard. His reputation hasn’t fared as well as it might have: in Spain, he is said to have disciples but no readers; in France, Pascale Casanova has written intelligent appraisals of his achievement, and his important work remains in print, but I don’t have the sense that its influence has reached writers of later generations; Suhrkamp published several of his books in Germany, though slowly they have gone out of print except for one. He was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa in the eighties: the books seem to have gotten decent reviews – A Meditation was blurbed by John Gardner – but Jeremy Davies, formerly of Dalkey Archive, is the only person I know who has read them. I imagine he suffers in translation: though an advocate of the grand style and contemptuous of Iberian insularity, there is something deeply Castilian, even Madrileño, in his writing, particularly in his stock of idioms, that doesn’t carry across easily: in the Rabassa translation, these swatches of local color vanish at times into incomprehensibility, as when the old commonplace coger el rábano por las hojas is translated literally. I would not be surprised to find similar occurrences in the French and German versions.
Benet is thought of as a fiction writer, and now, those who read him probably start with his first novel, Volverás a Región (Return to Región, in Rabassa’s version, or more literally, You Will Return to Región), read twenty or thirty pages, flip through the middle, read the last page, and give up. Benet is exasperating, but I do not think it is right to call him difficult; demanding seems to me the better word. Over long years of reading, one develops a multitude of bad habits that over time make of what at first was engaged appreciation a indolent receptivity little distinguishable from dozing; this is why so many critics lose their discernment with age and why Schopenhauer commends the art of not reading. It is impossible to read Benet lazily: a page skipped, a detail unattended, and too much is lost. Benet’s vocabularly is immense, encompassing archaisms and the respective parlance of technical science, philosophy, and letters, along with a liberal peppering of foreign phrasings and slang from the cities and countryside. Where one writer may content himsef with a vague description of mountain and lowlands and the position of the sun over some scant vegetation, as likely as not to be adventitious or out of season, Benet will spend ten pages on the geological movements giving rise to the specific landforms, the soil composition and mesoclimate. In his lecture on Joyce’s Ulysses, as elsewhere, Nabokov stresses the importants of a clear sense of the geography a tale sketches out, and draws a number of maps illustrating Bloom’s and Stephen’s travels. For Rusty Lances, his unfinished meditation on the Spanish Civil War, Benet published a topographical map of the imagined territory of Región at 1:150,000 scale.
Among doctoral students, who must form the better part of Benet’s readership, little mention is made of his essays, though they are arguably as accomplished as his fiction, and certainly provide a more amenable angle of approach to the body of his work. His expository style is urbane, elegant, and imperious, and gives some sense of his legendary sense of humor, which is not always apparent in his novels. In 1970, he was asked to provide a preface to Stewart Gilbert’s famous book on Ulysses, and with typical contumacity, used the space accorded him as the occasion for a public separation; a divorce, as he called it. The following quotes, representative of his never-quite-systematic but always penetrating aesthetic judgments, are taken from that essay.
A writer who with time – and borne aloft by his predilection for his own highjinks – searches for refinement by means of the substitution of a system of puns for a system of ideas, does not seem to me the most consummate intellectual – as certain university professors assert with onerous insistence – if it is agreed to that intelligence is not an end in itself and the intellectual is something more than a tinkering mechanic who makes use of his abilities to define the maximal possibilites of artifice.
What cannot be denied is that [Joyce] was an innovator of the genre. What one must ask oneself, however, is whether his esteem derives solely from his innovations… and above all, from his having achieved them in such an explicit and deliberate manner. To begin, I ask myself as well – making use of examples from the past – whether the renovations and innovations of things as stable as the great literary genres – and the social taste they imply – may be achieved through a conscious will totally committed to such an end. I ask myself whether Tacitus, while he wrote the Annals, was conscious of casting into the world the first seed of uncertainty in history, of the lack of confidence in reason…
If the rare spirit makes use of anything, it is of a certain doctrinal uncertainty – as Keats would have it – convinced that its calling is not so much the ascertainment of hidden reality as the elucidation of certain of its many and contradictory enigmas.
What is in its essence original need not be intentionally original and from this I am led to conclude that what is so in its intention is rarely so in and of itself.
… wisdom is nothing more than a moment’s effort on the part of man to overcome and redeem himself from that radical idiocy that constitutes the substrate of his customs and the continuity of his consciousness.