The Invention of Morel and its Context
In his 1940 prologue to this celebrated novella by Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges exalts adventure stories and “works of reasoned imagination” –from G. K. Chesterton to Kafka – over the psychological novel “with an infinitesimal, atrophied plot.” Yet both Borges and his friend Casares were preoccupied with form, and, in literature, as in visual art, formalists tend to favour quietism, as well as a sense of nothing much happening – which would appear to be the very condition of the Jamesian novel of psychology. The difference is that reality may be defined rather than described, and this gives rise to the philosophical novel, which is much favoured by those with formal concerns. Such a novel is Goethe’s Elective Affinities, in which nothing much happens. The main characters are principally engaged in working with an architect to improve and extend their residence. A formula is posited, related to the “Laws of Attraction”, a formula similar to the law of strong interaction which states that particles must maintain a distance in order to attract each other. Goethe’s idea is that should couple AB encounter couple CD, A and C will be attracted to each other, and B and D will be attracted to each other, since strangeness is more fascinating than familiarity. Taken up with her somewhat wistful thoughts along these lines, a young woman absent-mindedly allows a child to drown.
This death disturbs the surface of the novel’s quietness, and in truth it is hard to come across the “purely quiet” novel in quite the way that a painting can be still. After all, the form of any yarn requires that the end should act as a lure, impelling the reader forwards, albeit ever so gently. This creates a problem, for while a short poem may be enjoyed for the magic it generates in a line, such localised appreciation is at odds with the urge to read on. In Loving, Henry Green can write about taking tea with buttered crumpets in such an exquisite way that one returns to the few sentences that deal with this episode again and again, losing any desire to continue. One may arrive at a similar impasse when reading the stories of Jane Bowles, or her one novel – Two Serious Ladies. The narrative in any of these may set out quietly enough, but is often subject to disconcerting changes of direction, while the sentences that carry it seem to be fitted together in an unusual way, though the tone is pretty dead-pan. It’s not that the sentences are artificial or overwrought: they follow each other naturally enough, but there’s never a cliche, and each sentence reads like a discovery, while the characters themselves are prone to capricious changes of mood.
If the writing of Jane Bowles mingles formalism with caprice, then the work of Bioy Casares has a formal strength that becomes other than formal due to a dose of the uncanny. For him, as for Borges, who was initially his mentor, strangeness is clearly more fascinating that familiarity.
The literature of the uncanny is related to the fetishism of a bibliophile. Bear in mind that Borges was a librarian. But can a book constitute a fetish? Certainly it can. Take a look at Arcimboldo’s painting of a book-worm, a man made entirely out of books. Most religious tomes are treated as objects of devotion: they are credited with powers of divination and are used in esoteric rites. In the popular imagination, the Talmud is regarded with a particular thrill because of its associations with the Cabbala. We find this featuring in countless ghost-stories. Of these, Walter Owen’s More Things in Heaven deserves to be reappraised. It’s a novel which deals with a curse placed on Alexander the Great for burning down the library of Babylon, and it follows this curse down the generations. In one chapter, the mere reading of a certain document causes internal combustion within the head of a character who is perusing it – a disconcerting thought for anyone reading the novel itself!
Esoteric teachings, and a sense of a mesmerising power existing in words, phrases or documents which may go beyond the materiality of the book or the content of what is signified gets well expressed in the writing of Borges – in a story such as The Zahir, for instance, which concerns a word which once heard can never be forgotten, a word which operates like a virus on all other words. Here, the reader is reduced to a condition of immobility, as if turned into a zombie by the text. But Borges is simply pointing out the uncanniness of all reading, for an arrested immobility is the condition which it usually induces. Reading is, after all, a sort of trance.
Gustav Meyrink is another writer typified by a formal strength that becomes other than formal thanks to the effect of the uncanny. His great novel The Golem is clearly the work of an author preoccupied by the form in which he is working. Yet a chill runs down the spine when it dawns on the reader that the narrator of the tale is, in fact, the monstrosity being described. A similar chilling moment occurs when we begin to understand the nature of Morel’s invention. Bioy Casares is similar to Jane Bowles (especially in relation to a story called Camp Cataract) in that he identifies surprise as an essential ingredient in writing; yet at the same time he acknowledges a destiny for his characters that contradicts the inconsistency generated by capricious twists and turns. These two forces moving in opposed directions echo the conflict in any reader teetering between wanting to re-read a paragraph and wanting to finish a book.
Iain White, the able translator of The King in the Golden Mask – a collection of stories by Marcel Schwob – makes a good case for concluding that Schwob (1867-1905), who epitomised literary dandyism, was an influence on Borges, and thus by extension on Casares. Schwob wrote compact stories drawing on the biographies of pirates and capricious villains. Edmund de Goncourt, writing to this author on the publication of his stories, offered Schwob the highest praise: “You are the most marvellous, the most hallucinatory resurrector of the past: you are the magical evoker of antiquity, of that Heliogabalesque antiquity to which fly the imaginations of thinkers and the brushes of painters, of mysteriously perverse and macabre decadences and of the ends of other worlds.”
Like Schwob, both Argentine authors maintain a capricious position without resorting directly to surreal displacement. For all three, brevity is a virtue, since, as authentic dandies, they associate lengthiness with ennui, and, in their stories and novellas, they seek for a fleeting, dream-like quality. In a prologue to Schwob’s La Croisade des enfants, Borges speaks of the French author as being the spectator of a dream of which he is the creator. The characters in the almost aphoristically brief stories of Borges have a tendency to dream their own lives. Consider the melancholy fate of Funes the Memorious, in the story of that name. Funes has total recall. He is incapable of forgetfulness. He remembers each cloud formation he has ever seen. The weight of his memory is so overwhelming that he can do nothing at all.
Certainly we get the sense that the characters in The Invention of Morel “dream their own lives”. However, Casares is less bookish than Borges. His characters usually occupy a mundane-enough world, and Casares is very much taken up with defining a reality for them, though this often turns out to be a reality where tricks are played with space and time. The Invention of Morel is no exception, and we get to discover the peculiarities of its reality by following the protagonist as he describes what he finds in a strange environment.
The story is disquieting, and its disquiet is intimately bound up with the author’s use of repetition, which is often employed to uncanny effect. Its narrator is trapped in an environment so bizarre that at first one imagines that one is engaged in reading some sort of abstract text that will go on shifting its scenery like a dream, as does the surrealist novel Hebdomeros by De Chirico. This turns out not to be so. The narrator is a fugitive from justice who has escaped to a remote island furnished with a few strange buildings – a museum, a swimming-pool and a chapel on the high ground; a mill somewhere in the lowland marshes that get flooded at regular intervals. We learn as much in the first few paragraphs of the novel, and for a while one senses that these paragraphs are simply repeating themselves, each time expanding on their content but allowing little to transpire. It is as if the book’s initial premise were constantly being reiterated and were being expanded upon with each reiteration. Even in the first short section of the book we have been apprised of the fact that visitors have arrived on the island, and the rest of it is taken up with who these visitors are and how the fugitive comes to terms with them. Initially he hides from them, only to discover that they have no inclination to acknowledge his existence. His predicament strikes one as being similar to that of an invisible camera that has somehow developed its own self-awareness while observing the actions of characters who either feign not to recognise its existence or else exist in some dimension alien to it. Although they appear to be beings of flesh and blood, breathing, and chatting naturally enough to each other, these visitors to the island endlessly repeat the same routine with a robotic precision.
Ingeniously, the author delays our discovery of the reason for this routine, and for the visitors’ failure to acknowledge the protagonist – but it would be a shame to spoil the reader’s enjoyment by giving away any more of the plot. Suffice it to say that in this novel, delay conspires with repetition to create a work that perceives obsessive love as a dislocation – relating the notion of projection onto the beloved to the notion of projection onto a screen. The infatuated lover has no more relation to the object of his desire than a fan has to an adored film star – in the case of Bioy Casares, the star was Louise Brooks.
In order to resist divulging what happens, this essay has turned into something of a compendium of the uncanny and the capricious in literature. But this is the appropriate context for the work of Casares; and I can’t resist mentioning one other trace of an influence. Towards the end of his prologue, Borges quotes Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
This in turn relates to the sensation of dejà vue: to the notion of time as a regressive series, and as a simultaneous entity, which was expressed by J. W. Dunne in the 1920s, in two books: An Experiment with Time and The Serial Universe. I believe that Magritte appropriated illustrations of a painter painting a painting of a painter painting a painting from Dunne, while J. B. Priestly adapted the line by Rossetti to get the title for one of his “Time Plays” – We have been here before. Borges relates this concept to studies by Louis-August Blanqui. Seems a good line of enquiry for any literary sleuth!
Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet were inspired to collaborate on the script for L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) by reading The Invention of Morel, and in it they made ingenious use of repetition’s capacity to generate an uncanny filmic rhythm – as Robbe-Grillet already had in his nouveaux romans. It’s fascinating to read this novella in the light of the film and realise how the book changed the course of film history.
In Marienbad, the employment of repetition subjects the viewer to a constant reiteration of the same scenes: views of the baroque palace hotel where the action takes place, a game played with matchsticks, the corridors of the hotel, enigmatic confrontations between characters rigid with formality. This resonates with a remark by the narrator of The Invention of Morel:
“I felt elated. I thought I had made this discovery: that there are unexpected, constant repetitions in our behaviour. The right combination of circumstances had enabled me to observe them. One seldom has the chance to be a clandestine witness of several talks between the same people. But scenes are repeated in life, just as they are in the theatre…”
Little gets resolved in the plot of Marienbad, and it seems no more, and no less, than a fugue in celluloid, revelling in the silvery qualities of a stunning cinematography that takes full advantage of the starkly sculptural properties of black and white projection. Yet the film presents us with characters who engage in their repetitive actions in what appears to be a deliberately stilted manner, though it may be that this mechanical quality is actually generated by the force of their repetitions. It is as if everyone is going about their business in a sort of trance, and this is what places the film in the realm of the uncanny, rather than in some more quietist location. While its plot, if it has one at all, bears little resemblance to that of The Invention of Morel, the mood of the film very closely matches that of this novella by Casares.
Anthony Howell, February, 2004.
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, introduction by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, published by NYRB (rights to Granta Books), ISBN 159017 0571