POSTHUMOUS LIVES OF A CLASSIC
“I swear to you that the orchestra of death was
not at all as sad as it might have seemed.
From a certain point on
it even got to be delightful.”
– Machado de Assis
Never was there a more prolific death than that of Máximo Vitaglio. It must be said that some lives are lived posthumously; his was one of them. The strange thing is that he died just as he had lived: seated in the same green velvet rocking chair that had hosted him for thirty years after he had abruptly decided to move to the countryside, impeccably dressed in one of those three-piece cashmere suits that had bestowed upon him an aura of anachronism, surrounded by the dogs which he had trained to remain almost inert, looking at the distant horizon as if posing for a mediocre landscape painting. Yes. There was nothing strange about his death scene, and that was to be expected of such a man of routine, who had spent over thirty years writing and rewriting hundreds of stories that followed the same plot and the same outcome, serialized detective stories that hid any sense of character or authorship, any sense of style that went beyond a devotion towards tradition. Let’s just say it: if there ever truly existed an author beloved for his monotony it must have been him and the image of him, elegant in an untimely way, always fashionable despite his stubborn dislike for seasons. He had died as he had lived: surrounded by the reactionary dignity of some outmoded and yet somehow stylish classicism. Until the day of his death, Máximo Vitaglio appeared to many to be a man defeated by tradition, a single-minded man who had only broken his daily routine a couple of times, most of them in order to seduce a woman. Yes. He had been married at least five times and it was his last wife, a gorgeous brunette of lively gestures and beautiful slanted eyes, younger than him by at least thirty years, who was to find him seated in the velvet rocking chair, calm as only the dead are calm, surrounded by his faithful dogs.
It was precisely the chaotic silhouette of this woman that first distracted me of what seem destined to be a tedious afternoon of legalisms in the countryside. To be honest, I had never expected the call. I had seen the obituary in the newspapers, the diverse eulogies that some academics had dedicated to him, even going as far as using trite clichés such as “master of form,” “a timeless classic,” “unequaled in his precision.” The memory of the man had surged in my mind, perhaps twenty years younger, but already destined for a timeless death, dressed in his cashmere suit, calling my cousin Alice with that severe and stubborn voice that was one day to drive her mad. Still the call arrived out of the blue and I made my way to the countryside, to meet the fifth wife of a man whom I had once met decades ago, who had once been married to my favorite cousin, but who perhaps, out of a strange impatience, had drained the life out of her before she was even thirty. I was wondering what I was doing there when I saw the picture of a woman who I assumed had to be his last wife. And then in that same instant, the beautiful brunette entered the room with a radiant smile and graceful walk. Widows of writers are perhaps the most cunning beings, inheritors of a whole body of work whose origin they never saw, owners of an estate whose true value they always believe to protect despite not being able to understand it. Mariana was different, not to say that she truly cared about the destiny of her husband’s work, but rather to say that the first impression I got from her was that of a supreme indifference. From her disinterested movements, from her supreme freedom, one could sense that she had no desire to portray any false entitlement. Next to her, a tall bald man I had barely noticed. Of course, the editor.
A writer’s death is indeed a strange ceremony: something resembling a burglary, an archeological excavation, a garage sale from which no single object remains unsold. And so we were all there, the usual birds of prey – widow, lawyer and editor – when the last member of the wolf pack showed up, a bit late and sweating, always surrounded by an aura of indifferent nervousness. Victor Albrecht had met Máximo in his early years at school and had, as a literary critic, kept track of each of his works. He shook my hand amiably – we had met decades ago when Máximo was married to my cousin – and went on to ask about the posthumous papers. The whole ordeal stank, and I would have left if had it not been for Mariana, whose playful eyes, led us through the musty house into an old wooden room whose bourbon smell made its importance evident for all of us: it had been here, in this dusty room, that the writer had sketched out most of his stories. In the center, above the desk, a big picture of a middle-aged Máximo Vitaglio adorned the otherwise simple room—the writer at fifty, already exhibiting his white mustache and his green velvet chair, grimacing to a camera with the face of one who truly believes he is not being photographed but painted, the face of a man who still believes in posterity. As I saw the editor and the critic delve like eagles into the already open drawers, I thought to myself: it must have been back then that I met him, a man way too old for our lovely Alice, a man too traditional to have given her the life she deserved. I looked around and inevitably caught the eye of Mariana, who within her boredom was happy to engage my gaze in a flirtation that had something morbid to it, given that we were precisely searching through the papers of her recently deceased husband, but that on her took a rather vital turn. Almost as if within death her liveliness could shine more clearly. Ashamed, I took my eyes off of her, and returned to the scene only to find the pale face of the editor who seemed disappointed at the findings. It seemed – he said – as if Máximo, foreshadowing his own death, had sat down with the calmness that had always accompanied him, burned everything at a last minute’s notice, and had then proceeded to die in comfort.
The verdict was reached two hours later, a little before sundown: only three distinct works, two of which had already been published and praised, and a third piece that seemed to be a minor work, a short story or perhaps merely a sketch that would have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been for the fact that it was incomplete—a piece of merely three pages from which one seemed to have gone astray.
It didn’t matter that the first manuscript – an impressive handwritten tome of about five hundred pages – was missing its title page. None of us could avoid recognizing the unmistakable tone, the turns of phrases of the first pages:
“Genre, that is to say, the notion of a literary genre, and in particular the novel, battles today with a delirious force that threatens to deform it. The problem of form is the horizon against which these sad lines are written.”
Even in the perfect calligraphy of his handwritten notes, Máximo’s tone was unmistakable. If there was something that characterized him it was this: the capacity to show character while maintaining the most neutral of styles, to remain unmistakably himself within the anonymity of tradition. Yes, we all could recognize, within the affected melancholy of these first pages, the Máximo Vitaglio who had, at the end of the seventies, written a surprising book concerning the notion of genre and form. A book which he had decided to entitle, more out of provocation than out of sincerity, The Essence of Form. Yes, this book had been already published, perhaps too many times. It was of no value for us birds of prey. Almost sundown, it was time to hurry up. I remember looking backwards for a second, and catching a glimpse of Mariana’s tearful yet silent face under the evening sun.
It took us a bit longer to figure out the identity of the second manuscript. It was composed of a series of notes that seemed to follow the logic of a question and answer with the slight problem that the questions were missing. The critic was the first one to voice his opinion: these must have been the answers that Máximo had sketched for one of the interviews he sporadically gave to students. The topics touched upon were the same ones as always: the detective genre, his hatred towards anything experimental, the delusions of the avant-garde… We would have remained in error had it not been for a spark of memory from the editor, who reminded us that at the end of the eighties Vitaglio had been part of a literary debate with an Argentine author – a dead epigone of Borges as he used to call them – regarding the futures of the detective novel. With this memory in mind, it was impossible not to recognize, in the following lines, the distant yet once heated polemic:
“My dear Augusto, you attempt to quote Borges on me as if it was evidence. Don’t you understand that whoever attempts to follow him blindly is condemned to failure, condemned to end up with a monstrous deformity… We have inherited a formed genre, a genre where form is direction and law, deviating from it would be a sin.”
From time to time, bored as I was, I would turn around and look at the beautiful Mariana whose face now hid behind her arms, sobbing from time to time, in a state that made me realize that she was different. I would then see my cousin, Alice, in her days of splendor, the same vitality displayed as a form of knowledge. But the whole deal was about death. Máximo had died and we were all there shamelessly poking through the papers of a dead man, an indecent act no doubt, realizing that what we had originally thought was an interview was nothing else but an old debate, and that Augusto was not the name of an interviewer, but the name of that prestigious Argentine author Augusto Castellanos who, following Borges, had attempted to take the detective novel to its limits. The debate had been short but heated, like a boxing match with two blind but enraged boxers. Then had come the time of peace, the transition to the countryside, three wives and death. The critic and the editor stood impassive as Mariana suddenly stood up and started to play a guitar that had been left in the corner of the room. I could see in their faces the growing realization that this had been an unfruitful death: Máximo had exhausted himself in life.
And so it was with deep sadness that they began revising the last literary refuge: those three sad pages that soon proved to be incomplete. They found the first and third pages, the first and the last, but were unable to find the second. In a sober voice the editor sketched the clearest of possibilities: the page must have slipped through while they were revising the other two manuscripts. Disappointed, with a face resembling a starving crow, he began to say goodbye to Mariana who had, out of the blue, started walking around in a nervous manner. He then proceeded to leave for the city. Victor Albrecht was different. His integrity as a critic forced him to search the entire room, that bourbon smelling room where Vitaglio had spent his last few years attempting to write what he had called his total novel, a novel which he had curiously entitled: Three. Mariana had described the events leading to its disappearance on the phone: Máximo waking up one day in the middle of the night, two weeks before his death, running towards the room in a state of rage, perhaps drunk, perhaps blinded by a vision of his near death, Máximo taking the manuscript of the novel towards which all the other of his novels had striven, almost as if he had never written anything else but that, taking this novel and burning it. Never had she seen the man so calm as she saw him that night after the burning, when he decided to go back to bed for what was to be one of his last nights. We searched for the page within that room whose bourbon smell now belonged to death, the sunset reaching us so far away from the city, until we came to the realization that nothing was left but the irreparable distance that separated the first and third pages.
All of that would have been normal, a mere trick of the trade, a matter of an incomplete manuscript, had it not been for a detail that the critic didn’t hesitate to point out: from the first to the third page there seemed to occur a strange shift, the imposition of a new narrative structure, one of those deformations that Máximo hated so much during his lifetime. The two pages clearly belonged to the same story; you could hear the echoes of one on the other, the common drama despite it being deformed. Two names—the two main characters—moved between the discontinuous pages without trouble. Maybe, thought the critic, this story was not Vitaglio’s, but one of those experimental stories that Vitaglio had read in order to criticize them in his book on form and genre. Each of the pages bore the fingerprints of his inimitable style, the turns of phrase of his prose, the never-ending lists, and his penchant for esoteric references. All were indisputably his except that leap of faith through which the story, jumping one page, seemed to destroy all sorts of linear forms, proposing instead a new narrative model without announcing it. Against the background noise of the night in the countryside, against the nervous yet tired steps of Mariana, Victor Albrecht threw himself to the task of solving the formal enigma.
Nobody will ever know what happened that night, the thousand ways in which the critic stubbornly read the story in a desperate attempt to safeguard its ultimate simplicity. What we do know is that Victor Albrecht must have left between two and five in the morning. When I finally woke up, with the first lights of the countryside shining through the windows, I saw the pages laying side by side, orphans in the middle of the table and next to them, hugged by the green velvet chair, Mariana’s sleeping figure, fragile and yet constant in its strange vitality. Knowing that the legalisms behind this death would be simple, that there was not much to discuss, I stealthily took my jacket from the chair where I had left it, opened the door and left the house of a man whose life I had once abhorred and whose death I had ended up mediating as legal counsel. Right as I opened the last door, I had the intuition that somewhere in the house, I could hear Mariana’s footsteps, a last memory of my cousin Alice enveloped in a mist of happiness. The memory of those footsteps would follow me throughout the road until the stubborn city lights imposed a new landscape.
Half a year later, one of the avant-garde magazines of Trieste, mainly dedicated to conceptual art and photography, was to publish a bizarre short story entitled “Three” under the impossible name of the deceased Máximo Vitaglio. It was, for those who knew him, an event without precedent: Vitaglio, the writer who until the very day of his death had abhorred formal experiments, who had detested the tricks of the avant-garde, was shown here playing the most experimental of games. At least, one must say, it was a detective story: a story consisting of three pages, of which the second one had been replaced by a giant number 2 whose thick black ink covered the whole page. No explanation was given, only the signature at the bottom designating the work as posthumous.
I only heard of the scandal a year after Máximo’s death, amidst the celebrations that the Italian Embassy had prepared for the anniversary of his demise. Not that I was invited, of course not. I had little to do with the crowds that gathered to celebrate the works of a man towards whom I felt in the best of cases indifference, in the worst hatred. No. I heard the story from a disheveled Victor Albrecht with whom I ran into in one of the streets close to the embassy, a man that could no longer hold his anger at what he envisioned to be an act of literary terrorism. I could see in his eyes the madness of a man incapable of understanding an event that would have only meant that Máximo had kept something from him, some secret weapon that would destroy his career as a critic. He had spent his life following a man’s work only to see himself turned into a fool by the author to whom he had sworn loyalty. He would not accept it: Máximo couldn’t have done this to him. And so, as I heard his diatribe against everyone he believed suspect of such terrorism, I began to remember the night in the countryside, Mariana’s strange vitality, her anxiety at the appearance of the two pages, her footsteps as I left. Only then I recalled the image of my belated cousin Alice in the weeks prior to her wedding, a big smile on her face and an air of complicity, repeating a sentence that had back then struck me as odd, but whose sense I believed I could now understand: “Máximo thinks of his life with severity, but of his death, he thinks with humour.” I could still hear the echoes of my cousin’s words as I said goodbye to that man who was no longer himself, a mere spectral buffoon of his former self, a madman trapped within the labyrinth of jokes. As the embassy appeared in sight I thought to myself: the road towards humour is sometimes too long.
Translation of ‘’Posthumous Lives of a Classic.” Copyright Carlos Fonseca 2015. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
Carlos Fonseca was born in San José, Costa Rica in 1987. He spent half of his childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico. He received his Ph.D. in Latin American Literature from Princeton University where he worked closely with Argentine novelist Ricardo Piglia. His work has been published in literary journals such as Quimera, BOMB, and Otra Parte, among others. Fonseca was a founding member of El Roommate, a publication that specializes in literary reviews. Spanish publishing group Anagrama released his debut novel, Coronel Lágrimas, in 2015. He currently lives in London.