In the long history of novelists and their doubles, doppelgängers, and alter egos, few have given more delighted attention to the problem of multiplicity than the Argentine novelist Ricardo Emilio Piglia Renzi. He was born in 1940 and died last year in Buenos Aires. Under the name of Ricardo Piglia he published a sequence of acrobatic, dazzling novels and stories that consistently featured a novelist called Emilio Renzi. This division between public author and imaginary novelist was the little motor inside the vast machine of Piglia’s sprawling literary activity: not just fiction but essays, lectures, articles, screenplays, and seminars.
He was only being loyal to his location. In the early twentieth century, a tradition developed in Buenos Aires and Montevideo: the “Río de la Plata tradition,” in Piglia’s description, in which “the writer vacillates, does not quite understand the story he is telling.” This hesitant tradition is visible in the fictions of Macedonio Fernández and his protégé Jorge Luis Borges, the century’s most famous literary metaphysician; Borges’s friends Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; and the Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández. In this southern tradition (“Every true tradition is clandestine, is constructed retrospectively and has the form of a conspiracy,” wrote Piglia), reality was a woozy substance, subject to strange alterations. Truth and fiction were not opposites but variants of each other. And the most pliable element of this universe was the self itself.
What this did to fiction was a sticky mutation. There could be stories about stories; studies of novels that didn’t exist; novelistic essays and essayistic novels: fantastical reworkings of the history of literature. In The Last Reader (2005), Piglia argued that Borges’s greatest lesson may have been this emphasis on interpretation:
The certainty that fiction depends not only on the person who constructs it but on the person who reads. Fiction is also a position of the interpreter. Not that everything is a fiction…but everything can be read as a fiction. What is specific to Borges (if such a thing exists) is the capacity to read everything as a fiction and to believe in its power. Fiction as a theory of reading.
This wasn’t the only time in the history of the novel that fiction had imposed itself as a philosophical mode—but in this decolonized, unstable atmosphere it acquired an excitingly contemporary emphasis. There was a sense that to narrate a story would be more urgent if at the same time the act of narrating was also deciphered. “In Argentine history,” Piglia once wrote, “politics and fiction…are two simultaneously irreconcilable and symmetrical universes.” It followed, according to this theory, that a novel “maintains coded relationships with the machinations of power. It reproduces them.”
Piglia’s own fiction would do this through a technique of the implicit, the unsaid. If society was organized by a conspiracy of hidden forces, then his novels and stories would be constructed on this principle too: miniaturized universes, nested worlds. To read became an act of decipherment—to uncover a conspiracy, or become part of one. After all, to see history as a conspiracy is to allow paranoia to govern one’s representation of reality. In Piglia’s pirouettes and mirrors, his stories within stories, paranoia found its literary form.
Piglia’s first book of stories, The Invasion, was published in 1967, followed by another collection, False Name, in 1975. The next year, the military junta took power in Argentina. Such mutation of reality required even more extravagant fictional strategies, and in the middle of this state terror, in 1981, when he was forty-one, Piglia’s first novel appeared—Artificial Respiration. It posed as a story of literary hoaxes and conversations, a spiraling quest by Emilio Renzi to investigate the mysterious backstory to his first book (which very much resembles Piglia’s own).
But it was also an encrypted and brilliant examination of politics and history in which baroque literary conversation, maddened arguments about reputation and style, and counterfactual suppositions about what might have happened in the past (most notoriously involving a proposed meeting between Kafka and Hitler) replaced political debate. The novel made Piglia famous in Latin America, and it codified his style—at once B-movie and high art, policier and confabulation. (As well as being an expert on the fictions of Borges and Macedonio, Piglia was an authority on the noirs of Roberto Arlt and the entire history of detective fiction, which he taught in a seminar at Princeton and edited for the Serie Negra collection in Buenos Aires.)
That, then, is the short introduction to the fiction of Ricardo Piglia. But the greatest surprise of his career is that his most sustained exploration of fictional reality and false objectivity—of what Borges famously described in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” as the “new technique…of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution”—was a project that remained essentially unpublished nearly all his life, and that at first seems to be the opposite of these time acrobatics and reality flourishes: his diaries.
Beginning in 1957, when he was seventeen, Piglia kept a prosaic, minute, elongated journal. This diary was his secret laboratory and ultimate work. It existed in public only as an alluring rumor, to be mentioned mischievously in interviews. “I always say that I’m going to put out two or three more novels to make possible the publication of this Diary which has become the center of my writing,” he told an interviewer in 1985. Occasionally he published brief doctored extracts from it, such as the “Notes on Macedonio in a Diary” and “Notes on Literature in a Diary” in Brief Forms (2000). Finally, in 2011, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, Piglia went through this gargantuan archive. He published it in three volumes between 2015 and 2017: a first volume, Formative Years, for 1957–1967; then The Happy Years, covering 1968–1975; then finally A Day in the Life, for 2011–2015, which came out in 2017, after Piglia had died. (That blank in the timescale from 1976 to 2010 begins with the years of the junta.)
The diary, therefore, represents the climax of his career. And in its prosiness, its linear chronology, its literary prizes and bars and beach vacations and seminar notes, it might seem a deadpan rebuke to the playfulness that preceded it. But the reader should immediately note a giant complication. The diaries are prefaced by an “Author’s Note” in which Piglia again insists, in the third person, on their centrality to his writing:
He published some books—and perhaps will publish some more—solely in order to justify this writing. “And so, to speak of myself is to speak of this diary,” he said. “Everything that I am is in there, but there are only words.”
But the “he” isn’t Piglia, not quite. The production of these diaries may have been a lifelong activity, but when moving from production to circulation, from writing to publication, Piglia, as always, was careful to insert small fictional traps and complications—beginning with his narrator. The “he” to which these opening sentences refer is his double, Emilio Renzi.
Formative Years begins in 1957, when Renzi is seventeen, and ends in 1967, with the publication of his first book of stories—called, like Piglia’s, La invasión. As the decade disintegrates, a portrait emerges of Renzi as ardent young literary man: he goes to university, writes sketches and stories, wins prizes, argues over the history of literature, until finally his first book appears. But it’s also a portrait of cinemas and jazz haunts, the cafés and bars of 1960s Buenos Aires. Its surface pleasure is the pleasure of fleeting moments: “In the bar on Rivadavia and Gascón. A sensation of being clean, shaven, tranquil, up in the air. Maybe take a trip to the south, to Banfield.” Or this kind of list—at once ostentatious and modestly charming:
A list of things I want:
Swim in the sea.
Clifford Brown with Max Roach.
Go through the antiquarian bookshops.
Listen to A German Requiem by Brahms.
Aníbal Troilo playing at Caño 14.
Ignacio Corsini singing “Pensalo bien.”
Go to the cinema during the day and come out while there’s still sun.
Sergi wine, ’40 vintage.
Or the pleasure of literary gossip. Here is Borges, now old: “Small and ugly hands, absurdly old shoes, and an unforgettable tone of voice.” And here is Gabriel García Márquez, in town just after publishing One Hundred Years of Solitude (“It seems too—professionally—Latin American to me…. I am writing a review of the book for El Mundo and hope to finish it tonight”):
Rodolfo Walsh introduced me to him, playing the competitive game, à la Hemingway, and announced me like a national boxing prodigy, as though I were a welterweight with great promise and a secret mission to defeat the champions in the category.
But when you compare these diaries to other writers’ journal projects, such as the diaries of Virginia Woolf or Witold Gombrowicz, you notice a strange absence of interiority. Woolf’s diaries are beautiful for their self-analysis, the weather of her professional moods and exuberances. Gombrowicz’s are a collage of aristocratic public arguments and self-definitions. Formative Years is at once both more clipped than those journals and more textual. Piglia described his diaries as a “laboratory,” and that metaphor seems one of the best ways of understanding both their strangeness and the sly grandeur of his undertaking.
The journal, Piglia once observed, is that ideal literary form—one that can encompass all other forms. It’s a form that tries to be identical to a life. In it, one can find stories, reading notes, ideas, polemics, conversations: “It mixes politics, stories, travels, passions, tales, promises, arguments.” And so these diaries include not only notes of his everyday life but also drafts of stories, complete with editorial corrections; plot notes that are recognizably related to his later novels Artificial Respiration and Money to Burn; literary essays; a draft of a preface to an anthology of autobiography; and versions of texts that Piglia published in much later essay collections, like “Hotel Almagro,” here dated to 1966, which was published in 2000 in Brief Forms.
The larger story of Formative Years reads something like a roman d’apprentissage: the romance of a writer’s vocation, in all its hubris and innocent corruption. “Treating literature as a destiny in life doesn’t guarantee the quality of your work, but it insures that you have the conviction needed to choose at every moment.” But I think the book’s real subject is more delicate and more moving than the simple story of a literary vocation. It is the process of textualization, of the stuttering, hesitant way a writer tries to convert life into literature. In these diaries, Piglia is dramatizing not only the writer’s split between a public and private self, but also the time-consuming, exhausting, delicious, compromised effort to construct that textual self: the self that exists only in words.
Piglia described his journal as “my own story, as if written by someone else.” This someone else is Emilio Renzi, and “Renzi,” he once observed, “is constructed from something I regard in myself with a certain irony and a certain distance.” Renzi is pure literature: the “place from which the world can be viewed from the perspective of style.” As these diaries progress it’s possible to trace a little network of this theme, as Renzi anxiously returns to the idea of a voice. “For my part,” he observes, “as always when I’m in danger, I would like to write about myself in the third person. To avoid the illusion of ‘having’ an interior life.” Years earlier he had written that “I enter my autobiography when I am able to live in the third person,” a line that Piglia would borrow in Artificial Respiration: “One must think against oneself and live in the third person.” The joke is that in this journal, written by Renzi but authored by Piglia, the third person and the first person overlap. The journal is a game between I and he.
The epigraph to Formative Years—oddly eliminated in its translation into English—is from Proust: “Cette multiplication possible de soi-même, qui est le bonheur.” It’s from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, when Proust’s narrator considers how to cross the border separating one person from another: “this possible multiplication of oneself, which is happiness.” Placed at the start of Piglia’s vast project, it seems less about the metaphysics of desire than about literary multiplication. Writing, according to the terms of these diaries, allows the self to become multiple—or reveals that multiplicity is the self’s charmed condition: “Rereading my ‘notebooks’ is a novel experience; perhaps a story can be extracted from that reading. It astonishes me, all of the time, as though I were someone else (and that is what I am).”
In fact, as you make your way through these diaries, you notice how assiduously Renzi is rereading himself. “The tone of these days only becomes apparent in rereading this notebook…. Anyway, this notebook will be reread in the future as well, and then some sense will be restored, in a few months or, perhaps, even tomorrow,” reads one entry. Or also:
Rereading my notebooks is a narrative lesson: everything is organized chronologically according to the cuts of days of the week…. But, in reading them, things change and I start to discover connections, repetitions, the persistence of certain motifs that reappear and define the tone of these pages.
It occurs so often, this motif of rereading, that it starts to resemble a hint to a larger structure. A journal is pure linearity. It seems to be the opposite of a novel’s crudely remixed plot. But Piglia is too subtle to assert such a simple opposition of life and plot, journal and novel. Instead, he has invented this hybrid form, just as living and literature can form a hybrid, too. Between living and the work stands the journal—or more precisely, the journal as novel. In this form, stories can be as lightweight as they might seem in life, like a story told in three paragraphs—November 4, Thursday, and December—in which Renzi meets a girl on the beach, falls abjectly in love, then discovers she’s about to be married. But miniature themes and repetitions can also emerge more slowly, over time, the way they might emerge in a novel—the larger plots quietly at work within the small details of a life.
What this diary does is subject to minute scrutiny a major question: Why or how should the order of a story mimic the order of a life? And so, out of this mass of love affairs, cinema trips, visits to bars, and debates over university politics, a deeper story reveals itself, without ever being explicitly stated: Renzi’s dogged attempt to create his own style. Which is why, at the end, Renzi tells his nameless editor:
That is why I am transcribing my diaries, because I want people to know that even now, at seventy-three years of age, I still think in the same way, criticizing the same things that I criticized when I was twenty.
This plot is never stated. Instead, trapped inside the daily detail of the diary form, it pulses in and out of focus. The single significant clue is the book’s first chapter, “On the Threshold,” in which Renzi offers a selection from the diaries as a kind of overture. This selection is all on the theme of reading. The chapter has its practical use, as a way of providing a certain amount of history and biography. But it also demonstrates how Piglia wants this diary to be read: as a text that can be deciphered. The suspense of a detective novel becomes the suspense of discovering hidden connections and repetitions, the way a musicologist might analyze a fugue.
But it would be wrong to give an impression of triumph, because the emotion that leaks everywhere from Formative Years is melancholy. It’s a record of mistakes, confusion, failed love affairs, and intellectual missteps. “I read what I have written in those notebooks, a disorder of feelings,” begins an entry from October 1960. “I search for a personal poetics that is (still) not visible here…. When I read what I wrote in the past, I find blocks of experience, and only reading allows the reconstruction of a history displaced over the course of time.” This sadness of incomprehension seems related to another entry, where Renzi again tries to understand what he has written:
One of the lessons…is the fluctuation between what can be done or said and what can be neither said nor done. A diary should be written about the second part of the sentence; that is, you should ultimately write about the limits or the frontiers that make certain words or actions impossible.
What these diaries slowly, remorselessly demonstrate is the sadness of existing inside a single I. The I doesn’t know where it is, or what story it is living through: “Suffering eludes understanding as long as one is living through it, in spite of knowledge, which cannot transform it or prevent it from taking place.” And this is why Renzi is so intent on discovering solutions to what seems like a problem of literary technique—narrative perspective. (Scattered everywhere in the diaries are small reading notes and reminders like this: “Romberg, B. Studies in the Narrative Technique of the First-Person Novel.”) These diaries represent a limit case of Piglia’s obsession: to establish the act of narrating as a philosophical investigation.
In his novels, this was done through his virtual reality games—with fake texts, erroneous attributions, bravura sci-fi settings. But here the material is tenderly ordinary, and therefore somehow more urgent. As he writes his first stories, Renzi is always trying to find a structure that will adequately represent the blindness of the present moment:
You are inside the world you narrate. What I mean is that you must never say anything that is external to the universe of the action. The narrator must know less than the protagonists.
A narrator who adheres to the present and relates the events as they take place without imposing onto them the meanings they will have in the future.
The comedy is that Renzi is already—unknowingly—inside his ideal literary form.
Formative Years is one of the great novels of youth: its boredom, powerlessness, desperation, strategizing, delusion. Renzi writes an essay on Pavese’s journal, and the way he reads it is less a clue to the meaning of Pavese’s work than another element in Piglia’s portrait of self-dramatization and theater:
It proves that all writing holds a secret and is the site of some revenge. The secret is always a wound (impotence, alcohol, self-destruction); the revenge is the penance that life makes the writer pay. The poet consumes his life up until the final judgment and, in suffering, pays the price for the beauty he produces.
But if it were only a portrait of the artist as a young man, I don’t think Formative Years would be so moving. One of Piglia’s most famous essays is “Theses on the Short Story.” In it, he sketches an idea that the best short stories are those that tell two stories: an apparent story and a hidden one. The trick of a story’s construction, he argues, is for its ending to “make appear artificially something that had been hidden.” To end a story, he later wrote, is to “discover the crossing point which allows entrance into the other plot.”
A story is a puzzle, the way living is a puzzle. It reproduces, Piglia wrote, “the constantly renewed search for a unique experience that would allow us to see, beneath the opaque surface of life, a secret truth.” Which is perhaps why it takes so long to realize that this journal impassively records not only a novelist’s self-creation, but a society’s unraveling. In the student arguments over Marxism and the stories about Perónist sympathizers, which seem like background to this stand-up routine of youth, you realize that what you are seeing is history coalescing out of the general atmosphere. For in a world where fiction maintains coded relationships with the machinations of power, a novelist and critic must be just as much a historian. These conversations and demonstrations and rumors represent a conspiracy of details that would eventually lead to the junta, and the years of the disappearances. But power has this magic trick in its repertoire: only allowing itself to be noticed when it is too late.