The Art of Flight
By Sergio Pitol
Translated by George Hensen
Deep Vellum Publishing, 2015
424 pages, $12.93
Reviewed by Nichole L. Reber
The Art of Flight is the first installment of Mexican writer Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, a lengthy collection that introduces us to Pitol’s blend of critical and personal essays, memoir, and fictional styles. Long, complex sentences, resistance to straightforward answers, and a keen intellectualism visible in topical and stylistic choices make this an esoteric reading choice.
Originally published in Spanish in 1997, The Art of Flight’s translation marks Pitol’s first time in English, though he’s published plentifully around the globe. Since the 1960s, Pitol’s garnered international renown because of his own translations of Russian, Polish, English, and German into Spanish, and his literary prowess has attracted (and arguably influenced) the likes of rising star and fellow Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli.
Their work does share commonalities. They’re both prone to ekphrastic writing and long sentences, for instance. And in a Granta series called The Best Untranslated Authors, Fuiselli echoes a topic the older author often mentions: refuge found in books and bookstores. It was as a teenager seeking momentary refuge in a Mexican bookstore’s foreign classics section that she discovered and became enmeshed in his work. “Pitol is probably one of Mexico’s most culturally complex and composite writers. He is certainly the strangest, most unfathomable and eccentric,” she writes, admitting that she originally thought he was another white European writer, not at least because of his eclectic writing.
That’s fair, considering the years the enigmatic Cervantes Prize-winning writer lived as a translator, teacher, writer, and diplomat in Paris, Warsaw, Budapest, Moscow, Prague, Rome, Beijing, and Barcelona. Within a few pages of the first essay in the collection readers witness the influence of these international experiences on the diction and syntax, not to mention dynamic uses of register.
In a piece called “Droctulft and Others,” Pitol writes:
If in certain periods Russian and Polish writers, in others, the English, the Central Europeans, the Latin Americans, Italians, or the Spanish Golden Age, have played a hegemonic role in my education, it has never occurred to me that this might transform me into a writer foreign to my own language. Something of them was possibly incorporated into my literature after passing through different filters to some area of my conscience, not the deepest, not in those secret folds of being where the first experiences of the world or the embers of first loves reside, where the true source of imagination is found.
The multigeneric nature at play in this 400-page book would have been considered transgressive in Pitol’s earlier decades of writing. Currently, however, his amalgamation of memoir and criticism, personal essays and fiction, prose and poetry is de rigueur within today’s American nonfiction scene. Consider that of poet/memoirist Julie Marie Wade. Yet bittersweet is the timing of its publication. Pitol apparently suffers from progressive primary aphasia, a neurological disorder “which is robbing him of language,” according to translator George Henson, who says Pitol simply doesn’t speak. They were therefore unable to consult on translating word pairs, locating obscure quotes sprinkled throughout the work, or deciphering nuanced meanings or intentions with words or phrases intrinsic of the polyglot’s linguistic flair. “It’s written in many styles, registers, and voices. There’s lots of intertextuality, extensive quotations (often with little attribution), oblique, obscure, and arcane literary references,” Henson says in an Asymptote interview
Beyond technical qualities, Pitol also weaves the stylistics of travel writing into the tapestry of his work. He personifies cities. In one case, Venice is like a good friend, possibly even a lover, with whom a relationship deepens over time:
The first time, it bears repeating, I saw the city without seeing it. Instead I saw it in fragments, emerging and disappearing, with incorrect proportions and altered colors. The spectacle was at once unreal and marvelous. Over the years I have corrected that vision, each time more magnificent, each time more unreal.
Mexico City is someone else entirely.
I returned to the country (Mexico) with the idea of devoting my time and energy exclusively to writing. I felt an almost physical need to live with the language, to listen to Spanish all the time, to know it was around me, even if I did not hear it. The Mexico City I encountered seemed foreign and stubbornly complex. I persevered for four years without being able to assimilate it, nor assimilate myself to it.
Pitol exhibits pathos in recurring themes of politics, fine art, and appreciation of friends. Though the pages will find readers laughing at his comedic self-mockery that’s reminiscent of another comic essayist, Joseph Epstein. (Apparently the Mr. Magoo of travel writers cannot keep his glasses in his hands or on his face, as obviated in the intro and the opening essay.) One of Pitol’s most robustly covered subjects is literature itself. Quips from Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, and others are the extensive and sometimes obscure quotes Henson mentioned strewn throughout Art.
Another comes as the title in the essay, “The Marquise Was Never Content to Stay at Home,” which refers to the Communist Manifesto. In it, Pitol personifies the Marquise as various characters within the world of lit crit, or, maybe they’re writers within it. All the while he angles to show that it’s the right of literature to evolve. He repeatedly reshapes the Marquise each time she leaves her proverbial home. She is a highfalutin title whose jewelry requires adjustments. She is then an aging woman of “homespun simplicity” who’s considering exile. Then, her character wonders, what would a novelist make of her, something of a “steel stiletto,” left fist raised as she marches through the streets? Finally, the Marquise leaves one more time, this time in a coffin. The end of this essay exemplifies one of those points in Pitol’s work where the reader isn’t quite sure what the author thinks the future of novels is, or what he even thinks of today’s novel. Because he never wrestles anything head-on he makes the reader do due diligence.
That’s one of the qualities that will make readers return to one or more pieces—to figure out what they missed the first few times or to enjoy those things again.
In the end, it’s curious to consider that Pitol’s work has been translated into ten other languages before reaching Gringolandia. Given today’s trend of reading non-white authors, we need more works like this. Thanks to groups like Three Percent at the University of Rochester, which works to raise the amount of contemporary translations published in the States above three percent of total books published annually, more are coming. Thanks also to Dallas-based Deep Vellum, which brought Art of Flight to life in English.