Sunday, March 3, 2019

Typing isn't writing: Eduardo Halfon

Eduardo Halfon (photo: Adriana Bianchedi)

In discussing his beginnings as a writer, Eduardo Halfon has stated,
I wanted to write a story before I could write one good sentence. I didn’t yet understand that typing isn’t writing. . . [1]
Halfon may or may not have recognized that he was echoing a famous remark by Truman Capote about Jack Kerouac and other Beat authors: "They're not writers. They're typists." Capote was being dismissive of writers that he thought of as "nonstylists." But as Capote himself recognized, non-style is actually a highly self-conscious style. [2]

Non-stylists write books that commonly feature:
  • narrators or other characters who share biographical details, and sometimes a name, with the writer 
  • action that often takes place in cafés, bars, all-night diners, and other writers' hangouts
  • road trips, travel to unfamiliar places, voluntary or involuntary exile—situations which highlight the main character's sense of alienation, rootlessness, difference or nonconformity
  • A succession of quotidian details intended to provide a sense of gritty, unfiltered realism
  • prose that imitates the rhythms and diction of speech, which is intended to give the impression of being spontaneous and unrevised.
It's a style that is in international literary vogue at the moment. Its contemporary resurgence may be credited in part to the rise to prominence two decades ago of Latin American writer Roberto Bolaño. Other recent non-stylists include Augustín Fernández Mallo, César Aira, and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Despite (perhaps unintentionally) aligning himself with Capote's attack on non-stylists, Eduardo Halfon belongs in their company. His collection of interlinked short stories El boxeador polaco (The Polish Boxer, Bellevue Literary Press, 2012) has an epigram from non-stylist Henry Miller, and features a narrator named Eduardo Halfon who, like his creator, is a professor of literature.

In The Polish Boxer Halfon has a characteristic move: his narrator will assert something, then immediately undercut or contradict the assertion. A paradigmatic instance occurs in the opening of the fourth story, "White Smoke," which is worth quoting because it is so typical of Halfon's style:
When I met her in a Scottish bar, after I don't know how many beers and almost an entire pack of unfiltered Camels, she told me that she liked it when men bit her nipples, and hard.

It wasn't actually a Scottish bar, just some old bar in Antigua, Guatemala, that only served beer and was called (or was referred to as) the Scottish bar. [3]
Within a few paragraphs the uncertainties multiply:
Her hair was dark brown and she had emerald blue eyes, if emerald blue even exists.
I greeted her [friend] while they spoke in Hebrew, laughing, and I thought I heard them mention the number seven at one point, but I'm not sure why.
Without knowing why, I felt a bit guilty.
I hugged her tightly, feeling something that couldn't be named. . . [4]
If you're feeling generous, you can accept that the narrator's recurring uncertainties reflect the way the stories we tell ourselves shift over time, and the ultimate impossibility of knowing the truth about ourselves and others. And this is, indeed, one of the explicit subjects of The Polish Boxer. In "White Smoke" the narrator finds himself thinking about his Polish grandfather, "about the five green digits tattooed on his forearm, which for all my childhood I thought were there, as he used to tell me himself, so that he could remember his telephone number." Our understanding changes, and so pinning down a perception or a feeling in precise language (in this view) falsifies our experience.

As Halfon writes in "A Speech at Póvoa,"
Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a sorcerer might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing. . .Or perhaps literature, as my old friend from Brooklyn used to argue, is no more than the precipitate, zigzagging, rambling discourse of a stutterer. . .As we write, we know that there is something very important to be said about reality, that we have this something within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn't forget it. But we always do. [5]
If you're feeling less generous, you may think that it's precisely the writer's task to create the evocative image, to bring out the telling detail, to examine and articulate inchoate feelings, to observe and remember. When Halfon presents an image—"emerald blue eyes"—he immediately forestalls our imaginative engagement by adding the dismissive "if emerald blue even exists." Doesn't the act of writing the phrase bring the idea of "emerald blue" into existence? But this is the kind of writerliness that Halfon refuses, or (since he does offer us the phrase before undercutting it) half-refuses.

Like other non-stylists, Halfon's primary goal is not to write well-crafted sentences. Instead his focus is on identity, and how it is commixed, unrooted and changeable—even for those of us for whom it seems settled. The first story in the collection, "Distant," tells of a gifted student in one of the narrator's literature classes who, when his father dies, must leave school and return to the altiplano to work his family's farm. By the final story, "Sunsets," the former student may have left the farm to become a tour guide at the Mayan ruins of Tikal, and an artist. Several stories in The Polish Boxer recount the narrator's fruitless pursuit of a restlessly wandering pianist who may (or may not) be a Serbian Gypsy. Both the pianist himself and his identity are elusive.

Identity may be Halfon's central concern because his own is extraordinarily multifarious. He has Lebanese and Polish ancestry, was born in Guatemala, lived in the United States between the age of 10 and his graduation with a degree in industrial engineering from NC State, returned to Guatemala as an adult, and now lives once again in the United States. However, in The Polish Boxer it is not national but religious identity that is the most troubling. The narrator of "White Smoke" outrages the Israeli tourist he's just met: "I'm not Jewish anymore, I said, smiling at her, I retired." [6] The book ends with the narrator fleeing the bedroom of his deceased grandfather and throwing his white skullcap into a trash can. We wonder if this extreme gesture may indicate the narrator's dawning recognition that perhaps some aspects of our identities are not so easily discarded.

Two more books by Halfon have been translated into English: Monasterio (Monastery, Bellevue Literary Press, 2014) and Signor Hoffman (Mourning, Bellevue Literary Press, 2018). For more information, see: Bellevue Literary Press: Eduardo Halfon

  1. Eduardo Halfon, "Better not say too much: Eduardo Halfon on literature, paranoia and leaving Guatemala." The Guardian, 4 November 2015.
  2. Pati Hill. "The Art of Fiction XVII: Truman Capote." Paris Review. Issue 16, Spring/Summer 1957, pp. 35-51.  
  3. Eduardo Halfon, "White Smoke," The Polish Boxer, Bellevue Press, 2012, p. 72.
  4. Halfon, pp. 73, 76, 77.
  5. Halfon, pp. 176-177.
  6. Halfon, p. 72.

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