Gustavo PÉrez Firmat


Vanguard fiction exists between parentheses. From its inception the genre enjoyed a subordinate, liminal status, a parenthetical placement amply documented in the hostile reaction of many reviewers. As we have seen, these novels were insistently regarded as a deviation from the normal course of development of the modern Hispanic novel -- less a “prelude” than an interlude, and less an interlude than an indecorous carcajada: a boisterous, momentary disruption of the serious business of novel writing. Ortega, once more: “the novel imposes an inexorable Decalogue of imperatives and prohibitions. One shouldn’t toy with the novel. It is perhaps the only serious thing left in the realm of poetry.”

The vanguard novel does not need to be told, however, that its playfulness is out of order, for it knows this full well, as it knows that a nebular, pneumatic novel -- the novel of play -- will be inevitably parenthesized, cordoned off and segregated from contiguous forms. But this fate does not faze the genre, which voluntarily occupies the enclosure in which others would imprison it. When critics bracket or denaturalize these novels, they are only repeating the genre’s initial gesture. As in Salinas’ story, vanguard fiction begins by shutting itself in a closed world, by opening parentheses and placing itself inside them. And I say “initial” not only because of “Mundo cerrado,” but also because, from the first, parentheses have figured largely in my own discussion. In chapter 2 the crucial passage on volatilization depicted the pneumatic effect as an expansive, adversative parenthesis, as the “in” in (in)subordination. And even earlier, in the first chapter, my argument grew out of the consideration of a parenthetical remark: “The novel already knows its masters; it has learned to love them and begins to feel the need to choose them. In the beginning -- one must not forget that the novel, with its present characteristics, is yesterday’s genre -- to say ‘novel’ was, implicitly, to allude to Balzac.”

Consider now, in light of the foregoing, this excerpt from the initial paragaph of El profesor inútil, 1926 edition:

The students are away in the country. The notebooks are asleep on their desks. Today I can feel that I fully exist; I can follow beat by beat, metaphor by metaphor, the rhythm of my body, the rhythm of my soul. I have a few hours to attend to my own spectacle, to lean over the railing and observe the deepest eddies of my soul. It is the first morning of my vacation. With my back to the books, far from the curious eyes of my students, I can invent a morning. On other days, when the little tyrant that pursues me makes me see things according to the books, in every stone and in every tree I see only a name, a word from a dictionary. Today I can forget all the catalogues and create a new, beautiful nomenclature. In this seventh day when the gods rest, I will collaborate with nature’s plan to renew its contours, worn down by the slow pounding of the centuries.

Like “Mundo cerrado,” these sentences inscribe another of those privileged, inaugural moments: the first paragraph of the first novel by the best of the vanguard novelists. And as with “Mundo cerrado,” I take this beginning as emblematic. The professor, a master of ceremony, is here officiating at the inauguration of the genre, an inauguration that consists also in opening a parenthesis. For a vacation is a parenthesis in time, a suspension of daily habits and chores. As Rafael Laffón perceptively remarked: “A vacation action: a parenthesis of action or action contradicted.” What Laffón could have added, though, is that this vacation involves a special sort of inactivity, for the professor intends to use the hiatus to initiate a new enterprise. He speaks of wanting to “invent,” of naming, and even alludes to the Genesis account of creation. As a kind of deus otiosus, the professor will devote his sabbatical to the leisurely exercise of his creative powers. The title of the vignette, “Mañana de vacación,” summarizes his ambition: to start afresh, to begin anew, but to do so outside of time, or better, in his own time. For this reason, the novel opens on the morning of a new day, a different day, one freed from the usual rules and restrictions. To confirm the symbolism of the event, let me quote a sentence from the prologue to Paula y Paulita: “Freed from the oppressive impediments of centuries, Art relaxes during its vacation, without resolving to act again, to sin again.” The similarity in phrasing confirms that the portrait of the professor renders also the profile of the artistic moment, the genre, to which he belongs. Jarnés could just as well have named this vignette: “Mañana de vacación, or The Professor and His Class,” for vanguard novels are nothing if not vacation pieces, idle fictions for the professor’s days off.

A vacation, literally, is an emptying. Hence, alongside the references to creation, the opening ceremonies include several mentions of obliteration or effacement: the students’ notebooks are “sleeping”; the students are out of sight; the professor has “turned his back” on his books; he is going to “forget” everything he knows. No more books, no more students, no more classrooms -- which is to say, also, no more professor. While on vacation Jarnés’ protagonist intends to forget himself, to block out who he is and what he does. He is trying to obliterate precisely all those things that so bedevil the narrator of Escenas junto a la muerte. Thus, the professor’s behavior reveals that he also feels oppressed by time, by tradition, by that cultural storehouse of memories incarnated in the church of Escenas. Like candidate #7, he lives with the nagging concern that nothing remains to be said because language and nature have been exhausted. His good humour is simply a cover, the other face of candidate #7’s melancholy. This is the professor’s crucial, if unintended, lesson: in vanguard fiction euphoria is a sign of depression, youthfulness a sign of age, vitality a sign of fatigue, levity a sign of worry. Like Proserpine in Batty’s poster, the genre leads a charmed, dual existence, oscillating between the upper- and the under-world, between the sanguine ramblings of the professor and the somber meditations of candidate #7. Vanguard novels bring us a literature of exhaustion in the register of delight.