May 2014

Micah McCrary

nonfiction

Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography, with 19 Erotic Sonnets by Salvador Novo, translated by Marguerite Feitlowitz

I'll begin by reminding us all that Salvador Novo's Pillar of Salt, as it's reviewed here, is a work in translation. Too often readers and reviewers discount this fact -- we praise or lambaste verse or prose as it's been presented to us, disregarding its translated nature. Translators therefore (and unfortunately) are treated as understudies for the actors we went to the theatre to watch in the first place.

With this in mind, I want to say that Marguerite Feitlowitz's translation is nothing short of beautiful. I can only imagine that, like a translator of Marquez or Neruda, her challenge of bringing Novo's text to the English language might have felt insurmountable at times, finding herself at a crossroads with every choice and question of diction and nuance.

"To mind," Edith Grossman writes in Why Translation Matters, "a translator's fidelity is not to lexical pairings but to context -- the implications and echoes of the first author's tone, intention, and level of discourse. Good translations are good because they are faithful to this contextual significance." Novo, from what I can tell, is quite contextually significant. The introduction to Pillar of Salt, written by Carlos MonsivŠis, especially helps to position us in front of so much of this context. And if "translators translate context," as Edith Grossman asserts, then what we encounter when we read Pillar of Salt is a supreme translation not only of language but also of culture, politics, sexuality, and boyhood.

"The bildungsroman," MonsivŠis writes in his introduction, "the novel that charts the progress from youth to maturity, finds its form in this case through the extraordinary nerve of an essentially autobiographical writer who takes pleasure in showing that which he considers normal because it is inevitable, but which others will judge highly pornographic." Use of the word "pornographic" here refers to the explicit detail by which Novo gives us his experience of growing up. But if any of us, really, were to be honest in our coming-of-age stories, I doubt that at every turn they would be appropriate for an immature audience. There may be some G-rated kissing, but those points at which we really discover ourselves -- our bodies, our confusion, our desires -- should perhaps take responsibility for making us turn our heads and blush.

Novo's work here -- really, his ambitions -- bring to mind the memoir The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante, a book praised for its playfulness and experimentation with the memoir form. This comparison encourages us to ask how, exactly, the memoir (or autobiography, in general) can "play" -- I suggest that autobiography reaches playfulness when it prioritizes the interpretation of experience over fact. The dull autobiography acts as mere reportage, a chronicling of events that lead to one's present spot in life. But autobiography that reels us in often does more than just chronicle. It interprets. It's at times unsure of itself. It embraces Keats's Negative Capability.

"In his memoirs," MonsivŠis also writes, "Novo is the novelist who will not be held back this time by the urgencies of journalism, he is the re-creator of a most unusual provincial childhood, and he is the forty-year-old gay man trying to impart the highest degree of materiality -- that of writing -- to the fundamental experience of his life, which is being homosexual." Use of the words "being homosexual" here provides a way for us to focus not on homosexual acts but on Novo's identification. Novo's book is no more a mere list of experiences than a manual for how one should act during teenage discovery.

Novo himself holds an impressive instinct for reflexivity; or, at least, Feitlowitz's translation gives us this impression, with moments like the following:

This is the period of my first sexual memories; though discontinuous and disjointed, they are recounted here in close proximity. We had at home a little servant, named Samuel, with whom I used to play. When I played alone, making altars with my blocks and empty cookie boxes, I didn't need anything or anyone else. But when I played with that boy, I wanted us to pretend to be mother and son, and he then would have to suck on my right breast with his hard lips and erect tongue. This caress filled me with a strange pleasure, which I only recaptured many years later, when in a moment of exquisite surrender, I recalled that first and perhaps definitive experience, which may have been the original trauma that explains the formation of my adult libidinal predilections.

We come to know that Novo is very, very good at working temporally with his prose. Without an ability to shift seamlessly between narration and reflection, autobiography often runs the risk of falling flat; with Novo, however, a careful craftsman with temporal details, we're able to glance at both who Novo was and who he is in the moment of his writing, which reminds us that he is, above all, thoughtful. Both thoughtfulness and uncertainty can be difficult things to translate, but Feitlowitz has handled both with care. She's provided us not only with a text but with a character -- Novo is a charismatic and charming individual here, one with whom I would make certain friends, and I owe this assumption to the treatment of language and idiosyncrasy given to the book while translating.

Lastly, we can't forget that Pillar of Salt contains erotic sonnets, which Feitlowitz has translated with equal skill. "Playing on the gender values of his native Spanish," Feitlowitz writes of Novo in "This Flower of Fourteen Petals," her introduction to the sonnets, "he said the soneto was the 'gallant husband' of the sonata in a marriage of music and mind, sense and sensibility." With stanzas like "A Proust who lives in Mexico! In these / pages I would paint the wordless idylls -- / delicious and forbidden -- / of a chauffeur, a robber, a policeman" we see that Novo is always at play. Calling himself "a Proust who lives in Mexico" should be evidence enough of this "marriage of music and mind," and we read on with ecstatic giggling and glee.

"Novo infuses his sonnets with the characteristics of other literary genres," Feitlowitz writes, "he sets the scene; weaves a plot; establishes a palpable identity for both the speaker and the one to whom the lines are addressed; he creates and manipulates our expectations; he draws us in, often, ultimately, to fence us out." Novo as Speaker is easy to hold, as his charisma shines through in every line, but locating "the one to whom the lines are addressed" is a more difficult task. With so many of his sonnets performing as love poems, one can't help but wonder to what lucky boy the poems might be addressed: "What do I do in your absence? I stare at your picture / trying as best I can for consolation; / when I get hot, I introduce a finger / in effigy of the plantain I pine for."

"It is fascinating and often fruitful to try on another skin," Luc Sante writes, "but it is ultimately meaningless if one hasn't acknowledged one's own." As with any good autobiographical performance, whether in verse or in prose, Novo has shown both his skin and others', giving us a titillating view of what it means to be both revealing and reserved. This may be the summit of Novo's presentation: the gaze we discover when we peek with an almost pubescent curiosity.

Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography, with 19 Erotic Sonnets by Salvador Novo, translated by Marguerite Feitlowitz
University of Texas Press
ISBN: 978-0292705418
216 pages