The Avant-garde and the Novel

Arlt viene entonces desde un lugar que es totalmente otro lugar de ese desde el cual se escribe “bien” y se hace “estilo” en la Argentina. No hay nada igual al estilo de Arlt; no hay nada tan transgresivo como el estilo de Roberto Arlt.
—RICARDO PIGLIA, Respiración artificial

When we think about the literary or artistic avant-garde in theoretical terms it is useful to remember that its original meaning derives from a military diction. It designates the first troop of the infantry that approximates and attacks the opponent in order to gain new territories. The brave and bold who ensure the dangerous first step. In case of victory the new territory is incorporated and thus directed by the laws of the winner. In literary critic terms avant-garde is a much more heterogeneous ensemble of players and of territories. Though, in both cases nation, understood as a cultural, political and territorial entity, plays a significant role.

The Argentine critic Ricardo Piglia loans the military metaphor and points to a specification of Argentine avant-garde literature when he states: “For us, the avant-garde is a position, a location or a place in the mined field of literature.” [“Para nosotros, la vanguardia es una posición, un lugar o un sitio en el campo minado de literatura.”] Ricardo Piglia | Las tres vanguardias | Eterna Cadencia | 2016 | 35. Who does Piglia address when he says “we”? I’d like to propose a reading that understands this “we” as a reference to the Argentine nation and its literary production with special regard to the notion of avant-garde. By this, the problematic battleground of the semantic field of avant-garde is both amplified and reduced. First, the range of avant-garde is opened towards nations that emerged after colonial dissolution and are commonly denoted as “marginal”. Second, the focus of research shifts from global to national, reassessing the notion of this particular nation and its respective literature. In other words, the question that Jorge Luis Borges addressed in his famous essay The Argentine Writer and Tradition is raised: What is “our” national literature and how does it relate to literary tradition of the world?

Concurrently, literature is never national. Especially those writers that we would associate with an avant-garde movement are influenced by provocative forms, genres, and stories rather than by national frontiers. At the same time, respective social and political settings as well as technological innovations set a certain scope for literary output—a correlation that Walter BenjaminWalter Benjamin | Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit | Suhrkamp | 1991 elaborated at the beginning of the 20th century. Hence, as Piglia formulated trenchantly, concerning avant-garde the question at stake is not what is but what will literature be. What is here now that points to the future? Which forms and narrations have to be disrupted?

In terms of rupture, experimentation, and literary form the novel has triumphed both in time and space. Generously speaking, precursors of the novel can be traced already in antiquity, e.g. in Petronius’ Satyricon, and kept evolving during various avant-garde movements for which numerous reasons have been brought forward Mariano Siskind | The Globalization of the Novel and the Novelization of the Global. A Critique of World Literature | Comparative Literature, Vol. 62, No. 4 | 2010. In terms of spatial expansion the novel nowadays constitutes a norm for storytelling around the globe. One of the core arguments for the novels’ success is its formal flexibility and adaptability.

When Roberto Arlt (1900-1942), Argentine writer, journalist and inventor, explains in his Aguafuerte porteña [“Buenos Aires Etching”] Como se escribe una novela [“How to Write a Novel”], he touches upon significant questions of avant-garde writing and the novel as a form: Arlt states the most important novelists in his opinion (Flaubert, Pirandello, Dostoevsky), their different writing methods, and subsequently takes himself as an example for the novelist “pur sang” whose writing is methodless. His style resembles rather a battle against material, the novels’ figures, and the time running against the deadline. If we revive the image of the military avant-garde we see that in literature the avant-garde’s opponent is not waiting on the other side of the battlefield. It resides within the own troop and the material and socio-political structures. Neither of them is easily detected nor eradicated but has to be co-lived with.

During the 42 years of his short life Roberto Arlt wrote innumerable features, the Aguafuertes porteñas, for the newspaper El Mundo (1926-42); short stories collected as El jorobadito (The Crooked, 1933) and El criador de gorillas (The Gorilla Breeder, 1941); nine theatre pieces (1932-42) and four novels: El juguete rabioso (The Mad Toy, 1926), Los siete locos (The Seven Madmen, 1929), Los lanzallamas (The Flame-Throwers, 1931) and El amor brujo (The wicked love, 1932).Aníbal Jarkowski | Arlt, el mentalista | Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos. | 2012 These novels framed Argentine national literature from a new, always changing, marginal position, as Piglia put it. Arlt did not only attack certain dated narrative norms with his novels, but inserted new generic mixes and by this also a fresh and quick style of writing.

In a ruptured language that seemed irreconcilable with a literary text and at the same time was the perfect linguistic mimesis of the “porteño” speech, Arlt found the means to demonstrate that he “saw much more than what effectively existed” [“vio mucho más de lo que efectivamente existía”]For detailed info about Roberto Arlt see: Sylvia Saítta | El escritor en el bosque de ladrillos. Una biografía de Roberto Arlt | Sudamericana | 2000. The brutality in Arlt’s avant-garde attack is bold but at the same time the importance of this assault lies in the opening of new modes of narration. “The avant-garde artists that interest us are those who do not auto designate themselves as such. Kafka, Borges, Beckett or Manuel Puig don’t say of themselves “I’m the avant-garde”. Their place is defined by their rupture with the established conventions and because of their strong interest in narrative experimentation.”Ricardo Piglia | Las tres vanguardias | Eterna Cadencia | 2016 [“Los artistas de vanguardia que nos interesan son los que no se auto-designan como tales. Kafka, Borges, Beckett o Manuel Puig no dicen de sí mismos “soy vanguardia”. Su lugar se define por su ruptura con las convenciones establecidas y por su fuerte interés en la experimentación narrativa.”]

The importance for literary avant-garde in distinction to the military is not so much the efficiency of its attack but rather the durability of the proposed and actualized esthetics. If these propositions can’t last longer than the attack itself, the battle is lost immediately as there is no following troop to win the (metaphorical) war. The impact of Roberto Arlt’s novels and his minor, daily features have left their mark in Argentine literature and have influenced many Latin-American writers, from Ricardo Piglia, to Manuel Puig and Roberto Bolaño—to name just a few.

The feature Como se escribe una novela was first published on October 14, 1931 in the Buenos Aires daily newspaper El Mundo. It is now for the first time available in a German translation. It makes transparent how Arlt conceived his novels and emphasizes the strong connection between life and literature. In the prologue of his third novel The Flame-Throwers Arlt takes up the avant-guard task in a programmatic way and considers his beloved enemies: “I am ardently attracted by beauty. How many times have I had the desire to work on a novel that, like Flaubert’s, would be composed of panoramic canvases …” [¡Me atrae ardientemente la belleza. ¡Cuántas veces he deseado trabajar una novela que, como las de Flaubert, se compusiera de panorámicos lienzos…!].Roberto Arlt | Los lanzallamas

But Arlt neither has the time nor the commodity for this kind of style. He seals his manifesto by invoking: “Let’s create our literature, not by conversing constantly about literature, but by writing in proud loneliness books that encapsulate the violence of a punch in the jaw.” [Crearemos nuestra literatura, no conversando continuamente de literatura, sino escribiendo en orgullosa soledad libros que encierran la violencia de un “cross” a la mandíbula.]

Arlt’s novels are certainly columns of the early 20th century literary avant-garde in Argentina. Their attitude is bellicose, disturbing, and brutally honest in regards to the peculiar and incomprehensible human desires. Yet they fulfill the main criterion with which Arlt tells us How to Write a Novel: They do not ever bore us.
Quite the contrary!

I am very grateful to Emrah Serdan for his valuable comments on this paper.