Reading A Pretentious Work

I occasionally select books from the research library based on their covers alone. The last time I did that was a disaster! But I am a sucker for beautiful covers and for novelty, so I recently checked out Adam Buenosayres by Leopoldo Marechal, an Argentine author whom the blurb at the back of the book compares to James Joyce. That should have sounded alarm bells in my head. But it didn’t. I honestly can’t say that I dislike the book, but it is an extremely pretentious work. Allow me to give you a taste:

“(Samuel Tesler, philosopher, lectured his disciples in the Agora many times on the inanity of woman, who, being a mere fragment of the Adamic rib cage, could barely hide her naked metaphysical lack. Precisely this destitute nudity – he affirmed with abundant quotations both modern and classical – explained why women were eternally obsessed with getting dressed up at any cost and did not hesitate to strip carnivorous animals of their sleek furs, birds of their sublime plumage, reptiles of their scales, trees of their fibres and bark, worms of their glistening spit, and the earth of its precious metals and gems. Samuel Tesler, philosopher, did not censure this exploitation of the three kingdoms, meant to repair an absolutely irreparable nakedness, even though a certain cosmic pity, which never brought a tear in his eye, occasionally moved him to lament the sad lot of the lowlier creatures…”

Yeah. The whole 700 page novel is written like that. Marechal uses the most contrived language possible to get across a simple message: Samuel Tesler is a mysogynistic jerk. Marechal should be arrested for his abuse of adjectives!  In the introduction the author says that his work is more poetry than prose, but the imagery in Adam Buenosayres is not elegantly woven into the narrative. Everything is thrown forcefully at the reader.

It’s not just the imagery that causes me to roll my eyes though. The dialogue is painful to read. Nobody speaks the way Samuel Tesler and Adam speak in this novel.

[Tesler to Adam concerning a lover named Haydée]: “I mean there was no initial bedazzlement, in spite of the methodology. I’m telling you, at first Haydée was nothing more to me than a topographical feature of Saavedra; she left me completely indifferent. In a word, I didn’t notice any symptoms betraying the penetration of one of the Imp’s arrows into the third space of my rib cage…Then, in the course of my metaphysical inquiry into primordial matter, I started observing all her gestures, poses, and grimaces. As you can see, it was merely out of scientific interest.”

I will stop there. If I go any further, I will have to include words and imagery Tesler uses that are not safe for work.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf are two of my favorite works of all time. They are also considered two of the most pretentious works of the English language. So why am I so critical of Adam Buenosayres?

I appreciate poetic language in literature. The narratives of Moby-Dick and Mrs. Dalloway are non-traditional, but the styles have a purpose. Through the use of stream-of-consciousness, Woolf allows the reader to explore her characters in a way he/she couldn’t otherwise. Instead of telling everything from Clarissa’s perspective, the reader is introduced to the perspectives of many seemingly different characters. The similarities in the wants and dreams of the characters are striking. Melville uses imagery from whaling and cetology as metaphors to explore the character of Captain Ahab and human nature in general. In neither work do I get the feeling that the authors are trying to show off. In contrast, the narrative styles employed in Adam Buenosayres add nothing to the story. Here are a bunch of intellectuals experiencing metaphysical crises over beautiful women! I sincerely hope Marechal is mocking his characters.

This is just a weird book. Everything pointless is described in great detail, and the images can be extremely crude and offensive. While I probably should stop reading it and move on to something else, I just have to read on. Maybe all of it will make sense in the end. The blurb at the back of the book suggests that the work is a parody of 20th century Argentine intellectual life, so hopefully I will appreciate the parody by the end of the book. But for now, I’ve got to say that this is the most pretentious work I’ve ever read.

What is the most pretentious work you’ve ever read? Why did you feel that way?

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8 thoughts on “Reading A Pretentious Work

  1. I don’t usually make it through books I find pretentious! An example is Justine by Lawrence Durrell, which other people in my book club wanted to read, but which I found totally insufferable and opaque. I think I read a few chapters before giving up. On the other hand there are some books I adore that I’m sure other people find pretentious, with all their literary allusions, footnotes, and invented literature and history — for example, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, and Possession by A.S. Byatt. Thank goodness we don’t all have the same tastes, or a lot of authors would be in trouble.

    • I purchased Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and am excited to read it. It looks like it is a beautifully-constructed fantasy book (like LOTR or The Wizard of Earthsea). I have definitely heard mixed things about Byatt. Possession definitely incites strong feelings. I definitely need to get my hands on a copy.

  2. I don’t know that I’d characterize the work as a whole pretentious, but the two main characters of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger were insufferably pretentious. They were constantly name dropping obscure punk bands, and quoting philosophers at casual dinner parties. I finished the book, because I found the idea of time travel caused by genetics interesting, but I detested the characters that the author intended me to love.

    • Nor have I. This is why I’m starting to think that the pretentiousness is deliberate. Marechal is probably making fun of Argentine intellectualism of the early 20th century. If that is what he’s trying to do, he is succeeding. The dialogue is obnoxiously pretentious. How can you read that and not laugh?

  3. Thanks for these beautiful quotations! I’m sure I’ll enjoy the novel when I get to it. You see the fact that it finally got translated changed my plans for reading and reviewing it a bit. Actually I’m a fan of cerebral and, yes, you could say “pretensions” literature. Great to see someone reading Marechal at all, as this translation wasn’t on any widely distributed lists of books forthcoming in 2014, and even now some time after its publication I have difficulties finding reviews of it in any literary magazines. Your blog is quite interesting, and I’ll definitely be exploring it.

    • Thanks for visiting. I really do think I will finish it. I have a feeling Marechal is mocking Argentine intellectual life. It seems to be a satire and I like a good satire. It is getting on my nerves so it is clearly doing its job well 🙂

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