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Felipe Alfau: curriculum vitae.

Welcome to the paradigmatic, proto-postmodernist universe of Felipe Alfau in which, unknowingly, Julio Cortizar, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec have found an inspiration. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T. S. Eliot claims that no writer, no artist of any art, contains his complete meaning alone because his significance, his appreciation, is based on his relation to the dead writers and artists that preceded him. The problem critics face with Alfau is that, after the publication in 1936 of his groundbreaking avant-garde novel Locos, a wholehearted homage to Cervantes, he was completely forgotten for over fifty years. The book was not reprinted until 1988, and practically nobody knew about him. Yet because of his engaging meta-literary style, clearly too advanced for his epoch; his influence, curiously, can be found in many recent works. Life A User's Manual, for instance, is an Alfauesque narrative exercise, even though Perec never read a word by the Spaniard. The same thing goes for Hopscotch and other classic novels written in Europe and Latin America in the sixties and after. Thus, the issue is not really to contrast and compare Alfau with those dead before him, but to finally place him among the living, his contemporaries and successors.

This special issue is the first to fully examine his life and work and is a preview of a full-length biography I have been engaged on since late 1991. For those unaware of his circumspected ups and downs, here is a brief resume:

Born in Barcelona in 1902 to a family of journalists, politicians, and artists, Felipe Alfau was raised in Guernica and the Basque country before emigrating to the United States at age fourteen. His family settled in New York City, and his father, an ex-governor of provinces in the Philippines, edited the weekly Noticias. His older sister, Jesusa Alfau de Solalinde, the wife of a famous philologist, wrote Los debiles (The Weak) at age nineteen. At first Alfau wanted to be an orchestra conductor. He wrote music criticism in Spanish for La Prensa, and switched to English after taking a couple of courses at Columbia University, one of them on Iberian letters with Federico de Onis. He wrote his first novel, Locos. A Comedy of Gestures, in 1928, but the book was not published until 1936, when Farrar & Rinehart included it as one of the first titles in its Discoverers series, distributed to subscribers by mail. Before that, a book of children's stories, Old Tales from Spain, with illustrations by Rhea Wells, had appeared in 1929. At that time Alfau began writing poetry in his mother tongue. Chromos: A Parody, a second novel, was finished in the late forties. Even with the help of enthusiastic friends like Chandler Brossard, Charles Simmons, and Daniel Talbot, who circulated it among editors, it remained unpublished until 1990, when Dalkey Archive Press brought it out to critical acclaim and it was nominated for the National Book Award. A collection of Alfau's poems entitled Sentimental Songs (La poesia cursi), in a bilingual edition, was published in 1992. He married and divorced twice, and has a daughter by his first wife. He was a close friend of Luis Munoz Marfn, governor of Puerto Rico. Since 1989, Alfau has lived in a retirement home in Rego Park, Queens.

I discovered him in 1988, when Mary McCarthy's afterword to the new Dalkey Archive edition of Locos was published in the New York Review of Books. A mystical experience immediately took place. All of a sudden, deep at heart I felt I could have been Felipe Alfau if only I had been born not in 1961 but sixty years earlier. This might sound eccentric, even presumptuous. I had had a similar sensation once before - with Mendele Mojer Sforim, aka Sh. Y. Abramovitsh, the nineteenth-century grandfather of Yiddish letters. I ran to Butler Library at Columbia University to get hold of anything written by this obscure Spaniard, and, to my surprise, found the 1936 edition of his only known novel, the very same one McCarthy was discussing. The volume had never been borrowed before by a reader. In three hours or so I devoured its two hundred-some pages, and began nurturing the hope of someday meeting Alfau. I wrote a letter to Steven Moore, senior editor at Dalkey Archive, and as an answer, I was told the Spaniard refused to receive any visitors, although I should try. The address - 436 West 27th Street, apt. 9H - and phone number followed.

That same night I called. Somebody with a peculiar, matured voice responded. Alfau was out of the country, he claimed, perhaps in Europe. He had sublet his apartment and was not expected back for several months. The man said su apellido, his own last name, was Garcia, by profession a taxidermist. The joke was clear. A protagonist, along with Dr. Jose de los Rios, in his fictionalized universe, he had become a real entity to protect the writer's privacy. Indeed, Alfau had intelligently foreseen this Scheherazade-like metamorphosis: characters have a way of growing independent, of rebelling against their creator's will and command, of mocking their author, of toying with him.... Wonderful, I thought - an invitation to a beheading where life and fiction intertwine.

Who is Felipe Alfau? I asked myself over the next few months. The typical answer I got, paraphrasing Edmund Wilson's comment on Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was, who cares? Nobody knew him, nobody gave a damn. Notwithstanding, a link, a communion between him and me, had been established. I knocked at his door several times, but Garcia always refused to allow me in, until I finally decided to play the game - to unveil Alfau's identity, to live on a Pirandellian stage, to decapitate him and unmask myself. One August afternoon, after I rang the bell and he inquired who the visitor was, I answered, Felipe Alfau. Nothing else happened on that occasion. A short while later, he moved to the retirement home in Queens, where I finally met him in May 1991 when Steven Moore, who called on Alfau without telling him he was bringing a visitor, introduced us and asked if Alfau would allow me to prepare a bilingual edition of Sentimental Songs. At that first meeting, the idea of a biography was also raised, to which Alfau reluctantly agreed. Since then a strong relationship has developed between us, based on the understanding that I am one of his fictional creations and, vice versa, he one of mine.

The interview that follows is a collage assembled from the many conversations we've held over the last year and a half (mostly in Spanish). It is followed in turn by some reproductions of manuscripts: his revised version of the first poem in Sentimental Songs and the acceptance speech he was asked to prepare in case he won the National Book Award for Chromos. (Alfau did not attend the ceremony; his editor was to have read the acceptance in his place.) Three stories from Alfau's Old Tales from Spain are reprinted next, followed by a translation of Carmen Martin Gaite's introduction to the Spanish version of Old Tales published in 1991. A few memoirs by those who knew Alfau in the 1950s and '60s follow, one (by Charles Simmons) in the form of fiction. Two important reviews are reprinted - Anna Shapiro's of Locos for the New Yorker and Gregory Rabassa's of Chromos for the Boston Review - but the rest of the essays were written specifically for this issue. Paul West, who was responsible for the nomination of Chromos for the National Book Award in 1990 - and also responsible, some grumble, for its failure to win the award - contributes an essay touching on that curious episode of cultural history. The issue concludes with a brief note by Steven Moore, the editor at Dalkey Archive who rediscovered Alfau, and a bibliography of everything written by or about Alfau to date.

We can cover up, writes William H. Gass in Habitations of the Word. We do a lot of that. We can repress, forget, mislay, jog our minds loose. But covers get uncovered occasionally and that, precisely, has been the case of Felipe Alfau. For too long a member of the Library of Forgotten Masters, he is finally thundering out of the shadow.
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Title Annotation:Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau
Author:Stavans, Ilan
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Appendix.
Next Article:Anonymity: an interview with Felipe Alfau.

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