Picture with me, for a moment, a hypothetical. You're nearing the end of your life, a fabulously intellectual life. A life people will want to read about (like I said, this is purely a hypothetical). It's rapidly becoming apparent that you're going to have to write about it, since people want to read about it and everything. And say, maybe, you don't like reading diaries. They're boring, occasionally pedantic and inevitably long-winded. You will definitively not be publishing your diary. As a result you contemplate endlessly the options you have to make the story of your life read like something you would actually want to read. Something intellectually stimulating, meditative and infinitely insightful. And, of course, something which will weave together all the fragments of your life you believe to have been vital to its course.
I like to imagine Sergio Pitol's mind followed a train of thought similar, although infinitely more complex, than the one above, as he sat down to write his "Trilogy of Memory," the first book of which, The Art of Flight, was recently published by Dallas' own Deep Vellum Publishing. The publication is remarkably the first time Pitol, a legendary Mexican author, has been translated into English. George Henson, a professor and recent doctoral recipient in the University of Texas at Dallas' translation program, has masterfully rendered Pitol's thoughts and words from his native language into our own.
The Art of Flight is a memoir of Pitol's life, but only in the sense that the publishing world feels a pressing need to categorize its output (you know, the obligatory concession to marketing). It doesn't much resemble even the world's great untraditional memoirs, Nabokov's Speak, Memory, or Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, for example.
The Art of Flight is almost completely without structure, the lack of which serves to artistically convey, I would posit, the sheer breadth of experience and pervasive obsession with life and with learning, the writer embodied, better than any other method.
Pitol makes one concession to form by dividing the book into four sections -- Memory, Writings, Readings and Endings -- which have greatly assisted this reviewer in consolidating for you the multitudinous anecdotes, nuggets of brilliance, critical essays, historical references and more, of which the book is composed.
Memory is Pitol's attempt at making sense of his youth. In the opening section he merges brief essays on his formative years, aging, travel and time, with brief excerpts from his diary (I don't know if Pitol really despised reading diaries, he probably didn't, but they really are the only boring parts of the book).
Most of the essays are rather recent to the book's publication in Pitol's native Mexico (the late 1990s), and almost all seem to be written at random, as if as soon as a thought or insight came to mind, Pitol started writing anew. He fills the section with brilliant meditations on memory, the wounds of time, perhaps a tiny bit of senility (Pitol, rather unsurprisingly, looks down his nose at lower forms of culture such as television) and, most brilliantly, how little any of us understand about life, ourselves or the passing of time.
He observes aspects of human nature few of us take the time to ponder. "Lately I have been very aware that I have a past," he writes in one essay, "I can now distinguish the various stages of my life." At another point he asserts that as he attempted to write about it, his whole life was "present in my memory as a single, rather confusing entity." How many of us take the time to sift through the events of our lives to find meaning? And how many of us, by the same token, understand the wisdom we wish we'd had in our youth is only made available when it is seemingly too late.
Memory is full of those moments. Those moments which for readers are necessary in affirming the endless hours we devote to the pages of books, those elusive pages wherein an author finally delivers in words the thoughts and yearnings we've been unable, or unwilling, to patiently elucidate ourselves. It is also in Memory that Pitol best delivers a summation of his philosophy, and essentially, the entirety of the memoir, "We I would venture to guess are the books we have read, the paintings we have seen, the music we have heard and forgotten."
I almost wish that one sentence was the book's first. It encapsulates and makes sense of the seemingly random choices made by Pitol in the order and organization of Flight.
If one believes the books, art and music one consumes over a life can illustrate a life better than events, Pitol's unorthodox inclusion of various essays on his literary influences and the books he has read in Writings and Readings makes complete sense.
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In the two sections Pitol offers readers a veritable handbook on how to learn and how to grow as an artist, and even, if you will, as a human. Sure it's a window into one man's literary philosophy and the many issues he grapples with, such as the tension creative types feel between the pull of the world and the need for solitude, but if you go with him on the journey, even the most un-intellectually inclined would be remiss to leave without something gained.
It's perhaps most interesting, from a critical perspective, to see examples of Pitol's writing on others in Readings, and realize, from them, how powerfully his early experiences with criticism and a lifetime of engaged attempts at understanding his innate affinity for certain authors and stories, evidence themselves in his own writing.
The Art of Flight is an homage to the value of stepping out of your comfort zone, to the difficult imperative of staying true to yourself, to living a life consumed with an intense quest for knowledge and perfection, and above all, a paean to a love of life and the power of books.
If you value even one of those things, this book is well worth your time.