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The Story of a Notebook: Sergio Chejfec on Writing by Hand

At the time of Sergio Chejfec’s death last Saturday, I had recently completed a translation of his 2015 book on writing and technology, "Forgotten Manuscript." The original version of the work, titled Últimas noticias de la escritura, already enjoys a cult status in the Spanish-speaking world, and Sergio and I had high hopes that its appearance in English would meet with a similar reception among Anglophone writers and readers. "Forgotten Manuscript" is a difficult text to categorize, existing somewhere between the genres of autobiography and literary theory, scholarly monograph and ruminative essay, diagnosis of the digital and homage to the vanishing art of handwritten composition. In the following excerpt, drawn from the opening section of the book, Sergio’s relationship to a beloved green notebook inspires a broad reflection on the culture of writing in our contemporary moment. The day after I learned of Sergio’s passing, I returned to these pages and once again felt the power and elegance of his inimitable prose style, though this time the experience was tinged with the sadness of knowing that his habitual writing practices will now forever take place in the past tense. Nevertheless, I am confident that Sergio’s words have something to teach us. Few contemporary authors were as committed to interrogating the act of writing so deeply and unflinchingly. And few—if any—understood how to capture it so well. —Jeffrey Lawrence   

 

“Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche

 

One. This book can be read as the story of a notebook. One could call it a journal or a composition book—it doesn’t really matter—the important thing is that I’ve had it with me for a great deal of time.1 I adopted it immediately when I laid eyes on it, half-forgotten in the display window of an inconspicuous shop in a far-flung neighborhood of a city that I barely knew and where I had wandered for lack of anything better to do.

The scene was the following: a series of long, neutral streets that sparked neither curiosity nor enthusiasm. In the middle of the empty morning, a brisk morning, someone stopped before the store window of a small shop. I was that someone, looking intently at the green notebook next to a slim, similarly-hued vase that could barely fit two flowers. Perhaps it was the curious visual composition wrought by the two objects that initially caught my attention: the thick notebook like the squat and sturdy foundations of a factory; the vase a towering chimney from whose heights the ovens hidden within the building (the notebook) released their slender columns of heat and ash. It was as if in the midst of that redoubled solitude—the solitude of the store window and the solitude of the street—these two beings (if I may call them that) had been ushered into a silent and distant exile akin to the space of a museum.

I immediately became attached to that notebook. In the first place, I was drawn to the fact that it was a rustic object, lacking in any sort of sophistication or elegance. Second, it was incredibly cheap. Later I learned it was made in China. At that time, Chinese products had not yet colonized the world as completely as they later would—and I like to think that the successful assault of those flawless notebooks paved the way for the later conquest; the relatively successful assault, I should say, because I have never come across a notebook like that again.

The notebook has been with me since that day, a day when I was just wandering around and of which I nevertheless have the most vivid, enduring memories. Memories, for instance, of the urban landscape: blocks and blocks of nondescript buildings and empty lots that one could cross diagonally to reach the adjacent streets. Or rather, broad, inviting shortcuts that allowed anyone with a modicum of spatial awareness to save time, as if the street grid itself were optional.

That afternoon I failed to notice one practical aspect about the notebook: its sheer number of pages, approximately 300. All white in color, though time would turn them yellow, each with twenty-two lines, a hypnotic regularity. It evoked a calm sea about to be traversed, or an endless horizontal plane, page after page.2 Its thickness made it even more singular: it wasn’t one of those notebooks that one uses and then quickly throws away. Here’s an image of it, both in its closed and open state:

 

 
Cover and blank pages of the green notebook

 

Out on the street once more, I felt utterly pleased with myself considering the enormous step I had taken toward the organization, or better yet the unification, of my notes. Up to that point I had jotted things down on loose pages, sheets folded in half or ripped from notepads, once I had fully articulated a note or thought. The Chinese notebook moved me to gather these observations into a single place, though I should make clear that I wasn’t drawn to its utilitarian qualities—which certainly might appeal to someone else—but rather its fragile appearance, which, as I say, induced in me an immediate pact of cohabitation.

The notebook was also a sign of the imminent (or perhaps already existent; in any case I was unaware of it) proliferation of small notebooks and journals of various brands and designs (first and foremost the Moleskine); during this same period, I began to receive a series of stylish writing journals—as if the green notebook in my possession had opened the floodgates. They were the perfect gift for anyone who identified as a writer. I remained faithful to the Chinese notebook even as the other notebooks piled up, though given my own writing habits this led to serious difficulties and certain associated fears—difficulties and fears that have stayed with me through the years, as I will now explain.

For me the notebook represents a kind of problem. It is a cherished object from which I will never part (the few times I thought I lost it I felt something akin to a physical threat; as if an essential part of my being were at stake), and yet it is also something that, when I write in it from time to time, seems highly unstable, so much so that it occasionally slips from my memory as if it were made of an evanescent material, or as if it simply didn’t belong to me in the same form in which it exists in the world. Does this mean that the things we cherish most are the things that are most indeterminate?

 

Two. At a certain moment in my shifting relationship to the notebook, and perhaps because of it, I discovered the anomaly encrypted in the eloquent yet unstable presence of the written word. Something that allowed me insight into a dimension of writing by hand that had escaped me up until that point. I’m not referring to my own reasons for writing—those have always been clear—but rather the physical act of composition itself. I had developed an erratic relationship to my manually written notes. One of my greatest and most recurrent fears was (and still is) that I would never fill those 300 pages.

I write this in the past tense, but the truth is that I’m also referring to the present. The idea that I would never fill the notebook seemed more likely than the idea that I would. It was a Sisyphean scenario. It meant forever renouncing the desire to adopt a new notebook (and consequently renouncing the desire to relive the anarchic joy of starting afresh with clean pages). But it also meant something else that it took more time for me to comprehend, paradoxically because it was such a simple fact: filling the notebook’s pages could be interpreted as having completed a piece of writing. It was similar, in other words, to finishing—or better yet having—a book. One of those acts that acquires its true meaning precisely because it is borrowed from something else: in this case, from the idea of publication. Due to this numerical similarity between the notebook’s pages and the pages of a published book, my writing thus revealed itself to me as an inadvertent simulation—I was unprepared for this altered format, however, because of my somewhat accidental relationship to the process of writing by hand.

All signs indicated that the notebook would remain unpublished. This reminded me in turn of another kind of illusion. When I was first becoming a writer, I built up an enormous reserve of patience (or impatience?) regarding the publishing process in general, and publishing houses more particularly. Elsewhere I have referred to the problem of having a notebook filled with endless observations: as time passes, one feels that the notebook becomes the evidence of what one has failed to write rather than what one has already written. In this instance, I thought that in terms of posterity—whatever that means—what would remain was an incomplete notebook, the sign of a sort of textual indolence on the part of the so-called author, who was incapable of filling up a small number of pages given the many opportunities he was given to progress over several long decades.

And so the green notebook accompanies me almost like a mistaken talisman. An object that shames and inhibits me. It reminds me of what I’m not, and thereby affirms what I am. It makes me believe, though nothing else in reality corroborates this, that everything I do is in an embryonic stage. That I’m always stopping and starting my writing in the very same motion.3

My ambivalent relationship to writing by hand, an act to which I feel infinitely devoted and which nevertheless lacks practical application, is at the root of the question that this kind of writing, almost a ritual or ethnographic exercise, continues to inspire in me, and even more so of the intriguing yet evasive material that I continue to find in every detail that appears at each step of composition.

 

Three. The act of writing longhand extends through time in a unique way. It’s as if such writing could go on forever. It’s likely that the appeal of handwritten manuscripts derives from this assurance of continuity, which relies on a further (though mistaken) promise: that of immutability. Nevertheless, it also owes something to other modes of writing; all modes of writing draw their appeal from their mutual influences and complementary shortcomings. One is drawn toward handwritten manuscripts because, unlike more mediated forms of writing (whether produced by typewriters, word processors, or automatic transcription tools), they alone retain the signs of hesitation.4

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1Or it can be read as the effects of the notebook’s presence over a number of years. Anything present for long enough begins to haunt one. Generally speaking, I don’t like it when objects speak or make arguments for me. The notebook will therefore be present in these pages even though I mention it infrequently; it is the remote inspiration or hazy backdrop for many of these reflections on writing. Apropos of Nietzsche’s quote: the notebook is not an instrument I use to write and then think, and then write again when I’m so inclined (that is, an artifact that adapts itself to each situation), but rather an accessory I carry with me to remind myself of the strangeness of writing, the eternal flame that, paradoxically, is not always visible. The notebook is an amulet, but also an article of faith. Moreover, it’s the sign of my personal belief, which is also shared by many others: the belief in the written word. Could anyone possibly believe that writing doesn’t exist? It would be like denying the existence of rain. The notebook has thus come to represent the various links to writing that find support in my changing attitudes toward that belief.

2A memory: the wonder that lined pages produced in me when I first began to write. I vividly recall my shame at the impatience of my first-grade teacher after I raised my hand, while all of the other students were calmly bent over their desks, and asked whether I could keep writing after the lines had ended.

3 I believe this ambivalence derives from my unnatural relationship to literature, and more specifically to writing. Not long ago, I participated in a public interview with a well-known writer. With such writers, I believe that one should never ask direct questions. One should surround them with thoughts related to their texts, texts that are largely known to the world by the ideas contained within them. One of the things that I thought to say, but in the end couldn’t find the opportunity to point out—it’s not difficult to see why—is the following: writers can be divided into two camps, those who have a natural relationship to literature and those who don’t. I don’t mean that a natural relationship implies a peaceful relationship, or viceversa, that a non-natural relationship implies a conflicted one. Rather, I believe that some writers adopt from the outset a proximity to literature, while others approach it through all sorts of stratagems and hesitations. In Argentina, the archetype, as always, is Borges. The very self-construction of his figure shows him surrounded by books, reading from an early age more naturally than if he were speaking. I’m reminded here of Arturo Carrera’s metaphor, when he refers, in his work with Alfredo Prior, to “children born with a hairstyle,” but also of something else I once heard him say: writers born with a hairstyle. Graced with something more than simply knowledge: a kind of belonging or familiarity that goes hand in hand with their literary development. As if they had been born knowing they would be writers. At the other extreme, it’s easy to identify writers who come to their literary connection as something unnatural, and construct that relationship through other means.

4 By hesitation I don’t mean textual indecision (what word to use, how to continue a thought, etc.), or not only that, but also the vacillation inherent in every person’s handwriting. Even in the most beautiful and measured scripts one can find these marks; it’s a feature common to nearly all writers. One case that particularly interests me is that of Juan José Saer, to whom I will return later on. Years ago, when I had the chance to read his manuscripts, I found in some of them—though not all—a breakdown in every “s” that appeared in the middle of a word. As if each time he penned one he needed to rest, or had trouble connecting it to the next letter. I found that words that contain an “s” had a slightly larger space than normal, especially when that “s” was followed by a consonant. Those hesitations obsess me to the point that, lacking a ready answer, I tend to look for an aesthetic or structural explanation, and I begin to make associations: for instance, between reflexivity (well established in the case of Saer, whose narrative form revolves around repetition) and the form of his script. These hypotheses don’t go anywhere, but they help me to ascribe a purpose to handwritten manuscripts that is independent from the material traces they have left.


From "Forgotten Manuscript" © 2021 by Sergio Chejfec. Translation © 2022 by Jeffrey Lawrence. By arrangement with the author’s estate. All rights reserved.

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