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from the October 2017 issue

The Well-Stocked Mind: In Juan Benet’s Essays, a Magisterial and Daunting Exploration of the Form

Reviewed by Anne Posten

In "The Construction of the Tower of Babel," the Spanish writer tackles Bruegel, the Bible, and the necessity of treason

In The Construction of the Tower of Babel, the Spanish writer tackles Bruegel, the Bible, and the necessity of treason.

It is the special prerogative of the essay to wander: to explore, through trial and error, sifting its material to reach an unexpected conclusion or perhaps, unexpectedly, to not reach one. It is thus both a joy and a frustration when an essay truly lives up to its name, for the best essays constantly wrong-foot their readers, teasing with feints in every direction and ending on a chord far distant from the opening note. Juan Benet’s (1927–93) The Construction of the Tower of Babel, recently out from Wakefield Press in Adrian Nathan West’s impressive translation, contains two essays par excellence: the titular one, which fills the balance of the slim volume, and “On the Necessity of Treason,” a shorter, sweeter, and more personal piece that functions—despite the gravity of its subject—as a kind of literary dessert.

The two texts are a welcome addition to the scarce body of work by the Spanish writer currently available in English. West’s introduction does an excellent job of providing context and insight into Benet’s life and work. The author was born in Madrid, though his family fled the city after his father was murdered near the beginning of the Spanish Civil war. They then returned to Madrid at the conflict’s end, after spending time in various other parts of Spain. An engineer by trade, Benet was first inspired to write during lonely nights in the Spanish countryside where his work had brought him, and he heard the story that inspired his first novel while working on the Porma Dam. Benet’s writings vary widely both in subject and form, encompassing fiction, essays, and articles; the diversity of work—and perhaps the contrast between physical and intellectual endeavor—seems to have been invigorating for him, as he tended to work on several projects simultaneously. As an author whose interests—imaginary geography, the “composite self,” “push[ing] grammar to its furthest extremes”—run parallel to modernism despite his professed skepticism of it, Benet sounds so interesting that I was tempted to put the book down and search out Gregory Rabassa’s out-of-print translation of Benet’s Return to Región. This speaks to the importance of this new publication by Wakefield Press, which is to be commended for its dedication not only to publishing “overlooked gems and literary oddities,” but also to giving translators, who are often a book’s most passionate champions and closest readers, the space to familiarize the audience with the author and text they are about to encounter.

West’s introduction also emphasizes Benet’s difficulty as a writer and his stubborn refusal to make concessions to more conventional readerly expectations—the desire for comprehension among them. This is perhaps the most obvious link between Benet’s fiction and his essays. West describes the essays as “less imposing” than the fiction. But even if “The Construction of the Tower of Babel” describes a traceable train of authorial thought, it is also nothing if not erudite and seems driven just as much by the idiosyncratic passions of its author as his fiction.

“The Construction of the Tower of Babel” is, on the surface, an analysis of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1563 painting of the same name. Though it begins in the domain of general art history, it soon takes a turn toward hard architecture, only to proceed onward to a rigorous investigation of myth and thence to linguistics, arriving ultimately at an argument for the painting’s significance in the context of religious history—in effect, back to its art-historical starting point. If this sounds daunting, it is. West’s summary of the essay as “a melancholy record of the resourcelessness of the well-stocked mind as it postulates and discards the intellectual stopgaps that keep the horror of incomprehension at bay” is insightful and not inaccurate. But it is also a good advertisement for a text whose topics are so varied and treated at such an intellectual pitch that it is bound, at some point, to daunt any but the most learned and tenacious reader. Benet’s key points—that the careful depiction of architectural details in Bruegel’s painting are key to understanding his reading of the Babel myth, and that this reading was intimately linked to the politics and values of the Reformation—are ultimately clear. Nonetheless, the reader as schooled in the evolution of medieval architecture as she is ready to make use of casual references to Roger Caillois and Hermann Usener will be a rare one—and one suspiciously similar to Benet himself.

Indeed, the prose here is thorny, the sentences of a Russian-doll type that often require several readings to untangle the parenthetical clauses and find the referents. The confidence and finesse of the writing suggests that the translation is not to be blamed for this difficulty, but rather applauded for the integrity and tenacity of its rendering of material that clearly required plenty of mental firepower. Penetrating this thicket is ultimately worth it for the pleasure of watching two remarkable minds at work and for its inspiring example of the wealth of ideas that can emerge from careful analysis. One could be forgiven for thinking the subject itself a pet interest of the author, who was, after all, a builder by trade. Through Benet’s guidance, however, we find that it is intrinsically linked to essential questions about art, history, language, belief, politics, and human frailty. This is the talent of the compelling essayist: to thrill us with the complexities of a subject that we might have overlooked and to enchant us with the subjects they are enchanted by.

“On the Necessity of Treason” begins in a quite different tone than the sober, declarative one on which “Babel” ends: here, Benet opens with an anecdote. Not for the first time in reading Benet, the brilliant polymath and writer George Steiner comes to mind. Steiner, who shares Benet’s catholic interests, and a taste for recondite vocabulary, begins his essay “The Cleric of Treason” in a similar way, but reaches quite a different conclusion, unable to reconcile betrayal of one’s country with love of truth and justice. Benet’s conviction that the traitor is a necessary, even welcome figure in the order of the state must be affected by personal history (both his father and brother’s lives were shaped by dissent, the former’s lethally so) and this interest gives the essay a much more intimate, human quality. Here we have the feeling—another hallmark of a good essayist—of a writer searching for answers, trying to understand some mystery that troubles him deeply, and leaving his desk having named the problem but not solved it. And though an essay like Steiner’s may be more entertaining and may deliver a satisfying moralistic punch, there is something very moving about Benet’s sympathy for the traitor and his recognition that he is the inevitable and indispensable product of a world that has not yet achieved utopia: “. . . treason is never an aberration, but represents instead the eternal possibility of conflict between an individual who is born free and acknowledged as such, and a society that is not.” Though disparate in subject, style, form, and tone, this curiosity toward an imperfect world unites the two essays in the book, and it is this gentle acceptance of ambiguity that makes Benet’s investigations so satisfying.          

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