What I found, remarkably, is that Louise Brooks stands at the heart of one of the most important works of 20th century literature. The Invention of Morel is not only an oblique homage to the actress, a small town girl, but also a means to preserve, in writing, the memory of a writer’s desire for an elusive star.
Today, Adolpho Bioy Casares (1914 – 1999) is considered one of the great authors of the 20th century. In fact, he is thought by some to be a near equal of his great friend and sometime collaborator Jorge Luis Borges. Bioy Casares authored short stories as well as novels, including A Plan for Escape (1945), The Dream of Heroes (1954), Diary of the War of the Pig (1969), and Asleep in the Sun (1978), each of which have been translated and published in English. Bioy Casares also collaborated with Borges on the seminal Anthology of Fantastic Literature, as well as a series of satirical sketches and detective stories written under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq. Late in his career, Bioy won several important awards including the Gran Premio de Honor of SADE (awarded in 1975 by the Argentine Society of Writers), the French Legion of Honor (awarded in 1981), and the Miguel de Cervantes Prize (awarded in 1991).
Bioy Casares is best known for his 1940 novella, La invención de Morel (The Invention of Morel). It has been described variously, as both a stoic love story and a metaphysical mystery. It tells of a man who, evading justice, escapes to a mysterious island. A group of travelers arrive, and the fugitive’s fear of being discovered means he must keep his distance from one of the travelers, a woman named Faustine, with whom he falls in love. The fugitive desires to tell her his feelings, but an anomalous phenomenon makes their meeting impossible. Struggling to understand why everything seems to repeat, the fugitive realizes that the people he sees on the island are nothing more than recordings made with a special machine invented by a scientific genius named Morel; this machine is able to project not only three-dimensional images, but also voices and scents, making everything indistinguishable from reality. In fact, the fugitive is the only real person on the island.
|The Invention of Morel has been adopted by reading groups|
and in college classrooms.
The Invention of Morel mixes realism and metaphysical fantasy with elements of science fiction and the Gothic to create what is widely considered the first work of “magical realism.” It prefigured the boom in Latin American literature, and proved to be Bioy Casares’ breakthrough effort when it won the First Municipal Prize for Literature of the City of Buenos Aires in 1941. Despite it being his seventh book, Bioy Casares considered The Invention of Morel to mark the beginning of his career as a writer.
Borges wrote a prologue to the The Invention of Morel in which he placed the book alongside Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Franz Kafka’s The Trial as examples of works with “admirable plots.” Borges also termed it a work of “reasoned imagination,” linking it to the philosophical romances of H. G. Wells, notably through its title, which alludes to The Island of Doctor Moreau.
In his prologue, Borges also stated “I have discussed with the author the details of his plot; I have reread it; it seems to me neither imprecise nor hyperbolic to classify it as perfect.” The Mexican Nobel Prize winning poet Octavio Paz echoed Borges’ assessment, “The Invention of Morel may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel.” Other well known Latin American writers also expressed their admiration for the book, among them the Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, and Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti.
In his memoirs, Bioy Casares wrote of his disillusionment over the decline of the screen career of one of his favorite actresses, Louise Brooks. After Memorias was published, the book and the passage on Brooks was called to the attention the Argentinian magazine Film. In their July, 1995 issue, Fernando Martin Peña and Sergio Wolf published an interview with Bioy Casares in which he expanded upon some of the points he made in his memoirs. What follows is an excerpt (in translation) from the 1995 interview.
Here is the passage from Bioy Casares memoirs in which he discusses Brooks and his love of early film.
Boiy Casares’ book was made into a French movie called L’invention de Morel (1967), and an Italian movie called L’invenzione di Morel (1974). Faustine was played by Anna Karina in the latter. Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990’s, the Quay Brothers also hoped to turn Boiy Casares’ book into a film, but were unsuccessful in their pursuit of the rights.
It is thought, by some, that Bioy Casares’ book inspired Alain Resnais’ sur-real film Last Year At Marienbad (1961), which was adopted for the screen by the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. The case for lineage is loosely made by Thomas Beltzer in his essay, “Last Year at Marienbad: An Intertextual Meditation.” Beltzer’s argument largely hinges on information found on a later-day dust jacket for Boiy Casares’ A Plan for Escape. Beltzer’s case is called into question (though not entirely refuted) by Dan DeWeese in his essay, “The Invention of Marienbad.” Both pieces are worth reading.
What is known is that Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel echoes through the television series Lost (2004 – 2010). The popular and critically acclaimed show follows the survivors of a passenger jet crash on a mysterious tropical island somewhere in the South Pacific. Like The Invention of Morel, the show contains science fiction and supernatural elements while messing with perceived reality. During season four, one of the show’s main characters is seen reading the 2003 NYRB edition of The Invention of Morel (shown below).
|Things get meta: Sawyer reads The |
Invention of Morel on an episode
of the TV series Lost.
FOR FURTHER READING:
“Memorias: Infancia, adolescencia y como se hace un escritor,” by Melvin S. Arrington Jr. World Literature Today, Winter, 1995.
— the review of Bioy Casares memoirs that brought to light the author’s fondness for Brooks
“Last Year at Marienbad: An Intertextual Meditation,” by Thomas Beltzer. Senses of Cinema, November 2000.
— essay that builds the case for the influence of The Invention of Morel on Last Year at Marienbad
“The Invention of Morel, Reading Group Guide.” New York Review Books, 2003.
— a concise summary on the novella, with study questions
“Interview with the Brothers Quay.” Electric Sheep. March 4, 2007.
— Quay Brothers discuss their 2005 film The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes and it’s relationship to The Invention of Morel
“A Different Stripe: Playing in Peoria: The Invention of Morel.” Typepad, August 10, 2007.
— NYRB blog post
“The Invention of Morel,” in The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, by Michael Sollars. Facts on File, 2008.
— analysis of the Bioy Casares novel
“The Invention of Marienbad,” by Dan DeWeese. Propeller Magazine, February, 2014.
— calls into question the linking of The Invention of Morel and Last Year at Marienbad
“Time and the Image: The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes,” by Arturo Silva. Bright Lights Film Journal, January 28, 2016.
— analysis of the Quay Brothers’ The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, with a look at it’s relationship to The Invention of Morel