The Luminous Novel by Mario Levrero review – an extraordinary autofictional diary

In the year 2000, the Uruguayan author Mario Levrero won a Guggenheim grant to write the final chapters of an ambitious novel he had been unable to complete for the past 16 years. He then set about assiduously not writing them. Instead, he dedicated most of his effort to recording his lack of progress in an autofictional diary covering the 12 months before August 2001.

A few completed chapters of the original novel are included towards the end of this wonderful book, but it’s the diary and its strange blend of fancy, fiction and daily reality that forms the bulk of its 500-plus pages. The entries, translated into delightfully clear and readable English by Annie McDermott, show the sixtysomething Levrero variously indulging and regretting his computer addiction (“I was playing FreeCell and now it’s six in the morning”); trying and failing to install an effective air-conditioning system ( “it certainly pains me to spend Mr Guggenheim’s money on home comforts”); not really trying to quit cigarettes (“ninety minutes without smoking: not bad”).

There is a decaying pigeon corpse outside his window around which he weaves absurdly engrossing narratives. His battles with Microsoft software take on titanic urgency. “I fixed word 2000!!!!” he declares, in one of the most unusual punch-the-air moments in literature. He makes small comforts, like the presence of homemade stew in his fridge, feel hugely significant. His gradual alienation from romantic involvement is as moving and engrossing as any story of a more fervent, younger lover.

“Writing every day about events that have just taken place is a mistake,” he informs us, a mere 300 pages in. By this point, it’s impossible to agree. With witty and thoughtful argumentation accompanying every such statement in the book, this is procrastination as high art. Levrero makes the quotidian seem extraordinary. You may not think you’re interested in the purchase of a new armchair, but it’s described here with such surprising humour and drama that its significance begins to feel cosmic.

There are a certain number of recollections of dreams to endure. There are also plenty of absurd theories and questionable opinions. But it’s hard to see such longueurs as faults, when they also help to complete this portrait of flawed and failing humanity – and when we know, ultimately, where all this is heading. The Luminous Novel was originally published in Spanish in 2005, a year after the author’s death. This knowledge of mortality makes his continual terror that time is slipping through his fingers yet more poignant. Every wasted moment in this book feels precious.

The Luminous Novel by Mario Levrero, translated by Annie McDermott, is published by And Other Stories (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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