Back in 1997 or so, I ran across a tantalizing review of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ memoirs, Memorias: Infancia, adolescencia y como se hace un escrito. In a short write-up, a scholar mentioned the Argentine author’s affection for Louise Brooks. This excited me, as I had been aware of Bioy Casares and his work through his friendship with Jorge Luis Borges, a favorite author. Always on the look-out for references to Brooks, my favorite film star, I set to find out more; I couldn’t imagine how these two interests could be linked.
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, 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.
One recent review noted, “Though it was published in 1940, the book’s continuing relevance was recently proven when it was featured on Lost — a cameo many viewers perceive as a key to that TV show’s plot. Just know that Morel is a poetic evocation of the experience of love, an inquiry into how we know one another, and a still-relevant examination of how technology has changed our relationship with reality. It’s also a great read.”
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.
QUESTION: You said that the inspiration for La invención de Morel came to you, at least partially, from the vanishing of Louise Brooks from the movies. What happened with you and Louise Brooks?
ADOLFO BIOY CASARES: I was deeply in love with her. I didn’t have any luck, because she disappeared quickly. She went to Europe, she made a film with Pabst, and then I didn’t like her so much as when she was in Hollywood. And then, she vanished too early from the movies.
QUESTION: Could she be seen as one of the characters in La invención de Morel?
ADOLFO BIOY CASARES: Yes, she would be Faustine.
QUESTION: It’s funny, because everybody falls in love with Louise Brooks through her German films.
ADOLFO BIOY CASARES: Well, I didn’t.
Bioy Casares loved film, and once wrote, “I want to wait for the end of the world on the seat of a movie theater.” Bioy Casares also loved the stars of his youth, and named names. In the above mentioned interview, Bioy Casares goes on to say that when he was young he went to the movies all the time, and also had a liking for Marion Davies and Anna May Wong. He also liked Garbo, though only in the light-hearted Ninotchka. Bioy Casares didn’t care for horror films, though he mentions in the interview that Borges was a big fan of The Bride of Frankenstein. I wonder if Bioy Casares would have liked that film more had director James Whale cast Brooks, his first choice, in the role of the bride, instead of Elsa Lanchester.
Here is the passage from Bioy Casares memoirs in which he discusses Brooks and his love of early film.
Progresivamente me aficioné a las películas, me convertí en espectador asiduo y ahora pienso que la sala de un cinematógrafo es el lugar que yo elegiría para esperar el fin del mundo.
Me enamoré, simultánea o sucesivamente, de las actrices de cine Louise Brooks, Marie Prévost, Dorothy Mackay, Marion Davis, Evelyn Brent y Anna May Wong.
De estos amores imposibles, el que tuve por Louise Brooks fue el más vivo, el mas desdichado. ¡Me disgustaba tanto creer que nunca la conoscería! Peor aún, que nunca volvería a verla. Esto, precisamente, fue lo que sucedió. Despuesde tres o cuatros películas, en que la vi embeselado, Louise Brooks desapareció de las pantallas de Buenos Aires. Sentí esa desaparición, primero, como un desgarriamento; después, como una derrota personal. Debía admitir que si Louise Brooks hubiera gustado al público, no hubiera desaparecido. La verdad (o lo que yo sentía) es que no sólo pasó inadvertida por el gran público, sino también por las personas que yo conocía. Si concedían que era linda – más bien ‘bonitilla’ – , lamentaban que fuera mala actriz; si encontraban que era una actriz inteligente, lamentaban que no fuera más bella. Como ante la derrota de Firpo, comprobé que la realidad y yo no estábamos de acuerdo.
Muchos años despés, en París, vi una película (creo que de Jessua) en que el héroe, como yo (cuando estaba por escribir Corazón de payaso, uno de mis primeros intentos literarios), inconteniblemente echaba todo a la broma y, de ese modo, se hacía odiar por la mujer querida. El personaje tenía otro parecido conmigo: admiraba a Louise Brooks. Desde entonces, en mi país y en otros, encuentro continuas pruebas de esa admiración, y también pruebas que la actriz la merecía. En el New Yorker y en los Cahiers du cinéma leí articulos sobre ella, admirativos e inteligentes. Leí, asimismo, Lulú en Hollywood, un divertido libro de recuerdos, escrito por Louise Brooks.
En el 73 o en el 75, mi amigo Edgardo Cozarinsky me cito una tarde en un cafe de la Place de L’Alma, en Paris, para que conociera a una muchacha que haria el papel de Louise Brooks en un filme en preparacion. Yo era el experto que debia decirle si la muchacha era aceptable o no para el papel. Le dije que si, no solamente para ayudar a la posible actriz. Es claro que si me huberian hecho la pregunta en tiempos de mi angustiosa pasion, quiza la respuesta hubiera sido distinta. Para me, entonces, nadie se parecia a Louise Brooks.
With the help of the web and an Argentine friend, I have attempted a translation of the above passage and have come up with something inelegant, but still interesting. If you are able to provide a better translation, please contact the Louise Brooks Society.
Over time, I fell in love with movies, I became a regular viewer and now I think I want to wait for the end of the world on the seat of a movie theater..
I fell in love, simultaneously or successively, with the film actresses Louise Brooks, Marie Prevost, Dorothy Mackaill, Marion Davies, Evelyn Brent and Anna May Wong.
Of these impossible loves, I was most passionate about Louise Brooks, and it made me miserable. I hated that I could never know her! Worse, one never saw her again. This is exactly what happened. After three or four movies, I was spellbound, and Louise Brooks disappeared from the screens of Buenos Aires. I felt that disappearance, first, as a tearful break; then as a personal loss. Had she been better liked by the public, I feel Louise Brooks would not have disappeared. The truth (or what I felt) is that she was little known to the public, and also to people I knew. Granted she was cute – rather ‘pretty’ – though others complained she was a bad actress; if they found her a clever actress, they regretted that she was not more beautiful. Just like before the defeat of Firpo [the Argentine boxer who lost to Jack Dempsey], I proved that reality and me disagreed.
Many years later in Paris, I saw a movie (I think by [Alain] Jessua) in which the hero, like me (when I was wrote Heart of a Clown, one of my first literary attempts), took everything as a joke and consequently was hated by the woman he loved. That character, like me, admired Louise Brooks. Lately, here in Argentina and elsewhere, there is a renewed assessment and growing admiration for the actress, which is deserved. I read admiring and intelligent articles about her in the New Yorker and the Cahiers du Cinéma. I also read Lulu in Hollywood, a diverting memoir, written by Louise Brooks.
In 73 or 75, my friend Edgardo Cozarinsky asked me one afternoon in a cafe in the Place de l’Alma in Paris if I know a girl who would play Louise Brooks in a film which was in preparation. I was the expert who was to say if the girl was acceptable or not for the role. I said yes, not only to help the possible actress. Clearly, if I had been asked the question during my anguished passion, perhaps the answer would have been different. To me, no one seemed to be Louise Brooks.
In the passage above, Bioy Casares seems to suggest that he tried to write a short story called, “Heart of a Clown,” featuring a character like himself similarly in love with Brooks. However, I am told it is not so. Reportedly, Bioy Casares tried to write such a story to impress someone when he was young, but only got as far as an idea and a title. . . . I don’t know what became of the proposed film featuring a Brooks-like character mentioned in the last paragraph. Bioy Casares’ friend, Edgardo Cozarinsky, is no doubt a kindred soul. In 1994 he completed the documentary, Citizen Langlois, about the famous film archivist and key figure in Brooks’ life.
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).
Thanks to Argentians Diego Curubeto and Erica Füsstinn for supplying and translating some of the information found on this page.
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