Writing Lives, Writing Lies: The Pursuit of Apocryphal Biographies

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Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright, and Augusto Monterroso's Lo demas es silencio: La vida y la obra de Eduardo Torres underscore in a Borgesian fashion the fictionality and incompleteness of biographical discourse. In their works, parodic and apocryphal writings revise the relationship between the biographer and the biographee, and pose the question of whether it is really possible to write someone's life.

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Why is it so fascinating to read about an invented writer and about his or her literary and/or academic production? What is entailed in the pursuit of creating fictional authors? To answer these questions I turn to the master of apocryphal writing, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), whose works often underscore the incompleteness inherent in writing someone's life. Particularly, his 1935 collection of "invented" historical characters, Historia universal de la infamia, and his short narratives, "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" and "Borges y yo," come to mind. Indeed, Borges's works and literary persona have permeated many efforts made among contemporary United States and Latin American writers to re-situate the role of the author as a fictional biographer of non-existent writers who claim to be real writers beyond the fictional realm.

Apocryphal biographies, a genre that I see as clearly departing from Borges's works and literary persona, encompass the discursive implications of two commonly used terms: "fictional biographies" (which emphasize factual over fictional knowledge) and "biographical fictions" (which emphasize fictional over factual knowledge). In the case of Barges and other contemporary writers, such terms are problematic since, in their works, writing is often (if not always) an apocryphal exercise, an incomplete task based on "writings or statements of questionable authorship or authenticity" (see apocrypha, American Heritage Dictionary). In this essay, I privilege the term apocryphal biographies (rather than mock or fictional biographies), since apocryphal texts are not always considered completely false or lacking in truth. Rather, their existence often invites us to reconsider an established truth or even the authenticity of an original text. Indeed, this process of contrasting the original versus the apocryphal best ill ustrates the aesthetic program behind Borges's universal library--the network of fictional and verifiable authors, quotations, and texts that makes up his writings.

Indeed, Steven Millhauser (1942- ) and Augusta Monterroso (1921- ) have revamped this aesthetic program into an academic exercise a la Borges by their relentless pursuit of apocryphal biographies in their writings, which I summarize in the title phrase of my essay as "writing lives, writing lies." Millhauser's fiction is strongly rooted in biographical writing and is suggestive of biographies or essays about real writers or artists. His 1972 novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright, tells the story of a child genius writer, and his 1991 novella, Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846), portrays the life of nineteenth-century artist and Harvard undergraduate Edmund Moorash. Millhauser, a kind of postmodern biographer, seems preoccupied with telling real lives as opposed to fictional ones. He insists on the real nature of his protagonists as much as he suggests that he is both a novelist and a biographer. In this sense, his 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Martin Dessler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, reconstructs the life of the entrepreneur following the pseudo-biographical model of his earlier works.

Likewise, Monterroso's fictions privilege the figure of a writer who is fond of apocryphal and biographical writing. In Lo demas es silencio: La vida y la obra de Eduardo Torres, La oveja negra y obras completas y otras cuentos, and Movimiento perpetuo, Monterroso revises his role as a fabulist and features an eccentric revisionist writer who--like himself--parodies traditional tales. …