Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

The Written Life



Lois Fernandez, a Spanish author, had five biographies written about her life. She trained her first biographer when she was still in college in Seville. After her first book of autobiographical poetry was published and won prestigious prizes, she drowned in Catalonia, leaving behind an intriguing suicide note.

One of her classmates, an unpublished poet, leapt at the chance of writing her life, both because there hadn't been much of it and because he had known her personally over four years of it. He had always wanted to sleep with her because in addition to being talented, Lois was a sultry Mediterranean beauty with hazel eyes and a figure that incited the deepest ayes a Spaniard is capable of. In his biography, the author, Carlos Maria Seguin, subtly repaired the grievous mistake of having never succeeded in sleeping with Lois, by insinuating that he had. The passage in question is an inspired example of the shoddiness of the biographical craft. Carlos recalls a drunken evening after a literary club meeting, an evening replete with names of people and places, weather data, and precise descriptions of what everyone was wearing. The merry gang of young writers roams through several bars before ending in the rooms of a wealthy student whose apartment is being looked after in his absence by Carlos Maria. The revelers drop away one by one, either by stumbling drunkenly out, or passing out on the hand-woven Moroccan rugs. At long last, the two poets are left with one another, leaning drunkenly against each others' backs in front of the dying embers in the Cordoba-style fireplace, and the famous sentence occurs: "Still reciting remembered snatches of each others' verse, they recognized simultaneously, the presence of Desire, standing mute in a corner of the room, between two ogival windows." The scene ends there, but one can easily imagine (in fact, one is compelled to) the helplessness of the young bodies under the unflinching gaze of that mute witness.

Carlos Maria Seguin received a fair share of attention for his quasi-intimate portrait of Lois Fernandez, and his book sold many more copies than Lois' prize-winning but slim volume of verse. The trouble was that Lois came back to life, resurfacing in Cadaques, as if born from the foam of the sea, and mocked the young biographer, claiming, among other things, that all the paper trails she had left purposefully behind, were fabricated for the express purpose of snaring a biographer. Even her poetry had been written with that goal in mind. Furthermore, Lois was really Luis, a 28-year-old man, not a sultry female beauty.

Carlos Maria Seguin should have drowned himself in the sea, but instead he took a humble job teaching in the provinces, and was never heard from again. Luis Fernandez, now in charge of his own life, went on to write a volume of stories that didn't win any prizes. The critical establishment did not find the game amusing, consisting mostly of biographers or biographers in the making, or writers who wrote with a view toward eventual biographies.

Fernandez committed "suicide" one more time, and snared yet another biographer. When he resurfaced again, this time as an Arab woman named Fatima Lois, she declared famously that snaring a biographer was like shooting fish in a barrel, the Arabic equivalent of which is, "catching sand flies with a camel."

During the course of 80 productive years of writing increasingly obscure literary works, Fernandez (he or she always kept that name), committed "suicide" six more times, leaving behind longer and longer suicide notes that became, in the end, his or her best-remembered work. At least this is now the critical consensus reported in the last of his or her biographies by a scholar who had the body exhumed and subjected to DNA analysis, just like a criminal cold case. This last biography sold more than all of Fernandez's books, is in its eighth printing in Spain, has been translated into several languages and has garnered important prizes. The author, Pistil (one name, like a rock star) is a familiar voice and face on Spanish radio and TV. In 2005, Pistil received the prestigious Helix Prize, and is the first biographer to be nominated for a Nobel in literature.

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