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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

The Diaries of Emilio Renzi:
Formative Years

Ricardo Piglia

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To purchase The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years

Title: The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years
Author: Ricardo Piglia
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 432 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years - US
Los diarios de Emilio Renzi. Años de formación - US
The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years - UK
The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years - Canada
Los diarios de Emilio Renzi. Años de formación - España
  • Spanish title: Los diarios de Emilio Renzi. Años de formación
  • The first in the The Diaries of Emilio Renzi-trilogy
  • Translated by Robert Croll
  • With an Introduction by Ilan Stavans

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting, varied life- (and reading and writing) account

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El Cultural . 18/9/2015 Nadal Suau
Letras Libres . 14/10/2015 Patricio Pron
The Nation . 2/3/2020 Jessica Loudis
The NY Rev. of Books . 19/7/2018 Adam Thirlwell
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/12/2017 Mara Faye Lethem
TLS . 22/2/2018 Alberto Manguel

  From the Reviews:
  • "El libro es imprescindible para los frecuentadores de la obra pigliana, necesario para los interesados en la literatura argentina de las últimas décadas, valiosísimo para quien se haga las preguntas que hemos establecido antes." - Nadal Suau, El Cultural

  • "En Años de formación leemos a Ricardo Piglia leyéndose, interviniendo su pasado y reescribiéndolo; el libro no es tanto la transcripción de unos cuadernos como una suma de textos intervenidos cuyo tema es la transformación en escritor de su protagonista y cuya selección está supeditada a la idea que su autor tiene acerca de qué es un escritor en 2015; y no en 1957 o en 1967, cuestión que el autor hace explícita cuando afirma que “la verdadera legibilidad siempre es póstuma” queriendo decir posterior o subsiguiente." - Patricio Pron, Letras Libres

  • "As a lifework, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi do not compare with, say, those of Witold Gombrowicz, whose decades of exile in Argentina overlapped with Piglia’s youth. They are a bit too fragmentary and ponderous, with much of the real activity -- revolution, sexual affairs -- happening outside the frame. As a novel, they often withhold the pleasures of fiction. Yet as an all-encompassing exercise, an effort not to fold life into literature but to find a way to make literature life, they are unparalleled. They are also an invaluable intellectual account of a difficult and deadly era in Argentina’s history and the insidious ways in which politics can seep into the corners of one’s life and mind." - Jessica Loudis, The Nation

  • "Splendidly crafted and interspliced with essays and stories, this beguiling work is to a diary as Piglia is to "Emilio Renzi" (.....) No previous familiarity with Piglia’s work is needed to appreciate these bibliophilic diaries, adroitly repurposed through a dexterous game of representation and masks that speaks volumes of the role of the artist in society, the artist in his time, the artist in his tradition (and perched just on the border of that tradition, peering in à la Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window)." - Mara Faye Lethem, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Piglia’s style has a startling schizophrenic quality, a characteristic he frankly acknowledged. One half of this literary persona he shared with every other writer in Spanish, the debt to Jorge Luis Borges. (...) The Diaries of Emilio Renzi (especially this first volume, Formative Years, which was originally published in 2015 and is now translated by Robert Croll) are the chronicle of this attempt, the learning of the writer’s craft as Bildungsroman." - Alberto Manguel, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years is the first in a trilogy of fictionalized diaries Ricardo Piglia crafted in his dying years, based on the diaries he had been keeping since 1957 (327 volumes in all). Piglia invents an alter ego, Emilio Renzi, as a stand-in, a way of looking back on his own life and the detailed record of it that nevertheless gives him some distance from it, and more freedom in re-writing and (re)considering it.
       The diary even cleverly begins in what seems to be the first person but turns out to be the third, giving a nice sense of where the reader stands, never able to be quite certain about the protagonist-narrator:

Ever since I was a boy, I've repeated what I don't understand, laughed Emilio Renzi that afternoon
       While most of the narrative -- much in the form of more or less traditional diary-form entries -- is in the more direct and personal first person -- Piglia as Renzi -- Piglia remains aware, and reminds readers, that: "Exorcism, narcissism: in an autobiography, the I is all spectacle". By making the 'I' an other -- Renzi -- and even then also stepping away from it at certain points in the work, Piglia tries to avoid getting caught up entirely in self -- futilely, of course -- The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years is entirely personal -- yet at least struggling with and pointing to this futility. Yet capturing the self, even with these contortions, I competing with I, remains challenging: well into his efforts, he admits:
I am worried about my tendency to speak about myself as though I were divided, were two people.
       Near the end of this volume, Piglia describes his efforts (at that time) at: "creating a new version of the concept of autobiography" -- even as the here-resulting Renzi-version, based on what presumably are fairly conventional diary-entries, would/did only take shape almost half a century later. Yet this idea -- of how to write a life, especially one's own -- obviously is of interest to him from near the beginning. Unsurprisingly, other diaries also feature prominently here, and were obviously influential: Cesare Pavese's This Business of Living, in particular -- about which, among other things, double-playing Renzi/Piglia notes:
Pavese often splits into two, speaks of himself in the second person. He plays with the double: the text is a mirror, and in it there is an attempt to persuade the "other."
       Among the other projects that he discusses repeatedly is helping his grandfather get his papers in order: in part a generous subsidy for the young Renzi, the grandfather also genuinely seems to be worried about losing his memory -- his hold on the past -- and wants to get his papers in order -- much as, more than fifty years later, Piglia tries to (re)capture and shape his own past in the short amount of time he knew he had remaining with The Diaries of Emilio Renzi.
       While most of this volume, covering the years 1957 to 1967 (after an introductory childhood overview), is in traditional diary form, there are also in-between chapters that are more conventional narratives, personal stories and essays that go on at greater length (compared to the rapid-fire short diary entries). Late in the volume, Piglia/Renzi suggests:
We can't live if we don't pause from time to time to make a narrative and tangential summary of our lives
       While engaged in a continuing narrative-summary -- the diary itself -- the interspersed chapters are such steps back, or to the side -- of the moment and time, but also allowing a different sort of reflection than the in-the-moment diary jottings do.
       A beautiful opening chapter describes Renzi's earliest years, and first engagements with books -- suddenly finding literature when he was sixteen, when a girl asked to borrow a copy of Camus' The Plague (which he neither had, nor had read, but immediately bought and wolfed down). From then on, he was devoted to literature -- and suggests: "I can reconstruct my life based on the shelves in my library". But The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years is not a bibliographic memoir: his reading is significant, but only part of it.
       Still, part of the fun of the volume is in his reactions to literature of his time, especially the contemporary authors and works discovered along the way. Half a century later, many authors advanced beyond what Renzi then had access to: a young Fuentes, a Vargas Llosa who: "ruins his novels through excessive 'intelligence' in the structural tricks" (okay, not everything changed all that much ...), and then his sitting down with Gabriel García Márquez's just-published One Hundred Years of Solitude. There are also encounters with many of authors of the time, including Borges, and the volume offers an interesting glimpse of the Argentine literary scene of those days.
       With the diaries here covering Renzi/Piglia's life from age seventeen to twenty-seven or so, Formative Years follows the Bildungsroman trail. Immersed in literature -- after the halting beginning -- he is, throughout, an avid reader and writer. Amusingly:
I learn what I want to do from imaginary writers, Stephen Dedalus or Nick Adams, for example. I read their lives as a way to understand what it is all about. I am not interested in inspiring myself with the "real" writers.
       He becomes a writer -- and comes to convince himself:
I have to understand that only my literature matters, and that I must set aside and abandon whatever opposes it (in my mind or in my imagination), s I have always done since the beginning. That is my only moral lesson. The rest belongs to a world that is not mine. I am a man who has gambled his life on a single hand.
       While somewhat politically active, and certainly politically aware, Renzi/Piglia's focus remains on the literary. That includes, however, a frustration with the limited role of the writer, as he notes also
At the moment, a writer in Argentina is a harmless individual. We write our books, publish them. We are left to live, we have our circles, our audience.
       In part a reflection of those times -- politically unrestful, but more at a low simmer -- Renzi/Piglia is also much more focused on personal struggles and development -- increasingly so, it almost seems, as the political situation grow more ominous.
       There is detailed engagement with how and what he wants to write, the uncertainty about which approaches to take as he fascinatingly describes his early works in progress. Fiction -- fictionalization -- dominates, even if he is uncertain of the exact form to embrace. And he goes so far as to suggest:
I always knew the best way to live life was to invent a character and to live according to him. If you have chosen well, there is a response ready for every situation.
       The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years is a partial memoir. Partial in only being the first of three volumes, and only covering up to Renzi/Piglia at age twenty-seven, but also in its selective presentation. Much surrounding him remains in the background -- notably family: the grandfather is the person he is most engaged with, and his parents are mentioned, but there's little space devoted to them; there's rather little background leading, for example, to the very strong statement:
Sometimes I think I should publish this book under a different name, thus sever all ties with my father, against whom, in fact, I wrote this book and will write the ones to follow. Setting aside his last name would be the most eloquent proof of my distance and my resentment.
       Certainly, there could have been more explaining this -- but Renzi/Piglia's introspection is selective, and/or carefully curated.
       He sums up at one point:
Politics, literature, and toxic love affairs with other men's wives have been the only truly persistent things in my life.
       The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years does present all three -- though among the love affairs are at least a few that don't involve other men's wives -- but literature certainly dominates (along with all the incidentals, including the accompanying money-worries), and it makes for an appealing journey with a writer as he comes into (literary) being. The variety, of the longer chapters between diary entries, also makes for a welcome change of pace to the narrative -- and some of these are truly beautifully written.
       A convincing look at an author's formative years, it will be interesting to see where Renzi/Piglia takes it from here (and what he returns to) in the two following volumes.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 January 2018

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The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years: Reviews: Other books by Ricardo Piglia under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Ricardo Piglia lived 1940 to 2017.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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