A keen eye for Chejfec

Sergio Chejfec

Scott Esposito (editor of The Quarterly Conversation and all-around superstar advocate of literary translation) recently wrote a very insightful piece on Sergio Chejfec’s meandering and meditative jewel, My Two Worlds (Open Letter, 2011) for The Critical Flame. In it, he likens Chejfec’s narrative sensibility to that of W.G. Sebald, particularly for the way in which both writers distill the moment at which the gaze settles on its object, that is, the way they treat the act of looking as both a time and a space apt to be expanded by reflection. According to Esposito, Sebald’s gaze is marked by “the simple audacity and calm confidence of a writer who will simply point out what is standing right before him, yet to which we have all become blinded.”

In his ability to infuse the familiar with a productive sense of strangeness, Sebald offers an invaluable point of entry into Chejfec’s work. Esposito – who is not alone in pointing out the affinity between the two writers – is careful to insist that the latter does not depend on this association, but rather that it is simply enriched by the context it provides.”Make no mistake,” he writes,

though Chejfec’s work gains much when it is described in relation to Sebald, it is in no way derivative. Slim as it is, My Two Worlds stands on its own as a vast and complicated work of literature. […] One senses a fixed meaning at its center, but even as the book directs one’s attention toward that meaning, the reader is rushed further and further toward its constantly shifting peripheries.

The gaze – and the pace of its narration – set forth by Chejfec, then, is not only a form of observation; it is also a form of resistance. Over and against the increasingly standardized modes of looking (determined largely by the scopic and conceptual frameworks of mass culture and the ways in which these are parlayed into commercial or sentimental goods), he presents a way of engaging the world around him that dislodges the elements of the mundane and forces their re-examination.

Chejfec touches on a concern central to both My Two Worlds and the postmodern reality it depicts: the ways in which the gaze – and thus our memory, our comprehension – has become subject to standardization and mechanization as images and memory have entered the realm of mass production and dissemination. In contrast to this reified, institutionalized variety of memory stands Chejfec, who gives voice to what is silent throughout My Two Worlds in a way that resists becoming too concrete. Chejfec will gaze, but his gaze will be of the kind that cannot be mass-produced. […] It is the realism of the distracted, determined mind, of those two hours we have all spent obsessing over some matter that turns everything we encounter into another aspect of it. Chejfec bravely reveals to us a world seen all askew, wherein we will gaze at everyday objects, and perhaps glimpse their invisible, indestructible core. Reading this book is an indoctrination into this logic, showing for a short time a world of Kafka’s infinitely deep “smooth surfaces” – a necessary meditation in any time, and perhaps more than most in these days.

The full essay can be read here.