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The Magician of Vienna

The Magician of Vienna

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By Sergio Pitol

Translated from the Spanish by George Henson

Nominated for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award

In this Cervantes Prize-winner, fiction invades autobiography—and vice versa—as Pitol writes to forestall the advancement of degenerative memory loss.

Publication Date: March 21, 2017

Paperback: 9781941920480

eBook: 9781941920497


"We can read The Magician of Vienna not just as a work of literature but as one of the Holy Books in which we store humanity’s imaginary.” —Mario Bellatin, author of Beauty Salon

The heartbreaking final volume in Sergio Pitol's groundbreaking memoir-essay-fiction-hybrid "Trilogy of Memory" finds Pitol boldly and passionately weaving fiction and autobiography together to tell of his life lived through literature as a way to stave off the advancement of a degenerative neurological condition causing him to lose the use of language. Fiction invades autobiography—and vice versa—as Pitol writes to forestall the advancement of degenerative memory loss.

"Pitol’s writing – the way he constructs sentences, inflects Spanish, twists meanings and stresses particular words – reflects the multiplicity of languages he has read and embraced. Reading him is like reading through the layers of many languages at once.” —Valeria Luiselli, author of The Story of My Teeth

Biographical Note

Sergio Pitol Demeneghi is one of Mexico's most acclaimed writers, born in the city of Puebla in 1933. He studied law and philosophy in Mexico City. He is renowned for his intellectual career in both the field of literary creation and translation and is renowned for his work in the promotion of Mexican culture abroad, which he achieved during his long service as a cultural attaché in Mexican embassies and consulates across the globe. He has lived perpetually on the run: he was a student in Rome, a translator in Beijing and Barcelona, a university professor in Xalapa and Bristol, and a diplomat in Warsaw, Budapest, Paris, Moscow and Prague. Pitol is a contemporary of the most famous authors of the Latin American "Boom" and began publishing novels, stories, criticism, and translations in the 1960s. In recognition of the importance of his entire canon of work, Pitol was awarded the two most important prizes in the Spanish language world: the Juan Rulfo Prize in 1999 (now known as the FIL Literary Award in Romance Languages) and the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the Spanish language world, often called the "Spanish language Nobel," in 2005. Deep Vellum will publish Pitol's Trilogy of Memory in full in 2014-2015 (The Art of Flight; The Journey; and The Magician of Vienna), marking the first appearance of any of Pitol's books in English.

George Henson is a literary translator and assistant professor of translation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. His translations include Cervantes Prize laureate Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, The Heart of the Artichoke by fellow Cervantes recipient Elena Poniatowska, and Luis Jorge Boone’s Cannibal Nights. His translations have appeared variously in The Paris Review, The Literary Review, BOMB, The Guardian, Asymptote, and Flash Fiction International. In addition, he is a contributing editor for World Literature Today and the translation editor for its sister publication Latin American Literature Today.


Nominated for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award

Received the Juan Rulfo Prize in 1999 (now known as the FIL Literary Award in Romance Languages)

Author Sergio Pitol was awarded the Miguel de Cervantes Prize in 2005 for a lifetime of literary contributions

“Pitol is a writer of another kind: his importance lies on the page, in the creation of his own world, in his ability to shed light on the world.” —Daniel Saldaña Paris, author of Among Strange Victims

"Pitol is probably one of Mexico’s most culturally complex and composite writers. He is certainly the strangest, most unfathomable and eccentric. . . . [His] voice . . . reverberates beyond the margins of his books." —Valeria Luiselli, author of Faces in the Crowd

"Reading him, one has the impression . . . of being before the greatest writer in the Spanish language in our time." —Enrique Vila-Matas

“Reading Sergio Pitol will make any serious writer want to write—and write better. . . . In Pitol’s life and his writing, neither images nor thoughts flow naturally and automatically to their logical associations." 3:AM Magazine

“Sergio Pitol is a legendary Mexican writer, whose ability and fame are best explained by noting that he has won both the Herralde and Cervantes Prizes.” —Tony Malone, Tony’s Reading List

"Sergio Pitol is not only our best active storyteller, he is also the bravest renovator of our literature." —Álvaro Enrigue, Letras Libres

The Art of Flight has none of the obsessive, Proustian detail of Knausgaard, or the metafiction of Lerner. It resists the light-heartedness of Bolaño’s depictions of youth and escapades, and the moroseness of Hemingway. Instead, it resembles a cloudy gemstone: at once glimmering and opaque, layered and precise.” —Rosie Clarke, Music & Literature

The Art of Flight is an homage to the value of stepping out of your comfort zone, to the difficult imperative of staying true to yourself, to living a life consumed with an intense quest for knowledge and perfection, and above all, a paean to a love of life and the power of books.” —Jennifer Smart, The Dallas Observer

“A dense, fascinating world, both familiar and strange, a world where different times, spaces, texts, journeys, ideas, and memories fuse and re-create one another.” —Rafael Lemus, Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas

The Art of Flight reads like a long overdue celebration for a timeless art form that is constantly changing, constantly reinventing itself through the years, but rest assured, will never die.” —Aaron Westerman, Typographical Era

The Art of Flight is a book bursting with energy and curiosity. It is a collection of observations, set of diaries, travelogue and much more. It defies categorisation and cannot be summarised. Only experienced.” —Tulika Bahadur, On Art and Aesthetics

“Pitol is an inspiring teacher, and the experience of reading The Journey is akin to conversing with an admired professor, after which one hastily jots down the myriad writers and books mentioned in hopes of retroactively catching up on missed references. It feels like an honor as well to stumble on notes Pitol makes for future novels—as if we’re trusted confidants.” —Anne Posten, Words Without Borders

"Witty, engaging, and regularly dizzying with its shifts between the real and the absurd, The Journey lives up to Pitol’s reputation as one of Mexico’s most intriguing writers." World Literature Today

"Pitol is a tactful writer who masterfully handles hundreds of different subjects in a compact, novel-like form. . . . One of his great strengths is to turn from comic sentences to those of poetic resonance with a seamless and subtle finesse....this and the preceding volume—[The] Art of Flight—are some of the best to be published by a small press in the last few years." —Matt Pincus, Bookslut

"Simultaneously bewildering and fascinating. . . . To close The Journey, indeed, is to feel as if a dream has ended and the reader is finally returning to the real world with its harsh surfaces and clear light." —Jeffrey Zuckerman, The Quarterly Conversation

"In order to enjoy The Journey, the second volume of revered Mexican author Sergio Pitol’s idiosyncratic autobiographical trilogy, the reader must abandon expectations: of genre, of structure, of distinctions between the aesthetic “truth” of dreams and fiction, and truth in the sense of literal accuracy. Those who take this leap will find Pitol a warm companion and an erudite guide through both his own artistic process and a compelling moment in history that has much to say to our own." —Anne Posten, Words Without Borders

"Its richness and complexity as a book of memories and ideas are unmatched by any other work of literature written in Spanish in the last 25 years and available in English.” —Ignacio Sánchez Prado, The Los Angeles Review of Books


Only connect…


THE MIMETIC APE. Reading Alfonso Reyes revealed to me, at the appropriate time, an exercise recommended by one of his literary idols, Robert Louis Stevenson, in his Letter to a Young Gentlemen Who Proposes to Embrace the Career of Art, consisting of an imitation exercise. He himself had practiced it, and with success, during his period of apprenticeship. The Scottish author compared his method to the imitative aptitude of monkeys. The future writer should transform himself into an ape with a high capacity for imitation, should read his preferred authors with an attention closer to tenacity than delight, more in tune with the activity of the detective than the pleasure of the aesthete; he should learn by which means to achieve certain results, to detect the efficacy of some formal processes, study the handling of narrative time, of tone, the organization of details in order to apply those devices later to his own writing; a novel, let us say, with a plot similar to that of the chosen author, with comparable characters and situations, where the only liberty allowed would be the employment of his own language: his, that of his family and friends, perhaps his region’s; “the great school of training and imitation,” added Reyes, “of which the truly original Lope de Vega speaks in La Dorotea:

How do you compose? I read,

and what I read, I imitate,

and what I imitate, I write,

and what I write, blot out,

and then I sift the blottings-out.”

An indispensable education, provided the budding writer knows to jump from the train at the right moment, untie whatever tethers him to the chosen style as a starting point, and knows intuitively the right moment at which to embrace everything that writing requires.