At the opening of this stunning new biography of Manuel Puig, Suzanne Jill Levine relates the story of Michael Deaver, press secretary to Ronald Reagan, recommending the film version of Kiss of the Spider Woman to the President and Mrs. Reagan one weekend at Camp David. The next day Mrs. Reagan reported that she and the President had stopped watching the film after half an hour. Deaver was puzzled. The film, he said, was very good, once you got past the subject matter (a reference to the homosexuality portrayed). Mrs. Reagan shuddered slightly. "How can you get past that?" she asked.
Manuel Puig’s entire life was a long and difficult attempt to understand his own homosexuality and the intolerance of society, and what he found speaks to all of us. Writing became the vehicle for his personal odyssey. "I felt the need to tell stories to understand myself," he said in one of his many interviews (145). Surely no one was in a better position to chart that journey than Suzanne Jill Levine. As the principal translator of Puig’s work in English, she not only knew him personally, but had access to his correspondence with family members and friends. Several of those friends were important writers, like Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Severo Sarduy, whom Levine has also translated, or critics like Emir Rodríguez Monegal. In writing this fascinating biography, Levine had access to an enormous array of information documenting his development as a writer. Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman combines biography, personal memoir, and literary criticism in a moving work that will open many doors for future critics of Puig’s fiction.
Until now, critics have not been entirely kind to Puig, probably due to his subject matter—homosexuality and the romantic Hollywood films of the 30’s and 40’s ("women’s films"). Indeed, Mario Vargas Llosa, in his review of Levine’s biography in the New York Times Book Review (8/13/00), says that "Puig’s work may be the best representative of what has been called light literature, which is emblematic of our time—an undemanding, pleasing literature that has no other purpose than to entertain." For him, Puig’s work is superficial—it has "no ideas, no central vision." Vargas Llosa explains Puig’s popularity with this final pessimistic reflection: "With so much work, so many pressing concerns, … our citizens hardly have the time to become serious and reflect, or read novels that may give them a headache." According to this point of view, Puig is a lightweight. His themes—popular culture, Hollywood films—are superficial and frivolous. The condemnation of his work on these grounds may in fact be nothing more than a displaced homophobia, a condemnation of Puig himself. This was a problem he faced all his life, as Levine’s book amply documents.
These attitudes have prevented critics from fully appreciating the real significance of Puig’s work. The recounting of film plots by Molina in El beso de la mujer araña is not just a way for the two men to pass the time and forget their surroundings in the prison cell. The films are touchstones to important events in their lives that become the key to a profound psychological exploration that eventually transforms and, at least spiritually, liberates them. Using the constraints of their bleak circumstances, they create something positive out of this dehumanizing experience. Puig’s interest in popular film was not frivolous; it became the means of entry to a deep psychological exploration of the self and the other. Puig’s work plumbs the depth of the celluloid surface of film. The moviegoing experience—the darkness of the theater, the solitude of the spectator confronting the gaze of the hero or heroine—have close analogies to the psychoanalytic session.
In great detail, Levine traces the background to Puig’s first, admittedly autobiographical novel, La traición de Rita Hayworth, as well as the fortune and misfortunes of its publication in Spanish and its many foreign translations. She weaves an intricate tapestry of excerpts from letters, allowing the reader to witness the gestation and birth of each of the novels. The story is tenderly but honestly told, often with touches of humor and gossip. For example, Levine describes the New Year’s celebration following the publication of Boquitas pintadas: "Champagne bottles popped …, everyone danced rumbas, sambas and rock ’n’ roll, and, at one or two in the morning, Severo [Sarduy] leapt onto the long dining table … and began to strip. Manuel immediately followed suit and … All the revelers were ordered to join in: … the few women at this bacchanalia hightailed it" (221-222).
If Rita Hayworth was unabashedly autobiographical (actually it was not—Levine describes how Puig suppressed or toned down a great deal of personal material that initially went into that novel), Puig’s concerns in El beso are displaced unto Molina. In later novels, Puig turned his attention to others. Discussing the background to Maldición eterna a quien lea estas páginas, Levine describes Puig’s encounter, while living in New York and exercising daily at the YMCA pool, with an unemployed Ph.D. in history. Puig befriended the young man who eventually allowed him to record their conversations on tape. Puig was fascinated at how someone who seemed to have so much could be so unhappy. The conversations enabled Puig to deal with some of his own problems and concerns at that time in his life. And, in the end, they became the foundation of the novel. Sangre de amor correspondido came about in much the same way.
Far from being superficial or frivolous, Manuel Puig’s novels are a serious, ongoing attempt to understand difference in the face of authoritarianism, and to make something positive of the difficulties he faced in his own life. Was the problem his or was it the rest of the world? He asked himself this question over and over, and delved ever more deeply into his own life and the lives of others in his search for an answer. Suzanne Jill Levine has thoroughly documented the journey of Manuel Puig’s life and work in a fascinating and engrossing book. For anyone interested in Puig’s fiction, this biography provides an important new starting point.