February 8, 2013
Why did the feeling anchor itself in me at an early age that if traveling – traveling without any thought of returning – can open doors and truly change one’s life, then that most singular of all forays, an excursion with neither adventure nor unseen events that after a few hours finds us home again, right before the gate of our parents’ house, has a more secret magic, like the handling of a divining rod? - from The Narrow Waters
Samuel Riba, the self-pitying publisher at the center of Enrique Vila-Matas’ recent novel Dublinesque, refers to many authors in the course of that literature-infused book, but what was said about Julien Gracq made me take note and order some books.
[Riba had] published lots of important authors, but only in Julien Gracq’s novel The Opposing Shore did he perceive any spirit of the future. In his room in Lyon, over the course of endless hours spent locked away, he devoted himself to a theory of the novel that, based on the lessons apparent to him the moment he opened The Opposing Shore, established five elements he considered essential for the novel of the future. These essential elements were: intertextuality; connection with serious poetry; awareness of a moral landscape in ruins; a slight favoring of style over plot; a view of writing that moves forward like time.
It was a daring theory, given that it put Gracq’s book, usually considered antiquated, as the most advanced of all novels.
Somewhat in self-defense, I chose to begin with a slim volume by Gracq, The Narrow Waters, originally published in French in 1976 as Les Eaux Étroites. The Narrow Waters is an exercise in memory – or, more accurately, it’s an exercise in cumulative memory. Gracq’s narrative retraces an outing in a rowboat that he made numerous times in his youth, although he also makes it clear that he has not revisited the site in a long time. He reimagines for us his past excursions up the Evre, a tiny tributary of the Loire River, in a manner that is both Proustian and mythical. “Once afloat on the Evre, we entered a realm removed from the rest of the earth…” Eventually, the river narrows and the boat’s passage through this gap becomes an “initiation rite…The crossing of an obscure corridor…”
At first, Gracq’s prose seems to originate in a hyper-intense form of observation. Unlike a naturalist, however, Gracq is only marginally interested in the mechanics of nature. His interest lies in the act of perception and in the relationship between art and perception, and his description of a scene presents us with a world that is no longer natural but that has been internalized and reorganized for us, as if by the eye and mind of a painter or sculptor. The best way to show this is to quote a generous passage in which he describes a place appropriately named the Valley of No Return.
Le Val sans Retour looks nothing like what one might imagine: neither the narrow cleft, like a saber slash, which provides access to an infamous gorge nor the somber green of lowlands choked by trees whose branches rain sleep like those of the manzanilla. It is only a rather deep ravine, wide open on both sides, that has dug itself a winding swath through a high plateau of fallow land and moors; to the west extends the forest of Paimpont, whose farthest treetops can be made out at view’s end and look like the scattered flags of some rear guard retreating behind the horizon. From the top of the hill, the valley’s panorama, the absolute leveling of the line of the horizon, seizes the eye – a worn-down base, a planed block into which is sunk the valley’s closed-in, finger-like enclave with its short tributary ravines arranged like the veins of a leaf. The rocky skeletal structure surfaces at each point on the slopes as well-worn, flattened, rounded, lichen-encrusted rocks of a dull white hue, a color that haunts Brittany. A rough, sparse vegetation occupies all of the intervals; trails of dry rush, low, darker green brushloads of broom and gorse spread out like scabrous sheets, misplaced oaks, stands of dwarf fir cascading in black trails to the bottom of the ravine. Up where the slopes reach the plateau, as soon as their angles diminish, thickets of stunted chestnut trees, roots exposed, cling to everything stiff as stubble on a shaved neck; in winter, a jumble of birches stripped of all but the tiniest twigs fills the bottom of the ravine with the soft gray of mouse down so dense it’s mistaken for mounting fog.
Only when I finished the book’s fifty-four pages did I fully realize how modern life had been effectively eliminated from its pages so that Gracq could focus the reader within it’s miniscule geography. With the exception of two or three passing references to a car and a single mention of the Vichy government, the entire twentieth century is absent from his narrative. Like a bell jar, The Narrow Waters consists of a hermetically-sealed landscape that contains a tiny man with his tiny boat and a boundless stock of memory and imagination.
Here, already spreading out across the river, grew the floating green constellations of water chestnuts that we would lift up on the return trip like a fishing net to harvest the nuts with their sharp protuberances: small, spiny, vegetal skulls that harden when cooked and that produce, when split, instead of a brain, a nut tasting of sugar and mud, crumbly, grainy, crunch between the teeth.
Gracq’s narrative continually flows between memories of the river and memories that the river evokes, memories that are, more often than not, derived from the books of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas De Quincey, Gaston Bachelard, Gérard de Nerval, Arthur Rimbaud, Honoré de Balzac, Jules Verne. Like Proust, he traces the most powerful of these literary memories back to childhood. For Gracq (and this is undoubtedly a source of Vila-Matas’ admiration for his work), memories derived from reading are just as powerful and real as memories drawn from “experience” – perhaps even more so.
I am unable to resist these clusters of recollection, these adhesive elements that the impact of a cherished image hurriedly, anarchically condenses around itself, bizarre poetic stereotypes that, in our imagination, coagulate around a childhood vision in a jumble of fragments of poetry, painting, or music…it is through connections that bind them together that the emotion born of a pastoral spectacle can extend freely across an artistic network – plastic, poetic, or musical – and traverse great distances without the least loss of energy.
Julien Gracq, Narrow Waters. NY: Turtle Point Press, n.d. Translated from the French by Ingeborg M. Kohn.
January 2, 2013
Comical and touching, from time to time, he glances furtively at the croutons.
Samuel Riba has closed his small, independent publishing company (he fears his “noble branch” of the trade is dying out), he’s despondent that he never found the great writer he dreamed of publishing, he’s unhappily on the wagon and trying to save his marriage, he hears voices, and he thinks someone is following him. Riba, who continually mediates his own life through the world of literature he loves deeply, but nevertheless “fears his exaggerated fanaticism for literature was probably harmful,” is suddenly afraid his life is about to become someone else’s novel. His response? To gather up some friends and go to Dublin on Bloomsday, June 16, and hold a mock funeral for The Age of Gutenberg.
Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque (the titles comes from a poem by Philip Larkin) is a book born under the sign of James Joyce – especially “The Dead” and Ulysses – and serves as an extended homage to the line of modernist literature that followed. Dublinesque, in which Riba suffers from “a publisher’s malady,” also serves as a companion piece to his earlier novel Montano’s Malady, with its inventory of writers who suffered from writer’s block or “writer’s malady.” But, as Riba begins to realize, publishing and literature have also provided him with a way to hide from himself for most of his life. What Riba really wants is a personal resurrection, to recover an earlier self through “a journey toward enthusiasm.”
In the four books translated into English so far – Dublinesque, Never Any End to Paris, Montano’s Malady, and Bartleby & Co. – Vila-Matas explores the boundaries between life and literature and what happens when the two become confused with each other. In each of these books, Vila-Matas is also preoccupied with psychic paralysis in many forms, but most notably writer’s block and procrastination. In Dublinesque, for example, Riba decides in the opening pages to go to Dublin, but spends the next 140 pages dithering, wandering, having panic attacks, and rechecking his plans. But in the character Riba, we see the first truly tragic character Vila-Matas has given us yet. After Riba and his cohorts hold their mock funeral and tramp around Dublin seeing sights associated with Ulysses, nothing changes for the better. Riba’s resurrection is doomed, he begins drinking again, and his wife leaves him. He knows now that literature cannot save him, although it clearly helped drive her away. “Literature had nothing to say to her; it didn’t change her vision of the world or make her see things in a different way.” But even though he has lost everything, Riba still cannot stop mediating his life through literature, and the novel that begin with Joyce ends, appropriately, with Samuel Beckett, as Riba spends the final forty pages commiserating with himself in a rocking chair like Beckett’s Murphy.
As Riba sees it, his life, like Murphy, has a “central story in which nothing seemed to happen, but in reality lots of things were going on, because in fact that story was full of brutal micro-events.” It’s no great revelation for me to observe that literature and life are two entirely different planes of existence. A good deal of the literature since Joyce serves as a reminder that our lives are, in fact, exceedingly banal 99.9% of the time. Where Joyce and Beckett have succeeded is in making generation after generation want to read about the banal lives of others – Joyce largely through his gift for language and his celebratory spirit and Beckett through his gift for compelling characters and drama. I’m over-generalizing here, I realize, but my point is that it’s a tough job to be able to lift a novel comprised of endlessly banal micro-events above its inherent, self-imposed banality. In general, Dublinesque succeeds – for me. But just barely. I understand Riba’s world, the names he relentlessly drops, the books he intensely ponders and discusses, the sly, amusing references. It’s all great fun for those in the know and, at times, Dublinesque is intensely, if darkly, humorous. But Riba is no Leopold Bloom. Furthermore, anyone can pick up a book by Joyce or Beckett (Finnegan’s Wake being the obvious exception) and make sense of the world of Bloom or Malone or Molloy or Murphy without needing prior knowledge of the esoteric world of modernist and contemporary literature. Vila-Matas, like his creation Samuel Riba, seems both deliberate and stubborn about using literature as a crutch, and I think the result is a unique, occasionally brilliant, but frequently narrow, body of work.
Enrique Vila-Matas. Dublinesque. New Directions, 2012. Translated by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey from the Spanish Dublinesca, originally published in 2010.
Enrique Vila-Matas, Never Any End to Paris. New Directions, 2011. Vila-Matas’ usual practice is to subvert literary forms – along with his reader’s expectations for consistent narrative flow. Originally written in 2003, Never Any End to Paris purports to be a very long lecture on the subject of irony that the narrator (a writer not unlike Enrique Vila-Matas) is delivering at a symposium in Barcelona over the course of three days. But Vila-Matas soon tucks the lecture format into the background and lets his book quietly devolve into something more-or-less resembling a traditional writer’s memoir of youthful years in Paris. Never Any End to Paris is a playful homage to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (from whence the book’s title is derived), with Vila-Matas’ narrator a bumbling, meek echo of Hemingway, with a bit of writer’s block thrown in for good measure. It’s mid-1970s Paris and the young Spanish narrator finds himself living in an apartment rented from the French writer Marguerite Duras, who gives him “a piece of paper that looked like a doctor’s prescription” on which she had written out a list of thirteen useful tips for anyone writing a novel: “1. Structural problems. 2. Unity and harmony. 3. Plot and story. 4.Time. 5. Textual effects. 6. Verisimilitude. 7. Narrative technique. 8. Characters. 9. Dialogue. 10. Setting(s). 11. Style. 12. Experience. 13. Linguistic register.” Needless to say, deciphering the list and turning it to good use in his novel-in-progress, proves both challenging and amusing. (For all of my posts on Vila-Matas, click here.)
Chris Darke, Light Readings. Wallflower, 2000. Darke writes about the moving image, whether it be in the cinema or in the gallery of a museum. This is a collection of reviews an essays from the 1990s, mostly from Sight and Sound. Two-thirds are concerned with cinema, especially of the French variety, where Darke’s cinematic sympathies lie. But the essays that really came alive for me were those grappling with the use of film and video by contemporary artists. Darke adroitly marries his knowledge of the history of cinema and his background in film theory with a solid understanding of contemporary art practice to produce clear-headed and articulate essays. His writings on artists such as Steve McQueen, Douglas Gordon, Bill Viola and others, made me think about their film and video art with new eyes.
Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby & Co. is a metafiction about the very nature of literature itself. Bartleby, of course, is the character from Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, the tale of a bland office worker who is “inhabited by a profound denial of the world” (Vila-Matas) and responds to every query or demand by saying “I would prefer not to.” Nothing less, nothing more. Hence, for Vila-Matas, Bartleby becomes the emblem for any writer who can’t – or won’t – write any more.
Like some of the works of W.G. Sebald, especially Vertigo, Bartleby & Co. reads like the work of a literature professor who has burst free of all academic constraints to write about literature in an entirely new way. The book is simultaneously very personal and yet deeply concerned with history. Bartleby & Co. is written in the form of a diary that covers much of 1999, although the only real events mentioned are personal events in the narrator’s life. What we know about the narrator we learn in the opening sentences:
I never had much luck with women. I have a pitiful hump, which I am resigned to. All my closest relatives are dead. I am a poor recluse working in a ghastly office.
I suppose that is meant to explain why the narrator has largely abandoned real life in favor of a life within literature. His eighty-six diary entries – or footnotes to literature, as he calls them – reflect his musings on writers who at one time or another entered the “labyrinth of No.” There is no plot to Bartleby & Co. and no grand conclusion, just a succession of short essay-like jottings on books, writers, and literary characters. Some are well-known, like Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pyncheon, Robert Walser, Robert Musil, and J.D. Salinger. Others are completely new to me, like Luis Felipe Pineda and Klara Whoryzek (if they are even real).
Vila-Matas’ project is to try to understand where literature is and where it can go in the future, and his jumping-off point – writers who engage in “non-writing” – has a brilliant, if perverse, logic. Bartleby’s “company” includes those writers who can no longer continue to write (through fear, inability, writer’s block, and so on), those writers who declare an end to their writing career, and those who stop writing through the ultimate statement of suicide. He also throws in a few literary characters and some novels that don’t exist, all in service of trying to understand this calling that obsesses him.
Can the act of not writing be considered a form of writing? Is it a legitimate literary statement to deliberately put down the pen? It’s actually a fairly straightforward Duchampian proposal. Since Marcel Duchamp’s first “readymade”, an artist has been able to declare anything a work of art, whether that be a urinal, a Campbell’s soup can, or a seven-day walk across England. The artistic license declared by Duchamp allowed John Cage to “compose” 4 minutes and 33 second of silence as music and paved the way for conceptual art of many forms spanning much of the twentieth century. So it stands to reason that a writer can say that the act of not writing has a distinct meaning. And, as Vila-Matas suggests, every act of non-writing needs to be understood within its own context. No two negations are the same.
As you can read here and here, I am not a big fan of Vila-Matas’ more recent book Montano (written in 2002, but not translated into English until 2007). In Montano, the overly-unreliable narrator simply ennervated me by turning the tables so many times that I finally realized that I didn’t care any more. But Bartleby & Co. is a much stronger, more open-ended work. (It’s no wonder that one of the books Vila-Matas appears to admire is Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. It, too, opens up more avenues than it closes off, leaving the reader dazzled with new possibilities.) Vila-Matas has written something on the order of eight or nine works that precede both of these books, but unfortunately none of them have been translated as yet, so it is really hard to get the full sense of Vila-Matas’ big project.
Bartleby & Co. was first published in Barcelona in 2000 and translated into English in 2004.
June 25, 2007
The blog world moves at a pretty fast clip and even though I’m not a daily blogger I still find myself wavering over a draft that doesn’t sound quite right, pondering whether to click on the “Publish” icon and turn my writing into a post or to spend another day or two trying to drill down to whatever is sending off alarm signals. Partly prompted by a comment from “O”, I’ve been thinking about a couple of things I said in a post and in a follow-up comment dedicated to Enrique Vila-Matas’ book Montano.I found the book frustrating to read much of the time and I referred to the writing as occasionally self-indulgent, by which I meant that “Vila-Matas forgot to think about the reader. “And that’s what keeps bugging me.
Why, I have been asking myself for days, should writers care about readers when I know instinctively that concern for the reader has nothing to do with literary quality. In fact, some of the most profound writers are those who force readers to meet them on their own terms – no matter how demanding those terms might be. The more I thought about this the more I realized that I prefer – I really want – demanding writers, writers who make me uncomfortable and who make me come to them.For example, one of my favorite writers is Thomas Bernhard, who makes me struggle and really earn my way through even the briefest of his works. There are times when it is impossible to read ten pages of Bernhard without a mental breather, but I always return ready for more.And then I think of the books of writers like Ingeborg Bachman and Elfriede Jelinek (just to name two I’ve been reading lately), which are really tough going for me. Sometimes I can’t bring myself to even finish their books but I recognize the value that I get out of every page I do manage to read.
No, my sustained interest in continuing to read a book is not related to the ease or difficulty that the book itself presents me as a reader. The interchange between readers and books is too complex for me to even contemplate, but suffice it to say that for me to keep reading there must be sufficient reward. I couldn’t possibly list the infinite ways a book might reward a reader, but I will say that if a book is not rewarding me it quickly becomes a frustrating experience. Reading ten pages of Thomas Bernhard requires an effort in concentration, but the reward is spectacular and so I keep on reading. Reading Montano was often an effort for me, because the reward seemed so minimal. I have other books to read if this one can’t be more rewarding.
Many reviewers and readers obviously enjoyed Montano and I have no quibble with that. It just wasn’t the book for me. But I need to atone for my comments about authors who “forget” about their readers. Let the reader be damned.