Enrique Vila-Matas’ Literature Sickness and W.G. Sebald
If ever there was a subject to be avoided by novelists, it ought to be writer’s block, a theme that screams “self-indulgence.” Nevertheless, the opening paragraph of Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas’ novel Montano proudly proclaims that we are about to be subjected to 326 pages concerning one man’s “tragic inability to write”. Originally published in Spain in 2002 as El Mal de Montano (“Montano’s Malady”), Harvill Secker published Jonathan Dunne’s translation in 2007 under the simpler title Montano. I was drawn to the book by the jacket’s claim that “Vila-Matas has created a labyrinth in which writers as various as Cervantes, Sterne, Kafka, Musil, Perec, Bolaño, Coetzee, Sebald and Magris cross endlessly surprising paths.”
As the book opens, Montano’s narrator, a literature critic, has “literature sickness,” an apparently incurable obsession with literature. In this case, the sickness is so strong that it has started to inhibit his ability to write. Having recently finished a novel about writers who gave up writing, the narrator finds he can no longer write anything except his private diary (which he keeps sharing with us). Frankly, I found this first section, called Montano’s Malady, rough going. “It is well known that there is no better way to overcome an obsession than by writing about it,” the literature sick narrator says. What he doesn’t ponder is whether readers want to watch a writer struggling to figure out how to write. The book’s dust jacket generously calls him an “unreliable narrator” (in quotes, even), which is true. But more than unreliable, this narrator is grievously undecided.
When his editors send him W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn to review, he feels they have sent this title “so that its style of an extreme glacial beauty would finish me off.” Let’s pause for a moment and read the succinct summary of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn from the narrator’s diary: ”The narrator viewed the world dominated by a strange quietness, as if all we humans looked through various sheets of glass. At times the narrator did not know whether he was in the ‘land of the living or already in another place.’ Anxiety everywhere. The narrator set off to walk the county of Suffolk, ‘in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.’ Visiting small villages, landscapes and solitary ruins, he was confronted by traces of a past which referred him to the entire world. His pilgrimage along the coast lacked joy, light and vivacity. For a dead man – the narrator seemed to be saying – the whole world is one long funeral.”
The first section abruptly ends and the narrator begins the next by announcing that very little that was written in the first 96 pages was true. The narrator (not a literary critic after all, but a novelist) now declares that he is instead going to write “a short dictionary which would tell nothing but truths about my fragmented life and reveal my more human side and, in short, make me more accessible to my readers.” Determined that “I should not like to hide behind my creative texts, I am with W.G. Sebald when he says he has the sensation that it is necessary for whoever writes a fictional text to show his hand, to say something about himself, to allow an image of himself.”
Accordingly, the second section, Dictionary of Timid Love for Life, is structured vaguely like a dictionary devoted to the diaries of literary and artistic figures, interspersed with more of the narrator’s own diary entries. The cast of characters includes Samuel Beckett, Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, Salvador Dalí, André Gide, Witold Gombrowicz, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, W. Somerset Maugham, Robert Musil, Cesare Pavese, Fernando Pessoa, Sergio Pitol, Jules Renard, Sebald, Paul Valery, Robert Walser, among others. On occasion, the dictionary entries read like extended book reviews, but mostly they spark Proustian memories that immediately distract the narrator and cause him to dwell on fragments of his own autobiography. The result is an episodic journey that circles and circles to very little purpose around the narrator’s largely uninteresting life.
Near the end of this section, the narrator uses Sebald as his touchstone for an entry called “Something Sparkles through the Worn Fabric” (pp. 189-195), a phrase torn from a sentence in The Rings of Saturn: “These are not coincidences, somewhere there is a relation that from time to time sparkles through a worn fabric.” This fabric, the narrator asserts, is the human need to connect with and commemorate the past and the dead.
The short third section of Montano is called Theory of Budapest, a reference to an entry in the previous section that consisted of an extract from his mother’s secret diary in which she wrote about the act of writing private journals. As the narrator explains, in spite of the title that his mother used for this piece of writing, it had nothing whatsoever to do with either theory or the city of Budapest. But perhaps as an act of closure, this section actually purports to be a speech that the narrator delivers in Budapest during a symposium on the diary as narrative. True to form, halfway through the speech he declares that most of what he has just said is untrue and he will try to speak only the truth for the remainder.
The spirits and the deaths of Franz Kafka and Robert Walser (aided by Robert Musil and Sebald) preside over Diary of a Deceived Man, the penultimate section. In a short episode that is both touching and telling, the narrator visits the room in Prague where Kafka died and has tea with an old lady down the hall, an old lady who does not read books at all, much less Kafka. Instead, she looks to the cosmic theories provided by Stephen Hawking for her conception of the larger world. A few pages later, when the events of September 11, 2001 intrude briefly into the narrator’s literary reveries, his response is to find a copy of Kafka’s diaries to see what he wrote on September 11, 1910. These two episodes present the core argument of Montano in a nutshell, stripped of the book’s endless diversions, repetitions, and re-tellings.
As I turned to the final dozen pages, called The Spirit’s Salvation, I had great hopes that Vila-Matas would pull off something that would cause the rest of Montano to snap into place. There was talk of the soul. There was a trip to the Swiss Alps, somewhat in the spirit of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, to attend an improbable gathering of writers. And the wise writing of Michel de Montaigne accompanied the narrator on his journey. Alas, the mountaintop event turns into a cartoonish version of a typical writer’s festival, in which the writers are all intent on their careers, killing literature in the process. The narrator’s summation in defense of literature is both lame and, significantly, pulled from literature itself – not from experience. At book’s end, he doesn’t seem to have learned a thing and neither had I.
To be fair, Montano cannot be summarized, it can only be experienced. It may well be a book in which the journey is more important that the goal. But most of the time I didn’t much care.
As I read I kept asking myself if Montano was a Sebaldian book in any sense. Vila-Matas forcefully invokes Sebald’s example when the narrator first decides that he can no longer “hide behind” his fictional text, but must aim for something more complex. The big Sebaldian themes are present: melancholy, death, the landscape, travel, literature, the past. And, of course, Kafka. Like Sebald – well, sort of like Sebald – Vila-Matas’ narration meanders and leaps between places and times. But reading Montano and thinking of Sebald was a bit like reading a bad graphic novel version of Moby Dick – it had no subtlety but instead hit the reader over the head not once but repeatedly with its message. Unfortunately, I am of the opinion that what Vila-Matas does with these themes doesn’t much resemble Sebald’s work nor does it compare favorably. Too, there is a danger to inviting such an all-star cast of authors into your novel and quoting them at length; the reader is inevitably going to be reminded how much better these other writers are.
This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading the book from time to time. Vila-Matas is an astute and original reader of literature and his observations on other writers were fascinating. (However, this is the first time I have ever wished that a novel was, instead, written as a work of academic exposition, complete with footnotes!) And even though it sometimes ran against the required grain of the narrative, there were moments when Vila-Matas indulged in some great descriptive writing. Now I do want to read Bartleby & Co., his first novel to be translated into English, and see what that is like.
As a coda, I should add that the choice of dust jacket illustrator is inspired. The dreamy, ethereal, and very tentative pencil sketches by the Swedish-born artist and illustrator Karin Ǻkesson, who currently lives in London, seems the perfect match for Vila-Matas’ style.