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“It could have only been written by a Spaniard” — Two More Fake Artists

In his slim little book Because She Never Asked Enrique Vila-Matas tells a story about the artist Rita Malú,* who looks like the famous French artist Sophie Calle, who “dreamed of the day when Sophie Calle would finally realize that she existed,” and who “had become the best Sophie Calle imitator in the world.” (Calle is a conceptual artist who, as Wikipedia concisely says, “is recognized for her detective-like tendency to follow strangers and investigate their private lives.”)

Getting a bit bored one year, Malú decided to open up a detective agency and see what might come her way. Her first client was a woman who asked her to track down her husband, rumored to be in the Azores. To make a short story even shorter I’ll omit numerous complications that occurred along the way. In the end, Malú goes to the Azores and sees a red house that she has dreamed about. Indeed, the missing husband lives there and answers the door.

“A ghost haunts this house,” he tells Malú.
“What ghost?” she asked.
“You,” the old man said, and he softly closed the door.

In the next chapter, Vila-Matas tells us that he wrote “The Journey of Rita Malú” because Sophie Calle asked him to. He writes that she had phoned him and asked him to meet her in Paris, where she requested that he write her a story that she could act out for a year. He agreed to and soon thereafter sent her the story we have just read. Then, in typical Vila-Matas fashion, there were a series of delays, during which 1) he discovers, much to his chagrin, that Calle had asked Paul Auster and numerous other writers first, all of whom turned her down, and 2) he is hospitalized with kidney failure and has to wear an embarrassing catheter and urine bag wherever he goes.

Them abruptly, Vila-Matas back-pedals and admits he made this all up. Sophie Calle never called him.

Why did I pretend that Sophie Calle telephoned me at home? And why did I make believe that she had asked me to write something for her to bring to life? Perhaps I made it all up precisely because she didn’t ask.

And then Vila-Matas writes that he calls a friend who knows Sophie Calle and he asks that his friend ask Sophie Calle to telephone him. Sophie Calle calls him and they agree to meet in Paris where she asks him to write a story that she could act out for a year. Villa-Matas tells us that he turned her down.

(*Rita Malú is also a character who appears in Vila-Matas’ book Bartleby & Co.)

Because She Never Asked (New Directions, 2015). Translated by Valerie Miles from a story first published in Spanish in 2007.


According to the text on the dust jacket, Max Aub’s Jusep Torres Campalans (Doubleday & Co., 1962) is “a fully documented biography of the Catalan painter” who hung around with Picasso in the cafés of Barcelona and then the Paris during the heady days of Cubism, before removing himself to a remote location in Chiapas, Mexico, where he became utterly forgotten until rediscovered by Aub. The biography reproduces a small catalogue from a planned exhibition of Campalans’ work at the Tate Gallery in London in 1942, which reproduces forty-nine of the artist’s (very mediocre) Picasso-esque paintings. (The exhibition was never held because of the war, but the catalogue was printed anyway.)

Only the very end of the book’s long description on the back flap might give the potential reader a hint that Aub’s biography might not be what is seems.

Max Aub’s writing is full of verve and lucidity realistic [sic]; it demonstrates that characteristic quality of Spanish writers, ingenuity. He brings Torres Campalans and the moral and intellectual history of his times to life as if in a picaresque novel. (Is it, in fact, perhaps, a sort of novel?) It could have been written only by a Spaniard, a fellow-countryman of Cervantes—and of Don Quixote.

Aub used aspects of his own life in writing Campalans’ biography. Born in 1903 in Paris to a French mother and a German father, the family had to flee France at the outbreak of World War I because his father’s nationality made him an enemy alien. They went to Spain where Aub took Spanish citizenship. But as a partisan on the losing Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, Aub had to return to France as an exile from his adopted country. Then, at the outbreak of World War II, he was interned in a French concentration camp under suspicion (erroneously) of being a Communist. After nearly two years in a forced labor camp in Algeria, he escaped in 1942 and made his way to Mexico, where he eventually became a citizen. Wikipedia say that while he wrote “nearly 100 novels and plays and is very well known in Spain, only two works are available in English,” one of which is Jusep Torres Campalans.

Ultimately, an astute reader will probably realize that Aub’s biography has a few too many coincidences and other slightly improbable events, but nothing in the book ever comes right out and says that the whole things is a fraud. Which it is.

” The Artist [Jusep Torres Campalans] with Pablo Picasso” from Jusep Torres Campalans. Photomontage by Josep Renau.

In 1964, Aub published a double set of playing cards that he claimed were hand-drawn by Torres Campalans. On the back of each card is the text of a novel about the life of a man named Máximo Ballesteros, a novel which can be read in any order. This was just a year after Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, which offered readers two possible ways through the novel and it was several years before B.S. Johnson’s now infamous 1969 novel The Unfortunates, which consisted of twenty-seven loose, unbound sections held in a box which could be read in any order the reader desired.

Max Aub, Juego de Cartas. Mexico City: Alejandro Finisterre, Editor, 1964.
5 Comments Post a comment
  1. There is I suppose the option to read any book in the order you please. It may end up having different possibilities and besides, the author probably has no say in it. Some books are easier to read like that than others. Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet technically has no order, it was the choice of the editors to organise it the way it is, from what I understand. I enjoyed it more out of order. Ulysses can easily be read in any order, after the first time at least. I read Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Garcia Marquez backwards because it was written as though it was telling the story backwards, yet if was too linear in the form it came in.

    March 10, 2023
  2. aileverte #

    Fascinating: I have never heard of Max Aub. As luck would have it, the French translation came out in 2021 from Éditions Verticales. And a couple years earlier, another book with the mysterious title, “Manuscrit corbeau” (publ. Héros-Limite, 2019), another novel deeply enmeshed in history. Needless to say, irresistible.

    March 21, 2023
    • Fascinating! I like the idea of a mysterious black bird describing the conditions of a French concentration camp!

      March 21, 2023
  3. bluepiano #

    Just to say that Marc Sporta’s wonderful Composition No. 1, a loose-leaf novel with an even freer form (first & last chapters weren’t specified) , was published half a dozen years before Johnson’s. (Apologies if you mentioned this elsewhere; googling to find out produced of course only sites to do with dizziness.)

    March 26, 2023
    • I was not aware of Marc Saporta or his innovative book before you mentioned it. Unfortunately, it’s out of print and very expensive. But there are numerous images of the books various editions and its pages online. Thanks for telling me about this title!

      March 27, 2023

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