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Posts from the ‘Enrique Vila-Matas’ Category

The Triumphant Humiliation of Enrique Vila-Matas

Illogic of Kassel

In 2012, Enrique Vila-Matas was among a small number of writers invited to participate in thirteenth version of the massive quinquennial art exhibition Documenta held in Kassel, Germany. Vila-Matas was asked to serve as “writer-in-residence” at a local Chinese restaurant called Dschingis Khan and to deliver a lecture. In the novelized version of his time in Kassel, The Illogic of Kassel (New Directions, 2015), the entire experience was a blow to his self-esteem, a humiliation that Vila-Matas seemed to fully enjoy. All in all, he writes, he spent a few miserable half days in the restaurant where he was only visited by a couple of unpleasant characters, while his lecture was attended by two to three dozen largely uninterested people. And yet, Vila-Matas, much to his surprise, finds that he was utterly euphoric in Kassel, instead of being his usual anguished and melancholic self.

The Illogic of Kassel has all of the trappings of being an ephemeral, let’s-make-something-out-of-this-lousy-experience book. And yet, to my mind, it’s Vila-Matas’ best book to date for several important reasons. First, he has finally nailed his own character. In previous books, we are usually meant to see the main characters as versions of the author himself – a cranky, often miserable, writer deeply enmeshed in literature but struggling with his own writing. In Illogic, Vila-Matas has retouched the outline of his character to be marvelously endearing Chaplinesque writer who is bumbling and canny and honest to a fault. His character has a mercurial temperament that can shift instantaneously from suspicion to guilt, from deviousness to feeling wounded, from being petty to displaying inordinate pride, all in the space of a few sentences. Stuck for a week amongst the international art set of Documenta, Vila-Matas portrays himself as an inarticulate amateur in the art-speak that is their lingua franca. And yet his character gives us, his readers, a highly sensitized and affecting response to the many works of contemporary art he encounters. Read more

Narrow Waters

narrow waters

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.

The Novel of Micro-Events

Dublinesque

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.

Recently Read…April 23, 2012 (including 13 useful tips for writers!)

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.

The Labyrinth of No: Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby and Co.

Vila-Matas Bartleby & Co

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.

Why Should the Writer Care about the Reader?

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.

Enrique Vila-Matas’ Literature Sickness and W.G. Sebald

vila-matas-montano.jpg

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.

Under the Influence of Sebald (I)

The most obvious way in which Sebald’s legacy as a writer can be seen is in the number of works of fiction that have appeared in the past decade employing photographs.But there are a number of works of fiction and of poetry that pay homage to Sebald in other ways. I’ve just acquired three works of fiction that acknowledge their debt to Sebald without apparently trying to “do a Sebald,” as one author notes.  At the moment, all three novels lie in my ever growing stack of unread books, but here are some preliminary notes.

miano.jpg

The first book is Sarah Emily Miano’s Encyclopedia of Snow, published in Great Britain by Picador in 2003. Miano is a former student at Sebald’s University of East Anglia (though I have yet to discern if she studied with him). Dedicated to W.G. Sebald, the book has received decidedly mixed reviews and my first few minutes with it were not promising. According to the dust jacket, The Encyclopedia of Snow purports to be a manuscript discovered in the trunk of a vehicle abandoned in a Buffalo, NY blizzard. The manuscript contains alphabetically arranged entries somehow dealing with snow from Angel to Zenith. Following a Prologue, which is written in the form of a newspaper article describing the blizzard, there is a cagey two-page note Editor’s Note addressed “Dear Reader” that simply seems to me to be too staged. After the main body of the book (the alphabetical entries referring to snow) the book concludes with a twenty-page section of notes – including some useful entries on obscure authors (some of whom will be very familiar to Sebald’s readers) and some self-indulgent entries like a definition of an encyclopedia – and an overly-mysterious Epilogue. At first glance, it all looks a bit too structured for a manuscript found in a car.

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Laird Hunt’s The Exquisite was published in 2006 by Coffee House Press of Minneapolis. It’s described as a “post 9/11” novel that takes place in downtown Manhattan. One blurb on the rear cover describes the book as being “as fun to read as [Raymond] Chandler, but spookier.  A noir koan, in a New York designed by Escher.”  Clearly, this is one of those blurbs that ought to set off warning bells.  The book’s main character joins “a nefarious crew,” whose ringleader (a connoisseur of herring, no less) is somehow related to the corpse in Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson (also familiar to all Sebaldians).  At the end of his book, Hunt provides an Acknowledgements page. “While many books informed and inspired this one, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, translated from the German by Michael Hulse, provided key thematic and linguistic irritants throughout the writing of The Exquisite.”  Recognizing that he was not alone in trying to figure out how to channel Sebald into his own work, Hunt says “I decided not to try, as it seemed to me so many were trying, to ‘do a Sebald’, i.e. truffle page with visual images, eschew novelistic sleight of hand in favor of quietly patterned and heavily mediated observation, and inject the whole with a steady drip of melancholia.”

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Enrique Vila-Matas, the Spanish author of the generally well-liked Bartleby & Co., wrote El Mal de Montano (Montano’s Malady) in 2002, but it has only appeared in English earlier this year (2007) simply titled Montano and published by Harvill Secker, London. Montano turns out to be the son of the narrator (another “unreliable narrator” according to the dust jacket) and he is suffering from writer’s block, which seems to be a common topic for writers these days. The book jacket promises that many of the writers with whom Montano is obsessed will make an appearance in the novel, including “Cervantes, Sterne, Kafka, Musil, Perec, Bolaño, Coetzee, Sebald, and Magris.” Apparently, these writers have set the bar so high that poor Montano is reduced to describing his attempt to exorcise them.