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Posts from the ‘Enrique Vila-Matas’ Category

“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.

Enrique Vila-Matas’s Old Married Couple

In the middle of Mac’s Problem, the recent novel by Enrique Vila Matas, Mac, our narrator, tells a story of two strangers getting drunk in a bar in Basel, Switzerland. One man tends to embellish every aspect of his story, the other sticks strictly to the facts. “Fiction and reality, an old married couple,” Mac remarks. At the end of the story, he tells us “fiction and reality fuse so intensely that, at certain moments, it seems impossible to separate them.” Like a torero and a bull, they “appear to be engage in a game of reciprocal influences.”

Mac’s Problem is full of short stories that are all stitched together with a narrative that primarily focuses on Mac (a man whose prosperous family business has just imploded) and his neighbor, Sánchez (the “celebrated Barcelona writer”). Mac, who has always aspired to be a writer, decides to keep a private diary, which is the book we are reading. One of Mac’s many problems is that the diary keeps trying to become a novel. It keeps drifting off into literature. And Mac is not too happy about that.

I’ve noticed that these two sequences together form a very slight novelistic plot: as if, all of a sudden, certain autobiographical incidents had decided to piece together for me a single story, and one with literary overtones to boot; as if certain chapters of my daily life were colluding and crying out to be turned into fragments of a novel.
But this is a diary! I shout. . .

Mac’s compelling fantasy is to take up one of Sánchez’s early, nearly forgotten books called Walter’s Problem, which Mac finds “insufferable,” and completely rewrite it. Every chapter of Walter’s Problem is a short story written “in a style reminiscent of” another author, a list that includes John Cheever, Djuna Barnes, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Jean Rhys, and Raymond Carver. Throughout the first half of his diary, Mac will very briefly outline for us his version of each of the ten chapters in Walter’s Problem. In the second half of his diary, Mac tells us what was wrong with Sánchez’s version and how he would write a story to replace the original. As Mac writes his own version of each story in his imagination, he is, in effect, erasing Sánchez’s version of the ten stories, one by one.

The first few sentences of the Mac’s Problem tells you much about what you need to know about Mac:

I’m fascinated by the current vogue for posthumous books, and I’m thinking of writing a fake one that could appear to be “posthumous” and “unfinished” when it would, in fact, be perfectly complete. Were I to die during the writing process, the book really would be my “final, interrupted work,” and that would, among other things, ruin my great dream of becoming a falsifier. Then again, a beginner must be prepared for anything, and I am just that, a debutant. My name is Mac.

The key to untangling all of this comes when Mac explains his admiration for Georges Perec’s novel 53 Days. Perec died while writing this novel. In Mac’s explanation, “Perec’s novel was not prematurely interrupted by the author’s death, thus rendering it unfinished; instead, Perec had finished the novel some time prior to his death, but in order to be considered truly complete, it required a problem as momentous as death—which Perec had already incorporated into the text itself—even if, on the face of it, the book appeared interrupted and incomplete.” Yes, this is confusing, but then this is a novel by Enrique Vila-Matas, where even his explanations often demand further explanation.

As a writer, Mac has a number of obsessions. First, he is obsessed with being a “falsifier.” Rather than being a “creative” writer, Mac’s strong suit is being a “modifier,” an editor. He wants to absorb what already exists and then alter that in some fashion rather than imagine something completely new. Second, Mac is also determined to write an interrupted or incomplete work. And here he thinks of an aphorism by Walter Benjamin: “What really matters is not the progression from one piece of knowledge to the next, but the leap or crack inherent in any one piece of knowledge.” Or, as Mac puts it, “That crack allows us [i.e. the viewer or reader] to add details of our own to the unfinished masterpiece. . . the hallmark of the incomplete artwork.” Third, Mac always wants to remain a beginning writer. Mac points to the example of the writer Bernard Malamud, “a good model for me” because he is “splendidly obstinate, always engaged in the struggle to go ever deeper into everything.” Mac wants to “make steady progress without becoming too successful” (his italics), and he quotes the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa: “I do not evolve: I travel.” Mac is a restless narrator, easily diverted from one train of thought to something entirely different. This is not stream of consciousness. This is narrative that purposefully lacks a center of gravity. Mac admires the artworks that “emerge” naturally (again, the italics are Vila-Matas’s), because “they are so close to what is actually happening.” By remaining “naive,” Mac thinks his own writing will also “emerge” naturally. This is partly why Mac wants to stay an amateur writer, a beginner, a naïf, and why he never wants his diary (this book) to become a novel. I understand this to mean that he doesn’t want it to become too “literary”.

Every book by Vila-Matas is about writing and about literature itself and invokes a number of other writers. Mac’s Problem is no exception. In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, the list of writer’s name-dropped, if not briefly discussed, is long, and includes Nathalie Sarraute, Samuel Beckett, Nikolai Gogol, Alejandro Zambra, Isak Dinesen, Walter Benjamin, Thomas Bernhard, Marcel Schwob, Marguerite Duras, Ray Bradbury, Georges Perec, Alain Robbe-Grillet, David Markson, William Gaddis, and undoubtedly a number of others that I have forgotten. Mac would rather edit or rewrite existing texts than create his own. Nevertheless, he breaks this rule over and over.

In the end, Mac heads off for North Africa alone, where he has what seems like an epiphany, or perhaps it’s just the latest of his many bright new ideas.

Now I see that, in Barcelona, when I repeated the words over and over, what I was seeking was physical and mental exhaustion. In Barcelona, I was beginning the resemble the painter with the big bushy beard who my grandfather used to invite to spend the summers at our family’s vacation home in the country when I was a child. Over a period of three or four years, he painted the same tree more than one hundred times, perhaps because as happened with me and my writing he understood the appeal of constantly interrogating what he had already put down on paper.

On a beach in southern Spain, en route to North Africa, Mac sits alone with his notebook, far from his study and his books, “feeling a joy that seems to be returning me to that pure substance of self, namely, a past impression, pure life preserved in its pure state.” After momentarily thinking about Marcel Proust, Mac recalls the day when he was five years old, in his grandmother’s house, “the first time I formed letters into words in my drawing book, the first time in my entire life that I wrote a story, my first contact with a written narrative, and, of course, with no study, no computer, no book to call my own.” For the moment at least, Mac has abandoned his Barcelona ways and continues to quietly explore memories of his past.

Ultimately, the reader is left wondering if Mac speaks on behalf of Vila-Matas. Does Vila-Matas believe any of this stuff about writing that Mac spouts? Is Mac the avatar of Vila-Matas or is Vila-Matas making fun of Mac? Not surprisingly, I think it’s a bit of both. But Vila-Matas, I am sure, is more than happy that we have to puzzle this out on our own, without any help from him. As Mac declares near the end of Mac’s Problem, “I am one and many and I do not know who I am.” Mac, like most of Vila-Matas’s narrators, is annoying at times. He gets repetitive, he talks too much, he contradicts himself, he’s outrageous one moment and boring the next. When Mac decides to rewrite the story of the two men in the bar in Basel, he decides it should become “a comic piece of ‘written theater’.” One of the men would speak in a manner “all too comprehensible,” while the other would “make everything as infernally complicated as he could.” This is the yin and the yang of our world and Enrique Vila-Matas has encapsulated it perfectly for us in Mac’s Problem (New Directions, 2019, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes).

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.

Pierre Huyghe

The artworks that Vila-Matas encountered and described at Documenta 13 included pieces by some of the most avant-garde, non-traditional artists working today. Here are three works that he spends considerable time experiencing and writing about: Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled, a work of “consummate oddness” and “extreme weirdness” that consisted largely of a statue with a real beehive covering the face, a field of compost, and a live dog with a painted leg; Tino Sehgal’s This Variation, which consisted of “a space in darkness, a hidden place in which a series of people awaited visitors and, when the moment was right, sang songs and offered the experience of living a piece of art as something fully sensory”; and Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise, (The Invisible Pull), which seemed to consist of a current of wind circulating around an otherwise empty room. What impresses Vila-Matas about these (and a few other works) is the “necessity of learning how to stand apart, to situate oneself on the metaphorical outskirts of the outskirts” (which he later suggests is “distanced from galleries and museums”). Only art located there “could really be innovative.” Somewhat surprisingly, Vila-Matas is a highly articulate guide to some of the more esoteric and “difficult” artists of recent years. That said, he’s no push-over for contemporary art; he encounters pieces with a wary skepticism, but then he closely examines the range of sensations and reactions he has with each encounter.

Ryan Gander

What Vila-Matas does with Illogic is create a book that is the equivalent of the artworks at Documenta 13, a book that stands outside the commercial mainstream, that seems ephemeral and yet has a haunting impact, that opens up new doors rather than providing answers. Vila-Matas has a sense that, in contrast with contemporary art, “in the literary sphere, the avant-garde has lost ground, if not become almost entirely extinct”  – and he clearly wants to fill this void with his own writing. Later on, Vila-Matas offers what sounds like a credo:

Some of us reject the repetition of what has been done before; we hate [writers] telling us the same as always, trying to make us know things all over again that we know so much about already; we loathe the realist and the rustic, or the rustic and the realist, who think the task of the writer is to reproduce, copy, imitate reality, as if in its chaotic evolution, its monstrous complexity, reality could be captured and narrated. We are amazed by writers who believe that the more empirical and prosaic they are, the closer they get to the truth, when in fact the more details you pile up, the further that takes you away from reality; we curse those who prefer to ignore risk, just because they are afraid of loneliness and getting it wrong; we scorn those who don’t understand that the greatness of a writer lies in his promise, guaranteed in advance, of failure; we love those who swear that art lies solely in this attempt.

The Illogic of Kassel also introduces us to a more politicized and history-conscious Vila-Matas than in any previous book. Despite the personal euphoria he experiences amidst the artworks of Documenta, Vila-Matas realizes that his visit to Germany is a stark reminder that Europe is, in his mind, a dead continent.

I was in the center of Germany, in the center of Europe, and there, in that center, it was more obvious than anywhere else that everything had been cold and dead and buried for decades, ever since the continent allowed itself to make its first series of unpardonable mistakes…The weight of our most recent terrifying past history was too much, a history in which horror was the dominant presence…Europe, already a tragic composite, would never again manage to feel part of the world in a good or natural way, in fact would never again manage to feel on earth in any way at all.

He never fully elucidates the events that comprise this “series of unpardonable mistakes, but the “recent terrifying past” is an obvious reference to the Nazi era and the Second World War. The stark contrast between Vila-Matas’ personal sense of exhilaration and his conviction that Europe has committed historical and moral suicide relates to his renewed conviction that “art and historical memory were inseparable,” and that “any activity connected to the avant-garde must never lose sight of the political dimension.” As a result, contemporary art “was the only window left open for those still searching for spiritual salvation.” The book ends on a note that I would never have expected from the eternally melancholy Vila-Matas. Here he is in a taxi on his way to the airport:

Art was, in effect, something that was happening to me, happening at that very moment. And the world seemed new again, moved by an invisible impulse. Everything was so relaxing and admirable, it was impossible not to look. Blessed is the morning, I thought.

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


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


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.


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.


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.”


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.