Enrique Vila-Matas has always been a writer who writes about writers – writers who cannot write (Bartleby & Co); writers who confuse fiction and reality (Montano); writers who have not yet started to write (Never Any End to Paris) – and his latest novella to appear in English, A Brief History of Portable Literature, is perhaps his most intensively writerly yet. (This does not indicate a progression in his style – though only recently translated by Anne Maclean and Thomas Bunstead, it was first published in 1985). It features a gallimaufry of authors and other artists linked by their membership of a secret club which bears the name of that most playful of novels, the Shandies.
Vila-Matas establishes the qualities necessary to be accepted as a Shandy early on: “high grade madness”; “the fact one’s work mustn’t weigh very much and should easily fit into a suitcase”; and a lack of conventional ties – Shandies should not only remain single but should act as a “bachelor machine.” Other characteristics are ‘advisable’ rather than essential:
“…an innovative bent, an extreme sexuality, a disinterest in grand statements, a tireless nomadism, a fraught coexistence with doppelgangers, a sympathy for negritude, and the cultivation of the art of insolence.”
Vila- Matas goes on, as the title suggests, to recount the society’s history in a series of brief chapters. Founded by Duchamp (and presumable inspired but Duchamp’s boite en valise, a suitcase which contained sixty-nine miniature reproductions of the artist’s work), the Shandies sojourn in a variety of literary locations around the globe, beginning on the coast of Africa, but including Vienna and Prague, before settling in a submarine named after a German railway station. While some members are ever-present most are transitory: F. Scott Fitzgerald invited to a party, accommodation in Prague sought in Gustav Meyrink’s neighbourhood, Paul Klee making dutiful notations in the submarine’s log. This can make the text feel like a veritable blitz of name-dropping, though some chapters take a little time to focus on a particular member: one deals with the origins of the stories in Blaise Cendras’ Anthologie nègre, another takes the form of a postcard from Aleister Crowley.
Be warned, however, it probably sounds a lot more fun than it is (if it doesn’t even sound like fun, I would not recommend it). If Vila-Matas’ intention is simply to amuse then it’s difficult to avoid the impression that there might be three or four individuals with the requisite knowledge to find the whole thing thigh-slappingly funny but, otherwise, what might sound like a book lover’s delight is a little like offering someone with a sweet tooth a cup of sugar to munch through. The novella is not simply a humorous skit, though, but can also be read as an imaginative essay in literary criticism.
Duchamp’s position as the society’s founder is not only based on his artistic luggage, but on his reputation as cheerleader of the avant-garde. Vila-Matas’ focuses on artists and writers born towards the end of the 19th century who made their mark in the opening decades of the twentieth. His fondness for them is tempered by ridicule. Take, for example, his description of the departure for Nigeria:
“At the time they didn’t know exactly what this plot would entail, but they had no doubt that clearly it ought to come to light in the darkness of a continent darker than the still-opaque portable spirit.”
‘Sympathy for negritude’ seems more than faintly ridiculous now, as does an attraction to the occult, which Vila-Matas pokes fun at in the form of Odradeks (a creature borrowed from Kafka) who naturally come to the fore in Prague, city not only of Kafka, but of Golems. They are, according to Duchamp, “dark occupants lodged within each of the portables’ inner labyrinths.” Similarly the insistence that Shandies be bachelor machines, and the reduction of women to femme fatales. Even the idea of the society itself is a subtle mockery of artists and writers who are regarded as the apogee of individualism. Vila-Matas’ celebration, then, is also a dismissal – the words ‘brief’ and ‘portable’ in the title suggest something intriguing but ultimately less significant than it felt at the time:
“Only because the past is dead are we able to read it.”
A Brief History of Portable Literature is not an ideal starting point for those unacquainted with Vila-Matas but for those of us who have already learned to love him, we can only take delight that more of his work is becoming available in English.