Archive for the ‘Enrique Vila-Matas’ Category

Mac & His Problem

March 10, 2020

Enrique Vila-Matas’ Mac & His Problem (translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes) is another playful rumination on writing from the incomparable Spanish author. The narrator, Mac, is a failed building contractor who is now turning his hand to writing. From the beginning we are told to distrust what we are told:

“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.”

(Even this, it is later suggested, is not an original idea – in a novel of repetitions and borrowings – as Mac points out that Georges Perec’s posthumous, unfinished “53 Days” was discovered suspiciously complete). Mac begins, however, with a diary, a diary which, he tells us (as we read it) “no one else is going to read.” (We also discover later that “afterward I painstakingly edit what I’ve written”).

Mac soon fixates on a novel written many years before by a neighbour, Sanchez, with whom he is only distantly acquainted. Walter & His Problem tells the story of a ventriloquist – that is, someone who lends his voice for a living – in a novel full of borrowed voices:

“Walter’s main problem, a very grave one for a person in his profession, namely, that he had only one voice, the voice that writers so yearn to find, but which for him, for obvious reasons, was highly problematic.”

Conversely, the novel is written in the form of a series of stories, each adopting the style of another writer:

“Behind the different voices corresponding to each of the stories lay, camouflaged, ‘imitations, sometimes satirical and at other times not, of the masters of the short story.’”

This allows Vila-Matas (Mac) to retell the stories of the novel adding a further layer of repetition, before Mac decides to rewrite them:

“I could set about repeating the book Sanchez claims to have more or less forgotten.”

“We come into the world,” he tells us, “in order to repeat what those who came before us also repeated.” For Mac there is no anxiety of influence only an unequivocal acceptance.

Literary influence, however, is not Vila-Matas’ only target; he is also interested in the relationship between “fiction and reality, an old married couple.” As Mac writes, his real life increasingly intermingles with what he puts on the page. In this, Vila-Matas is addressing (tongue in cheek) a type of writing made fashionable by Karl Knausgaard, whom we are told Sanchez admires (“Sanchez’s sole ambition was to emulate a certain Norwegian writer…”). As Mac points out, once you begin to write your life, the process of writing affects the life:

“I’ve noticed lately that the things that happen to me seem far more narratable than before I started writing.”

His reading of Walter & His Problem also interacts with his own life, in particular one chapter entitled ‘Carmen’ which he identifies with his wife of that name. Not only does it transpire that Sanchez once knew Carmen, Mac begins to suspect that they are involved once again:

“I thought I saw Sanchez and Carmen walking along together on the opposite sidewalk. They weren’t holding hands, but it looked as if they were.”

Mac begins to feel that “my reading of the book is obliging me to actually live out certain scenes.” By the end of the novel he is both identifying with Walter while at the same time disassociating himself from his own work by attributing the re-writing of Sanchez’s novel to his (fake) nephew.

I found Mac & His Problem to be an affectionate but often uncomfortably accurate ridiculing of contemporary literature. It is not only very funny at times, but has the charm of spot-on satire without cruelty. The character of Mac – both a writer and not a writer – allows Vila-Matas to comment as if from the side-lines while retaining his erudition (it’s a book that will point you towards other books). It’s a pleasure to see it on the International Booker long list, which so far suggests an admiration for books which are playfully serious.

Vampire in Love

October 30, 2016


In ‘Permanent Home’, the first story in Vampire in Love, the narrator listens to a death-bed confession from his father – “you should know your mother died because I arranged it.” As the story progresses, the son begins to suspect that his father is not being entirely truthful, in the end responding with the remark, “You are clearly confusing me with someone else. I am not your son.”

“My father, who had once believed in many, many things only to end up distrusting all of them, was leaving me with a unique, definitive faith: That of believing in a fiction that one knows to be a fiction, aware that this is all that exists, and that the exquisite truth consists in knowing that it is a fiction and, nevertheless, one should believe in it.”

It will not surprise regular readers of Vila-Matas that the line between fact and fiction remains blurred throughout many of the tales which follow in this collection of his short fiction, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. In ‘I Never Go to the Movies’ Pampanini uses the same line, “You’re obviously confusing me with someone else,” when he is mistaken for a famous, but deceased, director. Ironically, Pampanini has never been inside a cinema:

“Because in the movies nothing is ever true.”

The set-up is amusing, but it takes a writer of Vila-Matas imagination to finish such a story with a final flourish that depends not on Pampanini’s identity but on his dismissal of film as irrelevant to reality with a series of events happening in front of his eyes that seem straight from the cinema screen. The possibility if mistaken identity reoccurs in ‘Torre del Mirador’ where the narrator is regaled by a unknown man with his life story over the phone. Having left his wife because she made him miserable with her constant complaints regarding his ugliness he has undergone plastic surgery:

“For some days now I’ve had a completely different face. Even if I did go back, I doubt that my wife would recognise me.”

The narrator decides to investigate the truth of the story, tracking down the wife and visiting her under the pretence of buying her villa. While he is there a man appears claiming to be the husband but, of course, the wife has no way of recognising him. As the narrator leaves he sees another potential husband approaching.

The interaction between fact and fiction is mirrored by that between the artists and his inspiration. In ‘The Hour of the Tired and Weary’ the narrator spends his days following people and observing their actions, claiming to be “a pursuer of other people’s lives, a kind of lazy detective, a storyteller.” As the story progresses, questions are raised over how far he observes reality and how far he influences it. In ‘They Say I Should Say who I Am’ the narrator challenges an artist who has spent his life painting portraits of Babakuans having never set foot in Babakua:

“…if you had ever bothered to visit that diabolical place, you would know how very unfaithful all your paintings are. It makes me laugh to think of those critics who call you the last realist.”

The narrator’s point seems undeniable, until, that is, he begins to create his own portrait of Babakuans as a strange and eccentric race.

Vila-Matas’ literary light-handedness should not be mistaken, however, for a lack of seriousness. Suicide is a perhaps unexpected preoccupation throughout many of the stories. In ‘Rosa Schwarzer Comes Back to Life’ the protagonist, burdened with the knowledge her son is fatally ill, encounters numerous opportunities (as she calls them) to die:

“She thought how easy it wold be to die and that she should not let this splendid opportunity pass her by.”

In ‘Death by Saudade’ the narrator discovers from a teacher that his friend, Horatio’s, family has a history of suicide:

“I could never write a convincing story based on the history of that family, because there are too many gunshots and too many leaps into the void, too much poison, too many people dying by their own hand.”

The title story, too, is touched by suicide; in others, the darkness seems to come from the time they were written (the early stories are dated). ‘Greetings for Dante’ (though given its own context by the story, the title is a clear reference to Hell) in particular seems an imagined response to Franco’s dictatorship.

On a more light-hearted note, there are some particular delights for Vila-Matas fans. ‘Sea Swell’ reads like an out-take from Never Any End to Paris as Vila-Matas visits Marguerite Duras hoping to rent a flat from her but having unfortunately taken amphetamines beforehand. In ‘Invented Memories’ we see him at his playful best in a tribute to Antonio Tabucchi.

Vampire in Love is not only a must for any admirer of Vila-Matas, but a fantastic introduction to his work if you have never read him before. And if you’ve never read him before, what are you waiting for?

A Brief History of Portable Literature

July 15, 2015

portable literature

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.