The Year of Reading Dangerously – Enrique Vila-Matas
Enrique Vila-Matas’ two previous novels translated into English – Bartleby & Co and Montano – are very much about not writing. In Bartleby & Co a writer who has been unable to write a second novel researches those who have suffered a similar fate. In Monatano the eponymous scribe is unable to put pen to paper at all. Never Any End to Paris also features its share of not writing, but, as a fictionalised autobiography of Vila-Matas’ time in Paris attempting to write his first novel (although I believe the title he refers to is that of his second) success is foretold in the very volume that we have in our hands. Vila-Matas seems comfortable existing in the spaces between biography, fiction and essay (he portrays the book as a lecture, referring more than once to his audience). In an interview he commented:
“The broad passageway that joins fiction and reality is cool and well-ventilated, and the air within blows about with the same natural ease with which I mix biography and invention.”
Vila-Matas’ default mode for transcribing reality is irony, and he describes the novel as his “ironic revision of the two years of my youth in Paris.” The earnestness of the young writer, therefore, is seen from the distance of established craftsman, and much of this is indicated through the young Vila-Matas’ attempts to follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway (the title is a quotation from Hemmingway’s account of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast). However, this mockery is immediately undermined by Vila-Matas’ apparent belief at the time of writing that he is the spitting image of Hemingway, to the point that he attempts to prove it by entering a look-alike contest, quickly finding himself disqualified:
“…they didn’t throw me out of the competition because they discovered the false beard – which they did not – but because of my ‘absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway’.”
Vila-Matas’ irony is not something he applies only to distant events, but is all-encompassing, including the persona he creates to narrate the novel. Writers, he suggests, are all deluded into thinking they are writers. He, in fact, identifies irony as what is missing from his life as a young man:
“Irony would have helped me but, since I was scarcely acquainted with it, there was nothing it could do for me.”
In Paris he lives in a garret (of course) rented from Marguerite Duras, whose French he rarely understands, and quickly inhabits every writerly cliché he can:
“I identified youth with despair and despair with the colour black. I dressed in black from head to toe. I bought myself two pairs of glasses, two identical pairs, which I didn’t need at all, I bought them to look more intellectual. And I began smoking a pipe…”
Vial-Matas describes his early struggles as a writer with a lightness and gentle mockery that conveys both the hardship and the freedom he experiences. He refers frequently to writers and writing; Hemingway, of course, but also many others, including those, like Georges Perec, he sees in Paris (typically, he simply stares at him). One of the most attractive things about Vila-Matas’ work is the way in which literature is unashamedly foregrounded as the subject.
Never Any End to Paris is a great addition to Vila-Matas’ work in English. Even better, a fourth book, Dublinesca, is due to follow next year.
Danger rating: beware of names dropping, but they fall so lightly they cannot harm you. Vila-Matas wears his erudition on his sleeve, but you might suspect it the costume of a clown.