Category Archives: enrique vila-matas

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas


The National just published my review of Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas. (I’ve also just completed an interview with Vila-Matas himself, to be published by The Paris Review later this year.)

If somehow you missed the first two Vila-Matas translations published by New Directions in 2007, this is your chance to make it up. Seriously; it’s inexplicable to me that an author this witty, fun, intelligent, and–dare I say–effortlessly profound doesn’t have more of a following in the U.S. Here’s quote from the review.

The question of literary influence is one that can make even the greatest authors nervous. With good reason Harold Bloom named his prominent theory of literary inheritance “the anxiety of influence.” Memorably, Hemingway, whose long shadow still menaces writers today, compared battling his influences to a boxing match: “I started off very quietly and I had Mr Turgenev; then I tried hard and I beat Mr Maupassant. I fought two draws with Mr Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in a ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.”

The Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas neatly turns this all upside down: in his books that defy the divide between fiction and non-fiction, influence is not a minefield, so much as a vast source of literary raw materials. It’s a typical turnaround for Vila-Matas, who thrives on paradox and irony and has built a career by making literature out of seemingly anti-literary forms. Following in the footsteps of Borges’s “creative parasitism” (to quote Vila-Matas), it is his particular skill to create from projects that are almost derivative by definition literary objects of startling originality. English-language readers might have already seen his highly original, peculiarly postmodern approach to questions of influence, identity, and memory in Montano’s Malady and Bartleby & Co.

Few writers would dare wear their influences so blatantly on their sleeve, yet Vila-Matas positively revels in his . . .

And this is as good a time as any to reset my essay on Vila-Matas from back in 2008 covering Montano’s Malady and Bartleby & Co.

Befitting an author who entertains the notion that contemporary literature amounts to scribbling in the margins of the great works, Vila-Matas seems to be pioneering a strange new genre: the literary essay as novel. The first two of his books to appear in English, Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady, are fine examples. Both translated by Jonathan Dunne and recently published in paperback by New Directions, these books, as any well-written essay might be, are positively saturated with quotes, references, glosses, and other signs of deep research; what’s more, the obvious scrupulousness (even exhaustiveness) with which Vila-Matas has looked into his subject matter seems more appropriate to a critical work than a novel. At a time when more and more novels are including lists of sources and footnotes, Vila-Matas’s books stand out both for their rigor and for making their sources an integral part of the text.

In Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady Vila-Matas is grappling with the act of literary creation, and in the process he obsessively stares up at the works of his predecessors. The most important aspect of these two novels is how they are very consciously written from under the shadow of literature; these are books that are not only aware of the debts they owe to great authors—Kafka, Musil, Beckett, Gide, and Robert Walser among them—but that seem to be written desperately, as if the great works make their own existence virtually impossible. Each is trying to understand where the words come from—an author’s life? her imagination? dictated by the divine?—and each is based on the fear that after 2,000 years there may not be that much left to say.

Appropriately, the tone taken by the barely named first-person narrators of each novel rests somewhere between droll and depressed, treading a fine line between sarcasm and grief.

This is exciting literature, people, as good as any I’ve come across among contemporary authors. Don’t miss out.

More on the Anagrama Panel: Bolano’s Fav’s and Vila-Matas Sauced

Garth reports some interesting findings at the Anagrama panel at PEN. First he discusses Bolano's favorite authors:

The first to speak was Daniel Sada, who, according to Herralde, was on Roberto Bolaño's short-list of favorite writers, which fluctuated according to who he was friends with at any given time. The other candidates? Rodrigo Fresán, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Marías, and the man seated to Sada's right, Enrique Vila-Matas. Sada spoke about the 19th-Century tradition that shaped him, and its two great problems: managing character and managing time. He quoted Zola: "a novel with less than 25 characters is not worth reading." Sada's ambition as a young man was to write a 19th-Century novel that would also be a piece of poetry. "I understand now that this is an idiotic idea," he said. Still, his fiction is apparently difficult to translate because of his careful attention to the rhythms of his sentences. (All of this made me hungry to read his novel, Almost Never, which will be published in English next year by Graywolf.)

Actually, there are a few more authors on that list. Horacio Castellanos Moya is one of them, and you can find out the rest in this footnote in our interview with him.

Garth also delivers what I believe may be the first English-language media description of Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas:

The final panelist was Vila-Matas, whom I can only describe as looking like an Iberian Christopher Hitchens. Open-collared and looking pleasantly sauced at 7 p.m., he delivered a fluid series of anecdotes and aphorisms, most of them offering a rascally picture of his dealings with [Anagrama founder] Herralde. My favorite had to do with bumping into Herralde in a discotheque while "in a euphoric state" and lying about having completed a novel. In the end, though, Vila-Matas turned earnest. "Without the trust [of Herralde and Anagrama] it's not clear I would still be a writer."

Gotta say, after reading several of his books and viewing numerous photos of him, I never once imagined Vila-Matas as an "Iberian Christopher Hitchens." Although the rest of Garth's description rings true.

Here's video of the man himself. You make the call:

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Vila-Matas Calls for Readers of Talent

Vila-matas Andrew Seal points to (and partially translates) Enrique Vila-Matas's latest column in El Pais, where he argues that after our illusory economy has finished going up in smoke, literature (and presumably art and maybe even culture) will still be standing. Andrew translates:

When we awoke from the dream of mortgages and those economic powers that we had believed eternal, when we awoke in the dead center of the maelstrom that had devastated everything, the book was still there. It was amazing, no one—but no one!—had succeeded in altering it, no one had moved it from its perpetual position.

Vila-Matas goes on to call for a new era of readers of talent:

In the flames of this dream of mortgages and the golden calf of the gothic novel, the stupid legend of the passive reader was forged. This monster’s fall is giving way to the reappearance of the reader of talent, and the terms of the moral contract between author and the public are being reframed. Those writers breathe once more who are desperate for an active reader, for a reader open enough to permit into her mind the figure of a conscience radically different from her own.

All I can add to that is I certainly hope he's right.

Curiously enough, I have lately gotten around to reading Vila-Matas's much-praised Historia abreviada de la literature portatil ("An Abbreviated History of Portable Literature"), which deals, in typical fashion, with the history of a fake secret soceity of literary "Shandys" initiated in between the wars in France. Vila-Matas ropes many real people into the movement (among theom Georgia O'Keefe, Man Ray, Karl Krause, and Duchamp), and the one apparently defining trait of the society is that they are enthusiasts of "portable" literature, whatever exactly that means.

It's an exceedingly odd book, which isn't saying much for Vila-Matas. So far there's been a wave of youth suicides caused by the radical denunciation of suicide by the only member of the group to kill himself, and I just got through with a chapter centered around an immense party thrown in Vienna to celebrate the discovery of an error in Krauss's paper, Die Fackel.

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Enrique Vila-Matas Movie

Now this is exciting. They've made a movie of one of Enrique Vila-Matas's books: El viaje vertical ("The Vertical Journey"). Vila-Matas is, of course, an interesting choice to adapt to a movie since his novels often defeat our very ideas of what novels should be. El viaje is as yet untranslated into English, although it did net Vila-Matas the prestigious Premio Rómulo Gallegos (the same award that propelled Bolano to superstardom).

Here's the description from Anagrama:

Existe el viaje circular, el del retorno al lugar de origen que describe la Odisea. Pero también existe el viaje sin retorno, la odisea rectilínea y sin Ítaca que transforma a un individuo que ya no regresa a casa. Dentro de este segundo apartado debe incluirse la original modalidad del viaje vertical que es el que, tanto en lo geográfico como en lo vital, emprende el protagonista de esta novela, el septuagenario Federico Mayol hombre de negocios, aficionado al póquer, nacionalista catalán cuando al día siguiente de celebrar sus bodas de oro se ve sorprendente y absurdamente obligado por su mujer a dejar para siempre el domicilio conyugal. Como siempre en Enrique Vila-Matas, pululan los fantasmas de la vejez, la soledad, la locura y centellea el dilema entre supervivencia y suicidio. En esta ocasión en forma de un viaje vertical que es, por su trayectoria geográfica (de Barcelona a Oporto para bajar a Lisboa y después descender a Madeira y finalmente sumergirse en un extrañísimo destino final), una novela atlántica y al mismo tiempo la historia de una iniciación a la cultura, es decir, la clásica novela de aprendizaje, de no ser porque su protagonista tiene una edad en la que generalmente ya nadie aprende nada.

Based on what I'm reading about El viaje, it seems like they could play this movie straight or go for something a little more experimental out of it.

Warwick Prize

When I first heard about the Warwick Prize I thought it sounded better than most, and now the jury panel has proven itself worthy. Among the other worthy shortlisted titles, Enrique Vila-Matas’s novel Montano’s Malady gets the nod.

For more on why I find this book absolutely deserving of this prize, see this essay.

The Latin American Mixtape

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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