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 . . .
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.