Tag Archives: enrique vila-matas

Vila-Matas Interview at The Paris Review

The Paris Review has just published my interview with Enrique Vila-Matas. It can be read here.

This comes on the occasion of the publication of his third book in English, Never Any End to Paris. The other two are Bartleby & Co and Montano’s Malady, and I recommend them all.

As I’ve said many times, here and elsewhere, Vila-Matas has pioneered what I see as a highly successful vision of what literature is in a post-“anxiety of influence” age. To put it all in a way that doesn’t reduce quite so well into a soundbyte, in The Western Canon Harold Bloom writes of Borges that he “overtly absorbs and then deliberately reflects the entire canonical tradition.” If that’s Borges, then Vila-Matas is overtly absorbed by the canon, which he then mutates from within. Although, that’s not quite it, since Vila-Matas’ canon isn’t your typical canonical canon; it’s more like a canon made from explorers of the abyss (to steal a title of an untranslated Vila-Matas book), a canon that almost entirely existed in inter-war Paris.

If that sounds like the kind of thing you want to associate yourself with, then you can find out more by reading my review of Never Any End to Paris, as well as my essay on Vila-Matas’ two prior books.

Laura Miller Is Wrong. Facts Matter.

This is what we’ve come to, people:

But what “Three Cups of Tea” provides is something else, a feeling of comradely motivation and a symbol of plucky American virtue in the person of Greg Mortenson. If he has to massage some facts into a better story in order to create sentimental enthusiasm for his cause, many of his fans are more than willing to give him that. Pointing out that a couple of these stories aren’t true strikes them as self-serving nitpicking and pettifoggery that, above all, misses the big picture. “Greg is a man who has done more good for more people than anyone else I know,” read one comment posted to an interview with Mortenson about the controversy at OutsideOnline. “Yes, he’s fallible. But the work that CAI is doing literally transforms lives.”

Seriously? Does anyone see a problem with the idea of presenting a “symbol of plucky American virtue in the person of Greg Mortenson” by making up key incidents that demonstrate said virtue? But of course, American virtue is only real when it’s fake.

I blame David Shields. Heck, I blame myself. After all, I’m a huge fan of the writer Enrique Vila-Matas, who has done as much as any author to pioneer the “false memoir” school of literature.

But here’s the difference: If you read just one page of Shields or Vila-Matas, you’re immediately aware that you’re in the presence of a highly ironic voice that you must be suspicious of. Everything about this kind of literature screams “caveat lector.”

But if you read Mortenson (and I have) it’s precisely the opposite–every last rhetorical trick in the book is used to instill a belief that what you are getting is 100% true.

I understand what Laura Miller is trying to say. It’s misguided and it’s wrong. Facts matter, and, no, if your lies might eventually end up doing someone good, that doesn’t make them true. If a book (or a person) does all it can to make you believe that it’s giving you a good, honest, factual account, then you absolutely have a right to feel betrayed when you find out that you were being lied to.

If Mortenson’s charity is doing good work, then more power to him. But don’t lie to me. That erodes the trust that we should have in books published by credible publishers, and it ultimately makes the author look like a fraud. There is no excuse, nor justification.

And contra Miller, I don’t “love to read about lying authors and negligent publishers and all the other ne’er-do-wells who are dragging our literary culture to hell in a hand basket.” No. Actually, I love to read about astonishing works of literature that have nothing to do with assholes puffing themselves up and the publishers who enable them. I love to read about publishers who are doing the right thing, even though you can obviously much more easily make a buck by doing otherwise. Most of the things I love to read about will never cross the desk of a Salon columnist for the exact reason that these things don’t feed into a condescending view of the people I’m attempting to write for.

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.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


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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