Sometimes people ask really difficult questions. One of them, which crops up a lot, is ‘Who is your favourite living novelist’? First of all, it’s assumed it will be someone who writes in English, because the British and the Americans don’t read much translated fiction, whereas I do. The extraordinary arrogance of a publishing industry in which only 3% of fiction is non-English – leaving 97% for the English-language writers, might indicate a degree of imbalance, but no one apart from professional translators, who bang on about it the whole time, seems to be too bothered.
Other European countries do not suffer this degree of cultural solipsism, and translated works account for a much higher percentage of published works. Between 30% and 60% if the statistics are to be believed, though I read recently that in Italy 70% of published fiction is in translation. Unbelievably, these statistics receive comments such as one I heard from an English writer recently “Ah but the Italians can’t write fiction!” I could hardly believe my ears.
The fact that extraordinary novels are regularly published in the Hispanic world has filtered into the reading public’s consciousness since the rise of magic realism and the Latin American ‘boom’ generation writers, comprising García Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa – as well as their pale imitators such as Isabel Allende and the Brazilian Paulo Coelho – and more recently, the extraordinary international success of Roberto Bolaño. But even the compiling of such a list makes me uneasy. We in the UK have suffered nearly thirty years in which every new production from the tedious triad of Amis, McEwen and Rushdie is treated as though it were a gift of greatness, and perhaps we have lost all perspective of what is truly interesting in the world.
So, to cut to the quick, my favourite Spanish-language novelists – no, make that international novelists – all of them a few years younger than the three named above, would be Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías and Enrique Vila-Matas. Bolaño, sadly, is no longer with us, and has received plenty of attention (both in the media and in this blog), and I am going to do a separate post on Javier Marías, so I would like to spend a little time on Enrique Vila-Matas, whose non-fiction novel Never any end to Paris was published by New Directions in the USA last week. I will be reviewing it when my copy arrives, but I have read the book in Spanish so I have a head start. The book describes Vila-Matas’ apprenticeship as a writer in Paris, the city to which he moved (from his native Barcelona) as a young man in the 1970s. He had the good fortune to rent a room in the apartment building belonging to the fabulous novelist and film-director (and alcoholic of epic and tragic proportions) Marguerite Duras. Early in the story Enrique bumps into Duras one day on the building’s stairway. Nervous and stammering, he asks her in his substandard and broken French for some advice on the novel he is writing (his first):
“Some advice, that I need, help for the novel.” Marguerite understood perfectly this time. “Ah, some advice”, she said, and she invited me to sit down in the foyer (as if considering me to be very tired), slowly put out her cigarette in the entrance hall ashtray, and headed, somewhat mysteriously, towards her office, from which she returned after a minute with a sheet of paper that resembled a medical note and which contained instructions that might – she told me, or I understood her to say – be useful to me in the writing of novels. I took the note and headed out onto the street. I read the instructions on it a little later, on the Rue Saint-Benoît, and felt at once the whole weight of the world on me, even today I recall the immense panic – the shudder, to be more precise – that I endured on reading them: 1. Problems of structure; 2. Unity and harmony; 3. Plot and history; 4. The time factor; 5. Textual effects; 6. Verisimilitude; 7. Narrative technique; 8. Character; 9. Dialogue; 10. Setting; 11. Style; 12. Experience; 13. Linguistic register.
Since I will review the book in due course, I won’t begin to summarize the hilarious convolutions and torments that the aspiring writer brings upon himself in his quest to fulfil Duras’s daunting stipulations while striving to imitate his literary heroes (notably Hemingway) in certain aspects of literary life – and not only quaffing and revelry – but I would urge anyone – especially anybody who wants to learn about the writing life – to read the book.
Incredibly, only two other of Vila-Matas’ novels are available in English, both of them superbly translated by Jonathan Dunne. (The new book is translated by Anna McLean, and the above extract was my own hurried version, so she cannot be held responsible). These are Bartleby & Co. and Montano, published in 2004 and 2007 respectively. Bartleby & Co. inspired me profoundly during the writing of The Vagabond’s Breakfast, or rather it induced a state of mind that I could only render into prose by means of an extended metaphor. I reproduce the section below, with apologies to those readers who already know the passage. I realise it’s a bit of a cheat putting extracts from my own books on the blog, but a) it might help sell a few copies, and b) I need to pack for my holidays and have, as always, done absolutely nothing until the last minute. So, off we go:
While trying to avoid writing one afternoon, I decide that I want to clear my desk, in fact to clear it and thoroughly clean it. I begin by brushing and then wiping the poorly varnished surface with an anti-bacterial cloth. It still looks dirty; ingrained gubbins of all varieties spread across the desktop. I reach into the low cupboard that extends beneath the eaves of this attic room, find sandpaper and apply myself to the task, scraping away with fixed determination. I begin thinking of the story I am supposed to be writing, of the book review I have promised to deliver, of the poems that lie unfinished in a drawer, but mostly I fall to thinking about the very act of writing, and how it consumes my life in so many ways, most of them satisfying in one sense or another; I like to write, I enjoy what my friend Niall Griffiths calls the glorious mix of exhaustion and exhilaration that come at the end of a good session, the almost trancelike state one enters when entirely absorbed in the life of a character or a place, of having captured some small truth and transcribed it successfully so that a total stranger, on reading it, can nod or laugh in recognition of something shared, or something learned, though possibly always known. But the downside, the part that most writers dread, is the seemingly interminable agony one enters when, for some reason or other, one is kept from writing, either by illness, other work, or a general reluctance to face the blank screen; or else besieged by the feeling that whatever one writes has been said before, and probably better, elsewhere, and yet the terrible arrogance of the author, the desire to act God, that insistent striving to give voice, will not subside.
In this condition, I find myself considering the plight of Bartleby, as described by Enrique Vila-Matas in his book of that name. Bartleby is the type of those who are conditioned to write, for whom writing is default behaviour, and yet who, when asked to perform a particular job or favour, will answer, as a matter of principle, I would prefer not to, regardless of the question, and who, in similar vein, will courageously decline to write at all, although deemed to be a ‘writer’ in the eyes of the world. Vila-Matas has researched the type well:
“For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the negative impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write: either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become paralysed for good.”
Vila-Matas does not regard the state of being a Bartleby to be quite beyond hope. There is a glimmer on the horizon, and he contrives, in some way, to conjure an (as yet) invisible text out of the footnotes he has prepared for it. “I wonder if I can do this,” he writes. “I am convinced that only by tracking down the labyrinth of the No can the paths still open to the writing of the future appear. I wonder if I can evoke them.” He occupies himself, over the course of the book, by investigating these writers of the No, giving cameo performances to writers with an overdeveloped sense of the absurdity of their vocation, or with an extraordinary capacity for prevarication and delay.
The list of writers that Vila-Matas compiles of Bartlebys past and present is extensive and includes such luminaries as Rimbaud, Walser, Gil de Biedma and Salinger, even Beckett. There is a peculiar sense in which these writers turn the act of not-writing into a virtue, of which it is hard not to be envious. One of the most outstanding examples is Joseph Joubert, a Frenchman who lived in the eighteenth century and who “discovered a delightful place where he could digress and end up not writing a book at all.” Although he lived to be seventy, Joubert “never wrote a book. He only prepared himself to write one, single-mindedly searching for the right conditions. Then he forgot this purpose as well.” Ah, the nefarious comforts of silence! Some of Vila-Matas’ writers of the No, such as Robert Walser, the shy and reclusive author of The Walk, turn not-writing itself into a topic of their oeuvre (Walser spent the last twenty years of his life as the inmate of an asylum for the insane, as such institutions were then known). The dedication with which Walser and others pursued their calling raises the frightening possibility that I am not yet good enough, or sufficiently dedicated, to be a Bartleby; that despite my good intentions, to fail so self-consciously, and in so spectacular a way as to provoke the admiration of other, more orthodox writers (those who put pen to paper) is itself an achievement beyond my skills and powers of endurance.
By now I am scrubbing so hard that most of the surface is spotless; the dirty varnish is gone and I am sanding raw wood. The desk is a large one; I have covered a big area and am still going strong. The thought occurs to me that if I just keep on sandpapering that desk, it will eventually cease to exist. I could entirely transform my room (the desk, as I have said, is substantial) and in the process, as I scrape away in this alchemical act of molecular disassembly, of making something disappear, of making nothing out of something, I will consider the book I am writing, measuring it out in my mind, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, so that by the time I have rasped away the last grains of sawdust from the last chip of wood, being all that remains of what was once my desk, I will be ready to continue. True, I would no longer have a desk to write it on, I would have to sit in the armchair and use a notebook or the laptop, but that would surely be a small loss compared with the relief of knowing the outcome of my story. And at least I have the laptop, which is just as well, seeing as my handwriting has become quite illegible, I can hardly make it out, and even when I concentrate and force myself to write very slowly the result resembles nothing but a spider-trail of flattened hieroglyphs. My typing isn’t up to much either, but at least I can read what I have written and stand a much better chance of guessing my own intentions despite all the typos and unintentional neologisms that occupy the screen, underlined in green and red. It is frustrating, but I have to put up with this disability, just as I endure the laborious task of reading, for even though reading remains a pleasure, it is one that stretches my powers of concentration to the limit and recently it took me three weeks to read a short novel, simply because I had to re-read every paragraph several times in order to retain the gist of whatever was going on, and neither was it a particularly demanding book; the same thing happens whether I am reading philosophy or a detective novel. This is hard for me, since I have always had good powers of retention, and it feels strange and disempowering to be struggling through the page like a seven-year old, and remembering not a thing.
From The Vagabond’s Breakfast (pp 56-59)