If today, at this moment, I had to answer that impossible question as to who is my favourite living novelist, I would plump for Enrique Vila-Matas.
Extraordinary as it might seem to his many readers worldwide, he is practically unknown in the UK, another startling blemish on the blinkered, xenophobic, utterly predictable tastes of the British publishing industry, for which anything that deviates from a well-worn mainstream formula is treated as toxic. The only two of Vila-Matas’ twenty-eight books to appear in English up till now have been Bartleby & Co (2004) and Montano (2007). In fact the book I wish to discuss here is not yet available in the UK: I have been reading the American New Directions edition, published in September.
Formally, the closest that most British readers will have come to Vila-Matas, might be W.G. Sebald, if only in the sense that Sebald was also the author of fictions presented as documentaries, or documentaries presented as fictions. But Vila-Matas actually makes me laugh, which counts for more than the sardonic smiles evinced by Sebald. And he shares a great deal too with Roberto Bolaño, with whom he became close friends in the last few years before the Chilean’s death in 2003. It is rumoured that Vila-Matas had more than just a hand in the final version of ‘The Part about Archimboldi’, the last (and best) section of 2666, Bolaño’s posthumous masterpiece.
Born in Barcelona in 1948 (and not 1931 as the back cover of this book informs us), Vila-Matas is, like Eduardo Mendoza, a Catalan who has chosen to write in Castilian. He grew up during the Franco dictatorship, and while still at law school, escaped to Paris to try and make his way as a writer, lodging, while he was there, in the garret of the house belonging to Marguerite Duras. And this is the topic of his new book, Never any end to Paris, its awkward title manifestly an acknowledgment of Hemingway’s memoir, A moveable feast. But whereas Hemingway claimed of his Paris years in the 1920s that he was ‘poor but happy’, Vila-Matas’ experience fifty years on was, he claims, both ‘very poor and very unhappy’. But he exaggerates, of course, and at least comes out of it with a wonderful book, first published in Spanish in 2003.
The story begins with Vila-Matas entering the annual Key West Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, and being disqualified outright for an “absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway”. Having set up his initial trope, the author leads us back in time to 1974, when he was living in Paris, intent on following Hemingway’s lead, researching and writing his first novel in his cold chambre, drinking the nights away with other young artists and poets. (Strangely enough, young Blanco stayed in Paris in the summer of 1974, just before his eighteenth birthday, on his first Big Adventure. Who knows, we might have met).
Later (again like Blanco) the young Vila-Matas is seduced by the teachings of situationism, dressing in black from head to foot, “converted” as he puts it “into the prototype of the secretly revolutionary, poetic intellectual. But in fact, being a situationist without having read a single line of Guy Debord, I was on the most radical extreme left, but only through hearsay. And . . . I didn’t practise, I devoted myself to feeling extremely left-wing.”
He is disheartened by how many of his fellow Spanish expatriates and exiles are ground down by heroin or cheap Spanish wine, and struggles to find the right role models for his own literary apprenticeship. Among them, needless to say, is his landlady, Marguerite Duras, who scares the living daylights out of the young Vila-Matas with her ‘superior French’ (he can’t understand a word she says to begin with), delivering him a sheet of notepaper with a list of thirteen points on how to write a novel (which he helpfully includes).
The aspiring writer attends parties, meets Roland Barthes, tries to hit on a young Isabelle Adjani (who spurns him icily), makes a fool of himself as a matter of course, takes acid at the top of the Eiffel Tower and is convinced by his demonic girlfriend, Kiki, that if he jumps he will probably land safely, ‘but it won’t be in Paris’.
At the party for the screening of Duras’ film, India Song, he tells how Alain Robbe-Grillet approached Duras to tell her that, as with all her films, he had enjoyed this one very much, to which she replies, without drawing breath, that “she was very sorry she couldn’t say the same about his films.” Vila-Matas (who was clearly impressed) comments: “I had never in my life heard anyone speak with such frankness, and perhaps for this reason the words etched themselves deep in my memory. What’s more, I have imitated this kind of frankness on a few occasions in my life, always with bad results . . .”
An often hilarious recital of his serial miseries, this gratifyingly unflattering self-portrait leads the reader through the ‘three lectures’ of which the book is composed (although we never learn where one lecture ends and another begins, nor indeed if we or some invisible others constitute the audience, nor where the ‘lectures’ are taking place). Indeed, Vila-Matas (or his narrator) at one point early in the narrative asks of himself (or us) ‘Am I a lecture, or a novel?’ (we do not receive a reply).
Vila-Matas’ narratives often proceed in just such an uncertain way, finding by going, as it were, where they have to go. Later in the story he writes: “When people ask me if I have my texts organized in my head before I write them or if they develop as they go, surprising even me, I always reply that infinite surprises occur in the writing. And that it’s lucky it’s like that, because surprise, the sudden change of direction, the phrase that appears at a precise moment without one knowing where it comes from, are the unexpected dividends, the fantastic little push that keeps the writer on his toes.”
On the same theme, in a recent interview, when asked how much in his texts is fiction, how much autobiography, Vila-Matas replied (with quite a dollop of irony): “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.”
There is much to commend this book, its leaps and its insights, its portrait of the excruciating self-consciousness of the emerging writer, as well as some profound moments, and a sense of true respect for his landlady, the phenomenal Marguerite Duras. Here is his accolade to her, which, I feel, might, with time, be applied to him:
“I remember she embodied all the monstrous contradictions to be found in human beings, all those doubts, that fragility and helplessness, fierce individuality, and a search for shared grief, in short, all the great anguish we’re capable of when faced with the reality of the world, that desolation the least exemplary writers have in them, the least academic and edifying ones, those who aren’t concerned with projecting a right and proper image of themselves, the only ones from whom we learn nothing, but also those who have the rare courage to literally expose themselves in their writing – where they speak their minds – and whom I admire deeply because only they lay it on the line, only they seem to me to be true writers.”