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Another Book to Add to the To Read List

One of my favorite writers from the past few years has to be Enrique Vila-Matas, whose Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady are absolutely fantastic. Very excited that Vila-Matas wrote an intro for our forthcoming publication of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, and also very excited to read his new book, Never Any End to Paris, which is forthcoming from New Directions, and was reviewed by Scott Esposito (today is a day of almost all Esposito post) in The National:

Never Any End to Paris (which takes its name from Hemingway’s famous memoir, A Moveable Feast), is a curious anti-memoir of the time he spent living with Marguerite Duras as a young writer in the French capital. The book, which Vila-Matas pitches with characteristic absurdist aplomb as a three-day lecture, gets off to a proper start with an anecdote about a Hemingway lookalike contest Vila-Matas claims to have entered. (I doubt he ever did.) It quickly turns farcical, as Vila-Matas looks nothing at all like Hemingway: “I should say that I made a ridiculous fool of myself . . . I was disqualified; worst of all, they didn’t throw me out of the competition because they discovered my false beard – which they did not – but because of my ‘absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway’”.

This self-effacing beginning is a spot-on way for Vila-Matas to start his retelling of how his youthful pretensions to become a second Hemingway quickly ran off the rails. Befitting a writer who would stake his name to the quicksands of the derivative, the young man we find in this book is one who is constantly trying to copy others. He attempts to mimic Hemingway’s effortless bohemianism, he adopts the thick glasses and harsh demeanour of the Parisian literati (themselves poseurs), and he tries to fit in with one of the avant-garde movements. From Duras (whose elevated French he never quite understands) he receives a 12-point list of qualities he must work into his writing, which he follows with a naive ardour. He even steals the plot and format of the literary work he creates in Paris from Unamuno and Nabokov. [. . .]

It is true that the actual Vila-Matas did journey to Paris, where he lived with Duras and wrote a literary mystery titled La asesina ilustrada, about a book that could kill its reader. And yet I’m quite sure the author has never given a three-day lecture on his time in Paris, nor grown a beard (to the great chagrin of his wife) in an attempt to look like Hemingway. The heteronym of Vila-Matas in the book even claims that La asesina ilustrada is his first work, but the Vila-Matas whose book I’m reviewing wrote Mujer en el espejo contemplando el paisaje years before La asesina.

It’s not enough to say that what Vila-Matas does is fictional autobiography; it’s more akin to something he attributes to Raymond Roussel, whom he writes told “stories that emerged from the prose itself.” Vila-Matas tells stories that emerge from the past. In this “ironic revision” of the author’s youth, the paradox that holds this book tight as a boa constrictor is that the Vila-Matas in Never Any End to Paris is the real-world Vila-Matas precisely because he isn’t. This works in a way analogous to a story he claims to have heard Borges tell one night in a bookstore in Paris. Relating the words of his father, Borges tells the audience that the past does not exist because all we have of it is a chain of memories: “Each time I remember something, I am not really remembering it, but rather am remembering the last time I remembered it . . . So in reality I have absolutely no memories or images of my childhood, of my youth.”



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