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.”
Giles Harvey’s raview spends a lot of time on Borges and Poe, detective fiction, and the creation of the reader of detective fiction, which is all quite interesting, and ties in nicely to this particular novel.
Like Death and the Compass, Bolaño’s latest novel to be translated into English (and his first to be published in the Spanish-speaking world, back in 1993), The Skating Rink is, at least in part, a parody of detective fiction – or, strictly speaking, of crime fiction, the meaner, sexier, more violent love child of the detective story and 20th-century America. The Skating Rink lavishes on the reader many of the pleasures typically associated with that genre – suspense, intrigue, the exhilarating spectacle of moral decay – while making it quite clear that such pleasures are by no means the full extent of what it has to offer; it fondles and flaunts its own artifice, using it to explore chaos, reality, experience.
There has been a murder in the small resort town of Z on the Costa Brava. Three men – all ardent, wayward, headstrong, although in other respects quite dissimilar – appear to be implicated in the crime. These men share between themselves the task of telling the book’s story, each narrating brief chapters in turn.
Sounds interesting, and the novel’s meandering opening line (“The first time I saw him, it was int he Calle Bucareli, in Mexico City, that is, back in the vague shifty territory of our adolescence, the province of hardened poets, on a night of heavy fog, which slowed the traffic and prompted conversations about that odd phenomenon, so rare in Mexico City at night, at least as far as I can remember.”) is delicious, but it’s this closing paragraph that sold me:
In Bolaño there is no such poise, burnish or masterful cerebration. Instead people are always flubbing their lines and missing their cues. In fact, there aren’t even any actual detectives in The Skating Rink. Morán, the reader of crime fiction, gets to play at detection: it’s he who finds the body and then, rather inadvertently, discovers who’s responsible. But the revelation reveals hardly anything. It just inaugurates another mystery. And then the book ends, less crime novel than shaggy dog story.
And now I know how I’m spending my weekend.
It would be cool to visually share one’s own recommendations of world literature like Richard Whitehead does in The National.
His recommendations are interesting, but it’s too bad he doesn’t include more books from more places . . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .