More “Montao’s Malady” (Excerpt)

Following up on yesterday’s post, this excerpt from Montano’s Malady is just too perfect not to share. Enjoy and preorder the forthcoming Dalkey Archive edition of Vila-Matas’s brilliant, twisty book here.


April 21

“I’m absolutely convinced that publishing being in the hands of businessmen is just a passing episode.”

—-Carlos Barral


Every year’s the same at around this time. The number of illiterates in this country is on the increase, but this seems to be unimportant, there are more and more Book Days and it’s up to me to explain why we have to read. Yesterday, on the radio, I was invited to explain to listeners in two seconds why they should be encouraged to read. For them literally to be encouraged, I replied. I was going to add: and at the same time to achieve the spirit’s salvation, Musil’s ideal. I didn’t say this, it struck me as excessive and also I’d have overstepped the two-second limit.

I am no longer so rigidly literature-sick. Or, rather, I begin not to understand why I must advocate reading. Let every illiterate in this country do what he wants, of course. Besides, I hate virtually the whole of humanity and I spend the day planting mental bombs against all those businessmen who publish books, those departmental managers, market directors on the wire, and economics graduates. I plant mental bombs against them and against their disciplined followers and the rest of the world in general. So I wonder why I should lend them a hand and recommend that they read books if I only wish them ill, if I only want their stupidity to grow and for them to crash, once and for all, as they travel on the train of ignorance that we all pay for, but that one day they will pay a high price for, falling into the bottomless pit of failure, taking themselves elsewhere, into a different industry. What’s more, I loathe them so much that I’d be delighted if they were obliged to read, if a perfidious decree appeared from somewhere, a drastic order to become acquainted with books, and suddenly this country’s cities turned into libraries of forced, chaotic, daft intellectual activity.

In this way the failure of these haughty illiterates’ lives would be twofold. On the one hand there would be the already in itself resounding failure of all life, to which would be added that brought about by contact with literates—nobody doubts by now that to be a writer is to tail—not to mention with books, those astonishing “extensions of memory and imagination” that we take to beaches and cause to fail, not by reading them but by burying them in an unconscious great book of sand, very different from Borges’s.

This would be my revenge for the calls to advocacy that always arrive at around this time and for the constant doubts that plague me and drive me wretchedly to say that no one can be advised to read, but also drive me to think that really, however much I don’t like it, I should advocate reading, albeit only in a stylized way by saying, for example, that there’s nothing to say, except that, without literature, life has no meaning. But, of course, I can only convince those who read of this. And the fact is many of those who read believe it’s an obligation, and they are almost more dangerous than Pico’s moles because they convey an obvious sensation of boredom, they seem not to have read that memorable statement by Montaigne: “I do nothing without joy.”

With this statement, Montaigne wished to indicate that the concept of obligatory reading is a false one. If he came across a difficult passage in a book, Montaigne left it. The point is he saw in reading a form of happiness. Like Borges, who said that a book must not require effort. Borges agreed with Montaigne, though he loved to quote Emerson, who contradicted Montaigne and, in a great essay about books, asserted that a library is a kind of magic box. The best spirits of humanity are imprisoned in this box by an enchanter, and they’re waiting for our word to come out of their silence. We have to open the book, then they awake.

That said—I wish to distance myself from any new temptation to advocacy—the company of literature is dangerous, so much so that I’m really not sure I should applaud people I value for reading a lot and getting so involved in books; you see, I wish them well, and anyone who has read Kafka, for example, is perfectly aware “how much exces­sive anxiety for nothing” (to quote Pessoa) there is in literature.

As Magris says: “Kafka was perfectly aware that literature distanced him from the territory of death and enabled him to understand life, but leaving him outside. Just as it enabled him to understand the greatness of his Jewish father, a model man, but did not exactly enable him to be like him.”

Precisely because literature enables us to understand life, it leaves us outside it. It’s hard, but sometimes it’s the best thing that can happen to us. Reading and writing search for life, but they can lose it precisely because they’re focused entirely on life and on the search for it.

It may be the melancholy of the evening in which I am writing, but the truth is I’m talking about an inextricable knot of good and evil, of light and shade inherent in reading and literature. All this is hard, why fool ourselves? It’s a difficulty that, according to Gombrowicz, good literature has as the product of an instinct to sharpen spiritual life. There are times when I would recommend reading to my worst enemies.

Precisely because literature enables us to understand life, it tells us what can be, but also what could have been. There is nothing sometimes farther away from reality than literature, which is constantly reminding us that life is like this and the world has been organized like that, but it could be otherwise. There is nothing more subversive than literature, which aims to return us to true life by exposing what real life and History smother. Magris knows this very well, he is deeply interested in what could have been, had History or human life taken another course. Anyone who’s interested in this is interested in reading. This is not advocacy. After all, there are times—like now—when I wouldn’t recommend reading even to Pico’s moles, even to my worst enemies.

Translated by Jonathan Dunne. 

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