The Spanish author has made a fine art out of straddling the boundaries of fact and fiction, but in his new novel, Never Any End to Paris, he reaches into the very core of our humanity, writes Scott Esposito
Enrique Vila-Matas's citadel of the self
The Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas neatly turns this all upside down: in his books that defy the divide between fiction and non-fiction, influence is not a minefield, so much as a vast source of literary raw materials. It's a typical turnaround for Vila-Matas, who thrives on paradox and irony and has built a career by making literature out of seemingly anti-literary forms. Following in the footsteps of Borges's "creative parasitism" (to quote Vila-Matas), it is his particular skill to create from projects that are almost derivative by definition literary objects of startling originality. English-language readers might have already seen his highly original, peculiarly postmodern approach to questions of influence, identity, and memory in Montano's Malady and Bartleby & Co.
Few writers would dare wear their influences so blatantly on their sleeve, yet Vila-Matas positively revels in his. Book after book, he plays his games with the same constellation of modernist heroes, high among them Proust and Borges, Kafka and Robert Walser. Vila-Matas's pantheon is full of intellectual writers obsessed by negation and failure, writers who track an ever-shifting truth that they suspect can never be touched. Above all, they are writers who defy genre because they pursue a very personal quantity that can only be defined by their art. Vila-Matas joins them in their gloriously futile endeavour, but with a certain wry, goading playfulness that distinguishes him from his mostly melancholy peers.
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.
Never Any End to Paris is not as formally distinct as some of Vila-Matas's other work. For instance, his 2001 novel Bartleby & Co is written in the form of footnotes to a book never written, yet in its episodic, highly elliptical approach to memoir it has a feel all its own. Through a blend of facts and fiction, Vila-Matas triangulates an account of his youthful beginnings as an author. Though he is far from the first writer to take an ironic look back at the first stages of what would be a long and productive career, what gives Never Any End to Paris its own distinctive sheen is the fundamental uncertainty throughout as to whether the protagonist is in fact Vila-Matas.
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."
Yet if there is an answer for Borges, Vila-Matas just might have found it by bringing this frightful idea into the realm of literary creation:
I find it impossible not to recall with a sense of humour the mental state in which I wrote my most recent novels, that strange mental state that would lead me to weep at my own humor and laugh my head off when my characters die. And the thing is, life's like that, and so is art. In the long run, if you're patient, you discover that, just like laughter and tears, life and art have a tendency to end up merging and intertwining to form a single figure, at once comic and tragic, a figure as singular as that formed by the bull and the bullfighter in those great performances we never forget.
Vila-Matas shows art in all its inconsistency, thereby pushing it toward that liminal moment where it becomes true to life, where Borges' memories, as it were, bloom into that truth that they can never quite be. Never Any End to Paris always strains toward this unreachable quantity, with irony, paradox, and anxiety being the author's tools of choice for caging these mirages. Yet whereas Borges confides to his audience that "it saddens me" to think that all our memories of youth are Xeroxes made on faulty copiers, Vila-Matas offers his own take: instead of weeping for what is lost, laugh at what might have been.
Towards the end of Never Any End to Paris, Vila-Matas claims that "if literature was possible it was because the world wasn't made." This book, like many of his others, is a testament to how little we realise of our world is fundamentally unformed. Never Any End to Paris contributes profoundly to our understanding of our selves - how we create them, what we create them of, and how they take on life. It is also a comic, poignant story of one writer's beginnings. It is a story very much worth knowing, not so much because it is original but because Vila-Matas's telling of it is.
Scott Esposito is the editor of the Quarterly Conversation, an online literary journal.