Well here we are, he wrote to Anderson, as he lay there, smoking. He liked typing letters from his bed with the black Corona on his lap. And we sit outside the Dome Café, opposite the Rotonde that’s being redecorated, he wrote to Anderson, warmed up against one of those charcoal braziers and it’s so damned cold outside and the brazier makes it so warm and we drink rum punch, hot, and the rum enters into us like the Holy Spirit. Period—new paragraph, as he weighed up his words, as he smoked. And when it’s a cold night in the streets of Paris and we’re walking home down the Rue Bonaparte, he wrote to Anderson, we think of the way the wolves used to slink into the city, and François Villon and the gallows at Montfaucon. What a town, he wrote to Anderson. From somewhere far away there was a pleasant waft of perfume. He looked up and saw the dress she’d worn the previous night draped over the back of a chair. Bones is out in it now and I’ve been earning our daily bread on this typewriter. In a couple of days we’ll be settled, he wrote to Anderson, and then I’ll send out the letters of introduction like launching a flock of ships.
I’ve just received an e-mail from Vila-Matas. On Sunday I travel to Venezuela, to Caracas, he writes, as one of the judges of the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, which has meant my having to read 254 books. Now there are 40 left, and eventually there will be just one left, and I imagine I’ll be left, too, completely drained.
I met Enrique Vila-Matas in Barcelona, in the celebrations for Saint Jordi, that weird, crazy Catalan ritual with books and roses and endless queues and seventy authors signing their books at El Corte Inglés. I arrived, with Esteban Martín, at the Laie Bookshop on the Calle Pau Claris, close to the Plaza de Cataluña, to sign copies of the Cervantine novel I’d just had published with Littera Books. I signed one—the copy, by the way, belonging to an embarrassed Dutch friend of mine. Ah well, nothing to be done about that. When we arrived, Vila-Matas was already sitting under the little awning amid all the chaos of the crowd, serious, still, waiting to scribble an enigmatic drawing in the books of any eager passerby who happened to recognize him. Impeccably turned-out, handsome, his then-publisher Jorge Herralde hovered a few feet behind him. I approached Vila-Matas and introduced myself, briefly but with some detail, utterly intimidated by his reserved, somber expression and his intense stare, which for some reason reminded me of a tiger’s. Partly stammering, partly shouting above the hubbub, I finally came to an end. He cautiously accepted the two books of mine that I’d wanted to present to him, and continued to look at me, somewhat bemused. I wasn’t able to catch any of that, he said, who are you, again?
A few days ago, smoking at three in the morning, unable to sleep, I wrote to Enrique asking him who his influences were as a writer. There are at least two of them, as is becoming apparent to me.
The first was an experience he’d had when he was sixteen years old, in a Barcelona cinema, during the opening night of Antonioni’s movie La Notte, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau. On the big screen, the handsome Mastroianni was and had the two things that the young Vila-Matas wanted to be and to have: he was a writer, and he had a spectacular wife. He started to worship the public image of those strange beings called writers, in particular Boris Vian, Albert Camus, Scott Fitzgerald and André Malraux; all of whom, you understand—he wrote to me—because of how well they photographed, not for what they’d written. When my father then asked me what I wanted to study (he was secretly convinced that I wanted to be a lawyer) I replied at once that I wanted to be like Malraux. For a moment my father said nothing. I remember his expression of astonishment very clearly. Being Malraux—he said, angry, confused—is not a career, it’s not something you study at the university. Today, years later, I know exactly why I wanted to be like Malraux: because that writer, besides having the look of a man who had really been well toughened-up, had built up a legend for himself as an adventurer, and a man who had no quarrel with life. What I didn’t know was that to be a writer you had to write, and write well, which requires courage, and above all an infinite patience, a patience defined very well by Oscar Wilde. He said that he’d spent the whole morning correcting the proof of one of his poems, and ended up only taking out a comma. In the afternoon he put it back in.
Another literary influence on Vila-Matas, as I’ve just learned with a certain amount of sympathy, is Ernest Hemingway. Enrique and I share a love of exemplary suicides, the Borgesian (as he calls it), writing about writing, and Hemingway, especially the Hemingway of Paris. I’ve just completed Never Any End to Paris, he wrote to me today, an autobiographical novel with a Hemingwayesque title, in which I recount my experiences in Paris in the mid-sixties when I went to that city to make something of myself, he wrote, because I’d read A Movable Feast, a seminal book for me. And, I think, for me, too. This book, he goes on explaining, is the story of a Hemingway impersonator in Paris.
For your novel, he wrote, if you’ll already let me call it a novel, the embryo you’re describing to me, I’m reminded of García Márquez, reading Kafka in Aracataca, reading Rulfo in Mexico, writing his masterpiece while penniless in Paris. Juan Marsé, too. I always thought it interesting why such a young, unpolished man from the Guniardo neighbourhood should have stumbled into something as sophisticated as reading novels, and even more so, writing them. Others will occur to me. So, a literary angel? Walter Benjamin said that an angel reminds us of everything we’ve forgotten. Maybe so. A hug from your reader-to-be.
There’s a bastard mosquito I’m going to kill, he grumbled, batting at the air with his hand. We were sitting outside, on the patio of the Sophos Bookshop, with a large sign in front of us announcing that the new Harry Potter book was sold out. It was a rainy Monday. Horacio Castellanos Moya, punctual as ever, arrived with his hair disheveled, sporting an olive-colored suit. We ordered two coffees. I was born to be a writer, he answered me straightaway. Man, no, come on, as a kid I didn’t even like reading, let alone writing. I thought all that business with books that the Marist brothers were teaching us was for sissies. That’s so, and yet, you know, I really was born to be a writer, he repeated, taking little sips of his hot coffee. My family has a flood of uncles and grandparents who were frustrated poets. An absolute flood, on both sides. On my father’s side, I had an uncle who was a journalist who never published his little verses. His name was Jacinto Castellanos Rivas, he was my father’s older brother, a friend of Salarrué and personal secretary to the dictator Martínez. He ended up killing himself. Now, on my mum’s side, there are two. The poems by my grandmother, Emma Moya-Posas, appear in a number of anthologies, though they’re not very good. An old lady’s poems, rather sentimental. Excuse me? That’s right, yes, so my surname was originally double-barreled like that. But the Posas just got in my way, so I got rid of it. And then on that side there’s another poet uncle who killed himself, too, David Moya-Posas. All of them frustrated poets. I’m the third frustrated generation to try my hand at it. How did I start reading? He fell silent, remembering, as a group of obese backpacking gringo girls filed past us. Look, he sighed, what I was really interested in was music. I was sixteen. I kind of got into playing the guitar, and a friend and I used to write these little songs. I liked going around writing songs. From there I got to know music by people like Bob Dylan, and I was fascinated by his lyrics. And so I got into poetry through songs. A glass of water, please, Baudilio, he said to the waiter. Where was I? Oh yes, music. But my literary discovery was Mr. Whitman. Absolutely. Leaves of Grass was the first book to break apart the literary structure I’d had from school, broke it apart completely. Now that did interest me. It wasn’t like all that bullshit we’d had to read back then. From there I moved on to Henry Miller. What a sonovabitch. Black Spring. Another great book that changed me. And Pavese’s diary, too. The magnificent Dostoevsky. And there are more, of course. What? You want one specific moment? Just one? Castellanos Moya opened his eyes wide, as though this helped him see into the past, and with both hands he ruffled his thick hair even more. His expression mischievous, he now gave me a smile. I’d say, yeah, I became a writer the day I sold my guitar to buy myself a typewriter. That was the day I moved into literature. That was my moment, definitely. I can still remember that black hunk of metal—Royal was the make, I think. And I started writing poems and more poems, I spent three or four years writing just poems before getting into narrative. Ah, thanks, Baudilio. Sitting back in his chair, Horacio took a long sip of water. He asked if he’d already given me the address in Blanes that I’d asked for, and when I showed him the crumpled little piece of paper he raised his eyebrows. So, anyway, will you drop me off at the newspaper?
He pushed the door and two little bells tinkled. He felt at home in here. That smell always made him feel at home. He stood there, unmoving, stunned, as though standing at a meticulously finished canvas by Renoir: just taking in all the details. Books were packed onto the shelves. Daguerreotypes of authors covered the back wall. On a desk, he was able to make out the covers of a few literary magazines: the English Review, Chap Book, Gargoyle, Dial, the Times Literary Supplement. Sitting at a table in the shadows, watching him, a couple were smoking in silence. That’s her, he thought. He took off his gloves and drew the letter out from the inside pocket of his coat. He’d been in Paris less than a week, but inside Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore on the Rue de l’Odéon, and without having written any more than a handful of poems and journalistic articles, he felt himself fully a writer.
He smiled. He still didn’t speak a word of French. He handed over the letter.
“Ah, it’s from Sherwood . . .”
As she read, he remained standing, watching the man smoke in short, quick puffs, listening to the delicious crackle of the firewood in the hearth.
“So—welcome. Please, do sit down,” she gestured toward a little stool. “Look, James, it’s a letter from Sherwood. We’ll carry on with the edits later, all right?”
He sat down, putting his gloves and scarf on the table.
“Can I get you a coffee, Ernest?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“No, I’m just fine, dear,” with an obvious Irish accent.
Sylvia took a little white cup from the tray and poured in a short stream of coffee. With her large, lively brown eyes, her short wavy hair and powerfully sculpted features, Ernest thought she looked rather nice.
“Doesn’t ring a bell. I don’t think I’ve read anything of yours.”
“I haven’t published much,” he admitted. One year in Paris, that’s what he’d promised himself, one year in Paris to devote himself completely to his writing.
“Yes, a few. More journalism.”
“How long have you been in Paris?”
“A week, more or less.”
“No, with my wife, Hadley. We docked at Cherbourg on December 21.”
“And so what do you think?”
“And where are you lodging?”
“At the Hotel Jacob et L’Angleterre for now.”
“Ah, of course, Anderson’s favorite. Sherwood has always had those youngsters of his following in his footsteps. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re sleeping in the same room as he did,” she said affectionately. “So I imagine you’ve already been to the Café du Dôme and La Rotonde.”
“Yes, to the Dome. But the Rotonde is closed.”
“Being redecorated, dear,” offered the Irishman, who had remained silent, smoking with one hand while the other stroked the first page of a huge manuscript.
“Montparnasse is changing, James,” she sighed.
“It’s money from les américains, ma chérie,” passing her an already lit cigarette.
“Do you smoke, Ernest?”
“Thank you,” he accepted one.
“Well, my dear Hemingway,” she began, exhaling a thick veil of tobacco smoke, “let me explain how Shakespeare & Company works. Alright? Very good. Besides selling books, of course, we also lend them out.”
The Irishman, bored, stood up and began to rummage in the shelves.
“Membership is ten francs.”
“Members can then borrow as many books as they want. One at a time, of course.”
“You don’t have any Lawrence, Sylvia?”
“Of course, one at a time.”
“Nothing at all? Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Maybe Adrienne will have something?”
“I don’t know. I’ll ask her tonight. So anyway, Hemingway, does that sound good?”
“You just have to fill out a card for me.”
“The card will function as a record of your loans.”
“And my wife’s, too, I presume?”
“Oh, does she read?”
“Maybe even more than me,” he smiled, proud.
The little bells rang. Getting to her feet, Sylvia excused herself. Please, go ahead. Yes, of course, he wasn’t in any hurry. Thank you, you can have a leaf through this while you wait.
Ernest downed his coffee in one gulp. He picked up the copy of Le Figaro that Sylvia had passed him, and without understanding a word began to read the masthead, the headlines, the advertisements. He thought the best way of learning French would be to read the newspapers.
“Do you want more coffee?”
The Irishman took a seat opposite him, and for a few minutes the two men sat there in silence, smoking.
“Do you live nearby?”
“So you also work here, then?”
“More or less.”
“So you and Sylvia . . .?”
“No, no . . .”—laughter—“I live with Nora, my wife.”
From the ker-ching of the cash register it was apparent that something had been sold.
“Yours?” Ernest asked suddenly, gesturing towards the manuscript with his chin.
“Sorry, gentlemen,” Sylvia returned to the table.
“Sold anything good, dear?”
“Nothing of yours, James.”
“Have you published something?” Ernest asked eagerly.
“Come now, Hemingway,” she teased, going over to a bookcase, “you really don’t know this gentleman’s stories?”
She put a book down in front of him, a small brown book with red writing, cloth-bound.
“This, my dear young man, absolutely must be your first reading in Paris,” she added, and James—uncomfortable—lit another cigarette with the stub of the previous one.
Hemingway left Shakespeare & Company in a cheerful mood, with several books under his arm. The Paris streets seemed different to him now, more familiar. His money had only stretched to buying himself one book, the one by the Irishman, but Sylvia allowed him to borrow others, of course owing her the ten francs for the membership, and—of course—waiving her “one at a time” rule. Not to worry about that. And I’d suggest, furthermore, that you make a start on the Russians, his new friend suggested as she handed him a copy of something by Turgenev and another by Dostoevsky. He thought about going by the Dome Café. He felt like reading a bit before returning to the hotel and the warmth of his wife. He could use a gin.