“Am I a lecture or a novel?” the narrator asks himself
New Directions, the groundbreaking independent publishers now celebrating their seventy-fifth anniversary, have a rich tradition of championing Spanish-language authors, from Borges and Cortazar to Neruda and Lorca. More recently, they’ve had a string of successes with international iconoclasts like Roberto Bolaño, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Cesar Aira. But perhaps no writer personifies the alternative ethos of New Directions quite as completely as the Barcelona-based bibliophile Enrique Vila-Matas, whose books are, indeed, populated with many of the house’s most recognizable authors themselves. His novel, Bartleby & Co., translated into English by Jonathan Dunne in 2004, even comes with an appendix listing the twenty or so ND authors scattered throughout the text—a sort of high-brow treasure hunt of world literature’s grandmasters and their disciples, with cameos and fragments of texts from everyone from Rimbaud to W.G. Sebald and Henry Miller.
So, then, how to describe a Vila-Matas book? Well, if you take his most recent title, Never Any End to Paris, the question arises on the very first pages. “Am I a lecture or a novel?” the narrator asks himself as he launches into a series of digressive reminiscences of his apprenticeship among the bohemians, writers, and artists of Paris’s mid-‘70s café culture. But if this central dichotomy is never fully resolved, there are plenty of other riddling thoughts to engage the reader here as well, such as: How much personal experience and suffering must go into creating art? What exactly is the role, and proper proportions, of irony in literature? How should an artist tackle despair and writer’s block? And just how much does the narrator actually resemble Ernest Hemingway, the expat writer par excellence. (“Never any end to Paris” is a refrain drawn from Hemingway’s account of his poor but happy beginnings as a writer in A Moveable Feast. Meanwhile, as Vila-Matas’s winking homage opens, our not-so-trusted lecturer/novelist, now firmly in middle age, has just been bounced out of a Hemingway-lookalike contest in Key West for not looking at all like the famous American author.)
That’s just a rough sketch of some of the ideas that percolate in this eccentric ramble through the byways of European literature and Parisian sidestreets. I could go on, and I’d only touch on a fraction of the voices and doubts that shadow the footsteps of our narrator—who as in the previous Vila-Matas book, Montano’s Malady, suffers from a severe case of “literature-sickness.” For example, his small writer’s garret is rented from no other than Marguerite Duras; his almost daily encounters with living authors run the gamut from Sergio Pitol, Juan Marse, and Edgardo Cozarinsky to Roland Barthes, Georges Perec, and Samuel Beckett. He agonizes over whether to type his first novel (The Lettered Assassin, a work that will truly “kill” its readers) or write in longhand; whether to smoke a pipe like Sartre; whether to sit and brood in the café frequented by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway or in another made famous by its Surrealist clientele. All the while, he contemplates the weight of exile as a Spaniard fleeing Franco’s repressive regime, and which intellectual mask to don first—situationist, radical leftist, romantic poet of nostalgia? Meanwhile, the list of artists belonging to his pantheon of guiding lights just keeps growing—Godard, Duchamp, Borges . . .
This being a Vila-Matas book, all the big themes—art, literature, the creative promise and ambitions of youth—are treated with a healthy dose of self-mocking humor that belie the grand, Hemingwayesque displays of ego and pretense. “Did I ‘radiate freedom’ in Paris?” the narrator wonders of his down-and-out days in Duras’s dingy walk-up. “Not much, though perhaps I radiated a risk of pneumonia.” And even if he will eventually outgrow his struggling-writer phase and return to Barcelona, he’ll forever remain under the spell of the idea of a magical Paris. “I like Paris—the Place de Furstenberg, number 27, Rue Fleurus, the Moreau Museum, Tristan Tzara’s tomb, the pink arcades on Rue Nadja, the bar Au Chien qui Fume, the blue façade of the Hotel Vaché, the bookstalls on the riverbank,” he gushes, with only the lightest trace of ironic hyperbole. “I like Paris so much that there is never any end to the city for me.” Gleefully translated by Anne McLean, this eccentric, enigmatic book is a playful yet provocative journey through the labyrinths of one of the great literary capitals of the world. And it’s also a sweet and sly reminder that the pages of books can be landmarks as well, places where we can rediscover bittersweet visions of our own younger selves.