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PEN WORLD VOICES FESTIVAL: Enrique Vila-Matas and Paul Auster at FIAF

By David Varno

PEN World Voices Festival This was an interesting talk, very well moderated by Eduardo Lago, between two writers who admire one another and have been compared to one another, and even appeared together in public at point wearing the same pair of shoes.Vila-Matas told an anecdote in Spanish that took a few minutes to reach the English-language listeners and for Auster to process, about having been told so many times that he wrote like Auster that he thought he would write something called íI'm not Auster,ë but that people would respond saying íwe know that.ë

Vila-Matas described a particular quality in Auster's work; that characters are left to the mercy of the world without protection of the novelist. íIn life, things happen; in literature, things happen by the hand of the author,ë he said.íIt seems that in your books you are trying to allow things to happen as they do in real life.ë

íI agree,ë Auster replied happily, and laughter rose from the dark theater. Auster then discussed his upcoming novel, Invisible, and read a short passage that describes the protagonist unpacking his bag, among his belongings books by Bernhard and Vila-Matas: íall worthy but useless to me now that I've reached my destination.ë

Vila-Matas took this in a good way, going on to note that though he's been accused of having lost control of this craft, he is in fact doing something more profound, which the critics don't understand.Then he read in Spanish from an essay that received mixed responses from the crowd, but which Auster identified with, titled íThe Talent of the Reader.ë Among other things, Vila-Matas pointed out that writers are evaluated for missing certain things, so readers should be as well, and Auster replied that there are indeed many stupid readers.

íBut most stupid people don't read books,ë Auster said, íso that whittles down a lot of them at the beginning.ë He said that many stupid readers are critics, because they don't understand what they are reading or take the time to, which drew a few cheers and some grumbles. Then Vila-Matas asked who Auster was writing for, and he said he has in mind a faceless, sexless person; that he is íwriting for a sympathetic soul,ë and that he admires this quality in other writers.

Auster asked Vila-Matas about his process, whether he spends more time thinking about a book than writing it or vice-versa (his novel Bartleby and Co. allegedly took fifteen years). íA novel is something you carry inside unknowingly,ë Vila-Matas said, í like a shadow.ë

Then it was time for questions, and a woman's voice piped up from the front: íDon't you think you were a little hard on the reader?ë she said. íIsn't a reader smart just for opening a book?ë

íThat's what I said,ë Auster retorted.

íBut don't they get what they get?ë she said, and went on to say that readers shouldn't have to have any prejudices or expectations about what a book is; that reading should be like sex.ë

íI agree with you completely,ë he said, and went on again about the critics.

íYou should relax; this is your wife interjecting!ë she said, and a gasp went through he crowd. It seemed that, just as a character in one of Auster's books wanders into the life of the author, we had become caught in the middle of a minor domestic dispute!But Auster accepted her comments, as Vila-Mates looked on bemusedly.

Published May 7, 2009   Copyright 2009 David Varno

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