In Never Any End to Paris— first published in Spanish in 2003 and newly translated into English — Vila-Matas presents us with a fictionalised account of the two years he spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer. But before transporting us to Paris in the mid-seventies, the novel takes a brief trip to Key West, Florida, where, in the present day, Vila-Matas enters the annual Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest. Our author is desperate to prove to his wife and friends that he looks more like the idol of his youth with every passing day, but his efforts end in humiliation. And right from the opening page, Vila-Matas sets the tone for this hugely enjoyable book:
I don’t know how many years I spent drinking and fattening myself up believing – contrary to the opinions of my wife and friends – that I was getting to look more and more like Hemingway, the idol of my youth. Since no one ever agreed with me about this and since I am rather stubborn, I wanted to teach them all a lesson, and, having procured a false beard – which I thought would increase my resemblance to Hemingway – I entered the contest this summer.
I should say that I made a ridiculous fool of myself. I went to Key West, entered the contest and came last, or rather, I was disqualified; worst of all, they didn’t throw me out of the competition because they discovered the false beard – which they did not – but because of my ‘absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway’. (pg 3, Harvill Secker)
After this loss of face, Vila-Matas travels to Paris where he spends a month recalling the time he spent in this city trying to live the life of a writer like the one Hemingway recounts in his memoir, A Moveable Feast. Vila-Matas’ notes on this rather ironic revisitation are to form the core of an extended lecture on the theme of irony entitled ‘Never Any End to Paris’, and it is in this form that the story is presented to the reader. Now, the idea of a novel in the form of a lecture might sound rather dry, but allow me to reassure you – it is anything but! Vila-Matas is a wonderful writer, and this is a smart, playful and utterly engaging novel, full of self-deprecating humour and charm.
Cutting to 1974, Vila-Matas arrives in Paris, and ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of Marguerite Duras’ house (a very cultural garret previously inhabited by a number of illustrious bohemian tenants). Our aspiring writer is trying to emulate his idol, but unlike Hemingway, who was ‘very poor and very happy’ in Paris, Vila-Matas finds himself ‘very poor and very unhappy’ in the city. Nevertheless, Vila-Matas believes in the elegance of despair as he tries to persuade himself that there’s something cool, almost worthy and intellectual about his desperate and impoverished life as a budding writer:
I was a walking nightmare. I identified youth with despair and despair with the colour of black. I dressed in black from head to toe. I bought myself two pairs of glasses, two identical pairs, which I didn’t need at all, I bought them to look more intellectual. And I began smoking a pipe, which I judged (perhaps influenced by photos of Jean-Paul Satre in the Café de Flore) to look more interesting than taking drags on mere cigarettes. But I only smoked the pipe in public, as I couldn’t afford to spend much money on aromatic tobacco. Sometimes, sitting on the terrace of some café, as I pretended to read some maudit French poet, I played the intellectual, leaving my pipe in the ashtray (sometimes the pipe wasn’t even lit) and taking out what were apparently my reading glasses and taking off the other pair, identical to the first and with which I couldn’t read a thing either. But this didn’t cause me too much grief, since I wasn’t trying to read the wretched French poets in public, but rather to feign being a profound café-terrace intellectual. I was, ladies and gentlemen, a walking nightmare. (pg. 22)
Holed up in Duras’ garret, Vila-Matas sets about trying to write his first book, The Lettered Assassin, in which the narrative centres on a novel that will kill the reader seconds after he or she finishes reading it. There is a wonderful passage in Never Any End to Paris in which Vila-Matas runs into Duras and attempts to impress her with his idea for The Lettered Assassin:
One day, I bumped into Marguerite Duras on the stairs – I was on my way up to my chambre and she was on her way down to the street – and she suddenly showed great interest in what I was up to. And I, trying to sound important, explained that I intended to write a book that would cause the death of all who read it. Marguerite looked stunned, sublimely astonished. When she was able to react, she said to me – or at least I understood her to say, because she was speaking her superior French again – that killing the reader, apart from absurd, was quite impossible, unless, for example, a swift and sharp poisoned arrow were to fly out of the book directly into the heart of the unsuspecting reader. I was very annoyed and even began to worry I’d be out of the garret, fearing her discovery that I was a dreary novice would lead her to evict me. But no, Marguerite simply detected in me a colossal mental confusion and wanted to help. She lit a cigarette slowly, looked at me almost with compassion, and eventually said, if I wanted to murder whoever read the book, I would have to do it using a textual effect. She said this and carried on down the stairs leaving me more worried than before. Had I understood correctly or had I misunderstood her superior French? What was this about a textual effect? Perhaps she had been referring to a literary effect that I would have to construct within the text to give readers the impression that the book’s very letters had killed them. Perhaps that was it. But then, how could I achieve a literary effect that would pulverise the reader in a purely textual way? (pgs. 19-20)
After a week of despair, Vila-Matas bumps into Duras again, and this time he receives some advice from his landlady in the form of a thirteen-point list of considerations for writing a novel: a handwritten note that looks ‘like a doctor’s prescription’. A bullet-point list that fills our author with a dreadful sense of fear and panic. How will he ever manage to get to grips with everything on Marguerite’s checklist, especially as the meaning of one or two of her points is unclear – linguistic register, for example? Cue much agonising and procrastination on the part of Vila-Matas as he struggles to write The Lettered Assassin.
Vila-Matas’ lecture also reflects on the nature of irony, and he deftly weaves these musings into his elegant treatise. As Vila-Matas looks back on his bohemian days with compassionate irony, we hear of his encounters with other writers and famous types: Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges and Georges Perec all feature, as does Paloma Picasso. There are several nods to other literary works and authors, too. Our author, on the other hand, doubts as to whether he will ever see his writing in print.
The title of this terrifically engaging book, Never Any End to Paris, comes from A Moveable Feast, and Hemingway’s notion that ‘the memory of Paris is a feast that follows us around’, a sense that there is never any end to Paris. And I would have been very happy to remain in Vila-Matas’ company for longer than the 200 pages of this book – highly recommended, my tip for next year’s IFFP longlist.
I read this novel to link in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit month, which is running throughout July. Stu has also reviewed this one, as has Grant at 1streading – just click on the links if you’d like to read their posts.
Never Any End to Paris is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: I won a copy of this book in a giveaway organised by the publisher – my thanks to Harvill Secker.
This sounds a delight, Jacqui. Impressive when humour in translation.
Yes, it’s a hugely enjoyable book, and the humour really does come across in the translation – Anne McLean has done a great job with this one. I loved it!
A beautiful book about a pathetic new writer, I guess? sorry for being rude, but the way he tries to be like someone else is a bit irksome, in my opinion. hehe :p
It is a wonderful book, and Vila-Matas is a very fine writer now, although he does look back on his Paris days with much self-deprecating humour! Hence the ‘walking nightmare’ quote…
Sounds like a lot of fun. re: the title, I was thinking of Casablanca when Rick tells Ilsa, “we’ll always have Paris.”
It’s such an enjoyable book with lots of literary nods and references, too. Oh yes, that’s such a memorable line – now I want to watch Casablanca again for the umpteenth time!
Sounds very funny and insightful. I can see how such a character’s “lecture” can have such potential for entertainment. It also sound like an innovative way to tell a story.
My wife is a big fan of A Moveable Feast and in all things Paris so I will recommend this to her.
Yes, it’s such a smart yet enjoyable book, and the author’s lecture doesn’t come across as dry in any way; it’s very well integrated into the story.
This sounds like just the book for your wife, then! I haven’t read A Movable Feast but would like to, and Never Any End to Paris certainly encourages me to seek it out.
Why do you think the book is “fictionalised” rather than simply fictional?
Hi Tom. In describing the author’s recollection of his Paris years, I used the term ‘fictionalised account’ to distinguish it from a memoir or purely autobiographical account. But yes, the book itself is a novel, and I could have said ‘fictional’.
Vila-Matas employs a similar ruse–a speech about literary theory + four different types of writing = a novel in Montano’s Malady, but I still like his all-footnote anti-novel Bartleby & Co. the best of all his (anti-) novels so far. Still, you make me glad I already own this book because the wit and the writing about writers is something Vila-Matas usually does so well. Glad you saved this book for Spanish Lit Month and enjoyed it so much!
Oh, that’s interesting! I may have to investigate those two (Bartleby especially) as I think I’ve been bitten by the Vila-Matas bug now. I enjoyed Dublineque when I read it last year.
Yes, I just loved the wit and the way E V-M writes about writers in Never Any End to Paris. I found his prose style very engaging, too – it’s a joy to read. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this one when you do have a chance to get to it, especially your views on how it compares with his other books. I’m so glad I read it to join in with your and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month. Thanks for dropping by again.
I will add this to the list of books form my year of reading Spanish Lit. Though as I read the excerpt about the “budding writer” I felt a bit uncomfortable for I spent a good six months in my late teens trying to pretend I was Sarte!!!!! And if you think it’s difficult pretending you’re Sartre in Paris you can imagine how much worse it is pretending to be Sartre in Glasgow!
Haha! Well, I think you’d find much to enjoy here! Perhaps there’s a book or short story of your own waiting to be written from your Sartre days in Glasgow…
A Humiliation Too Far I think!
I liked this novel very much, a sly meta-fiction that didn’t take itself too seriously.
There’s a particular garret apartment in Paris that now makes me think of this novel every single time I pass it, to the point that I might even be willing to bet it’s the very one featured in the novel.
Oh, I’m glad to hear that, and your ‘meta-fiction’ description is spot on.
How interesting – it would be fascinating to know if you’re right about that garret apartment! The book left me wondering about the location of Duras’s house, and if there’s a mark or plaque of some sort….and it left me hankering after another visit to Paris.
Great review. I read this when it came out from New Direction in the US. I hope you’re right about it making the IFFP list. I would echo Richard’s comment above – Bartleby & Co remains my favourite.
Thank you, Grant. Have you reviewed it? If so, I’ll update the ‘other reviews’ links to add yours if that’s okay with you? I do think it’s in with a great chance of making the IFFP longlist, (and it’ll mean we’ll have read at least one of the longlisted books!)
I’m going to have to get hold of Bartleby, aren’t I?
Had to check, but yes, I did review it:
An excellent review, Grant. Thanks for the link, and I’ve just added it to the end of my post. I was wondering how I’d missed it, but I can see you reviewed it back in 2011 – you were well ahead of us!
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It does sound fun. I’ll have to remind myself if I’ve read A Moveable Feast, though I think I have (I’m quite fond of Hemingway, he writes so well). Either way I suspect I’d want to (re)read that first.
Yep, this is a real delight. I do wish I’d read A Moveable Feast as I’m sure I missed some of the nods and references to it in Never Any End. Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and it left me keen to read Feast.
Fabulous cover isn’t it! I hadn’t realised this at the time, but it’s a homage to the original cover art for Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms; they’re very similar in style, beautifully recreated for the cover of Never Any End.
Forgot to say, great cover.
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