Monthly Archives: August 2015

Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Jonathan Dunne)

Taking advantage of the extension of Spanish Lit Month into August, I turned to Bartleby & Co., a clever and engaging piece of metafiction from esteemed Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas. First published in Spanish in 2000, with an English translation following in 2004, Bartleby & Co. is a celebration of ‘the writers of the No’. Or, to put it another way, those authors who succumb to Bartleby’s syndrome by entering an extended, often permanent, period of literary silence. The name of this condition references Bartleby, the clerk in Herman Melville’s novella, Bartleby, the Scrivener, who when asked to do something or to reveal anything about himself, responds by saying “I would prefer not to.”

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Bartleby & Co. is narrated by Marcelo, a solitary office worker and stalled writer who is struggling to write a follow-up to his first book published some twenty-five years earlier, a novel on the impossibility of love. (The narrator appears to be a thinly-veiled version of Vila-Matas himself. In his 2003 novel, Never Any End to Paris, the author refers to his quest to complete one of his first books, The Lettered Assassin, a story featuring a novel that will kill the reader seconds after he or she finishes reading it.)

Pretending to be suffering from depression, Marcelo, the narrator of Bartleby & Co, takes extended sick leave with the intention of working his way through ‘the labyrinth of the No’. By doing so, Marcelo believes he can find a way forward by opening up a path to authentic literary creation.

Only from the negative impulse, from the labyrinth of the No, can the writing of the future appear. (pg. 3)

Marcelo sets about compiling a set of footnotes to a text that does not exist. Each footnote contains details about one of many literary Bartlebys, their reasons for silence and snippets about their lives. Here’s an excerpt from the footnote on Mexican writer, Juan Ruflo; when asked why he no longer wrote, Ruflo would say:

“Well, my Uncle Celerino died and it was he who told me the stories.”

His Uncle Celerino was no fabrication. He existed in real life. He was a drunk who made a living confirming children. Ruflo frequently accompanied him and listened to the fabricated stories he related about his life, most of which were invented. The stories of El llano en llamas almost had the title Los cuentos del tío Celerino (Tales of Uncle Celerino). Ruflo stopped writing shortly before his uncle’s death. The excuse of his Uncle Celerino is one of the most original I know among all those concocted by the writers of the No to justify their abandonment of literature. (pg. 7)

The footnotes present a wide variety of reasons for not writing. These range from the commonplace and understandable (illness; writer’s block; drug addiction) to the downright bizarre – one writer remains convinced that José Saramago has stolen all his ideas by way of some strange telepathic powers.

Lack of inspiration is a familiar reason for not writing anything, even the great French writer Stendhal experienced it as he notes in his autobiography:

“Had I mentioned to someone around 1795 that I planned to write, anyone with any sense would have told me to write for two hours every day, with or without inspiration. Their advice would have enabled me to benefit from the ten years of my life I totally wasted waiting for inspiration.” (pg. 31)

Thinking about Stendhal’s situation reminds the narrator of another case, that of the ‘strange and disturbing’ poet, Pedro Garfias, friend of the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Here was a man who spent many months not writing a single line simply because he couldn’t find the right adjective. Whenever Buñuel met the poet, he would ask him:

“Have you found that adjective yet?”

“No, I’m still searching,” Pedro Garfias would reply before moving off pensively. (pg 32)

There are references to several famous writers through the ages: Guy de Maupassant, Rimbaud, Andre Gidé, Robert Walser, John Keats, and Julien Gracq, to name but a few. Other cultural figures also feature: Marcel Duchamp, the great artist who shunned painting for over fifty years because he chose to play chess instead; and Michelangelo Antonioni, who wanted to make a film, L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) about a couple’s feelings drying up, in effect they become eclipsed as their relationship dissolves.

In presenting these literary vignettes, Vila-Matas adopts an ironic tone. There is a dry, self-deprecating humour running through Bartleby & Co., a tone not unlike the one he uses in Never Any End to Paris. Perhaps the best example of this wit is encapsulated in the footnote on the notoriously reclusive author J.D Salinger, a hilarious anecdote in which the narrator is convinced he has spotted Salinger on a New York bus. It’s too long to cover here, but its inclusion alone makes Bartleby & Co. worth reading.

Overcome by the plethora of literary eclipses he has discovered, Marcelo takes a moment to reflect on the tension between yes and no, to focus the mind on a reason to write. He ends up seeking solace in the first thing that comes to mind, a snippet from the Argentinian writer, Fogwill:

“I write so as not to be written. For many years I was written in my life. I acted out a story. I suppose I write in order to write others, to operate on the imagination, the revelation, the knowledge of others. Possibly on the literary behaviour of others.” (pg. 98)

By assembling this series of footnotes on writers of the No, there is a sense that Marcelo (a stalled author himself) is holding on to Fogwill’s words. In effect, the narrator is commenting on the literary silences of others ‘so as to be able to write and not be written’.

And does Marcelo achieve his aim of finding the centre of this labyrinth of the No, the source of all the negative impulses that prompt so many talented writers to abandon literature? I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself should you decide to read this book. Either way, by collecting these vignettes, the author has in fact written his next novel, one that is fresh, inventive and very enjoyable indeed.

I’ll finish with one final example, that of the esteemed Catalan poet J.V. Foix, whom Marcelo used to see standing behind the counter of his patisserie in Barcelona. A long-time admirer of Foix’s lyrical poetry, the narrator is curious to learn what prompted the poet to declare that his work was finished. It saddens him to think that Foix may have decided to wait for death. The answer comes by way of an article by the Spanish poet and novelist, Pere Gimferrer – writing on the cessation of Foix’s work, Gimferrer comments:

“But the same glint sparkles in his eyes, more serenely; a visionary glow, now secret in its hidden lava […] In the distance is heard the dull murmur of oceans and abysses: Foix continues to dream poems at night, even though he does not write them down.”

Poetry unwritten, but lived in the mind: a beautiful ending for someone who ceases to write. (pg 110)

For other reviews of Bartleby & Co, click here for posts by Richard and Seamus.

Bartleby & Co. is published in the UK by Vintage. Source: personal copy. Book 8/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Delphine de Vigan’s Nothing Holds Back the Night. The back cover describes it as an autobiographical novel, but like some other stories of this nature, De Vigan’s book reads as if it is non-fiction. Either way, I found it utterly compelling, an immersive reading experience.

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In the opening chapter the author describes how she found her mother’s body at home one January morning, her skin blue, ‘a pale blue mixed with the colour of ashes’. The author’s mother, a woman she names Lucile Poirier, took her own life at the age of sixty-one. Over the following months, the author wrestles with the notion of writing about her mother. At first she strongly resists the idea, keeping it at a distance for as long as possible. The image of Lucile represents too boundless a field, too clouded, too risky. In the end, though, she decides to write about her mother as a way of preserving her character, of getting closer to her:

And then I learned to think of Lucile without it taking my breath away: the way she walked, her upper body leaning forward, her bag resting on her hip with the strap across her body; the way she held her cigarette, crushed between her fingers; of how she pushed her way into a metro carriage with her head down; the way her hands shook; the care with which she chose her words, her short laugh, which seemed to take her by surprise; the way her voice changed under the influence of an emotion, though her face sometimes showed no sign of it. (pg. 7)

In order to do this, the author talks to those who were closest to Lucile at various points in her life – Lucile’s friends, her brothers and sisters, other members of the family – collecting memories and stories along the way.

Born into a lively, somewhat unconventional bohemian middle-class family, Lucile is the third of nine children. Her father, Georges, founder of an advertising agency, is generous, confident and sociable; her mother, Liane, is energetic, full of vitality and unquestionably devoted to Georges. Lucile is very beautiful. By the age of seven she is a successful fashion model, albeit one who is starting to feel ill at ease with life.

…but at the age of seven, Lucile had built the walls of a hidden territory which belonged to her alone, a territory where the noise and the gaze of others did not exist. (pg. 15)

From an early age, Lucile appears somewhat distanced from her brothers and sisters, a quiet, mysterious child who grows up all too quickly. Shortly before Lucile’s eighth birthday, her younger brother, Antonin (aged six) drowns in an accident. There is a sense that from this point onwards, the concept of death would be part of Lucile’s character, ‘a fault line’ or ‘indelible imprint’ marked in her DNA.

As de Vigan compiles her story, various revelations about the Poirier family come to light, especially in relation to Georges, Lucile’s father and the author’s grandfather. There are hints of a murky side to Georges’ character at the very beginning of this book. From a young age, Lucile had always intrigued him; he is fascinated by her. As a child, Lucile shares a connection with her father, but over time she becomes increasingly aware of her father’s limitations, his intolerances and contradictions. By the end of the book, a much darker side to Georges has emerged, and I was left wondering how his behaviour may have contributed to Lucile’s collapse.

When she is eighteen, Lucile falls in love with a friend of the family, the confident and athletic Gabriel. Lucile falls pregnant and marries Gabriel a few months before the birth of their first daughter, the author. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Lucile’s future appears bright and radiant. And yet there is an inherent sadness in the film footage of Lucile and Gabriel’s wedding. While they appear to be in love, something in Lucile’s eyes seems weakened; a sense of absence sets her apart from the scene.

Throughout the story, the author reflects on the difficulty of writing this book, of trying to find a truth within the myriad of disparate fragments and impressions of Lucile’s life. She talks of the limitations of writing, how at best it can enable her to pose questions and examine memories. There is a desire to get behind the myths surrounding the Poirier family in an effort to get to the source of Lucile’s pain. And in doing so, she knows how painful this will be for those closest to her mother.

But I know too that I am using my writing as a way of looking for the origin of her suffering, as though there were a precise moment when the core of her self was breached in a definitive, irreparable way, and I cannot ignore the extent to which this quest – as if its difficulty were not enough – is in vain. It is through this prism that I interviewed her brothers and sisters, whose pain in some cases was at least as visible as my mother’s, that I questioned them with the same determination, eager for details, alert to the possibility of an objective cause that eluded me as I thought I was getting close to it. That was how I interviewed them, without ever asking the question which they nonetheless answered: was the pain already there? (pgs. 61-62)

Perhaps the author goes some way towards identifying one of the factors when she reflects on her mother’s marriage to Gabriel, the years of immense loneliness that play their part in the breakdown of Lucile’s life. She likens the meeting of Lucile and Gabriel to the coming together of ‘two great sufferings’. Contrary to the law of maths whereby the multiplication of two negatives leads to a positive, this union gives rise to ‘aggression and confusion’.

The marriage lasts for seven years, and Lucile is twenty-six when she leaves Gabriel. In time, Lucile and her two daughters move in with Tibère, a freelance photographer and naturist. She gets a secretarial job with a small advertising agency in Paris. For the author, this is the start of the golden age, a four-year period when all is relatively calm. It is the ‘before’: before the fear, the worry and everything that comes later.

In the summer we went to the naturist camp at Montalivet, where Lucile and Tibère rented a bungalow among the pines. We met friends there, a shifting community of people who drifted in and out; some people would move on, others stayed and pitched their tents in the forest […]

The photos of those years, taken mainly by Tibère, are the ones I like the best. They sum up a whole period. I like their colours, their poetry, the utopia they capture. (pg. 151)

After a couple of years, Lucile and Tibère split up, other men come and go. And then, on more than one occasion, Lucile is reminded that death can strike at any moment – I won’t reveal the details for fear of spoilers. At this point, the author (now aged eleven or twelve years) becomes afraid that her mother might take her own life. Lucile seems lonely, tired and detached; she shuts herself up in her room at night smoking grass on her own.

The remainder of the books charts Lucile’s breakdown: the periods of delirium when her imagination runs wild; the periods of numbness as she withdraws from the world; her confinements and hospitalisations. All this might sound very bleak, but De Vigan’s portrait of Lucile is at once painful, compassionate and tender. It is written in a style that immediately draws the reader into the world of this family, so much so that you feel you are observing these scenes unfold before your own eyes. The prose has a glassy, luminous quality, especially in the first two-thirds of the book before Lucile’s breakdown.

There are periods of lightness too. In the years prior to her death, Lucile experiences a kind of renaissance. She goes back to college, and in time becomes a highly effective social worker. In effect, by helping to ease the suffering of others, Lucile finds a sense of meaning her life, perhaps a sense of accomplishment as well.

All in all, Nothing Holds Back the Night is a remarkable book – a genuinely affecting story and an impressive achievement.

I read this book for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event running throughout August. Emma, Guy and MarinaSofia have also reviewed this one.

Nothing Holds Back the Night is published by Bloomsbury. Source: personal copy. Book 7/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Madame de ___ by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Duff Cooper)

While looking through my shelves for suitable books for Women in Translation month, I found Louise de Vilmorin’s novella Madame de___. It’s a perfect one-sitting read, short enough to squeeze into a spare hour or two. Despite being published in 1951, Madame de ___reads like a classic 19th-century French novel, albeit in miniature. It is a beautifully constructed story: elegant, artful and poignant all at once.

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Madame de___ is a woman of some distinction. She and her husband, an astute and wealthy man, belong to a circle of society that values elegance, discretion and reputation. They are no longer in love with one another but have moved into a different phase of their marriage; nevertheless, it suits both of them to remain together.

Even though her husband never questions the amount of money she spends on clothes, Madame de ___ likes to think of herself as rather clever and prudent. Consequently, she keeps the true extent of her expenditure hidden from her husband. After this has been happening for few years, Madame de ___ finds herself with significant debts to settle. Unwilling to confess her position to her husband for fear of losing either his respect or his confidence, she decides to sell some of her jewellery in secret. After some deliberation, Madame de ___ settles on a pair of earrings made of two glittering heart-shaped diamonds, a gift from her husband on the day after their wedding.

She called on her jeweller. He was a thoroughly reliable man; in the houses of many of his most important customers he was as much a friend as a jeweller. She swore him to secrecy, and spoke to him in such a way that he received the impression that M. de ___ was aware of what his wife was doing. The jeweller assumed that M. de ___ had some private money troubles, and wishing to help him without letting Mᵐᵉ de ___ realise what he suspected, he tactfully asked:

“But, Mᵐᵉ, what will you say to M. de ___?”

“Oh,” she answered, “I shall tell him I’ve lost them.”

“You are so charming that I am sure people always believe whatever you say,” said the jeweller, and he bought the earrings.

Mᵐᵉ de ___ paid her debts, and her beauty, free of care, shone brighter than ever. (pgs. 12-13)

This unfortunate act sets in motion a sequence of lies and acts of deceit that come back to haunt Madame de ___ over the course of this story. Perhaps she really did believe the jeweller when he flattered her with the notion that people will always accept whatever she says without probing too deeply…

A week later Madame de ___ claims she has lost the diamond earrings on the evening of a ball. The next day the incident is reported in the newspaper giving the impression that the earrings may have been stolen. On seeing the report, the jeweller feels he must approach M. de ___ and discreetly inform him of the true whereabouts of the earrings. M. de ___ is saddened to learn of his wife’s actions. He is shocked not only by the blatant manner of her deception at the ball but also by her insincerity. By pretending to be upset by the loss of the jewels themselves, Madame de ___ has shown herself to be somewhat disingenuous.

Unbeknownst to his wife, M. de ___ buys the earrings from the jeweller and promptly gives them to his Spanish lover who is leaving Europe to live in South America. Following her arrival in her new home, this lady also finds herself with debts to pay, and so she sells the earrings given to her by M. de ___ to a local jeweller. A European diplomat then spots the earrings and buys them for their beauty.  By pure chance, the diplomat, a newly-appointed Ambassador, happens to meet Madame de ___ at a formal dinner, and they are clearly attracted to one another. At first Madame de ___ is unsure of her true feelings for the Ambassador, but they maintain a flirtatious relationship over the course of several months. Finally, Madame de ___ realises she is in love with Ambassador and rushes to inform him. Delighted at this development, the Ambassador gives Madame de ___ a gift as a token of his love: a beautiful pair of diamond earrings, cut in the shape of hearts.

By now we’re about one-quarter of the way through the book. It’s a short novella, so I don’t want to reveal too much more about the remainder of the plot; save to say the return of these earrings gives rise to more lies, duplicitous behaviour and heartache for more than one person in this story.

Madame de ___ proved to be an excellent choice for WIT month. I was utterly captivated by this little novella; the prose is graceful and stylish, just like our initial impressions of Madame de ___ herself. Ultimately though, the story evokes an enduring sense of melancholy and solitude. I’ll finish with a quote that captures it as well as any other. As we join the scene, Madame de ___ is just coming to terms with the nature of her true feelings for the Ambassador.

Wrapped in a heavy cloak, with some muslin round her head and her arms buried to the elbows in a fur muff, she sat by a low wall which overhung the beach and gazed on the waves and the horizon, which was lit up at regular intervals by the beam of a lighthouse. Suddenly she felt that she no longer had any importance; she asked herself what she was doing in the world, and why she was living; she felt that she was lost infinite space; she sought for the meaning of life and could find no answer in her mind, only the face of one person. Her heart grew heavy with the double weight of that presence and of that absence. She felt a violent desire to be given confidence in her own existence and she felt nobody could give it to her but the man without whom she now knew that life would be unendurable. (pgs. 22-23)

Max and Guy have reviewed Madame de ___, and their posts include further analysis on particular elements of the story – as always, they are well worth reading. My thanks also to Scott who recommended this novella. The Pushkin Press edition contains an excellent afterword by John Julius Norwich, son of the translator, Duff Cooper (one of Louise de Vilmorin’s lovers). It offers a fascinating insight into de Vilmorin’s life, one that adds another dimension to this fateful little tale.

Madame de ___ is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 6/20, #TBR20 round 2.

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

La Femme de Gilles was Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s debut novel, first published in 1937 when the author was in her early thirties. It centres on a ménage à trois involving Gilles, his wife, Elisa, and her younger sister, Victorine, a timeless story of desire, selfless love and the pain these things can bring.  Bourdouxhe was a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, who praised the novella for its subtle portrayal of the differences between male and female sexuality. An English translation first appeared in 1992, but Daunt Books have given it a new lease of life with this beautiful edition published last year.

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As the novella opens, we find Elisa ‘giddy with tenderness’ as she awaits Gilles’ arrival home from work at the local factory in the Belgian countryside. Deeply in love with her husband and expecting their third child, Elisa wants little more than to care for her family. In doing so, she strives to maintain as comfortable a home as possible. The opening scenes paint an idyllic picture, full of the simple pleasures of life:

He is leaning out of the window again, his mind at once blank and spinning with small thoughts: Sunday tomorrow…the smell of the soup…the beauty of the flowers in the garden. Life is sweet. As he watches Elisa bathing his two little naked daughters in the setting sun, he feels at peace. (pg.9)

Sadly for Elisa, it doesn’t take long for this harmonious existence to fall apart. Shortly before the birth of her baby, she begins to experience a vague sense of unease. Gilles appears unsettled in some way. At first Elisa puts it down to her own condition – after all everything is a little strange when one is heavily pregnant. But one evening, as Gilles is about to go out with Victorine (Elisa’s attractive younger sister), Elisa is a gripped by an acute sense of anxiety. With her back turned on Giles and Victorine, she rummages through her bag for some money.

One by one she fixed her gaze on some of the objects around her, the things that made up her familiar world, then her eyes lit on her own hands as they closed the bag, and she saw they were trembling. Precisely at that moment Elisa knew that behind her back there was another world, a world that was complicated, threatening, unknown. She felt it to be so and she was certain she was not mistaken; she was also certain that it was absolutely essential not to turn round suddenly and confront it. (pg. 18)

This quote is indicative of Elisa’s character. She realises that something is going on between Gilles and Victorine, but rather than addressing it directly, she chooses to remain silent and wait. Even though she is tormented by the thought of the affair, she follows Gilles when he goes out unexpectedly certain in the belief that he must be meeting Victorine. With each new discovery, Elisa hovers between a desperate fear of losing Gilles and a desire to cling to the hope that this phase will pass.

There is that long sequence of days when she anxiously awaits Gilles’ return, days when she is always on the lookout for whatever affection he still feels for her, however small, days when she discovers that he hasn’t been seen at the place where he told her he was going. And there are the nights, indistinguishable from each other, when Gilles is asleep but her suffering keeps her wide awake. She moves her hands towards him, runs them over his skin, leans close to his face very quietly, so as not to wake him: she sniffs out unfamiliar smells on him like a ferreting cat. (pg. 59-60)

At times, Elisa wonders if she should speak frankly to Gilles or to Victorine, to intervene in some way, but she is afraid of losing her husband. Even though the marriage is hanging by a thread, Gilles still comes home to Elisa. ‘As long as he is there, he’s still hers.’

Unable to talk to her sister or to confide in her mother, Elisa turns to the church for guidance. But in place of the comfort and advice she so desperately seeks, she is told to face the trials that God has sent her way. When Gilles finally opens up and confesses, Elisa finds herself in the role of confidante advising her husband on his relationship with Victorine. It’s a strange situation, one that highlights Gilles’ complete inability to appreciate his wife’s anguish, never mind the notion that he might be the cause of it.

La Femme de Gilles can be easily read in two or three hours, but this story has the potential to linger in the mind for much longer. The style is minimalist but very emotive – Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to Elisa’s point of view giving us near-complete access to her inner thoughts and feelings. It’s a devastating portrait of a woman isolated in her pain and suffering, in her self-sacrificing love for her husband despite his avaricious desire for her sibling.

There were many ways this excellent novella could have ended, but Bourdouxhe has constructed a forceful conclusion – even though I didn’t see it coming, with the benefit of hindsight it feels painfully inevitable. Rather than saying anything else about it, I’ll finish with a quote on Victorine. In contrast to her honourable, respectable sister, Victorine is rather capricious – a flirtatious creature who retains her angelic demeanour throughout the whole affair. One could describe her as thoroughly amoral.

For Victorine is one of those creatures who have no consciousness of their actions: she parades her irresponsibility throughout her life. One day, simply because Gilles was there, perhaps because it was rather too hot, her flesh desired that man, and she took him. So what? Nothing more in it for Victorine, it stops there. Afterwards it’s a question of trying to make sense of things, sense of life, and life doesn’t touch Victorine, it will never mark her smile or her eyes, which will stay young, clear, innocent for a long time. Unconscious offenders are the most dangerous of criminals. (pgs. 67-68)  

I selected this novella for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event running throughout August. If you’re looking for ideas for #WITMonth, here’s a link to my reviews of translated literature by women writers.

La Femme de Gilles is published in the UK by Daunt Books. Source: personal copy. Book 5/20, #TBR20 round 2.