Category Archives: Vila-Matas Enrique

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.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean)

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.

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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.