Sunday, 20 November 2011

Never Any End To Paris - Enrique Vila-Matas (New Directions 2011)

The broad passageway that joins fiction and reality is cool and well-ventilated, and the air within blows about with the same natural ease with which I mix biography and invention. 
                                                            - Enrique Vila-Matas

I can pay no greater tribute to an author than to announce that I read his book. This may sound odd to you, an avid reader, perhaps, who regularly begins to read a novel and continues until the end.
   As I said to a woman  over dinner last night: ‘I finish, perhaps, one in ten novels that I start’. Her blank expression in response to this admission did not surprise me. People often respond that way when I admit my problem with fiction. After all, it is a kind of problem, is it not? I do find fiction problematic on a purely personal, rather than theoretical or analytical basis. ‘I’m very fussy,’ I said to the woman. I struggled to condense my attitude to literature so as not to ruin our enjoyment of the salmon. She told me she belonged to a book club, to which I responded by saying I could never read anything foisted upon me by a stranger. The chances of it being an enjoyable exercise were remote. The odds, I might say, would be longer than ten-to-one, since that derives from books of my own choosing. One-hundred-to-one would be an optimistic estimate.
   This is the second Vila-Matas novel I’ve finished, which makes him my favourite contemporary author. You will have noticed, if you’ve spent any time perusing this blog, that William Burroughs is a favourite of mine. I was once asked if I actually was him when buying Ted Morgan’s biography in an Oxfam shop. As if the idea that I would be buying my own biography is not odd enough, that I should actually be William Burroughs boggles my mind. All this based on an old photo of Bill on the front cover. I wasn’t even wearing a trilby at the time.
   Vila-Matas as the first person narrator of this novel claims to bear a resemblance to one of his heroes, Ernest Hemingway. So convinced is he of this that he goes to Key West in Florida to enter a lookalike competition, from which he is thrown out for bearing no resemblance at all. This is a running joke throughout the novel.
   I suppose this is a ‘novel’, although the style in which Vila-Matas tells the ‘story’ is such that it convincingly suggests autobiography. To confound us further, he also presents it as a lecture, but unlike authors keen to dazzle the reader with meta-textuality (I may have made that term up) Vila-Matas is admirably readable.
   Vila-Matas did actually stay in Paris with the writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras as his landlady, just as he describes in the book, which tells of his years as a writer struggling to complete his first novel. One of my favourite passages relates to the use of dialogue in fiction. He questions its validity, despite Hemingway’s mastery of the art, and whilst in a cafe looks around and sees that people are actually talking to each other.  ‘However, this second certainty didn’t change things much. All these people engaged in dialogue surely voted for the right-wing politician Giscard d’Estaing and, what’s more, there was obviously nothing poetic about them, they were overwhelmingly vulgar, and what they were saying probably was as well.’ He returns to his garret and cuts out all but three essential pieces of dialogue.
   This book is filled with ironies, and is in part about irony itself. But when he speaks of what it is to be a struggling author he can also be genuinely poetic, if tinged always with some ironic distance. Here is another great passage: ‘If I were really a writer, I’d try like Rimbaud to create all the celebrations, all the triumphs, all the dramas. I would try to invent new flowers, new stars, new flesh, new languages.
   If I were really a writer, I would be absolutely modern. And when dawn came, armed with a burning patience, I would enter splendid cities. If I were really a writer, my days would go by in a very different way. If I were really a writer...’
   If I were you, and you have not read Vila-Matas, I would start right away.

More Vila-Matas on the blog here.


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