Saturday, July 31, 2010

Enrique Vila-Matas

As I read Montano (or, Montano's Malady, if you refer to the New Directions edition, which, by the way, has a much more attractive jacket than the washed-out, asexual Harvill Secker one), by Enrique Vila-Matas [link], two thoughts stuck with me loyally throughout the clever, talkative and, above all, obscenely literary novel, which is more prosaic than novelistic.

The first thought, I will describe with a frivolous parody of Vila-Matas' own style:
Novels, which experiment formally, tend to be received with hesitation, which is a shame, because the words of this book glow, I thought, as I read Montano, which is a formally experimental novel, by Enrique Vila-Matas, who defies those who wish to destroy literature.
If I seem faultfinding, I have been cruel; Montano is a teacherly, fascinating novel and I suspect that Bartley & Co. [link] (which I haven't read but which is the more celebrated of his novels) is, probably, even better. This is my point: Vila-Matas writes, at times, like a scholar who has gone mad. His prose is meticulously punctuated, he has no fear of pointed repetition or of a sentence containing half-a-dozen, non-restrictive relative clauses, which is not as nightmarish as it may sound (although, I did have to reread a handful of passages), and his references, which are almost always other writers, are shamelessly (and charmingly) high-brow and obscure: Claudio Magris, Witold Gombrowitcz, W. G. Sebald, Jacques Vaché and others, many of whom I had never heard of and who may not even be real, not that it matters. (Just to be clear: there is no correlation between those last two points; I'm certainly not suggesting that they may not be real because I haven't heard of them). His style is beautiful, although unstable, and, in my eyes, risks becoming unpalatable, but does not. What redeems his prose - or, what saves it from disappearing from reality entirely (incidentally, his epigraph, from Maurice Blanchot, is: What will we do to disappear?) - is that his book is very formally inventive; Montano is shaped like an encyclopedia (perhaps map would be a better word) of the journals kept by great writers, within the diary of writer-narrator, which is a clumsy description, but I can only approximate. And, he has no interest in plot or character whatsoever, which was noticed by Jane Smiley, in her somewhat defensive review for the Guardian [link], where she takes Vila-Matas to task for the claim that his narrator lives in, 'a slum called Spain, where a kind of traditional, 19th-century realism is encouraged and where it is normal for a majority of critics and readers to despise thought.'

Also, there is an thoughtful review of Montano on the blog Vertigo [link] and an essay at The Quarterly Conversation [link], which includes the following, relevant paragraph:

Befitting an author who entertains the notion that contemporary literature amounts to scribbling in the margins of the great works, Vila-Matas seems to be pioneering a strange new genre: the literary essay as novel. The first two of his books to appear in English, Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady, are fine examples. Both translated by Jonathan Dunne and recently published in paperback by New Directions, these books, as any well-written essay might be, are positively saturated with quotes, references, glosses, and other signs of deep research; what’s more, the obvious scrupulousness (even exhaustiveness) with which Vila-Matas has looked into his subject matter seems more appropriate to a critical work than a novel. At a time when more and more novels are including lists of sources and footnotes, Vila-Matas’s books stand out both for their rigor and for making their sources an integral part of the text. [...]
The second thought was that Vila-Matas - who, not for the first time, chose a narrator obsessed with literature and who, I venture, may be just as obsessed himself - has a very clear vision of a family of (admittedly, mostly male and European) writers, comprised, in part, by the names listed earlier as his reference points, but also including Walser, Musil, Kafka, Perec, and Pessoa, of which he may, or may not, be vying, admirably, for membership. What makes this notable, for those interested in these authors, is that Vila-Matas has wonderful, unclassifiable things to say about them:
A sudden silence descended on a place as rowdy as this and I felt that even the invisible beings were hiding. Mystery at dusk. Then the din of people from the ferries returned. Nightfall, which seemed to have abruptly frozen, has now gathered strength. I am still in Lisbon's Cafe Atinel, thinking about Herminio, my disappeared friend. I am still here by the Tagus, at my table by the river, at my waterside table. The Baixa, the Chiado, the crowds, Europe, everything has been left behind, at my back. I am at the world's end, free of time like a dead man. A seagull flies by and I follow it, and I am reminded of certain remarks made by W. G. Sebald on mystery and the impact of the fantasy genre on eccentricity, certain remarks also about supposed coincidences and chances that might not be so, were we to possess better means of perception, were it not because, centuries ago, we became mentally very limited after shots were heard in paradise: 'I prefer to write about fairly eccentric people, and eccentricity is somewhat fantastical. These things happen to us as well. For example, recently I visited a museum in London to see two paintings. There was a couple behind me who I think were speaking Polish. A very strange-looking man and woman, they seemed from another age. Later, in the afternoon, I had to go to the tube station furthest from the center of London, a city of fifteen million inhabitants. There was nobody. Except these two from the museum.'
The novel, in the hands of Vila-Matas (who, incidentally, is a founding member of the Order of Finnegans, whose members are obliged to venerate the novel Ulysses, its author, James Joyce, and, if possible, attend Bloomsday each year in Dublin) is primarily a means of thought, particularly thought about the relationships between life and writing and reading:
Sebald is a great reader of Borges, whom he always praises for understanding early on what a mistake it was to expel metaphysics from philosophy. Because in fact, Sebald claims, there are things we cannot easily explain away, and because it is part of our human condition, not just social, with those who came before us. The commemoration of the dead is something that distinguishes us from the animals.
I am a covert and assiduous reader of Sebald, of his long walks à la Robert Walser, of his exploration the world of the dead, of his fantastical forays into the space of the eccentrics. Referring to the strange case of the Poles in the faraway station, Sebald said, 'These are not coincidences, somewhere there is a relation that from time to time sparkles through a worn fabric'.
If, here and there, the tone of the prose begins to feel like a critical essay, it simply changes, which is the reason Vila-Matas succeeds. Montano does not, by any means, resemble a book of literary criticism, anymore than it resembles a traditional novel, made from characters and plot. It is unviolated by convention, free to search out its subject, which, by surveying the diaries of these particular and great writers, it defines: the mysteries of the private mind.
Here I am in Cafe Atinel, at dusk, next to the ferry passengers, working away on this dictionary of writers private journals in an attempt to relate it to Montano's Malady, to mend the worn fabric of relations between the two different texts, for something to sparkle again and remind us that there was once a young and perfect fabric, with a serene thread and logical language in which coincidences had no meaning because everything was cleanly coincidental.


  1. I just finished "Bartleby y Cía" a few days ago. It was actually good. So good, it made me get "Dr. Pasavento".

    "El mal de Montano" is still on my desk, ready to be read. After I'm done with Perec's "Un homme qui dort" (another personal fav of V-M).

    I arrived to Vilas-Matas by Walser.

  2. Iñaki, how is reading V-M in Spanish? I'm also looking forward to reading more of his novels, but, at this point, it appears only Bartleby & Co. and Montano's Malady are translated in to my language of choice...

    I haven't read Un homme qui dort, is it one of Perec's earlier books?

  3. Yes, is one of his first novels. It's great. The movie is great too. I dare to say it as good or better than the novel. Mainly because it was co-directed by Perec himself!

    You know, Vila-Matas is great in keeping it clear. He does not use a difficult vocabulary and his prose is fluent and entertaining.

    He speaks of authors but he doesn't do it in an inteletual way. That's why his books are so popular, at least in Spanish.

    Personally, I read V-M as a best-seller: I cannot put it down! It's like having a great conversation between two people in love with Literature. V-M would be great as a professor, I tell you that!

  4. Having finally finished this book, I gotta admit I was really dissapointed. "Bartleby & Cía." left the bar really high, I believe.

    I'll take a break from Vila-Matas for a while. I still have "Dr. Pasavento" to read. "Mounsieur Pain" by Roberto Bolaño is next.