Fiction

Enrique Vila-Matas on Books that Shaped Him

‘I like to show some restraint when it comes to making things up...’ The Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas discusses the role of risk in writing, the ‘crisis of the novel’, and five books that have shaped his own work. (You can also read this interview in the original Spanish.)

Buy
  • 1

    La Bibliothèque invisible
    by Stéphane Mahieu

  • 2

    Mirabiblia: Catalogo ragionato di libri introvabili
    by Paolo Albani & Paolo della Bella

  • 3

    The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
    by Laurence Sterne

  • 4

    Nueva Enciclopedia
    by Alberto Savinio

  • 5

    Four Novels (incl. The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas)
    by Marguerite Duras

‘I like to show some restraint when it comes to making things up...’ The Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas discusses the role of risk in writing, the ‘crisis of the novel’, and five books that have shaped his own work. (You can also read this interview in the original Spanish.)

Enrique Vila-Matas

Enrique Vila-Matas is one of the most prestigious and original writers in contemporary Spanish fiction. With an extensive body of work, his novels have been translated into 35 languages, garnering widespread international praise. He is the recipient of many prestigious international honours and awards. His latest published works in English are the novel The Illogic of Kassel (New Directions, Harvill) and the anthology of short stories Vampire in Love (New Directions, And Other Stories). For more information, please visit: www.enriquevilamatas.com

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It’s a pretty good topic for you, ‘books that shaped me’, not only because your career has been long and varied and nobody ever seems to talk about it without referencing the major Modernists of the early 20th-century, but also because artistic influence is such a slippery subject in general, and especially in your work. For one thing, you regularly evoke other writers and artists parodically? What is your understanding of “artistic influence”?

The poor writers. I treat them quite well. And if writers do appear in my books that is because I like to spy on the ones I admire, to see how they did it, and indeed how they go on doing it in order to stay the course in our thrilling but testing and solitary profession… I turn to the writers who interest me, but, at this stage in the game, their influence on me can only be as faint as it is relative. In fact, my spying is a kind of movement oscillating between pity for them and the remote pursuit of company.

The idea also carries the idea of “if you liked this, you’ll also like that”, so prevalent in this era of Netflix, Amazon, etc. How does this square with the idea that, as you have put it, you created your reader – he or she did not exist until you started writing?

The idea of “if you liked this, you’ll also like that” already existed in 1965 when I began reading what have come to be known as “literary books”. I read Baudelaire by chance – well, not by chance, but because the title Les Fleurs du mal caught my eye – and that author led me to Rimbaud who at that point I’d never even heard of; and later Rimbaud led me to Henry Miller, who had devoted a splendid nonfiction book about the literary craft to the former; and after Miller and his priceless The Time of the Assassins, tracing an almost invisible line, I arrived at Lawrence Durrell… I’ve always said that if I’d had children I wouldn’t have tried to guide them in their reading choices; I would have left them to discover everything for themselves, just as I did, using that timeworn and very personal system of “one book leads you to the next”. As for what you remind me I said about my readers – about them not existing before I began writing – today I can say that, as statements go, that one was rather over the top. And don’t be surprised at my retracting it. I regularly stop believing things I believe the moment I say them. I don’t believe that thing after having written it, normally because I’ve already begun to conceive of things in a new way, making everything more complicated.

What does all this mean for creative risk ? You wrote in a Mexican journal recently, discussing Michael Leiris, that the writer needs to “introducir por lo menos la sombra de un cuerno de toro en una obra literaria” (the writer needs to introduce at least the shadow of the bull’s horns into a literary work) – could you expand on this idea for us?

I wrote that it’s absolutely vital that the exercise of writing goes hand in hand with risk. And I cited Michel Leiris, for whom exposing oneself to the act of writing necessarily meant trying to be on a par with a bullfighter as he dives into the bullring; in other words, the writer should try to “introduce at least the shadow of the bull’s horns into a literary work”. I think that for years I’ve nosed out the writers who take risks in their writing, who deliberately throw caution to the wind. I’ve always picked up on them, and that has helped me to distinguish between artists and non-artists. Bolaño was one. He didn’t say it, but I like to imagine him saying one night: ‘If you’re going to do something, do it to the death. Otherwise, don’t bother starting. You could end up losing everything, your mind included. It might turn out to be nothing more than an endurance test just to prove to yourself that you could do it. And you will. Despite the terrible moments, it’ll be better than anything you’ve imagined. You will be alone with the gods, and you’ll lead you own life to the perfect laughter. It’s the only battle that counts.’

Like that quotation, your list of books is pretty creative …

It could very well have been a different list, of course: one made up of more established and indisputable works. But this would have entailed less risk, and that’s not the way I tend to work. On the other hand – I was talking about this the other day with the great Rodrigo Fresán – the answers that writers tend to give in these kinds of surveys, as well as in interviews, depend a lot on one’s given mood in the given moment. They belong to the realm of fiction, let’s not fool ourselves. It’s quite possible that the day after I sent you my list I might have answered differently, with more conventional books. The truth is I’m one of those writers who doesn’t deal in too many certainties. Henry James was quite right: we work in the dark, we do what we can, and the rest is the madness of art.

Tell us about the first book on your list, La Bibliothèque invisible by Stéphane Mahieu. Can you give us an outline of the central premise? What draws you to it?

It is a detailed compendium compiling information on all kinds of books that don’t exist but which have at some point been referenced elsewhere. As I recall, in La Bibliothèque invisible, you might come across, to give an example, all of the phantasmagorical literary works that J. Rodolfo Wilcock quoted in that most unique and marvellous book, La sinagoga de los iconoclastas… And, as to what appeals to me about La Bibliothèque invisible, I can only say that I’m attracted to the idea which to my mind lies at the heart of all books: the idea that perhaps there isn’t a single book in the whole world that is true; or, better said, there isn’t a single book that we should take entirely at face value.

I can’t help but notice its recent publication date. It puts me in mind of something you said in an interview: “In short, I long to journey endlessly, always in search of something new. Always alert.” What did you find of new here?

Nothing. The truth is absolutely nothing. What must have happened is that the day I had to choose my five books, I’d just read Mahieu and decided to put his name down. I read La Bibliothèque invisible because it included books that I’d invented and I wanted to reassure myself that they hadn’t credited me with any new books that weren’t mine; I don’t think I would have been too amused to find one, because, although it may surprise you to hear it, I like to show some restraint when it comes to making things up.

“I’m attracted to the idea which to my mind lies at the heart of all books: the idea that perhaps there isn’t a single book in the whole world that is true; or, better said, there isn’t a single book that we should take entirely at face value”

But as I say, I didn’t find anything new in there – not even imaginary books attributed to me. It’s clear that La Bibliothèque invisible is trying to do something – namely, the eccentric model of bibliographical fantasies – which stopped being original years ago. Because long before Mahieu that role was occupied by François Rabelais and his famous catalogue from the Bibliothèque de l’Abbaye de Saint-Victor en Pantagruel, etc.

Tell us about your next book, Mirabiblia: Catalogo ragionato di libri introvabili by Paolo Albani and Paolo della Bella. It seems pretty similar to the Mahieu volume (although it came out 11 years earlier so its the other way round). If I felt more confident in my (cursory) research I’d suggest the Mahieu is a translation of Albani and della Bella’s book…?

It looks similar, yes, but trust me when I say that Catalogo ragionato di libri introvabili is a far superior book. I was absolutely delighted to be given it a few years ago, perhaps because it never crossed my mind that one day someone would include – in a great anthology of unobtainable books – authors and titles that I had made up. Years later, I relived that feeling the day I typed into Google the name Rita Malú – a lady I invented in 1984 and who first appeared in my story Nunca voy al cine (“I never go to the movies”) – and saw that it had more than a thousand entries. It was the first time I had the feeling of having given life to someone.

Could you give us a few examples of what we find in the book?

There are texts that don’t exist, invented by Perec, Robert Derain, Manganelli, John Webster Spargo… But the most interesting part is what goes on outside of the book, let’s say beyond the catalogue itself: the life that those books lead when they escape from themselves. But in order to explain to you what this thing is that exists beyond the book we have to go back to Robert Derain and point out that he is also an invented author; in reality he’s the alter-ego of Jordi Llovet [i Pomar], a real person, a wise Catalan and lifelong friend from Barcelona. For one of my books (Bartleby & Co) I humbly sought his advice in the area in which I felt least confident: the most intelligent essays on the theme of silence in literature. Llovet sent me an impeccable report, but in the postscript of his letter he valued his work at $1,000, which, he said, he hoped to receive soon. To get my revenge, in my book I decided to attribute the authorship of a book to Derain; Eclipses littéraires is an anthology of works by authors whose common denominator was that they had all written just one book in their lives, afterwards renouncing literature entirely. Among those authors was Rita Malú, the author of “Viaja y no lo escribas”, an apocryphal story that Derain attributed to her saying that it belonged to the volume of tales Noches bengalíes tristes [Sad Bengali nights].

“It was the first time I had the feeling of having given life to someone”

The strange thing about these tales of invented authors and stories is that sometimes they really travel. Javier Massot, my wife’s younger brother, recently went to work in Bangalore, in South India, and from there assures me that he spotted, in a supermarket window, a book by the name of Tristeza de las noches bengalíes [The sadness of Bengali nights], translated directly from the Indian. Reality imitating fabrications, perhaps?

Both the books above remind me of Fantômes by Sophie Calle – where she gets people to describe paintings they can’t see anymore – but these books go a step further because the books don’t actually exist and never really have. Does all this have anything to do with the line from Mallarmé to Manet which you quote repeatedly in The Illogic of Kassel: “Paint, not the thing, but the effect that it produces”? (In other words, the effect or idea of art is now more important than the art itself?)

Ever since Duchamp and his Urinal, and perhaps much earlier than that, it is no longer clear what art is or if it can still be said that art exists. And this allows everyone to choose whatever response they find most convenient. I think that in the unlikely case that I was forced at gunpoint to specify my views on whether art still exists, I would remind my interlocutor that my profession consists of creating fictions, and I would quote Nabokov: “Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both truth and art.” Having quoted these timely lines and with one eye still on the gun, I would also remind my interlocutor that in my dear trade of novel writing I repeatedly come up against one particular problem which is the following: no matter how well things are going with the novel I’m constructing, what I write can never escape the curse of having to obey discursive language, because, no matter how weak the plot is, it has to have a storyline; it has to be about something. In the face of this misfortune, I always remember – at the rate I’m going, one day I’ll do so in tears – Beckett’s defence of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I remember he said: his writing is not about something; it is that something itself.

May I add one more thing? Sometimes I dream about the day when, having just published a book, somebody asks me what it’s about and I can take the – currently impossible – liberty, of answering: “It isn’t about something. I’ve long since cast off that slavery. It’s art.” And after a moment’s pause, I could declare: “It is that something itself.”

Does your next ‘book’, De nasis (“On Noses”), by Hafen Slawkenbergius (London, Letters Yorick, 1761) feature in the invisible libraries, then? (Part of me wishes I could read it and find out what my nose tells me about my character….) So why are we including a non-existent book on this list?

It crops up in Tristam Shandy, my favourite book. Including De nasis on my list was, I now realise, my way of getting in Sterne’s novel, which not only was and continues to be important to me, but more importantly is a kind of personal talisman; when the right occasion calls for it, like now, I need it to hand. Best of all, it’s a fruitful sort of talisman; I mean, it provides a lot of food for thought: for example, hasn’t it just led you to want to find out what your nose says about your personality? I’m afraid I can’t help you on that front, but I can tell you about a line I found in Movimiento perpetuo by Augusto Monterroso (“Perpetual Motion”), and which you might have found in De nasis, if it existed. In Monterroso’s magnificent book you’ll find “an essay about the only three topics that matter in this world: life, death and flies.” Monterroso is an author I heartily recommend. And Movimiento perpetuo, in its moment, was a contender for the list of five books. The line goes like this: “The fly that today rests on your nose is a direct descendent of the fly that once landed on Cleopatra’s.”

As you said, Slawkengergius appears in Tristram Shandy. When you first read Sterne’s masterpiece did you immediately think, ‘Ah, here is a kindred spirit’?

Not exactly. I thought: now I understand everything. That is, now I understand why I’ve spent all these years doggedly reading books, as if my life depended on that pastime.

Do you think it’s important to throw the reality-fiction binary out of the window ?

I don’t recall having thrown anything out of the window. As for reality and fiction, I see them as an old married couple. In fact, that’s how they appear in a chapter of Mac y su contratiempo (Mac’s Problem, forthcoming New Directions), my latest book. In it two Italians are talking in the bar of a Swiss hotel. The passing years and loneliness torments them both. Baresi seems to embody the world of fiction writers – the world of those who believe that a work that tells a true story is an insult to both art and the truth; while the other one, Pirelli, seems to represent those who think that reality can be reproduced exactly and that, as such, it shouldn’t be placed between quotation marks, given that there is only one truth.

Do you agree with David Shields’s argument in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto that our culture craves “reality” – and so perhaps craves realism in art – precisely because we hardly ever experience it? Is this becoming more and more the case in this “post-truth”, fake-news world?

Reality Hunger seems to me to be an anti-novel constructed from literary quotations that discuss concepts of originality and authorship; something to which I wholeheartedly subscribe, of course, given that there has never been such a thing as originality, which is but a kind of fetishism. When we talk about originality we are talking about Plato’s fantasy: that the world itself was a copy. Realism thinks it is copying the real when really it is just copying the copy of the copy of a copy. But David Shields takes the death of the novel as given and there I agree with him rather less.

Shields calls for new forms to capture the splintered nature of contemporary experience. Which is precisely what the Modernists were doing around this time last century. Is there anything new left to do, or do we just need to rework the old?

Mac’s Problem revolves around the feeling that there is no progress or change in literature, only repetition. My book questions some old clichés around writers. Like, for example, the myth that a narrator must have his or her “own voice” when really that singular voice doesn’t exist: there is only ventriloquism; there is no identity, only a mask.

Why do you think artistic tricksiness – metafictional novels, say, and/or genre-blending works – is so divisive? Some people enjoy it, others feel it as an affront of some kind.

We talk a lot about the crisis of the novel, but it’s not very well thought through or argued, and Spain especially is full of “offended parties” horrified with metafiction, as if it didn’t originate from El Quijote and as if the novelistic dissidents were trying to entirely banish Catholicism from the country. And really, even if that was their intention, it’s strange that nobody finds it odd to be Catholic whereas it does seem strange to them not to be. But basically, I don’t think this issue of the crisis of the novel is very well considered. Because for decades now it isn’t the novel itself that’s faltering (there are some brilliant novels), but the novel as a genre. In the 16th century, the Petrarchan sonnet was a prevailing genre. It’s a genre that dwindled centuries ago. In the 19th century, the novel was as the Petrachan sonnet had been in the 16th century: it was the great genre, and it clearly sunk at the start of the last century with Joyce, although what is surprising is that many novelists don’t seem to have realised this, perhaps because the public continue to consume novels that are, let’s say, conventional.

“Balzac, Dickens and Flaubert were hardly imbeciles – they understood that realism was nothing but a vehicle, a convention, hence why they all had a jolly old time twisting it about”

As Bolaño said, you can go on writing those kinds of novels, but as a way of telling a story it was exhausted a long time ago. And here I’d like to clarify that, of course, the possibility of writing great novels like Tolstoy’s hasn’t gone away, just as people can still write great sonnets. But this doesn’t eliminate the challenge faced by today’s novelists: to eschew the “novel genre” as it was formed in the 19th century, and search for new opportunities. That search, I must add, is an exhilarating one, and for almost a century now it has prevented writers from getting bored when working on a novel. But it maddens those who cannot see that the writers who invented literary realism (Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert…) never really believed in it. They were hardly imbeciles, so I imagine they understood that realism was nothing but a vehicle, a convention, hence why they all had a jolly old time twisting it about, always aware that they were pulling the strings of an inevitable and fascinating simulacrum (also known as fiction). Or is it possible that they weren’t familiar with all those riveting and wise works from the Spanish and English tradition: works like El Quijote or Tristram Shandy, which show us that language doesn’t represent reality, but rather makes and unmakes it?

We see some of this divisiveness in the legacy of your next author, Alberto Savinio (1891–1952). His most complex, modernist-minded works are simultaneously his most critically praised ones and his most disliked ones.

With Savinio, it’s the same everywhere. And it’s really strange because he’s a brilliant author.

Savinio is a fascinating and important figure. Magic realism and surrealism owe him a huge debt. Still, his older brother, the painter Giorgio de Chirico, is better known. So, tell us about Savinio.

I read Savinio’s book Maupassant y el otro [original title: Maupassant e l’altro], an entertaining and irreverent narrative essay, a kind of essay-digression, punctuated by 101 random and insightful annotations which together build towards the atypical picture of the life and work of the French conteur par excellence. When I read it in 1983, the year it was published in Spain – it’s not translated into English, by the way – I discovered a kind of structure that was very free and which I had seen or sensed in other books (in Dalí’s book about el Ángelus by Millet, for example), but which in Savinio provided me an immense creative possibility: almost jazz-like improvisations, derivations of all kinds around an apparently central theme (the life and works of the French short story writer), which in reality was just a pretext for what he was really interested in – developing a wandering prose style. Maupassant y el otro was a decisive influence on my 1985 book Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil, (A Brief History of Portable Literature), wherein under the pretext of writing about an intrigue from the 1920s – the conspiracy of the Shandies – I let my pen wander and talked about all manner of things.

His Nuova enciclopedia [Nueva Enciclopedia in Spanish] was conceived with the conceit of creating ‘la totalità Savinio’. What do you think this means? Can it succeed?

I think the title Nuova enciclopedia doesn’t help, because it’s deceptive and sounds like something heavy, something strictly encyclopaedic, when really the book is so far from being heavy it’s almost weightless.

I love how democratic his thought is, so you get profound inquiries into the finer complexities of Roman mythology alongside consideration of Josephine Baker, the chat of Savinio’s apartment block’s porter alongside the fragments of Pre-socratic thought.

That mixture you’re talking about is what really appealed to me about the book: the idea that one can talk about anything and everything, even if, in the end, one leaves almost everything out. That blend of cultures (between the porter and the Pre-socratic philosophers) is the very fusion Monterroso is talking about in that line about noses today and Cleopatra’s nose.

You have to abandon yourself to the volume’s incoherence, and from that emerges (sort of) a kind of coherence – the harmony of discordance. It’s like a cubist painting of Savinio, I guess.

At its heart it’s incoherent, like the majority of books that bring together different essays. As far as I’ve seen, when taken as a whole they all lack any kind of unity, excepting that unifying element which almost no one aspires to: the one that stems from the deep-rooted limitations of its authors.

It shares the spirit of the first two books especially, doesn’t it? There may be thousands of books already in existence but it’s never enough. We’ll never know enough, we’ll never capture fully, we’ll never experience enough. He explains it himself: “Oggi non c’è possibilità di enciclopedia. Oggi non c’è possibilità di saper tutto….” (Today encyclopedias are impossible. Today it is impossible to know everything.)

It shares that spirit, it’s true. And it maintains – I suspect – the harmony of the classics, if we presume – which is why I don’t go further than to suspect it – that kind of harmony has ever really existed on the earth.

Indulge me. If you were to make your own encyclopaedia, what would your entry for A be? And for Z?

You wouldn’t want me to make a fool of myself, I don’t suppose? Okay, let’s see. For A I would choose Ansia [prox. “yearning”]. And for Z  I’d go for Zátopek. But I’d need a month to write each entry.

Let’s move onto your last book, L’Après-midi de Monsieur Andesmas [“The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas”, in Four Novels] by Marguerite Duras. It’s no secret that Duras played an important role in you own life.

I read Duras calmly many years after having been her tenant. When you study her, you see that she belonged to that class of authors who don’t leave you indifferent: you either love her or you hate her, and anything in between is impossible. I fall into the group of those who love her work, and to my mind L’après-midi de Monsieur Andesmas is her best book.

This isn’t one of her best-known works – what in particular attracts you to it?

Everything she did comes together in this book. It’s about a wait. It’s about an old man sitting in the middle of a deck unable to see beyond the edge of a drop brimming with light and soaring birds. Idle and alone, Monsieur Andesmas awaits the building contractor Michel Arc, who he intends to hire to build a terrace. The old man sits in a wicker chair. It’s very hot. There’s an almost criminal suspension of the narrative. From the drop, the bottom of which Monsieur Andesmas cannot see, he can make out some music coming from a pick-up truck. It’s the summer song: “Quand les lilas refleuriront…”

A red dog walks by. Michel Arc is late. M. Andesmas waits for him, but he doesn’t show. (Initially, the novel was going to be called Of Course, the Contractor Will Show). The story is soon taken over by this wait and Monsieur Andesmas suddenly sees Michel Arc’s wife speaking to him from just in front of the edge of the drop, telling him that she has been left by her husband. The old man, in turn, has been betrayed by his beloved daughter, who has run off with the contractor. All quite banal, if you like. But maybe Duras wants to show us that her plot – any plot – is really the backdrop – the furthest possible backdrop – and never meets expectations.

There’s a scene in Never Any End to Paris where you ask her why she writes. Her answer is sharp: “I write to keep from killing myself.” Why do you write?

Because Duras was kind enough to pass on to me a piece of advice which she had been given by Raymond Queneau, who told her: “Look: don’t do anything other than write.”

Duras’s long-time assistant Michelle Porte made a film of the book – which prompts me to ask you about your own background in film [Vila-Matas began his career as the editor of the film magazine Fotogramas, directed a couple of short films, and was a film critic]. Would you consider a return to that medium?

I would return to it if I were allowed to make a film based on the motto on my personal coat of arms: Too late.

 

Translated by Sophie Hughes

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

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Enrique Vila-Matas

Enrique Vila-Matas is one of the most prestigious and original writers in contemporary Spanish fiction. With an extensive body of work, his novels have been translated into 35 languages, garnering widespread international praise. He is the recipient of many prestigious international honours and awards. His latest published works in English are the novel The Illogic of Kassel (New Directions, Harvill) and the anthology of short stories Vampire in Love (New Directions, And Other Stories). For more information, please visit: www.enriquevilamatas.com