A Brief History of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas (trans Anne McLean and Thomas Bunstead). $13.95, 128 pp. New Directions
At the beginning of 1909, in the preface to a book of poetry, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti announced the birth of Futurism. The Manifesti del futurismo praised speed, industry, violence, youth, and the modernization of the state; its fetishization of war sparked aesthetic debates all across Europe. Art became prophecy, and Marinetti’s god scoured the continent in 1914.
As bodies littered the Pas-de-Calais and River Somme, another movement found its spark in Zurich: on July 14, 1916, Hugo Ball stood upon the stage at Waag Hall, reading the first Dada Manifesto: “Just a word, and the word a movement.” Dada’s anti-war, anti-art aesthetics brought together writers and artists from the major European and American cultural centers. The interwar years that followed were marked by new political experiments, and it wasn’t long before André Breton’s Manifeste du surréalisme (1924) demanded that art look both inward to the unconscious and outward to social revolution. The Second World War ended Breton’s dream, matching Surrealism qua Marxism against Futurism qua Fascism. In the immediate aftermath, Socialist Realism dominated the Eastern Bloc and the academic avant-garde, the west. Art became a product of the state; economic reality subsumed aesthetic achievement.
The art movement was one of the early twentieth century’s great revelations. In conditions of war and economic collapse, of revolution and social engineering, artists and writers increasingly banded together under common manifestos to promote an aesthetic agenda. The romantic image of the lone creator, progressing an artistic craft out of a singular style, gave way to the collective. Of course, more personalities also meant more confusion, especially where Tristan Tzara’s and Breton’s camps were concerned. As –ism piled upon –ism, it became increasingly difficult to keep everything straight: What are the rules? Is anyone in charge? Who’s a member? And are they sexually available? Indeed, there’s an aspect of the Rabelaisian carnival at the center of the early manifesto era; the exchange of ideas, urges, and bodies unifies the collective, making it whole and self-aware through pleasure, pain, and laughter. For Enrique Vila-Matas, somewhere in the tangled network of Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, and their attendant bodies is A Brief History of Portable Literature.
Throughout his work, Vila-Matas bends literature, and the literary persona, back onto itself. His essayistic tone, encyclopedic recall of authorial ephemera, and focus on literary failure and erasure (those writers of the “no”) put him in a curious camp of contemporary authors not just openly indebted to their modernist predecessors but overtly obsessed with them. From the turn of the century onward, Vila-Matas’s narrators (and, one might conjecture, the author himself) have fallen under the spell of what he terms “Montano’s Malady,” or “literature sickness.” There’s an aspect of the melancholic to the writer’s illness: an author/narrator is unable to separate literature from a life off the page, and, fully aware of her illness, longs to collapse the distinction. A Brief History of Portable Literature, which takes up an apocryphal tale of a roving portable literature movement in the early twentieth century, finds the author in the early, boisterous stages of such a sickness. Trading imagined characters for historical figures, Vila-Matas joyously revels in a mash-up of the real and imaginary, setting out the ideas, tones, and preoccupations that prefigure much of his later work.
Before getting into its history, what exactly is portable literature? Typical of Vila-Matas’s hijinks, the reader never gets a precise answer. An early passage deflects, albeit colorfully, any definition: “It was a literature to whose rhythm the members of the secret society danced, conspiring for the sake of—and on the basis of nothing.” But that doesn’t keep the portables from self-defining. In some instances, portable literature seems to be the production of actual small-scale literary objects; in others, a set of rules by which live the Shandies (the term for members of portable literature’s secret society, named for Tristram Shandy). Of the former, the closest one gets to a definition is by way of example: “Duchamp’s box-in-a-suitcase—which contained miniature reproductions of each of his works—soon became an ‘anagram’ for portable literature.” Shandies place an importance, one comes to find, on the miniaturization of their works of art. For Duchamp, to make something smaller is to better conceal its meaning, to render it at once “a totality and a fragment.” But portability also potentiates transportability, and “for a vagrant and an exile, that is the best way of owning things.” As for the Shandy characteristics, chief among them seems to be bachelorhood, or functioning as a “bachelor machine” à la Duchamp. From a list laid out in the book’s opening, others include:
an innovative bent, an extreme sexuality, a disinterest in grand statements, a tireless nomadism, a fraught co-existence with doppelgangers, a sympathy for negritude, and the cultivation of insolence.
In equal parts, Vila-Matas imbues the Shandy secret society with the playfulness of Dada, the extremity of Futurism, and the duality of Surrealism. Perhaps chief among these characteristics, something that all of the others point to, is that “portable writers always behaved like irresponsible children.” This is less indictment than endorsement, as A Brief History of Portable Literature is also a history of covert adventure.
The writers, artists, and critics making up the Shandy secret society are a veritable who’s-who of the manifesto era and otherwise: the aforementioned Duchamp, Walter Benjamin, Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, Marianne Moore, Maurice Blanchot, Man Ray, Josephine Baker, Witold Gombrowicz, César Vallejo, and many more. The Shandies “[traveled] merely so they could tell each other stories,” and their nomadic movement takes them across the globe, from Port Actif to Seville and back again. In Vienna, Valery Larbaud organizes a make-believe party to conceal a secret one, full of portable conspirators who “disappear in the dawn mist, at the right moment.” In Prague, the Shandies are set upon by their doppelgangers, the Odradeks, shadow objects and forms that emerge from the subconscious. Juan Gris chillingly writes, “I’m afraid of myself, now that I believe something akin to a spool of black thread is lodged within me—and sometimes without.” One of the more sublime chapters has the portable artists fleeing to the bottom of the ocean in the Banhoff Zoo, a submarine-turned-Chinese-restaurant-turned-submarine, where they stage puppet shows. (At the helm is the eccentric Missolonghi—Robert Walser in disguise, of course.)
Vila-Matas’s sense of play—his willingness to throw a mask onto history—carries much of the book along, and is strongest when he, like the Shandies, blends the strange with the seemingly banal. Walter Benjamin’s “book-weighing machine,” an early invention in the portable movement, allows artists “to judge, to this day, with unerring precision, which literary works are insupportable, and therefore—though they may try to disguise the fact—untransportable.” The everyday turns awry under the forceful conviction, and paranoia, of the indoctrinated.
A Brief History of Portable Literature comes at an early point in Vila-Matas’s career, well before Bartleby & Co. introduced his late-stage obsession with the pathologies of writing, but many of the same ideas are on display. The paradox of the unknown as a generative literary force (“[A] non-existent literature, seeing as none of the Shandies knew what it consisted of”); the transcendence of uselessness (“The marvelously futile, the gloriously infinitesimal, stays where it is, doesn’t cease to be, living free and independent”); the uses and abuses of literary history (“[A] transcription made by someone unconvinced of the authenticity of History and the metaphorical historicity of the novel”)—all of these ideas are brought to the foreground and tested, weighed, discarded or supported, before they ever appear in the pages of Bartleby & Co., Montano’s Malady, or Dublinesque, to name a few examples to which English readers have access.
A pair of scenes from the book’s prologue resonates particularly. On a winter day in 1924, Andrei Bly suffers a nervous breakdown standing atop the towering rock on which Nietzsche conceived of eternal recurrence; not far away, at the same moment, Edgar Varèse topples from a horse while playacting Apollinaire’s departure to the war. For the narrator, these twin images of profundity and parody are the pillars of A Brief History of Portable Literature. But one can’t help but think that these are the same pillars upon which all of Vila-Matas’s work—a dance between history, incident, and comedy; between the unknown and nothing—is built. Though a little late to the party, Vila-Matas might be “a portable artist par excellence.”
Hal Hlavinka is the event coordinator at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Knee-Jerk Magazine, HTMLGIANT, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Golden Handcuffs Review.
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