In these seemingly anti-literary times, authors tend to do all they can to support literature; Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas is the first I’ve seen to treat it like a disease. That’s not to say, however, that he isn’t supporting the literary in his own way. Rather, it’s just that Vila-Matas’s way of pushing the medium forward is by contemplating whether or not we’re going though a period of literary parasitism because mostly everything Western literature has to utter has been said. If Vila-Matas’s discourse suggests that we might benefit by pushing the current edifice right off a cliff, then consider it tough love.
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.
In Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady Vila-Matas is grappling with the act of literary creation, and in the process he obsessively stares up at the works of his predecessors. The most important aspect of these two novels is how they are very consciously written from under the shadow of literature; these are books that are not only aware of the debts they owe to great authors—Kafka, Musil, Beckett, Gide, and Robert Walser among them—but that seem to be written desperately, as if the great works make their own existence virtually impossible. Each is trying to understand where the words come from—an author’s life? her imagination? dictated by the divine?—and each is based on the fear that after 2,000 years there may not be that much left to say.
Appropriately, the tone taken by the barely named first-person narrators of each novel rests somewhere between droll and depressed, treading a fine line between sarcasm and grief. Usually it’s impossible to tell on which side the narrator stands. When, for instance, the narrator of Montano’s Malady delivers a lecture in which he spontaneously chooses to discuss an affair he suspects is going on between his wife and his best friend (both present), it’s uncertain whether we should laugh along at the elaborate joke or worry that a) it’s true, or b) it isn’t, but this delusional man believes it. It’s similarly difficult to know how to interpret it when the narrator of Bartleby & Co., who is working on a book that consists only of footnotes about writers who didn’t write, informs us that a letter he sent requesting help from the author Robert Derain was never answered, so he has written his own reply and added it in as footnote 20.
Though the narrator’s lives revolve around books, they view literature with much ambivalence. Yes, they both read with an austere, at times awe-struck respect, and they clearly wouldn’t trade their reading for anything so transitory as material success or happiness, yet they are all too aware that such a deep love of books is also a burden. Literature is quite baldly linked to a Svevo-esque conception of sickness, and one gets the sense that the narrators have paid a sizable amount for their lifelong intimacy with the written word. They have paid it in terms of obsession, loneliness, and alienation, and perhaps they are living with the dreadful suspicion that they would be better off without books.
The narrator of Bartleby & Co. hasn’t written a thing in 25 years. That was when he published his first novel, but his father, angrily believing that the son cribbed from his parents’ troubled marriage, dictated an inscription dedicated to his mother. That was enough to spark 25 years of silence. Now he has decided to write again by penning footnotes to a book not yet written. Is the narrator writing a “real” book? Has Vila-Matas? This is one of the questions that this quietly beguiling novel swirls around.
One of the noticeable things about a Vila-Matas novel is how quickly symbols grow obese and references dizzyingly stack up. Watch how fast debris collects around the question “What is writing and where is it?” found on page 3. Two paragraphs down, the narrator tells us of his intention to explore this question what writing is by, ironically, writing an anti-book. On page 4 he links literary anti-creation to transcription by referencing Walser, who couldn’t write because he worked as a copyist. In the next paragraph, this is linked to Melville’s famous “scrivener” Bartleby (thus tying into the title), and then scarcely three sentences later Vila-Matas quotes the critic Roberto Calasso who equates Bartleby and Walser as copyists who “transcribe texts that pass through them like a transparent sheet.” From here the next paragraph tells the story of the narrator’s exit from writing (and the beginning of his life as a copyist) when his father made him transcribe the dedication. The author then discusses Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo, who told everyone that his books were transcribed from stories told him by “Uncle Celerino.” And finally we travel on to the implication that authors are merely the vessels for inspiration, or rather, copyists for the divine. We are on page 7.
With all the links and references that there are to keep track of, a novel with as much self-referentiality as Bartleby might easily become suffocating, but Vila-Matas avoids this by making each footnote its own absorbing preserve. It’s quite easy to get caught up in each note as an object in and of itself, and this way each is buffered from the others. You may choose to dive into the rabbit hole of referentiality, but to enjoy this book you certainly don’t have to.
Another thing that keeps Bartleby & Co. from gaining oppressive weight is the lightness with which Vila-Matas presents the material. Many of the footnotes read as beautifully crafted, 1,000-word flash stories, and they’re usually shortened or juxtaposed versions of longer pieces. In these, Vila-Matas knows how to give just enough information to make a story meaningful without deflating it—in his artful condescension he often makes something new out of his source material. A wonderful side-benefit of this is that he makes you want to read all the books that he writes about, even (or especially) the nonexistent ones.
To see his method in action, take footnote 32, which is essentially a summary of a review written by Borges. Vila-Matas first presents the title of the review, “Enrique Banchs Celebrates Twenty-Five Years of Marriage to Silence,” letting us puzzle over that as he fills in some important background info. After quoting Borges’s definition of poetry at us (“the vehement and solitary practice of combining words that startle whoever hears them”), Vila-Matas is finally ready to return to the title, letting Borges explain that it refers to Enrique Banchs, an extraordinary poet who hasn’t written for 25 years. Then Vila-Matas quotes Borges at length, giving us both a taste of the poet and the critic’s evaluation of him, and finally leaves with this quotation as a conclusion: “His own dexterity may cause him to spurn literature as a game that is too easy.” Vila-Matas has done little more than crib from and reframe the review, yet this has made all the difference—Borges’s review is now Vila-Matas’s story of a poet who quit because the “practice of combining words” was too easy.
Virtually all the footnotes in Bartleby and Co. are equally successful postmodern manipulations of literary source material, and in the end this may be what separates this book from a literary essay. Essentially there are no characters worth mentioning in Bartleby and Co., there are no scenes to be set, and there is no real plot—rather than evolve forward in terms of drama, this book evolves forward as an essay might, by increasing elaboration of a central idea. The book is so devoid of the kinds of things typically found in fiction that it all but provokes us to wonder why it is fiction. Beyond a preference for mystery (as opposed to explanation), the only other reason I can imagine for writing this as fiction is the narrator’s tone, which would a require a brave, perhaps depressed author were it to be used in a work of nonfiction. It’s not hard to see why Vila-Matas would want to be distanced from this narrator who is a lonesome, friendless person, a civil servant who occasionally makes deprecating references to the hump on his back and is eventually fired for cutting out on his job to write. At one point he writes about a headache he has just had:
Having recovered from it, I think about my past pain and tell myself that it is a very pleasant sensation when the ache goes away, since then one re-experiences the day when, for the first time, we felt alive, we were conscious of being human, born to die, but at that instant alive.
Being human then is to ache productively. So is to write: “Elizondo proposes that the pain [of a headache] transforms our mind into a theatre and suggests that what seems a catastrophe is in fact a dance . . . a mystery that can only be solved with the help of the dictionary of sensations.” In a similar way the narrator evokes literature as a burden that he could never be separate from and that at times offers him transcendent moments, “a dance out of which new constructions of sensibility may already be arising.”
Viewing literature as a monumental headache might be the best answer for a book that asks why writers give up writing, and perhaps Vila-Matas would have had a difficult time making such a point without the help of a narrator. Nonetheless, all the research and creativity that has been brought to bear in making this book probably could have gone into a fine, book-length essay investigating the writers of No. I do believe, however, that even if Vila-Matas himself had written an essay in place of this fiction, he could scarcely have written something more well-built and delightful than this carefully enigmatic work.
Montano’s Malady was published in English earlier this year and is the second and most recent of Vila-Matas’s books to appear in this language. (There are still over 15 left to go, not counting the ones classified as nonfiction.) Rather than investigate the literature of those “in the No,” Montano is an exploration of the role of diaries in the lives of great authors and their own status as literary works. It is also Vila-Matas’s evocation of the titular malady (often referred to as “literature-sickness”), a sort of terminal inability to live one’s life outside the sphere of literary interpretation.
The book is broken into five sections, each growing oddly out of the one that came before. The first two seem to be a narration of the same events, one from the perspective of fiction and one from nonfiction. The third is a lecture that ignores objective reality for its own fleeting caprices. The fourth is a Gogolesque diary of the narrator unraveling. And the fifth is, well, the fifth—a bitter send-up of a writers’ festival that ends in fantasy. The whole book, we are told, is a diary being kept by the author, who is similar to but not the same as Vila-Matas.
For those who have read Bartleby, the first line of Montano is a provocation: “At the end of the 20th century, the young Montano, who had just published his dangerous novel about the curious case of writers who give up writing, got caught in the net of his own fiction and, despite his compulsive tendency towards writing, suffered a complete block, paralysis, a tragic inability to write.”
Montano, we learn, is the narrator’s son, and he has a problem: “I’m constantly being visited by the ideas of others”—the “memories” of famous writers, the actual stuff that was in, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s head, are constantly invading his mind and influencing his writing. In due course the following happens: the narrator finds he has a similar illness; he has a fight with his son Montano; he goes to Chile to celebrate the new millennium; he becomes obsessed with his literature-sickness and “moles” that are eating literature from the inside out; he heads to a tiny Pacific island to shoot a movie with his wife Rosa; and he has a huge falling out with Rosa over his need to get help for literature-sickness. After this, 68 pages, we are told that everything we have just read is a fiction, a novella that the narrator calls Montano’s Malady.
But was it all fiction? Does fiction necessarily mean false? The next section seems to indicate yes, because the narrator immediately declares that he will “tell nothing but truths about my fragmented life.” And yet, the very structure of this section belies this: it is a series of alphabetized entries on the narrator’s favorite writers in which he makes statements about them by reading their diaries as literary works. Although the narrator sticks to this format, this section quickly becomes very personal, as the narrator often relapses back into a diary narration of his life reminiscent of the first section. As the two sections come to resemble each other, the line between fiction and non is blurred.
In this blurring we see a beautiful sort of equivalence between the two sections. People, places, and events familiar from the first section pop up in the second, albeit somewhat different because now they are “true.” We watch how facts transmute as they move from fiction to non, and then we change them back as we flip backwards to locate the appropriate reference. In a book that considers writers’ diaries works of literature, and that poses itself as one large diary, it’s uncertain what exactly is the truth of the narrator’s life. Moreover, as the third, fourth, and fifth sections further blur reality, one begins to suspect that the narrator doesn’t know either. We have gone beyond the unreliably unreliable narrator into something else: the narrator so enmeshed in his personal delusions, so tainted by paranoia, that he doesn’t know when he’s being honest. In the end, the only concrete thing to say about this book may be that it’s all “true.”
Montano makes multiple references to the elusive quality of prose found in W.G. Sebald’s books, but I think it is Bartleby & Co. that better matches up to Sebald’s lean, portentous writing. This is because Bartleby knows what it’s about and proceeds to fully inhabit its limited sphere. Montano, by contrast, is continually opening into greater and greater expanses. This works well for the first half, which is quite engrossing, but the second half feels too disorderly, as if tacking on more and more Vila-Matas lost sight of the thematic threads he was so elegantly following. This once restrained book suddenly becomes a bit too wild, a bit too self-consciously strange. This is far from saying, however, that Montano’s Malady is skippable. In the end, I think it holds together enough; moreover there are so many novel ideas here and Vila-Matas’s approach is so thoroughly original that it’s worth seeing this work in action.
Furthermore, reading it in tandem with Bartleby & Co. greatly increases the enjoyment of each. As Montano’s narrator makes his dictionary, he quotes the essayist Alan Pauls, who says that “the great theme of the private journal in the 20th century is sickness.” This brings us back to Bartleby’s narrator, who saw literary creation as a headache. Paul’s insight is then extended with the Kafkaesque idea that “those writing great private journals in the last century [i.e., the 20th] did not do so to know who they were, but kept them to know what they were turning into, in which unforeseeable direction catastrophe was taking them.” Writing then, becomes a way to chronicle, understand, and even develop one’s personal sickness; this is certainly what it is for the narrator of Bartleby, who pursues the writers of No to understand (and arguably perpetuate) his writer’s block. Similarly, Montano’s narrator is using his diary to understand his literature-sickness, and, perhaps obviously, after making his Kafkaesque insight the narrator concludes that were he to cure his literature-sickness he would not be able to write.
In Montano’s Malady, Vila-Matas approvingly retells a story about Borges which goes thus: Early in his career, Borges was attacked by a writer named Ramon Doll, who wrote that Borges’s writings “belong to that genre of parasitic literature that involves repeating badly things others have said well.” Borges took these words and used them as inspiration, becoming more “parasitical” than ever and going on to cap his parasitical works with the short story that poses as literary criticism, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”
Vila-Matas might very well also be called parasitical. His books exist on the backs of others, and like any truly loathsome parasite they make no effort to hide the fact that their business is that of artfully manipulating their hosts. In basing themselves not only on the work of previous authors but also on the very idea that they are products of writers who cannot write, they seem to perform the ethos expressed by an author Vila-Matas quotes who says that “everything that was profound with regard to broadening the point of view, making it more extensive has been said. . . . The modern man has only the most thankless and least brilliant task left to him, that of filling in the gaps.”
Yet Montano and Bartleby offer the chance that this is not true. Though Bartleby ends with silence (the only thing left after all the writers of No have been cataloged) it also chances that No may be nothing but a sickness, a mere transitional period: “for the illness is not a catastrophe, but a dance out of which new constructions of sensibility may already be arising.” Montano too considers that literature is going through a sick period but allows an optimistic reading. It ends quite dramatically with the narrator and Robert Musil crouched on a mountaintop before a void. They are surrounded by “enemies of the literary” (which include self-aggrandizing writers feting each other at a literary festival that the narrator has just fled from). “It is the air of the time,” says the narrator with regret, “the spirit is threatened.” Musil’s reply contradicts him: “Prague is untouchable . . . it’s a magic circle. Prague has always been too much for them. And it always will be.”1
If it is correct that there is a next act waiting to begin, then Vila-Matas’s books represent a kind of closing of this one. The literary giants he draws on are almost all great modernists or progenitors of modernist writing, and his own writing is perhaps the capstone to a kind of literature that was born when the first postmodernists began the work of literary parasitism. It may be that Vila-Matas is doing parasitical work, is simply filling in the gaps, but if so then his novels belie the received wisdom that parasitism is always bad and filling in the gaps dull. As it is in these novels, it can be far more interesting and far more original most of what it currently being published.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation. His contributions to previous issues include an essay on Gilbert Sorrentino and a review of The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian.
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