(By way of introduction to “I’m Not Auster” by Enrique Vila-Matas we present these three questions with translator Tom Bunstead.)
Tom Bunstead: You’ve appeared in a number of other writers’ books, either in passing in reference to your work or as a character: in 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, Ejército Enemigo by Alberto Olmos, Mari Kinski by Ainhoa Rebolledo, a short story by Eduardo Halfon called “Never Any End to Hemingway,” and now in a Brazilian title “Se um de nós dois morrer” by Paulo Roberto Pires and an Italian one called “Essere Ricardo Montero” by Gianfranco Pecchinenda. Intertextuality is also a big part of your most recent novel Dublinesca, and in the story we feature here. Why is it so important to you?
Enrique Vila-Matas: I think I’ve been one of the main proponents of this tendency to turn real life people—my friends, for example—into fictional characters. I’ve been doing it since 1985 since my “An Abbreviated History of Portable Literature.” It began when I had an interesting surprise as a reader—as I mention indirectly in Dublinesca—when I found John Ford appearing as a character in Peter Handke’s Short Letter, Long Farewell; in the book, Ford spoke with the two youths who were visiting him and became yet another character. When one sees that something like this can be done—turning a person like John Ford into a fictional character—you also see there’s nothing stopping you from trying something similar yourself; it’s like someone saying to you: this isn’t actually forbidden, because what bad could there possibly be in it?
TB: Would you say this is a stronger tendency in Spanish-language than Anglophone literature? Might we draw any wider conclusions about the two traditions from this?
EVM: I wouldn’t know. In terms of my own form of using friends and real life people as characters, I’ve always just seen it as something “natural.” After all, aren’t there an awful lot of writers who solve the problem of having to give characters false names by turning to the phone book or names on gravestones?
TB: What does it feel like to be a character in other people’s books?
EVM: I really like it, I feel I’m a fictional character who appears in lots of novels, all of them very different. It feels good—though I don’t recognize myself in any of these characters.
A weakness for Auster, who by some is now so maligned. I think the dangerous decline in appreciation for his work began with people saying he wasn’t as well known in the U.S as he is in Europe. In Spain—a country so riddled with envy, it’s practically the national sport—the idea spread like wildfire that a man like this (intelligent, rich, good-looking, successful) was more highly regarded by us than by the Americans. I started overhearing people saying, Didn’t I tell you, we don’t have a clue! A certain irregularity in Auster’s recent work meant that what was already fertile ground blossomed with envy, and all kinds of resentful and mean-spirited people started having a go at Auster as well.
Auster has always just been my kind of writer. Whatever anyone else says, I’ve always found him simply charming. And just as I can allow him his minor faults, I’m also glad when he does well. There’s something graceful about his writing that places him, along with the likes of Stevenson, in Fernando Savater’s category of enchanters. “It’s hardly scientific as a literary critical category, I know”, says Savater, “but I’m only writing for proper readers, and I know they’ll know what I mean.” This charm, for Savater,is easier to distinguish by what it isn’t: it isn’t genius, profundity, brio, or formal perfection, and neither could it be called an innovative or a classical bent; a minor author might have the touch and still never break into the highest ranks of world literature. But when combined with other qualities, it can make addicts of us. “Perhaps the closest thing to this charm,” concluded Savater, “is when we encounter someone and admire them at first sight, unenviously, unsuspiciously—someone whose shortcomings we can also excuse. The kind of literary connection we feel with Voltaire, say, or de Quincey, or Borges, but not with Anatole France, Goethe, Benito Pérez Galdós or Gorky.”
Whenever I come across an interview with Auster, I’ll always read it straight away. I find it puts me in the right mood, giving me new ideas and an impetus to write. This is why I find it difficult to finish his novels, and indeed interviews with him—such is my urge to write, I simply have to stop reading. In the interview I’ve just abandoned in order to write this, Auster cites Cervantes, Dickens, Kafka, Beckett and Montaigne as influences. These are exactly the writers who form the axis on which my literary universe also turns. “They’re all inside me,” Auster says. “Dozens of writers are inside me, but I don’t think my work sounds or feels like anyone else’s. I’m not writing their books. I’m writing my own.”
I am quite certain I can now say the same for myself. “They’re all inside me” is a phrase that confirms the sensation in Auster—something I admit I also feel—that the more you experience solitude, paradoxically the less you feel isolated or ostracized; rather you feel yourself opening towards others. “The surprising thing,” as Auster puts it, “is that we can’t begin to understand our relationship to other people until we’re on our own. The more we’re alone, and the more we sink into solitude, the more deeply we feel this relationship.” This seems to me a good definition of the writer’s solitude too.
The others (other writers that is, the ones we like, the ones inside us) work on us in a strange way, so that it becomes impossible in fact to be without them. However far away you are in a physical sense (even if you find yourself on a desert island, or locked in solitary confinement), you find you’re inhabited by others. This is a far cry from how Miguel de Unamuno saw it; he was a first-rate thinker but also an egomaniac, and ended up suspecting that there were no such things as others, that in fact others were his own invention, a way of avoiding the distress of being alone in the world. Sometimes I toy with the idea that my friends are indeed figments of my imagination. Although I never manage to make them say what I want them to, sometimes, seen from this unamaniacal p p erspective, other people can appear to be taking part in a strange game, theatrical, conspiratorial, like something out of a David Mamet film. I do have days when it seems like everyone’s agreed to say precisely what I’d expect them to say. But not very often.
There is no greater contempt for the other than to think we have imagined the other. Unamuno looks into his deepest self and finds there only himself. Auster, on the other hand, looking in the same place, finds not only himself, but also the world. Does reading Auster uncover my world for me? Quite the opposite: I find there the other. And this is how I learn to keep the other inside when I find myself sitting alone in front of the computer, on wintry mornings such as this one. On second thoughts, my having sat down in front of a computer—rather than a typewriter—is a kind of dissent against AuAuster. Because what really pushed me to talk about Auster this morning were certain words of his to do with being unable to give up his typewriter. “I’ve had it since 1974,” he says, “more than half my life now. All I have to do is change the ribbons every once in a while. But I’m living in fear that a day will come when there won’t be any ribbons left to buy—and I’ll have to go digital and join the twenty-first century.”
This admission of love for his typewriter filled me with shame, reminding me of how unthinkingly I got rid of my own and switched to using a computer; one day six years ago I ran out of ribbons and, having twice searched Barcelona, without success, gave up. They didn’t even have any in the small shop near Plaza Urquinaona that has resisted the advances of the age by continuing to sell typewriters and ribbons. I used to go there and think the whole thing a miracle; I considered its owners (so fanatical about the virtues of Olympia typewriters) vigorous defenders of the old sort of electric keys.
Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, whom I told about these shop owners (this strange, anti-modern couple), went on to write a story in which someone sets up a computer shop right across from them (his invention), signalling their demise. It looked as though it might have been a prescient tale, but in fact the anti-modern couple were so afraid Martínez de Pisón’s idea might come true (you really should read the story for yourself) that they decided to switch to computers, just like that, which meant I had to follow suit. I’ve never been in any doubt that this was last of the city’s typewriter shops.
Paul Auster had better luck, because living in New York he was able to remain faithful to his Olympia. He and I are different in this sense (and in so many others, now that I think about it, though I won’t go into them here—for fear of making myself look worse still!), and I actually find this a relief because it means I can carry on being alone—still with all my favourite writers inside me, still writing my books, not theirs. Otherwise, Auster would be me. I wonder, what would I do in this world if I weren’t envious of him, if I no longer wanted to be like him? When I met him last year in New York, I remember everyone trying to point out similarities between us. We happened to have dressed the same that afternoon, yes. Both of us also lived in Paris during exactly the same period in the 1970’s, true. Both of us had had complicated relations with a certain Sophie Calle, OK. We used to share an editor in Spain, we’re both comfortable talking, we both like New York… but there the similarities end—in New York. Only he lives there. I started thinking that, if we did have things in common, that should also make it easier to find differences between us. Happily. There’s something reassuring (reassuring like masks are, bringing about an astonishing sort of calm) in the fact that someone has more charm than you do. Someone who you might resemble but, whatever happens, you will never actually be like. Happily. This way you’ll always have someone to look up to. This way you’ll always have your other, and instead of encountering only yourself you might, somewhere along the way, also encounter the world.
Thomas Bunstead writes regularly for the TLS and the Independent on Sunday. His fiction and essays appear at >kill author, Days of Roses, readysteadybook.com, and the Paris Review Blog. As a Spanish translator, he has worked with Eduardo Halfon, Yuri Herrera, and Enrique Vila-Matas.
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