July 27, 2014

Carte blanche

Montano by Enrique Vila-Matas, tr. Jonathan Dunne (Harvill Secker, 2007)

'To recall with a memory that is not our own,' I heard him whisper in my ear, 'is a variant of the theme of the double, but it is also a perfect metaphor for literary expression.'

A narrator of Enrique Vila-Matas in the lecture novel Montano (in Spanish: El mal de Montano, 2002) was basically admitting that most of the things he (the narrator) was writing about was borrowed. He constantly alluded to his writing as parasitic, the way it depended on the ideas of other writers he read or conversed with. His conversation, for instance, with César Aira, whether it really happened or not (though why would the narrator invent something like it), found its way on the novel.

My memory is infiltrated by the recollection of something César Aira told me in the Café Tortoni, in Buenos Aires, one day when we fell into a bizarre conversation about the essence of literature. We had started discussing the review I had written of his last book and in a few seconds, with barely any transition from one theme to the other, we became engrossed, almost without realising, in the subject of the essence of literature. 'As a teenager, reading Borges,' Aira said to me, 'I saw where the essence of literature was. This was definitive, but later I also discovered that literature does not have one, but many historical and contingent essences. So it was easy to escape from Borges' orbit, as easy as going back, or as never having escaped.'

Aira was speaking in circles, contradicting himself as he was wont to do. It was a safe answer in any case. Designed as a discourse on 'literature sickness', Montano was a writer's attempt to arrive at the essence of literature, and it arrived not in one destination but in many of them ("many historical and contingent essences"), via the texts of many modernist writers and diarists, or more precisely, the insidious memory of those texts. 

Memory infiltration was the mechanism with which the lecture novel proceeded with its free association. Perhaps I should stop saying lecture novel when what I really meant was literary criticism. Montano was a compartment of many prose forms: diary/private journal, novel, dictionary, lecture, memoir, essay, criticism. And yet the veil of criticism was probably the most accommodating form of the novel since the recombination of many texts from various sources produced a new text and new bibliography of imagination, a new way of looking at literature from the perspective of a sick man, or a deceived man, as the narrator later considered himself to be.

As Montano progressed, the narrator was successively commenting on the preceding chapters of the novel, clarifying which parts of the work was fiction, which ones invented. Every page contained copious ideas from select writers. These bookish ideas were creatively incorporated into – or had infiltrated – the novelist's consciousness. Sometimes he would access "his real life" and insert it into the text, thereby breaking the monotony of his thoughts and finding another material for his text.

An hour ago, I rang the poet Pere Gimferrer to ask him which of Dalí's two diaries he likes more: 'Why do you want to know?' Gimferrer, who always wants to know everything, asked  me. 'I don't know if I want to know,' I told him, 'really I rang you so that you would appear in the diary I'm writing, which has turned into a novel and dictionary and looks less and less like a diary, especially since I started taking about things from the past, maybe that's why I rang you, perhaps to have something to relate that occurred today, that happened this Thursday in real life, I need a bit of present.'

And that was how the conversation with Gimferrer was integrated into the text. The narrator was free to escape from his philosophical musings and infuse reality, its immediacy, into his diary/text. The material of reality now invaded the novel, was now duly represented and made a part of that novel, the very novel enacted before the reader's eyes.

Thinking what Kafka would have thought about the 9/11 attacks in New York, the narrator felt the need to read the 11 September 1911 entry in Kafka's diaries, 90 years before the attack, discovering there the collision between a motor car and a tricycle. Later, the narrator would open the 11 September 1912 entry of the diary, reading about a particular dream by the Czech writer.

I kept talking about "the narrator" here as if there was only one protagonist when in fact there were probably at least five personae whom Vila-Matas created in this novel, one for every chapter. Every narrator subverted the form and contents of the previous one's writing, until the reader was no longer sure which person was written about and who was a character in whose text. The selection of quotes from many writers – Walter Benjamin, Kafka, Walser, Sebald, Musil, Josep Pla (in The Gray Notebook) – only served to stitch together Vila-Matas's meditations on literary creation and mortality, on the anxiety of influence and the labyrinthine ways in which novelistic ideas relate and coincide.

By the end of Montano, the narrator's comic and melancholic tone gave way to exhaustion. The narrator dissembled even as he pursued his never-ending text. More than once, the narrator/s referred to himself (themselves) as the very embodiment of literature and even if he was "literature-sick", there were indications that he had freely embraced his literary destiny.

I wonder how I can have been so stupid, believing for so long that I must eradicate my Montano's malady, when it is the only worthwhile and truly comfortable possession I have. I also wonder why I should apologise for being so literary if, in the final outcome, only literature could save the spirit in an age as deplorable as ours. My life should be, once and for all, purely and only literature.

The sickness had taken full possession of the narrator. The novelist had disappeared inside the novel, right there in the text, fulfilling Blanchot's question in the epigraph: "What will we do to disappear?"

* * *

"There is nothing sometimes further away from reality than literature, which is constantly reminding us that life is like this and the world has been organised like that," the novelist in Montano said, before entertaining the converse, "but it could be otherwise". The autonomous world we lived in is not a tidy novel, and the ways we negotiate our lives do not resemble a well-argued literary essay. If anything, it fitted well with how the novelist in David Markson's final novel self-referentially described his final novel:

Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.

The collage novel was perfectly realized in Markson's novel called – again, self-referentially – The Last Novel (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007). Quoting Walter Benjamin, Vila-Matas described the  ideal properties of a collage novel in Montano (a collage in its own way): "In our time the only work truly endowed with meaning – critical meaning, as well – would have to be a collage of quotations, excerpts, echoes of other works":

In its time, I incorporated into that collage relatively personal ideas and phrases, and slowly created for myself an autonomous world, paradoxically very closely linked to the echoes of other works. ...

And I came down, as tends to happen when one scales the peaks of tragedy. I came down and saw that I did not have to worry about my parasitical past, rather to convert it – to revert it – into my own artistic programme, to turn into a literary parasite on myself, to make the most of the reduced but autonomous part of my anxiety and of my work which I could consider to be mine. Then I read 'Second Hand' by [Alan] Pauls and relaxed even more when I saw, for example, that Borges had been a highly creative and astute case of literary parasitism.

Nothing so comforting as Pauls' idea that an important dimension of Borges' work revolved around the writer arriving always after, in second place, in a subordinate's role – with a minimal biography, but with a biography, which is already saying a lot – this writer always arrives later and does so to read or comment on or translate or introduce a work or writer that appears first, original. [emphases added]

The Last Novel was a novel of aphorisms, of successive short sentences or flash sentences, in the manner of flash fiction. Its narrator was called Novelist, with capital N. Like the narrator of Montano, Novelist in Markson's novel was mapping out his minimalist autobiography in the work. While the narrator of the second section of Montano – "Dictionary of Timid Love for Life" – promised to tell only true things about himself in his diary, Novelist decided "carte blanche to do anything [in the novel] he damned well pleases". Like Vila-Matas (and his narrators), Markson (and Novelist) was establishing a personal genre: "A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak, minus much of the novel."

I'm still in the middle of Markson's book. The form should be tiresome, but there were fascinating details and comic relief in every page. The self-contained aphorisms had an invisible engine propelling them forward, wee drops of wit accumulating, accumulating.

While waiting for the death of the novel, which is like waiting for the barbarians, we could welcome the arrival of new novel forms, in new formats. These anti-novels and autofictions, they follow their own artistic programmes. They depend on a trove of treasures and trivia about certain writers and artists, recalling memories not their own, creating a mosaic of passages from literature to produce new texts, new textures. They are "last novels" because they hardly look like proper novels. Certainly they terminate, or break, the monotony of this-happens-and-then-this-followed-by-this storytelling.

It is said that every moment in life must be lived as if it was the last. In the same way, every novel could be written as if it is the final one. Haunted by death, sustained by the last flickering breaths, final novels have unlimited freedom. To play around with texts, with wild artistic abandon. To do whatever with a blank page as with a signed blank check. Unrestricted, only the last novels have the spirit of carte blanche.

For the Spanish Lit Month, by Stu and Richard


  1. I love Vila-Matas' concept here of additive criticism, of piling on criticism of what he's written before such that (like writing about books on blogs) one comes to an increasing large accretion of texts, a mountain of them. Initially in reading your post, I couldn't imagine how he'd end the book, but simply becoming tired seems a wonderful way to do it.

  2. That's true, Scott. By the end of the book, the narrator was tired and I was tired reading about his exploits. I keep asking the narrator in my mind, do you have anything more to pull off? To the point that I had to speed read the rest of the book, whereas the early parts are quite compelling, the latter parts are dragging. And yet the narrator is still lucid, still spouting his bookish experiences. The reader became literature sick too.

  3. I thought this partic. Vila-Matas had moments of greatness but was more uneven than usual, so I can relate to what you tell Scott above. However, now I wonder if maybe that wasn't a small part of V-M's plan: for the reader to become literature sick, too (as you also mention above). I'd totally forgotten about that Aira conversation, though, so it was nice to be reminded of it whether it be factual or fictional.

  4. I think V-M could forgo the last 2 sections of the book without doing damage to the whole, or maybe edit the sections and shave off 100 or so pages and the same point would still be made. So there's that possibility of reader fatigue as a deliberate strategy. Even the Bartleby book is a bit tiring by the end. There are numerous mentions of Aira and Sebald wc makes for interesting reading for me. None, I think, about Bolano and Coetzee so the jacket blurb wc advertised their presence in the book lied.

  5. I liked "Bartleby & Co.", the only book by Vila-Matas that I've read. I remember that it helped that the book did not drag on further. It was fascinating and all but an additional few more pages of playing around variations of the same theme (writer's block) would have triggered some sort of reader fatigue too. I recently read Calvino's "Invisible Cities" and I also appreciate that the book wasn't lengthier too.

  6. I suppose Montano, a sort of "variation of variation on a theme", is Bartleby & Co. that has gone too lengthy for its own good. Nevertheless, there is fascination in the structure and in the whole construction.