09 May 2012

Vila-Matas's lecture novel

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Anne McLean (New Directions, 2011)

I told him I was preparing a three-day lecture in which I was ironically reviewing the years I spent in Paris. "And you talk about me the whole time?" he said, "Well, yeah," I replied, "but mainly about irony, about Paris, about Hemingway, about Marguerite Duras, and about how I wrote my first book." Another silence. "So, it's a lecture that's something like an autobiography of bohemia and your years of literary apprenticeship in Paris," he said all of a sudden. "Well, yeah," I answered, "though I didn't really learn that much."

While it was not hard to dislike the character of the novelist Elizabeth Costello, Enrique Vila-Matas’s first person narrator in Never Any End to Paris was very easy to befriend. The narrative point of view was significant. Had Coetzee allowed Costello to tell her adventures in her own voice, the ironic touch would have been lost. Readers would most likely end up not only disliking but resenting her, alienated by her egotistical knowingness. Had Vila-Matas used a detached third person to tell his Spanish protagonist’s literary education while living as a budding writer in the Paris of mid-seventies, the intimacy with the reader would have been harder to establish.

Framed as a three-day lecture by a novelist looking back on his days of youth, Never Any End to Paris directly referenced the earnest writer Hemingway and prominently featured Marguerite Duras who was the young apprentice's landlady. By his candid reminiscences, the boundaries between lecture and novel, and between fiction and memoir, not only blurred but dissolved into each other. Vila-Matas's lecture novel was also a species of the memoir. How it panned out that way was a pleasure, and a privilege, to observe.

Like Costello, the narrator had his own tense moment with the audience, as when, instead of giving his take on irony, he instead read a full story by Hemingway and solicited his audience's interpretations of it. But Coetzee's telling was essentially humorless; any detectable humor in it was of the caustic kind. In contrast, the humor of Vila-Matas was light and buoyant. Unrestrained laughter was to accompany its reading.

With the help of accommodating, if weird, mentors, the young writer was completing a first novel called The Lettered Assassin, a book that would cause the death of everyone who read it. (Vila-Matas actually wrote one called La asesina ilustrada (The Enlightened Assassin) which was his second book.) Upon learning of the book's malicious premise, Marguerite Duras could only comment that "killing the reader, apart from absurd, was quite impossible, unless, for example, a swift and sharp poisoned arrow were to fly out of the book directly into the heart of the unsuspecting reader." But Marguerite was able to impart a cryptic (to the narrator) suggestion on how to achieve his murderous objective, and later she also gave some guidelines (thirteen) on how to actually write it. Unintentionally or not, this lecture novel was also a creative writing workshop.

The novel's unstructured portrait of Parisian art and literary scene, through the young writer's ubiquitous involvement in the city's cultural life, was sui generis. The reader was witness, often with a smile and a wink, to the stereotypes of a frustrated writer that the narrator was consciously acting out. His failures were endearing, even his pretensions, like his ceaseless namedropping and his hanging out in cafés affecting the look of an intellectual immersed in lofty thoughts while holding a book. And the scenes crackled loudly. There was, for example, the unforgettable scene of our young writer’s very physical and hair-raising meeting with Georges Perec – a literal face-to-face encounter with the latter’s shaggy facial appendage.

(And there was again that familiar phrase by Cervantes – which I’m now suspecting was used a lot of times in Spanish novels – quoted without quotes. In this book, translator Anne McLean, who also happened to be the translator of Javier Cercas's Soldiers of Salamis, rendered it as: "Some people read everything they see, even newspaper pages blowing down the street." [89])

In this novel of delightful literary encounters, Paris never ends because its memories linger in the minds of writers like Vila-Matas who spent their formative years navigating a city of luminous lights. Reading it was like having a drink with a friend. An amiable time lasting the whole night and in which there was never any end to banter and good talk.

Never Any End to Paris is finalist to the 2012 Best Translation Book Award.

Related posts: Enrique Vila-Matas at Bifurcaria bifurcata


  1. Rise - I'm happy to see that you followed up on the Coetzee with this. "An amiable time" describes Never Any End quite well. I like that you picked out the writing lesson that Never Any End provides; with so many contemporary novels turning to writing and literature themselves as subjects, it's notable how few actually go into details about the writer's thought processes, as does this one, and rarer still that it's done with such humility and good humor. And for those of us lucky enough to have spent a lot of time in Paris, this novel, with its admirably honest "poor and unhappy" contrast to Hemingway's "poor and happy" time there, was a real treat, a refreshingly skew-eyed antidote to the usual romanticized genre of ex-pat memoirs of the city.

  2. Scott, V-M. really evoked a Paris full of nostalgia and yet still managed to leave an impression of happiness to the reader. Any "reader-writer" will have a great time about it. The best thing is, I have two more of his books to get to! And I pre-ordered Dublinesque.

  3. I have only read the Bartleby book. It made me nervous, frankly - it was a little too much like I had commissioned the book, like it was written to my specifications. So I am skeptical about V-M - how did he learn so much about me? I suppose I should overcome my suspicions & read this one or Montano's Malady.

  4. Oh no. I kept suspecting somebody installed a CCTV in my brain.

  5. oh I read his dublinesque recently due out here next month and now loved sound of this one Rise ,all the best stu

  6. Nice, Stu. That's the edition I'm getting, the UK one.

  7. I'm sorry I didn't leave a comment here earlier, Rise, but I've been meaning to tell you how happy I was that your first brush with Vila-Matas was such a positive one. Love the sound of the Perec cameo here, of course!

  8. Don't sweat it, Richard. The Perec cameo was excerpted here (Spoiler).

    1. That's awesome, thanks--laughing my ass off at that one!