Reality

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‘[…] that famous thing called reality, to which one can get closer and closer, but never close enough, because reality knows how to slip away behind an infinite series of footsteps, levels of perception, false soundings. In the long run, reality turns out to be inextinguishable, unreachable. One can find out more and more about it, but never everything. But even so it’s advisable to try to find out a little more, because in certain investigations surprises can occasionally occur.’

Enrique Vila-Matas, Dublinesque (trans. Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean)

Dublinesque (Enrique Vila-Matas)

In the same interview, Vila-Matas says, ‘I do not demand that the reader suspend their disbelief, because the attraction of reading the book comes not from the story that is told, but from the encounter with the world of its author.’ There is no more concise way to explain   why I read, what Maria Gabriella Llansol described as ‘a living writing she could take for an encounter.’ As Beckett wrote of Joyce’s writing, ‘is not about something; it is something itself.’

Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque is that peak of imaginative writing when one can suspend oneself into the mind of another’s sensibility. Reading this interview and his recent book, Mac & His Problem, confirms the metafictional nature of his project. It is intertextual writing, following an ancient tradition of writing and interpreting a text in parallel. The screens between reading, writing and interpreting are removed, only to reveal their illusory nature. I like very much the quote in my last post, also from the interview. Was it Pessoa who said something like: the best kept secret of self-knowledge may be that there is no self?

True World

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‘My true world is what I try to find, though to tell the truth I would prefer not to find it, because then my literature would be dried out, finished. I do not, in reality, want to know who I am, nor to find my world — though I seek it, or seem to seek it, always knowing that I will not find it. It can be that living in this tangle might indicate how awful it is to live in my ideal world, which is not ideal; but as long I do not encounter another, this one looks good to me.‘

Enrique Vila-Matas, from this interview

(Re)constructing a personality

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‘[…] ‘he could turn into John Vincent Moon, one of Borges’ heroes, for example, or into an accumulation of literary quotations; he could become a mental enclave where several personalities could shelter and coexist, and thus, perhaps without even any real effort, manage to shape a strictly individual voice, the ambitious base for a nomadic heteronymous profile . . .’

Enrique Vila-Matas, Dublinesque (trans. Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean)

It’s a highly literary novel, which I like, excessively ironic but the voice, always the voice.

Like steps of passing ghosts

Tastes in critics and book reviewers, like cities and vegetables, are idiosyncratic. It probably has as much to do with voice as with the acuity of their exegesis, or exquisite taste. As much as we resist, fashion and peer pressure might play a part. Some, like Gabriel Josipovici, earn our trust and admiration for the rigour of his prose, even when our literary tastes differ markedly.

I’ve travelled a lot lately, but am in Hampshire for the autumn, with the low, dense English skies that always bring me home. Looking up some notes on Borges, I came across a poem I recorded in a notebook a few years back, by an American poet called Adelaide Crapsey:

‘Listen.
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.’

The other night I had a strange, striking dream. I rarely remember dreams and I remember little of the narrative context, but I was accompanied throughout the dream by Eileen Battersby, a book reviewer, American by birth, but who lived in Ireland, and died last year. I barely know her work, perhaps read one or two reviews when someone linked to them on Twitter. I still know little but watched on YouTube an interview with Battersby, John Banville and Enrique Vila-Matas. I can see little from her reviews to suggest we would share literary inclinations, but I liked her physical voice and passion for literature.

Holiday Reading – Piglia and Vila-Matas

I had travelled to Saint-Mézard, a remote commune in southwestern France, bringing with me books by Ricardo Piglia, Enrique Vila-Matas, Renee Gladman and Lucy Ellman. As is often the case, I read less than expected, preferring for much of the time to lose myself in contemplation, sitting quietly listening to the birdsong and observing the landscape. As Vila-Matas wrote, “Here in this village . . . where the hours pass in a slow but lively fashion, I think only about life.”

What little I read, Piglia’s diary, in which he fictionalises himself, and Vila-Matas’ novel in which he pretends to be writing a private diary that is trying not to become a novel, made me think mostly of the absurdity of all the time I spend deciphering symbols on a page that purport to represent life. It seems a decidedly odd way to use the apparently endless, but definitely finite and limited time alive, particularly during a week in which a radical, hard right—unelected—administration has taken control of this country.

Writers like Piglia and Vila-Matas—both books, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi and Mac & His Problem are brilliant—highlight this absurdity. In both cases, thought itself is given a fictional characteristic and placed into a character (or series of characters). In this way the history of fiction can be represented as a progression that represents the idea of the Other. Both books express the Other by means of varied signs that mark distinct ruptures in the idea of writing and the nature of fiction. I’m doubtlessly explaining this badly. It made more sense as a conversation over a glass of local wine. Camus wrote, “We can only ever have a dissonant relationship with the world because we seek out truths about it that we cannot find or verify.”

Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co.

After spending most of November with the resolute voice of Brigid Brophy, my inclination was for something more wavering. Enrique Vila-Matas’s Barleby & Co., eighty-six footnotes commenting on an invisible text, satisfied this urge despite a sense that it doesn’t quite succeed as a novel.

Has everything been written? Can language and fiction capture life in any meaningful way? The works of writers like Beckett, Kafka, Musil, Celan, Walser, Duras circle around these questions. In Bartleby & Co., Vila-Matas’s narrator asks “What is writing and where is it?”

For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the native impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write; either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good.

Had this introduction been to a work of literary criticism by a particularly perceptive critic, I can imagine few more exciting themes for scrutiny. As a work of fiction and limited to some extent by choosing to structure the novel as a series of footnotes, generally marked by brevity and concision, the investigation of Bartleby’s syndrome is comprised of a superficial recounting, mostly anecdotal, of what Vilas-Matas calls ‘writers of the No’.

For the most part this is quite satisfying to someone absorbed by stories of writers and their milieu but by the time the footnotes hit the high sixties I was craving more depth. Of course, Vilas-Matas is sufficiently astute to recognise the potential fatigue.

. . . I am going to have to fall sooner or later, like it or not, since it would be naive of me to ignore the fact that these footnotes are beginning to look more and more like Mondrian’s surfaces, full of squares which give the viewer the impression that they extend beyond the canvas and see – of course! – to encapsulate infinity, and, if this is the way I am heading, as I think I am, I shall be forced into the paradox of eclipsing myself by a single gesture.

This of course is a novel and not to be judged as a work of literary criticism. The difficulty is that the shadow of the narrator is so muted that it is all to easy to forget it is a fictional treatment. It has precisely the wavering quality I hungered for after so much Brigid Brophy but like Never Any End to Paris the overall impression is of something slight. In the end I shall treat it more like a work of non-fiction and follow some of the very many literary trails that Vila-Matas lays down in pursuit of his Bartlebys.