Decorated with numerous awards in his native Spain—including the same Premio Rómulo Gallegos that catapulted his friend Roberto Bolaño to international renown—Enrique Vila-Matas has pioneered one of contemporary literature’s most interesting responses to the great Modernist writers. Taking the Modernists as towering giants that will never be equaled, Vila-Matas works to inscribe himself—at times literally—in the margins of their works. His tools are irony, parody, paradox, and futility, and his goal is to mix fact, fiction, and autobiography in order to depict not reality but truth. I asked him about his newly translated novel Never Any End to Paris—his third in English—based on the time he spent in Paris as a young writer attempting (and gloriously failing) to triumph as Hemingway did.
Never Any End to Paris uses your youth in Paris to explore ideas of creativity, influence, and identity. The narrator is a writer whose facts and dates are similar to yours, though—I think—he both is and isn’t you. Do you think art requires certain compromises with reality?
Which reality? If you mean the conventional “consumerist reality” that rules the book market and has become the preferred milieu for fiction, this doesn’t interest me at all. What really interests me much more than reality is truth. I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures. There remains to be written a great book, a book that would be the missing chapter in the development of the epic. This chapter would include all of those—from Cervantes through Kafka and Musil—who struggle with a colossal strength against all forms of fakery and pretense. Their struggle has always had an obvious touch of paradox, since those who so struggled were writers that were up to their ears in fiction. They searched for truth through fiction. And out of this stylistic tension have emerged marvelous semblances of the truth, as well as the best pages of modern literature.
This sentiment is very similar to something you say in Paris—“where there is a mirage there is life”—and it reminds me of something I heard you say in an interview: that for the modernists the quest is rectilinear, in contrast to that of Ulysses, whose quest was a circle. In your books, what inspires this search?
In a movie by Wim Wenders, Nicholas Ray says “you can’t go home again.” Sometimes I think about this phrase, and in order to calm down I imagine myself as a Chinese who came home. “I’m just a Chinese who returned home,” wrote Kafka in a letter. Sometimes I wish I were this Chinese, but only sometimes. Because the truth is that what I write frequently brings me to a descent, a fall, a journey within, an excursion to the end of the night, the complete opposite of a return to Ithaca. In short, I long to journey endlessly, always in search of something new. Always alert.
Your books are very different from Hemingway’s, and your influences—Borges, Kafka, Musil, for instance—didn’t write like Hemingway either. Why did you originally set out to emulate him when you went to Paris, and what do you think of him now?
I continue to admire him as a storyteller and as a great sculptor of language. But the truth is that Hemingway isn’t among my favorite writers. Be that as it may, I read A Moveable Feast at fifteen years of age in what was then a very provincial Barcelona, and it instilled in me a grandiose desire to go to Paris and live the “life of a writer,” just like Hemingway. Some four years later I in fact succeeded in living this writer’s life in the garret that I rented from Marguerite Duras. And now, if Hemingway (as he affirmed in A Moveable Feast) could say that in Paris he was “poor and very happy,” I, on the contrary, can only say that at the end of my experience I was poor and very unhappy. Still, after much time and the writing of Never Any End to Paris my unhappiness has become a true moveable feast—in this case of my memory and my imagination.
What role has anxiety played in the creation of your works?
When it grows dark we always need someone. This thought, the product of anxiety, only comes to me in the evenings, just when I’m about to end my writerly explorations. By contrast, the day is completely different. As I write I control my anxiety and anguish thanks to the invaluable aid of irony and humor. But every night I am subdued by an anxiety that knows no irony, and I must wait until the next day to rediscover the blend of anguish and humor that characterizes my writing and that generates my style. “The style of happiness,” as some critics have called it.
You frequently approach the question of artistic influence through parody. For instance, Never Any End to Paris begins with your alter ego entering a Hemingway look-alike contest, despite the fact that he looks comically unlike Hemingway. That, to me, is a wonderful metaphor for how writers can be led astray by the influence of towering forefathers, and the perfect beginning to a book about a young writer trying to make his way in Paris. Do you see irony as a way of opening up space for creativity despite the fact that it’s all been said and done?
Yes, I use it in this sense. If I want to now, for example, I could say to you that I really like Paris and that I loved it when I was young and living there, and I still love it now; but I will have said nothing because you won’t trust my words. So if I want to convince you and get across my sense of the truth, I’ll turn to irony and tell you, for example, what John Ashbery said in my book: “Having lived in Paris unfits you for living anywhere, including Paris.”
I love the sentiment of W. G. Sebald’s that you quote in Never Any End to Paris: “Everything our civilization has produced is entombed.” Like you, Sebald responded to modernism by opening this tomb, both of you recalling Borges, who you say “rewrote the old.” You look forward by looking back. I’m curious as to when and why you think this form of creativity became so important.
Borges, Sebald. The world seems to be full of messages written in some secret code. We look—I look—for something we can’t identify but that we have lost. Not long ago I dreamed of a poem written in some unknown algebra. It had a Kabbalistic air, Jewish, although maybe the air was Islamic, Chinese Islam, or maybe just Italian—from the time of Petrarch. This poetry was from a strange, stateless algebra that sent me to the center of the world’s mystery. Of course, perhaps this mystery never existed. As we look back in time, man and his activities seem diminished to the point of appearing completely insignificant. Any idea of a future dissolves. And this would explain, for instance, why the story of my youth in Paris, the portrait of my ambition to triumph there as Hemingway did, must be treated with a monumental irony, as well as a Cervantesque compassion.
To finish up, given that your books frequently deal with other writers, I’d like to ask you about your friendship with Roberto Bolaño, who, as you know, has become a very popular writer in the United States. Did the friendship leave traces in your literature?
Meeting Bolaño in 1996 meant that I no longer felt alone as a writer. In that Spain, which was trapped in a provincialism and an antiquated realism, finding myself with someone who from the very first moment felt like a literary brother helped me to feel free and not consider myself as strange as some of my colleagues would have me believe. Or maybe it was the opposite: I was stranger still. We laughed together very much. We wrote letters to imbeciles and we talked of a beauty that was short-lived and whose end would be disastrous.
Translated from Spanish by Scott Esposito.