The writing of Enrique Vila-Matas is marked by a dazzling array of quotation, plagiarism, frames, self-plagiarism, digressions and meta-digressions: an intense and witty textual delirium that has made him one of the most original and celebrated writers in the Spanish language. Born in Barcelona in 1948, he published his first novel—a single, sternly uninterrupted sentence—in 1973. Continuing his fidelity to the myth of the avant-garde writer, he then moved to Paris, living in a garret rented from Marguerite Duras, before returning to Barcelona, where he spent the next decade publishing novels, a story collection, and literary essays.
It was with his sixth book, however, A Brief History of Portable Literature (1985, translation 2015), that Vila-Matas transformed into a true original. The book poses as a history of a secret society of twentieth-century artists and writers, including Duchamp, Walter Benjamin, Kafka, and others. Its reckless linking of real names to imaginary quotations and vice versa, its mingling of fiction with history, made him notorious—and represented a new moment in European fiction. Reality can only be apprehended through a comical, dazzling network of texts—that was the book’s basic proposition, and its implications and complications are what Vila-Matas has continued to explore in wildly deconstructive novels like Bartleby & Co. (2000, 2007), Montano’s Malady (2002, 2007), and Never Any End to Paris (2003, 2011), as well as in a series of what Vila-Matas calls critical fictions, including Chet Baker piensa en su arte (Chet Baker thinks about his art, 2011), The Illogic of Kassel (2014, 2015), and Marienbad électrique (Electric Marienbad, 2015).
Vila-Matas has won many grand awards (the Premio Rómulo Gallegos, the Premio Herralde, the Premio Leteo, the Prix Médicis, among others), but in person he is modest and generous, always solicitous toward younger generations—I first met him a few years ago through our mutual friends Alejandro Zambra and Valeria Luiselli. He dresses with elegant reserve, a disguise for a mischievous, fantastical soul. We conducted this interview over two prolonged sessions in Barcelona last summer and fall, speaking in a mixture of French and Spanish while his agent, Mònica Martín, offered interpretive aid and sometimes joined in the conversation. This polyglot mixture was transcribed, edited, then retranslated into Spanish and rewritten by Vila-Matas before being definitively translated into English. Its multilingual, multilayered history seems an accurate analogue to Vila-Matas’s polymorphous style.
According to the terms of Vila-Matas’s thinking, the real can only fully acquire a luminous existence when inserted into a prior network of words— even, for instance, a conversation. Both sessions of our interview took place in the gardens of the Hotel Alma in Barcelona. Vila-Matas chose the location partly for its peacefulness—but really, he observed, because it was where he set the final exchanges of his most recent novel, Esta bruma insensata (This senseless haze, 2019). The two conversations, one fictional, one real, could therefore gradually infiltrate each other—this was his hope—and reach their own separate level of truth.
After our final session, before we headed off for coffee at the Europa Café on Diagonal, Vila-Matas invited me over to his apartment and showed me his small writing room, the bookshelves of which were filled with works by his beloved authors—Beckett, Kafka, Tabucchi, Duras, Joyce, Walser, and friends like Rodrigo Fresán and Roberto Bolaño. That space, I began to think, was the visual form of Vila-Matas’s literary philosophy—fragile, futuristic, and infinitely valuable: an idea of writing as a singular, patient process that can absorb and create the hyper world outside it.
I warn you—no one believes what I say. I recently gave an interview, and after it was published, the interviewer mentioned to someone that he got the impression everything I told him was made up. I was surprised, because anyone who knows me knows I hate lying, but also because I’ve always thought that the history of literature is missing a chapter, the one that would tell the epic story of all those writers—from Cervantes to Kafka and Beckett—who fought heroically against any form of imposture. And I do mean fought. A plainly paradoxical sort of battle, given that its chief combatants were writers with their heads immersed in the world of fiction, and yet out of that battle or tension emerged the truest—and as such, to my mind the most interesting—pages in the history of literature, pages born out of the tension produced whenever fiction tries to approximate that which seems, a priori, the furthest possible thing from it, the truth. I don’t know, but perhaps what confused that interviewer was my “way of saying things.” Could that be it? I inadvertently lend an air of implausibility to things that really have taken place.
Maybe it’s because you suffer from the malady of things happening to you that don’t happen to anyone else. Like the night you took a taxi and the driver said, Good evening, Doctor Pasavento, as if you were a character from your own novel. When I tell people that story no one ever believes me, but I was there! And you reacted as if it were perfectly normal.
Yes, it was normal, as if at that moment I believed that the whole of Barcelona read my books. In those days I was always going out and I would take taxis from one end of the city to the other and chat with the drivers, and I think all those taxi drivers, at some point, listened to me talk about my books and—as unlikely and amusing as this sounds today—about whatever technical problems I happened to be having with them. I’d be crossing Barcelona in the middle of the night talking about Cyril Connolly!
Do you ever worry that the true and what seems to be true don’t always coincide?
Yes, but it took me a long time to see there was a problem or really consider what it meant. It first dawned on me in 1988 when I published Una casa para siempre (A home forever)—incidentally Mac’s Problem (2017, 2019) is the remake of this novel. In that novel from my early writing days—the unraveling, oblique biography of a ventriloquist—I write about a woman with a particular obsession for buying bread in every town and city she passes through on her travels. In real life, I’d visited various cities of Poland, Egypt, and Greece with that woman, and in every one she’d made a point of buying some bread, even if she had no intention of eating it. I was quite mystified by this hobby of hers, and she never did enlighten me. So, in Una casa para siempre, it occurred to me to include a woman character—the narrator’s mother—who collects bread from all the cities she visits. And, well, when the book was published, the eminent literary critic for El País wrote that I was a promising young writer but obviously suffered from an “overactive imagination,” as demonstrated by “the implausible story of the bread collector.” That critic has since died, but when he was alive I used to keep an eye out for him at bookish parties and receptions in order to explain that story really had happened to me and even disclose to him that funny collector’s name. [Laughs]
From the Archive, Issue 234
Episode 18: A Tree Grows Live in Brooklyn (A Live Recording at On Air Fest 2020)
A special bonus episode, recorded live at On Air Fest on March 8, 2020 (just before social distancing sent everyone home), featuring a crowded room of lovely human beings enjoying an immersive live performance of The Paris Review Podcast. The show opens with excerpts of Toni Morrison’s 1993 Art of Fiction Interview, scored live by some of the musicians that created the score for Seasons 1 and 2. Then Vijay Seshadri reads his poem “Ailanthus”; Quincy Tyler Bernstine reads “A Story for Your Daughters, A Story for Your Sons” by Rebecca Makkai; finally, Emily Wells provides live scoring for Bill Callahan’s rendition of Adrienne Rich’s poem “The Tree.”