I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Speaking with Enrique Vila-Matas is like peering into an endless labyrinth in which all forks lead to literature. A labyrinth where we might encounter dazzling literary innovators such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Georges Perec, Apollinaire, Kafka, von Horváth, Melville (and his obstinate Bartleby), and Hemingway. We read Vila-Matas’s works—20 novels and several collections of short stories and essays—to be carried away by the adventures, both made up and real, of these writers and their fictional characters. Inevitably we become entangled in the extravagant web of digressions of men who always fail at the things of this world but whose singular visions shine through in the writing. Vila-Matas leads us to revelations that can only be found in literature. There is more to his work than astoundingly original prose, unexpected discoveries, pervasive parody, and an ironic worldview; more than the writers he brings back to life. Vila-Matas not only studies the literary scenes of yore, he also includes the present and its complications—a present that contains a Catalan writer whose last name happens to be Vila-Matas. When it appears in his fiction, the novelist’s own name is a device that heightens his writing’s characteristic ambiguity—Vila-Matas’s art is born within the confines of fiction but insists on blurring its borders.
During his visit to New York late last year, the award-winning novelist and I met at the Hotel Avalon in Midtown. We delved into the complex machinery that sets his narratives in motion. Before the recorder was turned on, Vila-Matas mentioned several ways in which he can talk about his books. Reducing them to their plots seems “somewhat horrid” to him; he prefers instead to speak about them as if he were in dialogue with a close friend. Hence he referred expansively to the “melancholic gravitas” and “sublime tone” of a novel like Dublinesque, recently published by New Directions—a book he deems “autumnal” since in its pages many writers take a stroll along “the path of all great literature.”
— Lina Meruane
Translated from the Spanish by Valerie Miles
Lina Meruane Do you have the reader in mind when you write?
Enrique Vila-Matas Never. I think of myself as the reader. It isn’t selfish, though; it’s about needing to like what I’m doing.
LM The idea of the journey is at the core of your books: a writer travels and narrates his displacement. Looking back, how did the journey begin for you? How did your point of view find its place in Paris, New York, Dublin, those places you’ve traveled to that have become the settings for your work?
EVM I always feel that I belong to the place where I am.
LM When in Paris, you’re Parisian, when in New York, you’re a New Yorker?
EVM Yes, you could say that. That explains why Rodrigo Fresán said that I was the most Argentine of Spanish authors. Though in Portugal someone else said that I am the most Portuguese of Spanish writers. That also explains why I’m not even remotely a nationalist. I belong to the place where I am going. And my journeys, they are mental. All my novels are journeys of the imagination, and nothing more.
LM Are the journeys associated with the books from these places or with the writers who were there before you? Are they included in this journey of the imagination?
EVM Writing about a place or about a subject allows me to read about it and research it in tandem. Dublinesque, for example. While I was writing the novel, I did research on Irish culture and Dublin, about which I knew nothing at all. And to write Doctor Pasavento, I forced my dear friend Andre Gabastou, my French translator, to drive me around Montaigne’s castle because that’s where the essay and the modern idea of selfhood were invented and I wanted to write about the creation and later disappearance of the subject in the West. So I went to Montaigne’s castle to begin these reflections and, while at it, start writing. I could have read Montaigne and not bothered with writing a novel. Instead, in order to read Montaigne, I began writing a book dealing with the issues he had raised. Perhaps it’s a little odd.
LM As a method it’s undoubtedly odd, but one writes not only as a result of experience, one also writes from books. Reading becomes part of a person’s biography.
EVM Dublinesque allowed me not only to travel—I went to Dublin 14 times in a very short period—but also to get involved in something that is fascinating and limitless: Irish culture. I just discovered the author of a book about the Aran Islands, John M. Synge. This man went to Aran following the advice of the poet Yeats, who told him, “They only speak Gaelic on these islands. Do an anthropological piece on the people who live there.” But this man listened to the conversations in Gaelic and couldn’t understand a word, so he made them up. He spied on the people talking down below from a hole in the second floor of the inn where he lived. He really thought they were saying what he thought he heard. And he wrote down what he imagined he heard. Later Synge wrote the plays that were staged at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin for 40 years. There were many vagabonds, many wandering characters, and people lost on the islands in them. Beckett comes out of what he saw at the Abbey Theatre.
LM Didn’t you have a similar experience at Documenta 13 recently? You were exposed to languages you didn’t understand but suddenly imagined that you could decipher?
EVM Yes, Chinese and German. I’m studying Synge because I’m writing about my experience this summer in Kassel. It’s going to deal with the absurd situation of being in a Chinese restaurant, where I heard German and Chinese all the time and was visited by people coming to tell me stories. When I told an Irish friend who lives in Barcelona that I was writing about this—whose name, John William Wilkinson, sounds made up, though it’s real—he told me it reminded him of what a classic Irish writer had done, this Synge guy.
LM I would like to know more about your reading system: Going back to your childhood, did you always first want to write and then to read?
EVM I can’t go back too far because, like Perec, I don’t have childhood memories. The other day, I asked my sisters if they remembered anything that happened to me as a child. I had been commissioned to write a text about my childhood and I didn’t know what to write; I put the story together entirely from borrowed memories.
LM And what were these childhood stories you’d forgotten?
EVM Each one of my sisters told me something different. That I spied on them (I had no idea), that I would climb a wall to watch them get undressed before going to bed. That I’d read books upside down because I was trying to look interesting and adultlike. I did like to read a lot and I felt that I wanted to do something like it. Writing comes from mimesis: some person wrote first, whatever it was, and someone copied his idea and gesture.
LM I started that way too, copying books by hand, word for word. Soon enough I began writing my own stories.
EVM There are books that have been created that way, using other people’s phrases. There’s that book by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Book of Friends. Wallace Stevens has a wonderful book, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects (he gave it a French title), a scrapbook full of sentences he jotted down that allowed him to reflect on things and write. You can take interesting sentences from every book, even the very worst of them.
LM A while ago there was a lot of debate over Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence. Now plagiarism is being addressed as a problem. Jonathan Lethem collaged a very lucid postmodern essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” in which he says that culture is always a form of recycling, of ongoing citation.
EVM There’s the type of plagiarism that was done by Bryce Echenique, who took articles from others and presented them as if they were his own, and another type that Eugeni D’Ors defined as: “Everything that is not tradition is plagiarism.” Terence, to go farther back, said something similar: “Everything has already been written.”
LM Maybe that’s where Borges got the idea that we’re all writing the same book, we’re all writing the tradition.
EVM Kafka has a phrase that literally goes, “I write but I don’t have anything to say. Everything has already been said.” That’s in line with my last novel, Aire de Dylan. It grew out of a sentence that is attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was trying to find out whether Fitzgerald wrote it when he was a screenwriter for the film Three Comrades (directed by Frank Borzage in 1938) or if his coscreenwriter wrote it. I made a trip to Los Angeles to research this.
LM A real trip or an imagined one?
EVM I made it up, but I had to go to Los Angeles to do the research first. But it was impossible, I couldn’t find the screenwriters or their descendants or anybody who could verify who had written the sentence. I did discover, however, that there were eight screenwriters instead of two and that the producer, Mankiewicz, participated a lot more than the others on the screenplay. So there were nine different possibilities.
LM So was it or wasn’t it Fitzgerald?
EVM Through my own writing process it was revealed that it had been the father of one of the screenwriters. A man named Harlem (he had the name of a New York neighborhood, how’s that?). I’m telling you this because when I finally found out that the father of one of the screenwriters had written the sentence, I also realized that he, in turn, had heard it before from someone else. It’s a very nice sentence: “We always need someone when it gets dark.” I realized that I was caught up in an investigation that was infinite and reached back to the origin of the word itself, the beginning of the Bible, and so I came to the conclusion that words and sentences really belong to everyone.
It actually all started with a question a woman asked me on Facebook: “That sentence you always quote from Fitzgerald, is it yours?” It was an ironic question about how I tend to appropriate sentences. I’d always thought it came from Fitzgerald, but suddenly I realized that it wasn’t very clear.
LM Especially being such a fabulist yourself.
EVM It’s in Bolaño’s Savage Detectives—we are investigating a very complex reality that isn’t revealed to us at first sight, and the more obvious it appears, the less true it turns out to be.
LM Where does your obsession with writers come from?
EVM It’s a sense of companionship and maybe even of solidarity with their suffering. I sympathize with them precisely because I know how hard it is to write well. Also, something intrigues me quite a bit: knowing how they go about daily living. I want to know what life is like for my peers, you know? Not what they have for breakfast or how they sit down to write. It consoles me to know that we share the same drama. Reading Paul Auster’s Winter Journal—one of his best books, by the way—I came across things that are exactly the same as those that have happened to me.
LM Like what?
EVM The stuff of daily life. For instance, the fact that when I walk through the streets of a foreign city with my wife, I always get lost. I never know where I am because I trust that she does. She has a sense of the streets and the places. I love not knowing where I’m going, which is typical of someone who writes. I like to get lost.
LM It’s true that there’s a relationship between how you experience a city and the way you write. There’s a great cohesion to your work, also a blurring of the borders between the genres. When reading your essays, one realizes they could be fiction.
EVM Everything is connected, yes. There’s a machine that dissects reality—everything I want to write about has to pass through a set of personal turbines before I can seize it as mine in order to narrate it.
LM Do you believe in the way we were taught to distinguish between genres? I’m not thinking only of the relationship between essay and fiction, but also between fiction and poetry in your work.
EVM When I write a novel it can’t all be poetic because I use irony and I don’t think poetry and irony go together all that well. But I love to come to certain chapter endings in my novels where I can allow myself a poetic type of prose, at least for a few moments.
I don’t see the borders between genres. My brain is like an attic where there’s room for everything; I don’t separate things. I don’t go, Here is the noir section, and here is the police procedural section, and here is the philosophy section. When I want to deal with a subject, I speak about it as a whole. When I first got started, I didn’t read novels; I only read poetry. The poetry of the Generation of ’27 [Federico García Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, and others] and South American poetry, especially César Vallejo and Vicente Huidobro. So I worked hard at writing fiction without knowing how to write a novel—I wrote very strange pieces that were actually closer to poetry than fiction.
LM You weren’t interested in fiction at that time, then?
EVM It depends on whether I understand what you mean by fiction. I want to find the truth through fiction, which is the best way. The great writers—say, Kafka—are writers who search for truth (or a partial truth) and find it through fiction, not through reality.
LM It’s a type of investigation parallel to the truth of what is real, a truth that illuminates areas of reality in a way that is impossible through a direct approach.
EVM It’s the most paradoxical thing, because it’s about trying to find the shine of the authentic through fiction—it’s an apparent contradiction. But when you asked if I am interested in fiction, did you mean, for example, telling stories?
LM I was thinking about this rigid idea of “pure” fiction. I’m interested in your particular position on this, perhaps because in the US this separation between fiction and nonfiction is under discussion quite a bit. There’s a sort of strange purism. I wonder if the interest that your work generates here comes precisely from this subversion. The review of Dublinesque in the New Yorker says that you hide false biographies in your work, but that behind these false biographies there is also the writer Enrique Vila-Matas. That uncomfortable zone is fascinating.
EVM Well, what I write is really pure fiction. The least interesting fiction for me is the kind that is based upon documentation. In Spanish literature what most interests me is the world constructed by Juan Marsé. People say that Marsé deals with the Spanish postwar years, that he always sets his work in the same neighborhood and always tells the same story. Yet that’s not true at all. There’s been a huge intellectual evolution in his work. The neighborhood is a complete invention—even though the actual neighborhood exists (I lived there for 30 years), his is an entirely mental construction. He’s such a slow writer because his novels are the work of a silversmith in search of a “fictional” fiction: without the aid of any document other than that of memory, which is always …
LM A false memory?
EVM Yes, and it is also the antithesis of the authors who work from journalistic data, who say they write from real events. Surely they think it will bring them more readers and maybe they aren’t mistaken… . Now that I think about it, whenever I finish a novel the questions from journalists tend to revolve around whether what I wrote actually happened to me or not.
LM That’s annoying?
EVM Yes, I’d almost give up writing so as not to have to answer the question. (laughter) So what if it happened in real life?
LM But your work provokes the question because you use the real names of authors with whom we are all familiar.
EVM Yes, it’s the trick that Sebald used, too, although through the use of photographs. Sebald fascinated me for his blend of essay and fiction. I had already seen it in Claudio Magris’s Danubio, but Sebald fascinated me even more, with his incredible closeness to Nietzsche’s prose, meaning it didn’t belong to any genre at all, except total melancholy—the idea that we don’t belong to this world. What was your question again?
LM We were talking about false biographies and your use of self-fictionalization.
EVM Yes, in my writing fake names and the names of real writers work much like the photographs in Sebald’s books. Nowadays, it’s harder to make a story seem realistic, and Sebald took a step toward the construction of verisimilitude through the use of photographs. They have a reality effect, so people believe that what he is narrating really happened. Giving my characters the names of real people accomplishes this sometimes. It gives fiction an air of reality so that readers can believe what they are reading, since it sounds like I’m telling the truth.
LM So names are another literary artifice or resource?
EVM It comes naturally to me when writing fiction. That’s why I’ve said that in my work one never knows where fiction and reality begin and end; but there is no artifice there, it’s simply my own way of telling a story. I won’t claim that I believe what I say, but instead, that I’m sure it happened the way I tell it because that’s how I lived it. I tell stories in such a way that it appears as though I’m narrating things that happened to me walking down the street, for example, things that are real but that appear to be invented because of the way they are told.
LM One of your novels narrates a very strange incident during a visit to the home of Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt. You have said that you couldn’t figure out how to end the scene and that, while you were writing it, you opened a book and found a sentence that helped you end it.
EVM I looked for a sentence at random. I opened a book and found this sentence, and I thought it was something that Paul Auster might have said. It’s a matter of free association. Any sentence could have worked. It’s like reading the horoscope, which makes a reader work. I’ve been obsessed with horoscopes for a long time; I have been reading them in La Vanguardia newspaper for some 40 years. The woman who does the horoscopes writes them for me … (laughter) It all depends on how you interpret the prediction. I work with whatever phrase I get and free associate, readymade style. You can give me two completely different things that I will link in time and they’ll become a single sentence. That’s how my texts move forward, by association.
LM It’s a very surrealistic method, isn’t it?
EVM Let’s say that I didn’t know how to end the scene in which I am yawning in a house where I feel happy. If someone had rung the bell while I was writing, and I had opened the door, the first sentence I heard would have become part of the ending of the scene with Paul Auster. It’s about associating first and then finding the meaning. What matters is finding the meaning.
LM It’s similar to Cesar Aira’s system: He writes in cafés always waiting for something to happen. Suddenly a bird flies into the window, so he incorporates that into the novel.
EVM Yes. I work in a different way, though. To begin with, I don’t write in cafés; I write in Paul Auster’s houses. (laughter) In his brownstone, that bird would have flown near the window without hitting it, and Paul Auster would have said, “What’s with the bird?” I would have stopped to think about it for a minute and then answered, “The bird has gone to Malaysia and might be hiding something from us … ”
LM What are the dangers of the writing system that you’ve come up with?
EVM There’s no danger, as Paul Auster said, you never recognize yourself in another person’s writing even if your name appears in it. You’ve become a fictional character. Sometimes problems do arise, though. One Mexican journalist recently made up a story in which we had run into each other in a bar in Barcelona. It was a piece of fiction à la Vila-Matas, but he had me speaking ill of a Mexican writer’s work. I wouldn’t have said any of that, but it caused a problem with the Mexican writer. The journalist crossed the line.
LM There’s no protection against this sort of thing, because you cannot contradict the character created by someone else.
EVM You’re right. I’m in the hands of whomever wants to turn me into a character. I’m not very social anymore, especially not in my city, but a myth survives of a drunken, aggressive character dressed in black and going around like a maudit, saying strange, abrupt things in the night. Very different from the person I am now, who talks quite a bit, articulates a lot, is not aggressive but very polite (repugnantly so sometimes)—something that was unthinkable before. It’s a lot of fun to have become another.
LM So there is a variety of Vila-Matases. When you look in the mirror, do you see a solitary writer or a brotherhood?
EVM I see myself as a little beast, like a caveman, but with a few degrees of contemporary neurosis. (laughter)
LM Aren’t you in the company of all these writers with whom you’ve worked so intensely—Kafka, Sterne, Joyce, Beckett, von Hofmannsthal?
EVM All these writers form a canon that I’ve built as if I were a literary critic countering the official one. It’s what Borges did with the canon of second fiddles that he created with Chesterton, H. G. Wells, Stevenson, and Marcel Schwob. Christopher Domínguez, the great critic of the Mexican magazine Letras Libres, said that I have, perhaps not deliberately, done the critic’s job of creating a canon in a rather peculiar way, through narratives, and that I ended up inventing second lives for dead writers.
LM Bolaño and you were not only contemporaries; for a period of time you were very close friends. Could we consider Bolaño as someone from the same school of writing as you?
EVM Bolaño has had valid followers. I’m thinking, for example, of the Peruvian writer Diego Trelles, who has published two novels, El círculo de los escritores asesinos (The circle of assassin writers) and Bioy. Bolaño allows for that since he is very plot-driven—his aesthetic can be imitated. His is a more accessible literature; one can be his heir. I can also be copied, but the result is always a ridiculous caricature since it becomes immediately apparent that the writer is “Vilamating.” The only person who can do that is me, actually. Otherwise you go straight to hell.
LM So Vila-Matas is the end of you?
EVM Yes, yes. I wrote an ironic story about this, “Sucesores de Vok,” which appears in the book Chet Baker piensa en su arte (Chet Baker considers his art). Vok is Vilém Vok, a Czech writer—an old pseudonym of mine. For a long time, I quoted sentences from Vilém Vok until the Internet filled up with references to the name. Google searches all led to my writing, and in the end it became obvious that Vilém Vok didn’t exist. The story is about a true experience. I always take something real and turn it into literature. Walking out the door of my house in Barcelona, I ran into a young Argentine writer who said, “Hey, are you Vila-Matas?” And he added, “I can write your books for you so that you can rest. That way you won’t have to write so much anymore. I am going to write your books because I know what you do and I’d like to do the same.” I haven’t run into him again, and I never asked his name. Then I started mulling over his offer; every day it seemed more interesting. So I imagined a very simple story in which a young man offers this to me and I accept. After a while, in the same neighborhood, I see him speaking to another young man. Then that young man speaks to a young woman—they’re splitting up the work of writing me. I mean, they are divvying up my legacy. So what I then watch, pathetically, is that in less than half an hour or an hour or almost a second, they liquidate everything I’ve done.
LM Maybe the only way to inherit something is by literary appropriation.
EVM Yes. The only thing I am sure that I can deliver to the following generations is narrative freedom. I’m completely sure of that. That might be what most fascinates younger people: the idea that all sorts of things can be done, that everything is possible in literature. This isn’t something I came up with on my own, obviously, it comes from Cervantes: his entire life was a fight for freedom.
LM Have you changed the way you read over time or have you always been the same reader?
EVM No, a lot has changed. There are books that I return to and realize that I only understand now. Or I understand them so much better. I find pleasure in reading now, in a way that I didn’t before. It must have to do with aging, it’s one of the few advantages of being older: You’re able to savor even more a great book like Don Quixote, for example. There aren’t any other advantages, actually, but this one is real. It’s also so incredible that you can buy a book of Shakespeare’s for a dollar now, that you have something so inexpensive within reach, where some extremely intelligent person is telling the best story in the world—
LM And telling it in the best way.
EVM Many years had to go by before I was able to understand it. I liked literature but wasn’t sure why; I’ve come to it over time. It’s similar to what happens with my books, they get better over time, surely because I continue to think of them in relation to other books. There is a lot more to them than what I had first realized.
LM Lobo Antunes said a few years ago that he likes to read bad books because he’s able to see the stitching, understand how they’ve been written, what their faults are, while good books can’t be pulled apart because they are perfect. Do you relate to this?
EVM No, no. Lobo Antunes writes in an insane asylum, surrounded by crazy people who tell him sentences that he finds interesting. Bolaño, for example, loved to read the manuscripts of people who couldn’t get published.
EVM “What the hell,” he used to say. “These people have a story to tell because something happened to them. Something intense, but the problem is they don’t know how to tell it because they don’t know how to write. On the other hand there are many other writers whose lives are uneventful, so they have nothing to tell.” He was right: people might have really great stories to tell, but knowing how to do so is something else.
LM Earlier, we talked about writing without knowing where the text is going, of reaching the end to find out where the center or the truth of the novel is, of going back to rewrite.
EVM I lived exactly that process as I was writing Dublinesque. I kept thinking I had reached the center of the story, but I didn’t find the center until I reached the last page. My next novel, Aire de Dylan, was different. I found many different centers as the writing moved forward, but in the end I realized that the novel completely lacked a center. Instead, it had many.
LM You found many novels within the novel.
EVM Yes, that’s what happens in Aire de Dylan but especially in Dublinesque—a novel from which I could have written six or seven others. I preferred to have one that included all of them, as if I were one of those debut novelists wanting to say everything in the first book. I’d say, All right, this is the central theme, and go on finding more. Finally, I understood that the center was at the end, more specifically, in the last line. The guy who was dead appears; he’s the author. When the author reappears, the novel is over.
LM You just spoiled the novel’s ending!
EVM It doesn’t matter. One realizes then that the novel is written against the death of the author.
LM Do you find that your novels’ structures get more and more complex over time? It’s often said that authors become simpler with time, that more veteran authors have discovered their writing styles and go about their business. Is it the other way around in your case?
EVM My earlier stories were very simple and rather direct. They continue to work because people love simplicity. Now I incorporate a lot of thought or reflection into the writing, so the books have become more complex. But it hasn’t prevented me from gaining readers. It’s like what happened to the Beatles, although on a different scale: their songs were very simple at the beginning, but even when they grew more complex, they continued to have a wide audience. It goes to show that the general public doesn’t always run away from difficult art. I’ve been commissioned to write a children’s story, and I’m terrified that I won’t be capable of keeping it simple.
LM You don’t have children, right?
EVM No, and I don’t know how to talk to children. Every time I try to talk to them they think I’m really stupid. Especially because I tend to complicate things a lot right away. But my father, who is 90 years old and who remembers a lot from his childhood, told me something very simple but perfect for the story. My grandfather told him, “You have to learn the alphabet.” But he didn’t want to because he thought the alphabet included all the letters in the newspaper, and there were too many. So in the story the boy runs away from home, gets lost on the roof, has an adventure with a cat, and when he returns, his father tells him about the alphabet. He runs away again and has another adventure. That’s already a page. Then the father asks why he doesn’t want to learn the alphabet and explains to the boy that it only has 27 letters [in Spanish it includes ñ]. The story will also be metafictional, like everything I write. The problem is that I’ve already begun to complicate the rooftop scene; I think the cat reads Freud there. I doubt there is boy who is willing to go for that. Maybe a girl.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee