Header overlay

Having the Last Laugh

Share this

‘Infinity is no big deal, my friend; it’s a matter of writing. The universe only exists on paper,’ said Paul Valéry. I first found this ironic phrase as the epigraph to Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil (1985), or A Concise History of Portable Literature, by the Catalan author Enrique Vila-Matas. Vila-Matas is a brilliantly playful writer, an ironist himself, who toys with the parameters between reality and fiction and most usually elides them. His narrators are generally men a little like Vila-Matas himself; his novels discuss real and unreal authors with equal earnestness and the overall effect is both funny and poignant. For are we all not slightly unreal, or on the cusp of unreality, at any given moment, or if we feel fairly real this morning then might we not be unreal tomorrow, or in the near future?

Historia abreviada describes, at first quite soberly, aspects of the life and work of such authors and artists as Marcel Duchamp, Walter Benjamin, Francis Picabia, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Beach and Italo Svevo, among others. Yet it soon becomes clear that Vila-Matas is not trying to write a sober critical work. He is aiming for something more like virtuoso disorientation, taking the reader through dreamlike cities, implausible encounters, literary anecdotes that sound preposterous but might be true, or vice versa. Throughout this book the ‘real world’ is colonized by the imagination; the universe only exists on paper.

When I first read Vila-Matas, I was living in Paris, disoriented myself, having spent four years in northern Europe and the Arctic, researching a book about the myth of Thule and the Ancient Greeks. I had haemorrhaged my publisher’s advance across the wildernesses of the north and now my editor was politely asking for the finished book and I needed somewhere cheap to live while I wrote it. A friend of mine was working as a journalist in Paris and he knew some

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

‘Infinity is no big deal, my friend; it’s a matter of writing. The universe only exists on paper,’ said Paul Valéry. I first found this ironic phrase as the epigraph to Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil (1985), or A Concise History of Portable Literature, by the Catalan author Enrique Vila-Matas. Vila-Matas is a brilliantly playful writer, an ironist himself, who toys with the parameters between reality and fiction and most usually elides them. His narrators are generally men a little like Vila-Matas himself; his novels discuss real and unreal authors with equal earnestness and the overall effect is both funny and poignant. For are we all not slightly unreal, or on the cusp of unreality, at any given moment, or if we feel fairly real this morning then might we not be unreal tomorrow, or in the near future?

Historia abreviada describes, at first quite soberly, aspects of the life and work of such authors and artists as Marcel Duchamp, Walter Benjamin, Francis Picabia, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Beach and Italo Svevo, among others. Yet it soon becomes clear that Vila-Matas is not trying to write a sober critical work. He is aiming for something more like virtuoso disorientation, taking the reader through dreamlike cities, implausible encounters, literary anecdotes that sound preposterous but might be true, or vice versa. Throughout this book the ‘real world’ is colonized by the imagination; the universe only exists on paper. When I first read Vila-Matas, I was living in Paris, disoriented myself, having spent four years in northern Europe and the Arctic, researching a book about the myth of Thule and the Ancient Greeks. I had haemorrhaged my publisher’s advance across the wildernesses of the north and now my editor was politely asking for the finished book and I needed somewhere cheap to live while I wrote it. A friend of mine was working as a journalist in Paris and he knew someone who wanted to sublet their flat. The flat was compact and fetid, with a view of a hemmed-in courtyard and a rubbish chute. Yet it was undeniably cheap, and so I arrived with my stash of notebooks and began to write. I was under pressure to finish my book. Or even to begin it. And yet I was distracted by the gaudy Parisian summer, blue skies above the Napoleonic terraces, the glittering Seine, the sandy parks with their manicured trees. I was distracted by the crowds that surged along the streets. And I was distracted by the novels of Enrique Vila-Matas, which describe all of the above so beautifully. Around that time, I read Vila-Matas’s most famous novel, Bartleby y compañía (2001) or Bartleby and Co., which describes the condition of writers who fail to write. They want to write, they have already perhaps written scores of books, but suddenly their resolution fails. They embark on projects and abandon them. They feel the descent from idea to reality is too cataclysmic in their case and perhaps in all cases. They develop a case of literary aphasia. I understood the dangers of literary aphasia all too well. My own quest through the north had been necessarily mock-heroic. The Thule story is a classic example of ‘the lost that can’t be found’, as Louis MacNeice put it, a riddle without an answer. At the time of Alexander the Great, a Greek explorer, Pytheas, sailed north of Britain for six days, into the then-unknown reaches of the ocean. He discovered a place where the sea, sky and land merged into a mist, and the sun shone at midnight. Pytheas decided this was the last land in the north, the most remote of all the islands, and he called it, or was told it was called, Thule. Yet Pytheas’s account vanished, and only a few garbled references to Thule remained, in the works of classical writers such as Pliny and Strabo. Over the centuries, Thule became a symbol of remoteness, or even the metaphysical realms beyond the limits of thought. In this most esoteric sense, Thule must always be mysterious, a liminal zone: it must recede as one progresses. You can fix on a place, the possible place that Pytheas found, but you can hardly gather all the strands – topographical, mythical, historical – into a single, coherent answer. So the Thule story is a grail quest without a grail. It is also the quest of Bartleby and Co., and it would have been symbolically fitting had I failed to write anything at all. But editors, understandably, do not enjoy that kind of symbolism. So I continued. I had amassed countless fragments about the myth of Thule, and its recurrences in writers across the centuries, from classical scholars to medieval cartographers to unknown saga poets to the denizens of the Western literary canon, from Pliny to Mercator to Adam of Bremen, from Pope to Shelley to Poe. I wrote multiple versions of my book, rearranged the strands. In my spare time I absorbed the further ironies of Enrique Vila-Matas as antidotes to earnestness. And so I came to my favourite Vila-Matas novel: París no se acaba nunca (2003) or Never Any End to Paris. It is a novel which mocks and celebrates the sensitive artistic youth who traipses around Europe in homage to literary heroes and refers constantly to the vanished realities of other people’s lives. At the same time, it is a meditation on transience, and the lost territories of youth. Vila-Matas’s narrator (another man a little like Vila-Matas) is old and slightly jaded. He remembers how, when he was young, ‘handsome and stupid’, he went to Paris, mostly in homage to Ernest Hemingway. He was, he explains, obsessed with Hemingway at the time, even to the point of entering a Hemingway lookalike contest, which he lost because he bore not the remotest resemblance to Hemingway. This young aspirant is writing a novel, The Literary Assassin, which fatally injures anyone who reads it. By such gentle satire of the literary heritage trail, of the artist as a young man and the young in general, Vila-Matas crafts a heavily ironic Bildungsroman. It is the irony of becoming transfixed by thoughts of the Devil and then discovering you are on Flight 666 (‘How dare they give the number of the beast to an airplane?’). Or the irony of renting a ‘filthy garret’ from your literary heroine Marguerite Duras and then discovering that your French is so atrocious you can barely speak to her, even about the bills which you can barely pay. Irony is a high-risk venture, because there’s a danger you might sound glib, as if you don’t care about the things you are ironizing. And yet of course you care deeply, and that is why you return to such imponderables, satirizing your own endeavours, even as you strive urgently to achieve them. Within all of Vila-Matas’s work, there is a passionate engagement with the risible seriousness of being a writer, the temerity of the enterprise. As the narrator explains: ‘I can’t think of a greater way of stating truth than being ironic about our own identity.’ Beckett’s ironic adage is apposite here, as elsewhere: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Vila-Matas understands about failure, and how youth must become more haggard and wise. ‘Bodily decrepitude is wisdom, young, we loved each other and were ignorant,’ as Yeats wrote in ‘Speech after Long Silence’. In Never Any End to Paris, Vila-Matas describes recurrence: how at first we live, in a single-layered self, and how we draw experience into this self until, eventually, we are burdened and beguiled by the layers of the past, and each city we visit, each landscape, is riddled with psychic traces and memories of the dead. In that vanished era, in Paris, I finished my book on Thule. It wasn’t quite the book I had hoped to write. But, suspended between the poles of possibility – the unwritable work of Platonic perfection, the book of Bartleby and Co., versus the imperfect and yet completed work – I chose the latter. I was still in Paris when I began to write my second published book, a novel called Inglorious, which focuses on a character’s mock-heroic quest for the meaning of life. Another quest without a resolution! After spending the last decade reading further works by Vila-Matas, and Roberto Bolano, and Chan Koonchung, and Deborah Levy, I wonder if there is an international genre of high irony. It is a tone of voice, the opposite of what Wittgenstein described as the ‘tone of certainty’. These writers occupy a realm of dynamic uncertainty. They distrust seriousness and the social mask. They try to describe the strangeness and severity and beauty of mortal life. I returned recently to Paris and as I walked along Rue de Montorgeuil, and the banks of the Seine, I remembered my former self. I remembered my obsession with the lost nuances of Thule, and my further homages to literary denizens of Paris: to Sylvia Beach, Renée Vivien, Natalie Barney, Colette and George Sand. To Proust, to Duras. I remembered my homages to Vila-Matas, as he sounded his own homages to Hemingway. The final joke of Never Any End to Paris is that the Vila-Matasian narrator never abandons his urgent, foolish, questing self. As a writer, as an ironist, he continues to reside within such perilous dreams of the imagination. He lives, always, in Valéry’s infinity.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 46 © Joanna Kavenna 2015


About the contributor

Joanna Kavenna is the author of three works of non-fiction masquerading as fiction and one work of fiction masquerading as non-fiction. Her life is an accidental work of high irony.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.