‘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
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