IN THE BEGINNING, everything was written, and it was bad. By Roman light Terence wrote, “Nothing is said that has not been said before.” Pascal mused, “Everything has been written, everything has been said, everything has been done.” Modernism diversified the sentiment, made it punchier: Kafka: “I write in order to affirm and reaffirm that I have absolutely nothing to say”; Borges: “The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms”; Beckett: “You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson[…]” The sentiment was carried up and over the millennium, with Sebald grasping the standard (“Everything our civilization has produced is entombed”) followed by Lars Iyer’s observation, “You click ‘new document’ and sit there, shaking, staring at your computer screen, and you wonder what in the world you can possibly write now.” Enrique Vila-Matas swept the catalogue up in a quartet of novels translated into English from 2004 to 2012, quoted them all for a cosmic index, and shrugged. “What I mean is the funeral, ever delayed, of literature as an endangered art. Although really the question should be: what danger? The thing that interests me most about this danger is its literary nuances.”
The project of Vila-Matas’s later work has been a sustained negation of the modernist heritage, a clearinghouse for clichés and the literary machinery that shelters them. If everything’s been written, we become conscious of saying even that again, conscious of our de facto scare quotes, these consciousnesses upon consciousnesses. Say there’s the Glasnevin Cemetery, empirically in the world since 1832. Those 120 acres become Hades in Joyce, followed by Larkin’s gloss in “Dublinesque,” and now Vila-Matas’s meta-gloss in Dublinesque (2010, translation 2012). Maybe Parnell’s grave is more vividly petrous in one or other representation, but none are totalities, none bear God’s eye, none can make us smell Bloom as he approaches. In this demanding light literature becomes an echo project of bad infinity that only adds more digits behind .999999999 and never reaches 1.
Vila-Matas’s problem throughout has become, with love: We need to hate literature more. Novels have been a problem — our problem if you’re reading this review — that hardly addresses the scarcity of its energies without an active Malthus at the rudder. The analogue to capitalism holds — what if literature must be brought to its inevitable dialectical crisis and collapse for our next, better form to arise? Now we should vote for the Romneys of fiction, to catcall the suicide, if Canetti’s question inspires hope: “Will God return when his creation is destroyed?”
The pattern by which Vila-Matas’s later work has been translated into English presents a cohesive lab report that works to resolve our crisis of exhaustion. Its hypothesis first appeared in Bartleby & Co. (2001; trans. 2005): “Only from the negative impulse, from the labyrinth of the No, can the writing of the future appear.” That essayistic novel surveyed the “Bartlebys of literature,” those writers (Rimbaud, Walser, Musil, a long list) who quit writing for either silence or action — a conceptual demonstration o...read more