The Catalan Paradox, Part V: A Conversation with Enrique Vila-Matas




I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Enrique Vila-Matas’s work in 2007, through his novel Bartleby & Co., a book narrated by a dispossessed hunchback obsessed with cataloging the writers of “the No” — writers who have, once and for all, given up on the profound madness of writing. I laughed my heart out. 

Vila-Matas’s sense of humor — bookish to the extreme — transported me to a utopic world where the unspeakable was not only translatable into language but it was also darkly humorous, electric, and full of references that delighted me. I’ve since devoured the rest of Vila-Matas’s work, entering what I like to call the mischievous and extraordinarily intelligent Vila-Mata-Verse. And I intend to remain there.

Despite a few attempts by our mutual friend David Guzman, we have not yet met. I finally confessed to him over email that I had, however, gone to most of his events in Barcelona and Florence between the years of 2010 and 2012. Today, I wonder if perpetuating our non-encounter allowed that relationship to remain purposefully strange or estranged, allowing me to spy on Vila-Matas the way he as a child in Cadaqués had spied on Joan Miró and on Duchamp. 

We exchanged emails over the course of a few weeks about the false divide between fiction and reality, his literary and artistic influences, postwar Barcelona, and seeking one’s ideal world through writing without ever wishing to find it. 

Note: This interview was translated from the Spanish by Mihow McKenny, a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Notre Dame.

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AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: The novel, for me, has always been the literary genre that best expresses doubt — an investigation of ambiguity or a series of partial truths that, considered together, lead to great depths. Your novels El mal de Montano (Montano’s Malady), Dublinesque, and Bartleby & Co. confirm this idea of literature for me. How would you define the novel in relation to reality and fiction?

ENRIQUE VILA-MATAS: It’s fun for me to hear you say that the novel is the literary genre that best expresses doubt, because the novel I just published in April 2019 — Esta Bruma Insensata — is exactly the story of a doubt: the one I had first of all, regarding whether to write or to not write. This later transformed, when I could no longer say that I didn’t write, into a doubt about whether one should condemn and renounce writing, which I call “bartlebysmo,” or if one should have faith in writing, and derive joy from it, “shandysmo.”

As for the relationship of the novel to reality and fiction — whenever I have been asked of late about the relationship between reality and fiction, I say that we have been separating them for centuries with an imaginary screen. The room-dividing screen splits a room into two spaces, offering us the possibility of differentiating the two areas. But the separation such a screen creates is always artificial, for we know that fundamentally there is only one space.

Which Catalan writers and artists form part of your personal canon? What do they have in common?

Among those who bear the shandy stamp, and therefore are a fluid part of my work, are Josep Vicenç Foix, Dalí, Joan Miró, Francesc Trabal, Mercè Rodoreda, Josep Pla, Carlos Barral, Juan Marsé, Cristina Fernández Cubas, Jordi Llovet, Pere Gimferrer, Alicia Kopf. Luckily, they have little in common — or at the least they do not seem to me to share much.

What aspects, gestures, or narrative strategies do you admire in their work? Which elements have most influenced your artistic evolution?

Let’s begin with Foix. When I read him, I was still very young — Foix was fundamental, a revelation. “M’exalta el nou i m’enamora el vell” (“The new exalts me, and the old enamours me”). What attracted me, above all, was this poet’s important cultural inheritance. He was obviously influenced by Ramon Llull, Ausiàs March, troubadour poetry, and Italian poetry, also the futurists and the surrealists.

Reading Foix was an essential discovery: a great fullness of idiom, an exceptional technique. It impressed me to see that in his vanguard imagination and tradition there were no conflicting categories. He was a universalist. His poetry was always a poetry of thought. He is one of my teachers.

I should also add the encounter with shandysmo subido [elevated shandysmo]. This poem is among the best that I have read in my life, in any language, equal to the ineffable “Sol i de dol.”

You met the painter Miró when you were young. What were the circumstances of that meeting?

I have remarkable memories of Miró from youth, memories from a week at the beginning of the 1980s, when I spent time with the family of the painter at the country house of Son Abrines, in Palma de Mallorca. Throughout the week, I dedicated my afternoons to spying on Joan Miró. I lived in the house next to the painter, in the home of his grandson David. Since David’s house was taller than his grandfather’s, I had a good view of the neighboring garden. I would see Miró strolling through his garden all afternoon. On the day when I had to return to Barcelona, David woke me up and proposed, since he had seen me spying on his grandfather all week, that it might be a good idea to say goodbye by having lunch with him, which would allow me to complete my investigation of Miró’s manners and his way of being. Of course, I received this proposition with great enthusiasm. I had spied on other artists before (Duchamp in Cadaqués, Fritz Lang in San Sebastián, Romain Gary in Paris), and Miró opened wide perspectives for me. For the occasion, David put on the attractive bowtie that Antonin Artaud had gifted to Pilar Juncosa, Miró’s wife. The bowtie was later passed on to David, who loved Artaud. He wore the bowtie on important occasions, as if it would give him a special energy. I remember that while we proceeded through the studio, waiting for Miró to arrive at lunch, David told me about how his grandfather had once watched the architect Gaudí on site at the Sagrada Familia. Gaudí did not make drawings: he would simply gesture at the foreman. “Do thus,” he told the foreman, and showed him a staircase with a gesture.

During lunch (and his silences were legendary), Miró did not say a single word. The person who never ceased to speak was his wife, who discussed domestic matters with a maidservant the whole time. Miró very much liked for there to be order in his house, but profound disorder in the studio. I did not pause in observing the painter. At one point, he stopped to fixedly stare at a small bone of the chicken he was eating, and he looked as if he had just discovered a painting from the caves of Altamira. When we got to dessert, he announced that he would have a glass of wine (he only had one a day). He elevated the glass slowly, tracing with a Gaudian gesture the flight trajectory of a bird ascending and then, suddenly, acting as if a vision had descended on his eyes — perhaps something akin to a blast of sunlight — he looked up to the ceiling and said in a loud and joyful voice, “¡Viva la Pepa!

This unforgettable gesture painted a magical and unrepeatable image. It was as if I had seen him draw Queen Louise of Prussia with a single line. In this gesture, I saw condensed the freedom of spirit which Miró had always claimed for [the process of] Creation. Today, I could say that I not only saw Joan Miró eat, but also saw him paint. I would say this if I did not remember what Raymond Roussel told Michel Leiris when he saw a canvas of Joan Miró for the first time: “This goes further than painting.” And so, all I can do today is repeat the same when I recall this gesture of absolute joy and incredible liberty. La Pepa was the popular name given to the Spanish Constitution of 1812, and a yell used by the republicans who wanted to restore the liberties abolished by Fernando VII. It has always been an expression tied to an idea of liberty. For me today, it is most of all a picture that goes much further than painting — further than the bowtie of Artaud, than everything. It is the flight of the rapid bird of Creation, it is life, it is a blast of sun.

How about Dalí and Rodoreda? What do you think of them?

Of Dalí, I especially admire his book about the Angelus of Millet. This fabulous text showed me how to write very free books — books which dared to comment on all, or, better said, to comment on the world taking as a pretext whatever banality.

With respect to Rodoreda, La plaça del Diamant (The Time of the Doves) fascinated me, and also, recently, La mort i la primavera (Death and Spring). Rodoreda is a very captivating narrator — not exactly a part of what my “literary wave” would be, but I consider her essential reading, especially the admirable La plaça del Diamant, which has no equal in describing the psyche of a contemporary woman. But above all I admire the strange blackness, and the presence of the agonal, in La mort i la primavera, that rare, impressive book; I had it in mind while I wrote certain episodes of Esta bruma insensata.

The first 25 years of your life were marked by the Franco dictatorship, whose roots continue to be visible in today’s Spain. How have you negotiated — personally and professionally — the tension between the two (or more) Spains? Castilian and Catalan?

How have I negotiated it? Acting as I do now. Writing, or nothing. The perfect excuse for being able to continue discovering what my true world is.

What is your true world? And your ideal world?

My true world is what I try to find, though to tell the truth I would prefer not to find it, because then my literature would be dried out, finished. I do not, in reality, want to know who I am, nor to find my world — though I seek it, or seem to seek it, always knowing that I will not find it. It can be that living in this tangle might indicate how awful it is to live in my ideal world, which is not ideal; but as long I do not encounter another, this one looks good to me.

How has the environment of postwar Barcelona — which you have described as “a great hospital in which all the sick want to change beds” — influenced the existential themes which recur throughout your work?

The phrase about the hospital is from Baudelaire. But it is clear that, with or without Baudelaire, postwar Barcelona made a mark on me; it is a Barcelona which Carlos Barral, for example, describes very well in the first volume of his memoirs, Años de penitencia (Years of Penance). Provincial, gray, dusty, hypocritical. It has nothing in common with the Barcelona of today. Nothing!

Often Barcelona appears in your work more as a symbol than as a concrete and dynamic space. How would you describe your relationship with literary realism, and with how the space of Barcelona has been represented in the Catalan literary tradition?

I have no long, realistic descriptions of today’s Barcelona or of the Barcelona(s) of the past because, as you say, I am the writer that I am; I am someone who, in effect, gives preference to the philosophical mission of the novel. And I am very far away from being a realist writer in the generally understood sense.

I do not see Barcelona as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán or Carlos Ruiz Zafón are capable of seeing it. My style goes another way, and even though I feel myself to be very Barcelonian — without proposing that I know what it is to be Barcelonian — my novels occur more in mental spaces than in the streets of my native city. I believe that what I tend to do is combine essay and fiction, and that the “supposedly autobiographical” side with which I infuse these two genres comes from a narrative voice closer that of the essayist. I am an author who belongs to the lineage of Montaigne — a unusual line of descent among authors of fiction.

I believe that my books are staged not according to a plot, or a series of ideas or a battle against language, or in a scrupulous description of the social reality of my city, but in a certain weaving, thinking, and writing under the avatar of a changing narrator. As Álvaro Enrigue pointed out, the secret of my style probably derives from my having slipped fiction toward a form in which, without renouncing narration, I do not demand that the reader suspend their disbelief, because the attraction of reading the book comes not from the story that is told, but from the encounter with the world of its author. It could be that when I speak about Dublin in a novel, I could very well be speaking about Barcelona and vice versa. If there is a text of mine attached to the reality of the city, it is “La calle Rimbaud,” in Una vida absolutamente maravillosa (An Absolutely Wonderful Life). In that story, I write about the walk I made four times a day for 14 years, in childhood and adolescence, from home to school and vice versa (from Rosselló Street to Valencia Street going through the Passeig de Sant Joan) — the “foundational” walk, the walk where everything was; and beyond which rose up all that was hostile, the unknown. (I attach the text in the version published in the magazine Vuelta, which Octavio Paz directed: https://letraslibres.com/vuelta/la-calle-rimbaud.)

I wonder if the feeling of leading a double life, or of being in a country which has forced so many citizens to live double lives, is related to your fascination with raising imposture, fraud, pretense, and simulation to the level of art.

The art of imposture is universal, I believe. Literature itself is a great and fascinating mise-en-scène for a fabulous imposture. “Literature is affectation,” writes Julio Ramón Ribeyro, for whom any person who chooses to write in order to express themselves should obey the rules of the game. Because of this, says Ribeyro, all attempts to give the impression of not affecting — interior monologue, colloquial language (this, by the way, is now very fashionable in Spain) — constitutes an affectation to the second power. As things are, Ribeyro suggests — and I could not be more in agreement with him — that one cannot avoid the affectation inherent in writing, only the rhetoric that adds to affectation.

With respect to a double life, I’ve never had the impression of leading one. I travel often and always tend to feel — to be — from the place where I find myself. In Argentina, they told me that I was “the most Argentine of the Spanish writers”; and in Portugal, that I was “the most Portuguese of the Catalan writers.”

Was Catalan spoken behind closed doors during your childhood? What stories or memories of the Spanish Civil War did your parents and family tell you?

Within our family, we exclusively spoke Catalan. Castilian was spoken in school, and only with a part of the students. There was never talk of the Civil War, except when we didn’t want to eat because our parents told us about the hunger they had experienced during the war years. Those were the only times the war came up. And the impression a child received was that something very dreadful had occurred, something immense and terrible. But I did not know how to measure the intensity of this very dreadful “something.” At the time, I could not even imagine what death was, let alone the toll of a war.

Where, for you, is the line between plagiarism and fiction? What intellectual and emotional pleasures do you derive from erasing this line?

I am a reader who writes and who often incorporates his experiences as a reader in what he writes, as if I were in a Borges-ian orbit (but actually without having anything to do with that great Argentinian writer). Perhaps, as a writer, I am what Cristina Fernández Cubas says I am: “A master of the swerve, and a specialist in continually opening new fronts, who lives immersed in an unstoppable work-in-progress with himself and his ingenuity.”

But I imagine that you ask the question about plagiarism and fiction because I work with intertextuality in the novels. This is not plagiarism, of course. This is working with citation, with what Perec baptized in 1965 as “the art of citations.” Perec was very clear about this: “The introduction in which I write from something written by another does not have to be seen as a reflective act, but as a conscious act, as a firm step for going beyond the point where I started, which was the point of another’s arrival.”

I especially like the book of essays of Juan García Ponce, La errancia sin fin (The Wandering without End), where this Mexican author formulates his concept of literature as a polyvalent discourse in which authors construct and lose themselves in the anonymous space of literature. But, in fact, all my writing is indebted to the method of Laurence Sterne, who spoke of “closing the door of my study,” meaning “keep me away from all the authors in my library which I tend to plagiarize.” There is a famous fragment of Sterne’s which is about a tremendous assault against unoriginal authors and plagiarists, and where Sterne himself promises reform, saying that he will not copy again. The genius of this fragment is that it’s plagiarized from Richard Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, concretely from the preface entitled “Democritus Junior to the Reader” …

In the end, I try to make it so what I write builds up and then gets lost in the space of literature. I run risks which most writers avoid; but for me, there is no literature without danger. I do not know who said that a poem always runs the risk of not making sense, but it would be nothing without this risk.

Mac’s Problem plays with the genre of the literary diary — the diary as a space of confession and of literary evolution. What makes the diary as a literary object fascinating for you? Which literary “diaries” influenced your book?

I am a reader of the diaries of writers. So far, I keep two. Yes, two. An explicit, open one, and a hidden one. The first is very literary, and I have already published a part, which has the title Dietario voluble. The other is written in simple notes and there, reality appears despoiled of nearly everything: life without anything but the diary’s author, without adornments, complements, artifice; life as it is, hard, harsh, without plot or style. It is life without interest, without literature. I have kept both diaries since 1985. And I do not know if the diaries that I’ve read influenced Mac’s Problem, but I will name — though I am surely forgetting some — the authors of my favorite diaries: Cheever, Kafka, Witold Gombrowicz, Alejandro Rossi, Fernando Pessoa, Ribeyro, Katherine Mansfield, Ernst Jünger, Ricardo Piglia. Especially fascinating among these diaries are those written “to extirpate anxiety” (as for Kafka), to conjure spirits (what a great excuse! I think it was Gombrowicz who relied on it), to keep the heartbeat and the imagination and the power of observation in good form (that which Alan Pauls called the “professional justification”), to feel oneself somewhat unburdened (Mansfield), for an examination of conscience (Pavese). In reality, all these justifications hide a single and unique formula: to come to know oneself.

The narrator of Mac’s Problem is a failed builder who wants to be a writer. He finishes writing his diary — the novel that we are reading — at the same time that he is finally ruined as a builder. What do the figures of the failed builder and the writer have in common?

There is no work which ceases to be an attempt. Perhaps because of this, I tend to see the writer as a builder in crisis. Failure tends to be something unavoidably linked to every project of literary construction. I don’t believe that this represents a great drama. In the 19th century, the problem of writers was failure. In the 20th, in contrast, the problem became that of success: if the writer were triumphant, he would be lost, persecuted by the eternal promotion of his books, a PR machinery that would not leave him in peace and would even end up forcing him to write. (Doesn’t Quim Monzó have a story about this?)

I consider the sense of remaining a beginner fundamental to sustaining a long path of apprenticeship as a writer. Have they been important values for you?

For me, humility is an essential value in all this. I always recall Bolaño’s very beautiful and accurate praise of the work of Kafka: “His literature is the most illuminating and terrible (and also the most humble) of the twentieth century.”

What do you make of the culture of celebrity that so many writers seek to cultivate these days?

“I do not write to be photographed,” said Pasavento, the protagonist of a novel (Doctor Pasavento) which unfortunately has not been translated to English, though it completes the trilogy of Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady. But in Mac’s Problem, I also make fun of those who do not allow themselves to be photographed, like Pynchon, for example. Such writers believe themselves to be invisible writers. It seems to me that the invisible writer is not one who leaves and disappears, but one who deliberately manages to slip by unseen.

Robert Walser, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Bernard Malamud, and Nikolai Gogol appear as literary characters throughout Mac’s Problem. The novel is a novel of repetition, and the structure reminds me of Don Quixote and A Thousand and One Nights. Could you describe your process of writing and editing during the construction of Mac’s Problem?

I worked with the structure of an old short novel of mine, Una casa para siempre (A House for Always), published in the ’80s. In this novel, which is also a book of short stories, a story is told about a ventriloquist who has his own voice — a virtue sought and appreciated by many writers but which, for obvious reasons, seriously challenged the ventriloquist’s ability to succeed in his profession. The narration of the story of this poor man took the form of an “artist’s biography,” in his case a deliberately careless biography — oblique, to describe it in some way — in which loose ends are not tied, which begins with a crime of passion perpetrated by a famous retired ventriloquist. But the story does not go exactly that way, for it is not the story of a murder, but of the voices which the ventriloquist has taken up throughout his life, and at the same time it is the story of how his own voice has been diluted by the shadow of all those tales which he has harbored in his memory …

And so, in Mac’s Problem I have amplified the “artist’s biography”: I have duplicated it and converted the book into a biography of the art of narrating across all time. What Mac’s Problem narrates is how the history of literature has grown from successive variations of the first oral story which, if we knew it (and we do not), would help us to explain everything we have said and told each other afterward — for the history of humanity is the history of those incorrigible charlatans who refuse to be quiet across the centuries. Do you know this sentence of Kafka: “There’s a misunderstanding, and this misunderstanding will be our downfall”? I believe that, here, Kafka was speaking about the first sentence in the history of humanity, and of the misunderstanding that provoked it at the beginning of time.

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Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of Call Me Zebra.


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