To be literature-sick is an illness, it is an impediment, it is an obstruction for life and living. It doesn’t matter to anyone if you can, say, quote Blake and Dickinson, or have an intimate knowledge of 19th century Russian literature, or obsessively read and reread Melville and Hawthorne. It doesn’t matter, except that, really, it does. To be that kind of person is to acknowledge that you also will withdraw from life, that you will, rather than go to a nice dinner or drink at a bar, instead sit quietly on your own, in a room by yourself, with a book, and stay silent, and still, and quiet, for hours on end. This is your life. This is the life of a literature-sick person.
It’s the greates and best kind of life, but it is a life that is shared with no-one, not even the other literature-sick people who exist. They may share the ailment, but they don’t share the writers, or the books, and even if they did – their books are their books, and not yours. They take from the books what they will and what they need, and they give back to themselves, not to a literary culture or a milieu or a forum. To read with literature-sickness is a supremely selfish and self-absorbed activity to indulge in, and all those who do it are simultaneously stimulated, invigorated, excited and enriched in a way that they cannot possibly share with others and remains a secret true and honest to themselves, while also withdrawn, alone, introverted, silent, introspective, and disengaged.
Vila-Matas understands this. He understands the joy, the comedy, and the tragedy of the reader, and how ill-equipped they are to deal with life as it most often is. He celebrates these readers while also admitting that they aren’t fit for much of anything, and that there is no real superiority here. Yes, to read the best and greatest books ever written is a higher calling, one that is extremely admirable and intrinsically valuable, but the further down that path a reader treads, the less functional they become in the greater society, which does not care for these matters.
What, then, is Montano’s Malady? It is a recognition of all of this. It is an attempt to wrestle with the sadness and frustration, and the joy and immense satisfaction, of giving your life to literature. The attempt must fail – this is made clear from the outset – because the reader’s attempt will fail, and has to fail. It’s too artificial, too constrained, too separate from life, too alien.
And yet what an immense splendour it is to read a book. A good book, mind, one of those exceptional books that speak, somehow, so intimately to you and you alone, but also – how? – to others. I know, or think I know, or feel a connection with, or think I understand, certain writers better than I know my own friends. To read a certain kind of writer’s entire works (Think: Vila-Matas, Kundera, Bolaño, Proust, Marías, Kafka, Camus, Roth, Bellow, Modiano), works published across their entire lives, is to know them in a way that their wives, husbands, friends, lovers, colleagues, do not. It’s a truer expression of their self than anyone else can know, and yet at the same time it is exceptionally constructed, edited, refined, manipulated, controlled. When I write, I put myself into my texts in a way that I do not in normal conversation or in day-to-day life. I would prefer to diminish my normal energy in an effort to drain myself into my writing, and my goal and desire is to put my best and greatest self into my work.
Montano’s Malady is one of those books that speak directly to my heart and my understanding of who I am, and who I wish to be. It is one of the Permanent Books that I will carry with me until the day that I die, and I think that Vila-Matas has captured here the true essence of what it is to be terminally ill with literature. I think of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which is a perfect expression of what it means to want to write in your late teens and fail in your twenties, and, for me, Montano’s Malady is what it means to write in your adult life, and to fail (because you must fail, no matter your awards, your bank balance, your honorary doctorates, your lectures), but to keep writing and reading because you must, and because if you didn’t, you don’t know what you would do.
The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read this year.