Hemingway, when he was young, lived in Paris. He wrote that he was very poor and very happy. Vila-Matas, when he was young, lived in Paris. He wanted to be very poor and very happy, but was instead poor and unhappy. He wanted to write but he didn’t know what to write, or how, or even if he could.
We all know now that he did and, twenty or so books into his career, Vila-Matas looks back at his first novel and how it came to be. Oh, let’s be straight – the narrator is never named as Vila-Matas, and not all of the facts line up. But the broad strokes do, and that’s really the important part. This is Vila-Matas fictionalising some aspect of his life in order to examine what it means to him and what it meant to him.
Literature, suicide, alcohol, sex – it’s a heady mix, and one that could take a strong writer almost anywhere. For Vila-Matas, he wraps his years in Paris within the conceit of a lecture he is giving on irony, a three day lecture which also acts as a kind of commentary on Hemingway (who was not an ironic writer).
If I were really a writer, he writes, and we read. And that is the crux. The outcome is known – Vila-Matas became a writer. Given that, he eschews any kind of mystery or uncertainty, and instead takes a look at what it means to have been that young man, and to be the older man now remembering.
It’s a sophisticated novel, one that relies heavily on an elaborate structure of call-backs and -forwards in order to keep the whole thing stable, and many of the author’s familiar favourites return – Beckett, Joyce, Rimbaud. No Musil this time.
It’s a book that is on the surface less cerebral than Montano’s Malady or Bartleby & Co., and more human, though in all three books there is a strong sense that the writer is laying his intimate thoughts bare on the page. The romance of Paris is close enough to the text that I would feel comfortable recommending the novel to a reader who is not literature-obsessed, which is something I would never do with the other books.
The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read this year.