Magazine article The New Yorker

Things Fall Apart

Magazine article The New Yorker

Things Fall Apart

Article excerpt

At the start of "Dublinesque," the latest novel by Enrique Vila-Matas (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey; New Directions), Riba, an aging publisher who has recently battled alcoholism and closed down his publishing house, is invited to a literary festival in Lyon to speak on "the grave state of literary publishing in Europe." Riba "has a somewhat romantic image of himself and spends his life thinking that it's the end of an era, the end of the world, doubtless influenced by the sudden cessation of his activities." Arriving in Lyon, he avoids the festival entirely and holes up in his hotel room, working feverishly on "one of the dreams he'd had when he was in publishing and didn't have time for anything: to write a general theory of the novel." As soon as he finishes, he has a realization--"If one has the theory, why write the novel?"--and consigns his work to the wastebasket: "He held a secret, private funeral for his theory and for all the theories that had ever existed, and then left the city of Lyon without once having contacted the people who had invited him to speak."

The novels of Vila-Matas, a Catalan writer who has established himself over four decades as arguably Spain's most significant contemporary literary figure, are full of comically self-defeating projects like this. His narrators make urgent attempts to prove a theory--to throw labels at the immensity of experience, to define the indefinable--but their efforts invariably collapse. And the novels enact a similar kind of self-defeat. In "Bartleby and Co." (2001), Vila-Matas's breakthrough novel, a virtuoso parody of critical taxonomy and listmaking, the narrator discourses on the "attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators . . . never manage to write"--a phenomenon epitomized by Bartleby, Melville's archetypically unproductive scrivener. Vila-Matas's narrator painstakingly crafts lists of "writers of the No"--de Quincey, Rimbaud, Kafka, Gide, Musil. Visiting New York, he becomes convinced that J. D. Salinger is sitting opposite him on a Fifth Avenue bus. Salinger, who "has spent thirty-six years in strict silence," is naturally a major literary hero to a man transfixed by aesthetic self-annihilation, and the narrator starts to imagine what he would say, if he could only pluck up the courage to speak:

It occurred to me to approach Salinger and say to him,

"Gosh, how I love you, Salinger. Would you mind telling me why you have not published anything in so many years?" . . .

"Mr Salinger, I am an admirer of yours, but I haven't come to ask you why you have not published in over thirty years, what interests me is your opinion regarding the day Lord Chandos perceived that the endless cosmic whole of which we are part could not be described in words. I wondered if you'd had the same notion and that's why you stopped writing." . . .

"Mr Salinger, would you be so kind as to imprint your legendary signature on this scrap of paper? Gosh, how I admire you."

"I'm not Salinger," he would have answered.

The narrator fails to approach Salinger, or even to establish whether it really is Salinger, and soon Salinger gets off the bus. The whole non-encounter has been an exercise in futility--one more example of the "art of the No" that so absorbs the narrator. Reading a Vila-Matas novel is like watching someone weave a beautiful tapestry with one hand while unravelling it just as expertly with the other.

Until eight years ago, none of Vila-Matas's writing was available in English, though he was widely acclaimed throughout the Spanish-speaking world and in France. (In all, he has been translated into some thirty languages.) Since 2004, however, New Directions has been releasing his major novels here in fine, sympathetic English translations: "Bartleby & Co.," "Montano's Malady," "Never Any End to Paris," and now "Dublinesque." These works supply a useful introduction to an oeuvre that includes journalism, novels that read like essays, essays that read like novels, mock-heroic odysseys through Europe, the United States, and Latin America, and imaginary travelogues about places the author has never visited. …

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