CategoryVila-Matas Enrique

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 50-41

In 2009, the writer Stuart Evers posted his “50 best novels of the 2000s” on his blog. I wished I could have done the same, but I hadn’t kept track of my reading in enough detail.

Ten years on, it’s a different story: thanks to this blog, I have a record of what I read, so I decided to put something together. I’m not calling it a ‘best of’, or even a list of favourites – it’s not meant to be that kind of exercise. Instead, I’ve chosen 50 books that have inspired strong memories.

My guidelines are: novels and short story collections allowed. First published in English or English translation during the 2010s, and read by me in that time (so nothing I’ve read this year). One book per author, except in one instance where I couldn’t choose between two.

The plan is to post my list in weekly instalments every Sunday. Here are the first ten entries. It’s a coincidence – but quite appropriate – that the writer who inspired my list is the first to appear on it…

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My favourite books read in 2016

This time last year, I wrote that I wanted to understand more deeply why I respond to some books as I do. I think I’m on the way there, and certainly when I look at the books that have stood out most to me in the reading year, I can see a continuity. They belong together in ways that reflect what, how and why I read.

So, here’s the selection: these are the books that I count as my strongest reading experiences of 2016, roughly in ascending order. The links will take you to my reviews.

12. Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, 2015

A novel that feels like a statement of how fiction should relate to the wider world in the 21st century. Nocilla Dream is an assemblage of adapted quotations and character vignettes, with recurring images and locations… but it won’t fit together into a stable whole, however much you try. Like the globalised world it depicts, Fernández Mallo’s novel has no centre; reading it was an experience  of glimpsing a deeper meaning through the haze, only for that to recede shortly after.

11. The Queue (2013) by Basma Abdel Aziz
Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. 2016

In a Middle Eastern city, the flow of life has been disrupted by a bureaucracy that forces people to queue for days on end in order to obtain authorisation for the smallest things. This is a novel that works through quietness and precision: its measured tone persuades one to accept the reality of this situation; then, the chilling implications unfold. A similar process occurs with the city’s inhabitants, as all the queueing changes the way they think and behave, until there’s no easy way for them to imagine something else.

10. Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, 2011

This was a book that seemed superficially light: a fictionalised account of the author’s time in Paris in the 1970s, where he sought to live like Hemingway. But as I carried on reading, the novel circled around issues of reality and imagination – how the place in the mind can endure longer and loom larger than the real one. That led me to confront the basic questions of what it is to read fiction: ultimately, nothing in Vila-Matas’ book is solid, but the reading of it persists regardless.

9. Tainaron: Mail from Another City (1985) by Leena Krohn
Translated from the Finnish by Hildi Hawkins, 2004

I didn’t get around to reviewing this one, and I really must. Like The Queue, Tainaron is precisely balanced on a knife-edge between reality and unreality. It’s told a series of letters sent home from someone living in a city of giant insects – a city that might be more a state of mind than an actual place. For me, this is on a par with Viriconium in terms of dismantling the certainties of story, and the disorientation that follows in the reading.

8. The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz
Translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West, 2015

The Weight of Things is the short opening slice of a much larger, untranslated (and possibly untranslatable) fictional project – and the shadow of two world wars looms over its apparently small tale of a couple visiting the husband’s ex-wife in her asylum. Broken chronology destroys the sense that there can be progression beyond the fictional present; and there’s one moment cuts though the reading as much as in any book I’ve experienced. At the time, I described reading Fritz’s book as like waking from a beautiful nightmare, and I still feel the same.

7. Tram 83 (2014) by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated from the French by Roland Glasser, 2015

Here’s a book where it really is all about the language: the rhythm, the pulse, the interplay of voices. Lucien travels to the newly seceded ‘City-State’, intending to concentrate on his writing – but he gets caught up in other matters. The city has its own soundtrack of voices, bewildering and exhilarating to Lucien and the reader alike. The protagonist tries to bring his own language to the city, but all he can do is merge into its web; likewise, the best way I found to read Tram 83 was to lose myself in its words.

6. Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys

This is the second novel on my list set amid the streets of Paris, but shows writing transformed by place in a different way. The Paris of Rhys’s protagonist is so quietly anonymous that the present day fades in comparison to the memories that continue to haunt her. This was my first time reading Rhys; I found her novel so piercing that I must read more.

5. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

I love this book for the way that Manyika slides between viewpoints to explore the gap between an individual’s self-perception and the person by others. Retired literature professor Morayo breaks her hip and has to move temporarily into a nursing home – and suddenly she is a vulnerable old woman to people who don’t know her. Reading the novel, and being able to see all sides, allows the gap to be bridged. That Morayo is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve encountered all year is a welcome bonus.

4. Martin John (2015) by Anakana Schofield

Schofield’s novel takes readers inside the mind of a flasher – not so much in a way that tries to explain him as one that challenges the reader to engage with his character. While most novels are organised to create meaning for the reader, Martin John is arranged to create meaning for its protagonist, constructed around his loops and preoccupations. This is what makes it such a strong, disorienting experience: there is no map of this novel’s singular landscape.

3. Mend the Living (2014) by Maylis de Kerangal
Translated from the French by Jessica Moore, 2016

At one level, Mend the Living is a novel about a heart transplant. At another level, it’s an all-pervading cloud of language which explores the different meanings of this event, and the human body itself, as life effectively passes from one individual to another. At times, reading de Kernagal’s book was like having several extra senses with which to perceive what was being narrated.

2. Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf

2016 was when I finally introduced myself to Woolf’s work, and not before time. I read five of her books, and liked some more than others; but the first one I read is still the most vivid. Mrs Dalloway showed me a different way to read, as I found a novel in which events take place at the level of thought and consciousness, as much as in geographical space. There’s such power in being brought so close to the characters’ viewpoints and flowing between them. And the ending, which brings the horror of war crashing directly into Clarissa Dalloway’s polite society, is one of my year’s finest reading moments.

1. Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, 2016

I thought about it for a long time, but there was no escaping the conclusion that a Han Kang book would top my list for the second year in a row. Like The Vegetarian, Human Acts is a novel of the body, but this time as the level at which to process conflict (or try to do so). Though there’s violence and bloodshed on a large scale in Han’s depiction of the Gwagju Uprising, it is the small human movements that I found most vivid. That contrast helped to create the strongest experience ofall the books I read this year.

I’d like to write another post that explores what this list could tell me about how and why I read. For now, though, I’ll leave you with my previous lists of favourites: 201520142013; 201220112010; and 2009.

 

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas

NeverParisI like to think I’m over it by now, but sometimes I still have to tell myself: it’s not about the subject matter. That is to say, whether or not the ostensible subject matter of a novel appeals to me is not a reliable indicator of how I’m going to respond to the book. Self-imposed starvation, high school scandals, coppers going off the rails, society parties… They’ve all featured in fiction that rewired my inner universe, because it wasn’t the topic that counted, but the interplay of language, theme and image. Still, if Never Any End to Paris had not been written by Enrique Vila-Matas –had I not trusted him after Dublinesque – I might not have read this book. That would have been a mistake.

Never Any End to Paris is presented as the text of a three-day lecture delivered by Vila-Matas, dealing principally withthe period in the 1970s when he lived in Paris, in a garret owned by the writer Marguerite Duras. Back then, he wanted to live a life like that depicted by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast; and was trying to write his first novel, The Lettered Assassin – a novel with which, Vila-Matas says, he wanted to kill his readers. There’s drily absurd humour to be found in the author’s exploits:

…I was a walking nightmare. I identified youth with despair and despair with the colour black. I dressed in black from head to toe. I bought myself two pairs of glasses, two identical pairs, which I didn’t need at all, I bought them to look more intellectual. And I began smoking a pipe, which I judged (perhaps influenced by photos of Jean-Paul Sartre in the Café de Flore) to look more interesting than taking drags on mere cigarettes. But I only smoked the pipe in public, as I couldn’t afford to spend much money on aromatic tobacco.

(Translation by Anne McLean)

But look beneath these trappings… the real subject of Vila-Matas’ ‘lecture’ is irony, and irony permeates the novel. We see the young Vila-Matas in Paris playing the part of a certain kind of writer; and performing politics more than actually believing in a given position. But then I discover from David Winters’ essay on Never Any End to Paris that Le asesina ilustrada was actually Vila-Matas’ second novel, not his first; so how much of the history here can we really trust?

Then again, asks Vila-Matas, what happens to irony when you see something in real life? What does it even mean to see something in real life, anyway? The author talks about longing to visit New York, then being disappointed with the place, because the reality of it couldn’t live up to his dream. Vila-Matas also describes how he’d seen on film the study where Trotsky was assassinated, then visited it in real life and found the experience unnerving:

I found it hard to disassociate that study from the one that appeared in the fiction of Losey’s film. Even so, I tried not to forget that this was the real place where Trotsky had been assassinated. So – I thought – this is a historic place. I couldn’t think of anything else. I just kept repeating obtusely to myself, this is a historic place.

Again, the imaginary location looms larger than the real one. But what is ‘real’, here? Look closely enough at Never Any End to Paris, and nothing remains solid: there’s no city beyond the descriptions on the page; no narrator beyond the ‘I’ whose voice we accept; no lecture beyond a framing device; no novel beyond that to which we are prepared to give consent. But of course this is true of all novels, and readers consent to the realities of fiction routinely. Vila-Matas’ approach makes us confront both perspectives – the fictional ‘reality’ and the mechanics of the construction – at the same time.

There is never any end to Paris, Vila-Matas assures us – the Paris of his imagination, that is:

Everything ends except Paris, for there is never any end to Paris, it is always with me, it chases me, it is my youth. There can be an end to this summer, it will end. The world can go to ruin, it will be ruined. But to my youth, to Paris, there is never any end. How terrible.

In reality, there is an end even to this Paris: you just close the book. Equally, of course, there is indeed no end to Paris, because it persists in the mind, and will emerge again whenever the book is read.

Elsewhere

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas, tr. Anne McLean (2011), Vintage paperback.

The reader as ghost: Enrique Vila-Matas' Dublinesque

DublinesqueI’ve been asking myself: what is it about Dublinesque? In a previous post, I quoted a passage from Enrique Vila-Matas’ 2010 novel which says that reading can often demand that we “approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies.” When I’m thinking about how I respond to a piece of fiction, I often start with the language, because that’s what fiction is made from. In Rosalind Harvey’s and Anne McLean’s translation from the Spanish, Vila-Matas’ language seems fairly straightforward; but there’s something about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps I’ll have managed it by the time I finish this blog post.

Samuel Riba is one of “an increasingly rare breed of sophisticated, literary publishers” who despairs at “the gothic vampire tales and other nonsense now in fashion.” He closed his publishing house after thirty years, having published numerous great writers, but without having achieved his ambition of discovering a new genius. Now Riba is a recovering alcoholic in search of a direction. There is a temptation here – especially when Riba reflects bitterly on “the falsely discreet young lions of publishing” – to generalise, and view ‘publishing’ as a metaphor, with Riba the ageing man who feels overtaken by the world at large. But I don’t think Dublinesque is quite reducible to such generalities, because literature is too bound up in Riba’s worldview: “he has a remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text, interpreting it with the distortions befitting the compulsive reader he’s been for so many years.”

A couple of years earlier, Riba dreamed of Dublin, and now takes it upon himself to go there – or, more precisely, the Dublin of James Joyce – and hold a funeral for “the Gutenberg galaxy”. His model is the funeral in chapter six of Ulysses, he visits the city on Bloomsday… the sense of a journey shaped by the forces of literature only grows with the ‘stage directions’ that frame the Dublin-set sections, and the mysterious figures, like the man in the mackintosh from Ulysses, that Ribs keeps glimpsing.

As well as these figures, Riba is haunted by the notion that his life may be the subject of a novel. He’s right about that, of course, though the novelist is not the “young novice” whom he imagines. This means, then, that Riba is haunted by figures of whom he has no idea. Just occasionally, the third-person narration breaks into an ‘I’, a brief reminder of the writer who lies behind Riba. And behind the writer lies the reader; so perhaps this is the sense that’s been eluding me: to read Dublinesque is to be a ghost haunting the novel, with Vila-Matas’ prose providing a subtle balance of distance and closeness that lets us in just far enough. But that only really becomes apparent at the end, when the dream has faded and the book can haunt us.

A reader's talent

I am currently reading Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean). I’ve been struck by a passage in which the protagonist, publisher Samuel Riba, reflects on the kind of reader he values:

He believes that if a talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves; on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies. As Vilém Vok says, it’s not so simple to feel the world as Kafka felt it, a world in which movement is denied and it becomes impossible even to go from one village to the next. The same skills needed for writing are needed for reading. Writers fail readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it…

This is the kind of reader I hope that I can be; certainly I feel more rewarded – more alive, even – when I’m reading in the kind of engaged, thoughtful way that Vila-Matas describes. Judiciously selecting books, and sharing my thoughts about them on this blog and elsewhere, continue to help me develop  as a reader.

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