The heavyweight champion of paradox, the pioneer of parasitical writing, the disinterrer of lost authors, the crazy godfather of the Spanish avant-garde, the crypto-torchbearer of high modernism, Enrique Vila-Matas has spent over forty years charting out a literary terrain that is all his own. His work is notorious for intensely feeding off of other texts—most notably, those written by European titans like Beckett, Joyce, and Walser—as well as for drawing liberally from his own strange life. Hovering somewhere between plagiarism and homage, autobiography and multiple personality disorder, his books push the personal essay into a novelistic form, all the while taunting us with coincidences, anecdotes, and facts that seem far too good to be true—or are they actually real?
Vila-Matas’s literature is nourished by its own prodigious paranoia and madness, always beginning from ludicrous premises and red herrings, then relentlessly pushing them further and further until they gloriously break down. His books show how literature can be deadly serious by being resolutely playful; his language delights in speaking truth through creative misprision, evasion, and outright deception.
I discovered Vila-Matas in 2007 through the release of his first two English-language translations, Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady. I’ve been a reader ever since, steadily consuming the regular translations of his works (now nine in total), as well as working my way through his Spanish-language list. I keep coming back because the books themselves are marvelous, and also because I know that whenever I read his work I will come away with a list of new writers to investigate, new ideas to explore, and new stories that I must try to verify the truth of.
For this interview I corresponded with the author over a leisurely few months. Vila-Matas was always a courteous and prompt respondent, and he treated me with the highest respect and seriousness, but I could never quite escape the feeling that much of what he was telling me was made up. Whether that’s the truth of the matter or just the byproduct of conditioning built upon a decade of reading Vila-Matas is a thing I leave to the reader to decide.
—Veronica Scott Esposito
Veronica Scott Esposito: Let’s start with where it all started for me: your 2000 novel, Bartleby & Co., a breakthrough in terms of your fame and prestige, and a very difficult-to-classify work. This novel is couched as a series of footnotes to an “invisible” text, and the common theme is that of writers who inexplicably quit writing. (The title is a reference to Melville’s famous Bartleby: “I prefer not to.”) The book combines a number of elements common to your work: copious anecdotes from literary figures famous and obscure; quotations; paranoia; conspiracy; autobiography; and of course many, many works of literature (many real, but perhaps also many fake?) that you weave into the fabric of your text. It’s a book that makes literature out of the inability to write literature. Have you ever been tempted to disappear from writing, as do many of your protagonists and literary heroes?
Enrique Vila-Matas: I wrote Bartleby & Co. because I was strongly attracted to the drive toward negation and wanted to abandon literature. This was paradoxical because by thoroughly occupying myself with those who had quit writing I was able to succeed in continuing to write. In these denials of culture and literature there is a strong passion for what is denied. Bartleby & Co. goes with Montano’s Malady and Doctor Pasavento to form a trilogy in which negation and disappearance from literature are central, and where I develop my idea of how the avant-garde’s fate to disappear from literature makes it possible that, after the end of literature (the end of the Gutenberg era, as I call it in Dublinesque), I could continue writing. To put it differently: I think that I find myself among those who recently discovered that the only way in which literature isn’t dead is to write being conscious of the fact that it has already died.
VSE: That’s very well put, and I agree with a lot of it. Do you believe that literature advances in cycles? For instance, perhaps the Gutenberg era has reached its end, but now a new literary era is dawning alongside the communications media created by the internet, plus the new technologies for editing, printing, and distributing books. Perhaps your work is being written in an abyss between these cycles?
EVM: It may be that the new technologies allow new “forms” for literature. Perhaps they make possible some immense art form. But this makes me think of what George Steiner said in an interview, that those who are younger than him might be aware of the flowering of forms that are very new, forms that are completely inherent in the culture, in other words, forms whose shape doesn’t go beyond what logic dictates. But Steiner said that he couldn’t imagine these forms and that he wanted to have before himself a grand work that was, at the least, exempt from the question of whether or not God exists. We still don’t know if our lives are directed by an intelligence, be it malign or benign, or if, to the contrary, the things that we experience are just things that happen to us. When there is talk of the “end of literature,” it’s talk of the heights that were reached with the greatness of Proust, Kafka, et al., and how in the digital era that is no longer enough; these aren’t problems created by the technical advances but by the incredibly conservative book industry, where there are well-connected agents and editors who are beholden to purely financial ends. They are only interested in what sells well; the book with intellectual ambition is qualified as the “literary book,” and every day it grows more separate. More or less since the Second World War, we’ve seen a continual withering of the conditions that once permitted, for a moment, the existence of a literature that one could call literature without betraying the truth.
VSE: Your narrators often appear very similar to yourself, and your books frequently start with things that actually happened to you. For instance, Never Any End to Paris, which begins with the journey you made to live in Paris as a young writer, or The Illogic of Kassel, which opens with your invitation to participate in the documenta festival in Kassel, or Because She Never Asked, which involves your strange collaboration with the artist Sophie Calle. You’ve said that “I direct everything in my life toward literature, in reality that’s my work.” Is there a difference between your art and your life?
EVM: Literature has infiltrated my life in a way that, without me realizing, my real life seems more and more like my literature. However, what I narrate in my books is never purely autobiographical, it’s really the exact opposite. For instance, except for being invited to documenta in Kassel in 2012, nothing that occurs in The Illogic of Kassel really happened to me. And what I narrate in Because She Never Asked is told as if it hadn’t happened to me, when in reality I lived this story, though I had to narrate it as fiction in order to make it plausible. This is the important thing: with my novels you have to take into account one essential thing, that I’m writing fiction from a space that the poets and essayists used to better occupy—a literary self that is visible. This “me,” composed of multiple voices and masks, is what, paradoxically, gives coherence to the entire work.
VSE: I think this is a nice place to introduce a metaphor that I’d like to apply to your work: literature as fractal. In your books it often happens that there is a small detail—a coincidence, a decision, a turn of phrase—and this small detail begins to assume a greater and greater importance, usurping the novel, ricocheting through the work, and forming a new pattern in its wake. This will proceed for some time, and then another small detail will begin the same process of taking over the work and making a new pattern. And so the novel continues to interrupt itself in this way, creating this beautiful, illogical order, very much like how a fractal uses small disturbances to pattern itself into an organism of immense complexity. I think this is one way your books create the “multiple voices and masks” that give them their “paradoxical coherence.” Why do you feel that this space once belonged primarily to poets and essayists, and why has it begun to migrate toward novelists like yourself?
EVM: Your description of the “beautiful, illogical order” of my fractal literature makes me very happy. I can’t remember having read anything that comes so close to the way I construct my books. To me, it’s clear that I combine essay and fiction, and that the “supposedly autobiographical” threads that I combine with these two genres come from a narrative voice that’s very close to that of the essayist. However, this voice isn’t that of a spectral writer who’s diffused throughout the narrative; rather it’s that of an author who belongs to the lineage of Montaigne or Sergio Pitol (a strange genealogy among writers of fiction). What occurs in my books isn’t a plot or a series of ideas or a battle against language, rather it’s a very Vila-Matas concoction, a way of thinking or writing beneath the persona of a narrator. The likely secret of my style lies in having nudged fiction toward a place in which, without renouncing narrative, I don’t demand that the reader suspend disbelief, because the pleasure of reading the book doesn’t come from the story that’s being told but from reencountering the author, in the manner of novelists who write as if they were essayists. In such works the center of the book continually changes, changing the main axis of the conversation in order to discover the true center of the novel, the true center of the essayistic narrative—or center of the narrated essay, if you prefer—and this center is the last thing to appear, which is to say, this center is the end.
VSE: I agree very much with what you say about suspending disbelief vis-à-vis your novels. You fill your books with pulpy devices like strange coincidences, mistaken identity, etc.—things that in most literary novels would feel ridiculously artificial. But with your work it feels as though they are always appropriate, even necessary. The critic and translator Valerie Miles (who has translated some of your work) attributes this capacity in part to your prose style, saying that your “precise tone and . . . particular contemporary sensibility . . . [allow] for a natural continuity between the real and the fictional.” Is your sensibility contemporary, and, if so, what do you find most contemporary about your work?
EVM: Exactly, I develop a natural continuity between the real and the fictive. The strange thing is that I reached this place without trying to get there, which is to say, without realizing it, and this supports my intuition that I find my style of writing very instinctive. I’d say my point of view feels contemporary based on how I comment on the disappearance of the subject in the West, and also in my way of working with intertextuality. At first, I didn’t know why I quoted so many other artists, I justified it through Jean-Luc Godard and his mania for quotations. Later, in Perec, I discovered a better explanation: in 1965 he displayed a certain optimism by saying that literature was progressing toward a “citational art,” which, in his opinion, represented one possible direction forward (insofar as literature can be said to progress). It took as its point of departure everything that our predecessors had discovered or achieved, though Perec said that it wasn’t a question of throwing overboard the great triumphs of the past, the heritage of our clairvoyants: from the vast resources available, one must appropriate everything that appears useful.
Right now I’m working on a character who is a compiler of quotes; he works for a disciple of Pynchon while at the same time planning a portable encyclopedia containing all of the world’s possible phrases. Once these phrases are collected the archivist will have completed a critical work, one reminiscent of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, that will exhibit the scandalous, banal and idiotic, and immensely eloquent character of our era’s unsurpassed fraudulence.
VSE: I wanted to return to Sergio Pitol, whom you mentioned earlier; he was a friend of yours, and your writing has obvious affinities with his. (For instance, at the beginning of Montano’s Malady you quote Pitol as saying that “writing is a case of impersonation, of adopting a new personality. Writing is pretending to be another.” An incredibly Vila-Matas sentiment.) Pitol once called you “the last critic with delirious criteria,” which I think is a very kind and truthful compliment. Which authors does Enrique Vila-Matas invite into his inner circle?
EVM: There is a “committee of readers” composed of my different literary personae.
VSE: What about the great writers that we see again and again in your work, whether as quotations, anecdotes, or characters—for instance, Kafka, Walser, Duchamp, Joyce, Montaigne, Beckett, Gertrude Stein, Laurence Sterne. Where do they fit into this committee?
EVM: They walk on the decks of the ship (which might be the Pequod), whereas the committee is mostly in the cockpit. This image of “passengers and the committee” would fit in perfectly with what the great Argentine novelist and diarlist Ricardo Piglia suggested about my writing: he said that my collected novels could be read as a single work that narrates—from many different points of view—the imaginary history of contemporary literature. I believe that Piglia said my novels are simply a sarcastic and passionate reconstruction of our culture’s battles, scandals, locations, dreams, and obsessions, developing out of our writers, readers, translators, booksellers, editors, and critics; it’s as if my characters form part of the damned crew of the Pequod and continue to pursue Moby Dick in the twenty-first century.
VSE: I’d like to begin discussing the facts of your career, so that we might pin down Enrique Vila-Matas the author, insofar as that’s possible. Your literary career began in 1971, when you wrote your first novel while performing your military service during the reign of the dictator Francisco Franco in Spain. It bears the Duchampian title Mujer en el espejo contemplando el paisaje. Then in 1974 you went to Paris for two years: your novel Paris no se acaba nunca is rooted in your Parisian years, when you lived—unless this is a false story—in the garret of Marguerite Duras. What were your experiences in those years, and what drew you to Paris?
EVM: The compulsory military service that I performed (as a Spanish colonial soldier) was in North Africa, in the city of Melilla. For me it was as if I had been drafted to go to Vietnam. Of that “season in hell” I very well remember the twenty days that I was interned in the military mental hospital. The reason? One morning in the barracks at a very early hour, in less than ten minutes I very methodically drank a bottle of cognac, smoked hashish and kef, and took five amphetamines. Two hours later during the military drills, under the influence of that ferocious mixture, I shot my gun at the clouds. They asked what had gotten into me and I explained that I was crazy. They brought me to the looney bin. Everything was very complicated there. They say that passing as English is one of the most difficult feats to perform on stage. Well, to appear insane (without being so) is also very challenging. During my twenty days in the psychiatric pavilion they came to examine us very early every morning, and I wasn’t always able to feign madness at such an early hour, so they finally declared that I had returned to sanity and put me back on my military duties. Afterward, the mental hospital was still in my mind when I began writing my first book, a kind of exercise in avant-garde style. (For instance, I didn’t use any punctuation between sentences.) It was published in Barcelona in 1973, and the following year I went to Paris to visit two friends from Madrid who were cinephiles in the Parisian vanguard, and who were friends of Marguerite Duras. Through a series of accidents I crossed paths with Duras in the stairway of her house on rue Saint-Benoît, and, after commenting to her that I had fled Barcelona in fear and horror of Franco’s dictatorship, she rented me her garret, where I spent two years and where I wrote my second book, La asesina ilustrada, which in Never Any End to Paris I say was the first book I had written, but this was the only detail I invented (and only in order not to complicate the autobiographical story that I narrated there). What I did not invent was that Duras was my landlord.
VSE: Can you tell us a little about La asesina ilustrada?
EVM: La asesina ilustrada was a short book whose purpose was to assassinate whoever read it. In those days I’d frequently watch Miles Davis perform live, and I very much liked how he played with his back to the public—literally playing the trumpet with his back to the audience. I wanted La asesina ilustrada to have the same relationship with its readers, and, above all, to assassinate them. I would like for it to be translated into English. I remember what Roberto Bolaño wrote after he read it: “As far as I know no readers of La asesina ilustrada have died, although many emerge transformed after reading it, certain that something has forever changed in our relationship with reading.”
VSE: After that first brush with the mental hospital, did you have any other experiences of insanity, whether fake or real?
EVM: I believe that my novel Montano’s Malady, published in Barcelona in 2002 (very shortly after Bartleby & Co.), is an instance of insanity that is always inflected by a kind of logic governing the great madness unleashed in the character of Montano (who has something of a new Quixote to him). This novel traces the doings of a modern-day Don Quixote who journeys into the countryside to do battle with the many enemies of literature. I believe that this entire book is a reflection on the logic and lucidity of certain ravings. And also, a Quixotic parody on the end of literature, about its insignificance in the real world; ultimately, a book that speaks to the absolute crisis of literature in our century.
VSE: Could you explain what this crisis of literature is?
EVM: If it weren’t for crises, we humans would still be bacteria. Without crises there is no life, so literature, without crises, would be dead. Really, great literature needs constant crisis in order to thrive: this is an idea that I developed in some of my books, from Suicidios ejemplares and Bartleby & Co. through Dublinesque. For me, what each book pursues as the essence of what it loves and would be thrilled to discover is the “literature of No.” The best books are those that initiate expeditions to these unknown worlds of the literature of No, those that want to figure out what it essentially is. And what is it? For now I’m still on the expedition, still searching; my intuition is that literature only appears precisely where it is hidden and disappears, maybe because I haven’t been creative so much as critical.
VSE: After La asesina ilustrada, you published three more books, and then in 1985 came A Brief History of Portable Literature, which is often regarded as a kind of aesthetic breakthrough for you. This book brings together many of those aforementioned “paseantes del Pequod” under the name of the “Shandys,” a group whose rules for inclusion are obscure and which has bizarre Dadaist adventures. Just to name a few, the writers and artists that appear in this book include Marcel Duchamp, Walter Benjamin, Gertrude Stein, Georgia O’Keeffe, Man Ray, Karl Kraus—it’s basically a who’s who of interwar European art. The novel itself is built around the idea of “portable literature,” which is given many different definitions, many of which I feel predict the various directions you would subsequently take as a writer. Where and when was this book written, and what was its impact?
EVM: It all began when, in the early ’80s in Paris, I saw an exhibition of bachelor machines. I was dazzled by these machines, which included the one from Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus, the machine from The Carpathian Castle by Jules Verne, the infernal machine from Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” and the futuristic machine from Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel. Just the title itself had greatly intrigued me, without knowing that one could mount exhibitions of “bachelor machines.” When I returned to Barcelona I wrote an article on these machines for La Vanguardia, and this single article was the origin of my novel on “the Shandy conspiracy,” that is, A Brief History of Portable Literature. It was very poorly received in Spain, because that period was the triumph of a narrative current that was called “anti-experimental,” a current against “the avant-garde excesses of the ’70s.” But in Mexico twenty-seven reviews of the book appeared in less than twenty days, and in France and Italy it was loved. In Sweden as well, where the book instigated the creation of Ankan, a magazine that defined itself as “Europe’s first Shandy magazine.” Something had been set in motion. Essentially, without having aspired to it, and much less hoping for it, I began to be read as a writer. An Argentine critic, for example, said that I had written a “radical fiction.” I had no idea that I had done that, I only knew that I was dedicated to the art of fiction, but I didn’t know what the hell “radical fiction” meant, and I wasn’t aware of having invented anything. Or to put it differently: I was convinced that what I narrated in the book was absolutely true. Believe me, that’s how I was at that time, I completely believed in what I wrote. And, what’s more, I thought I wasn’t able to write in any other way. Nowadays, A Brief History of Portable Literature is much more read than when it first appeared. It’s well-liked, primarily by young readers and writers, because it speaks to them from a kind of complete freedom when it comes to narrative.
VSE: This radical success occurred when you were thirty-seven years old. You then produced eleven titles between Historia abreviada and your next translated work, Bartleby y compañía; these were published mostly in the ’90s, and they brought you into your fifties. How did your work change as you entered midlife? Did you feel pressure to replicate the success of Historia abreviada?
EVM: No pressure. I fled from the formula of Brief History because it seemed to me that I should not exploit what had previously worked, and this opened a new chapter that I considered very interesting, that of the short story writer. I wrote two books of stories, each with a single theme: one on suicide (Suicidios ejemplares), and the other on Kafkaesque beings who were at the same time people without children (Hijos sin hijos). Some of the stories from those books can be found in translation in Vampire in Love, but I think that taken from their respective contexts (unfortunately this was the best solution) they lose something. In those days I also approached the genre of the novel with Lejos de Veracruz and El viaje vertical, two novels that appear conventional, but in which you can see (as Sergio Pitol observed) that every time I approach realism I create in the reader the sensation that I’m playing with dynamite. While I was writing El viaje vertical I crossed paths with Roberto Bolaño, whom I had known in Blanes and whom for a while I was seeing with great frequency. The contact with Bolaño gave back to me the enthusiasm for literature that I’d had in my first years as a writer, and somehow, involuntarily, he participated in the writing of El viaje vertical. One year after I finished this book, I wrote, in a brief period of time, Bartleby & Co., which, as soon as I had finished it, I saw was linked to Brief History.
El viaje vertical and Bartleby & Co. were great leaps forward for me, and they gave me many new readers. But Bolaño, when he read Bartleby & Co., said that he wasn’t surprised by that book and its charm, because in reality this book was already in Para acabar con los números redondos, a book published three years before Bartleby & Co. Almost nobody noticed it, only Bolaño and four other people. Para acabar con los números redondos is a book against the mania among book sections for holding roundtables to celebrate the anniversaries of writers who are generally mediocre and who suddenly, only because of a significant date—one hundred years after their death, for instance—take up the space in which one hopes to find books by writers who are still active . . .
VSE: You’ve been remarkably consistent throughout your career, producing a new book every year or two since La asesina ilustrada in 1977. What is your working method? Do you do anything other than write?
EVM: As a young man I played tennis. Afterward, I never played another sport (I think I was bad at them all, except for tennis), nor did I have any particular hobby. I have fun, and I have a lot of it when I don’t write, but I also have lots of fun and continue to do so enormously when I do write (six or seven hours a day of this form of suicide that is writing). I’ve never stopped writing for newspapers, which has allowed me to keep myself in shape, so I can always immerse myself in the novel that I’m writing. (I’ve collected this journalistic work into a series of books, closely related to my fiction writing.) All this can give the impression that I’m always writing, which isn’t true. Though it is true that one day in Paris Marguerite Duras gave me the advice that, likewise, had been given to her by Raymond Queneau: “Write, and do nothing else.”
VSE: Now that we’ve reached Bartleby, I want to return to something you mentioned a few questions back, the “literature of No.” You define this to an extent in Bartleby—it’s a book about writers who prefer not to write—and you develop the idea throughout the other titles in the trilogy, Montano’s Malady and Doctor Pasavento. The idea of writers who would rather not write—in effect, writers who want to disappear—animates the trilogy, and in my opinion this foundational paradox is what gives these books their particular charm and energy. Where does your love for literature that rests on paradox come from?
EVM: My father was like Dalí, he talked all the time. And my mother was like Duchamp, she would prefer silence and shadow. I’m made of both. I’m fascinated by writers who write a great deal and also by those who renounce writing, although I suspect that at times there are more writers who don’t write.
Elías Canetti isn’t a man I have a lot of sympathy for, but he was a very powerful thinker, and there are phrases of his that have remained in my memory. I recall that he once said that every writer who has reached a level of fame and defends it knows very well that they’ve ceased to be a writer because they’ve gone on to be an administrator, just like any other bourgeois. And yet, says Canetti, there are other kinds of writers who are writers to such an extent that, for precisely that reason, they never reach this notoriety and fame and end up as beggars or, better, in the insane asylum.
Many paradoxes also rest on this “ceasing to be a writer.” One can cease to be a writer by achieving fame and notoriety, as Canetti observes. But then there is a very special case—which happened to me when I was very young—in which one ceases to be a writer before writing. When I was twenty I wandered all over Barcelona at night, and I used to stay out partying until the small hours of the morning. I would say goodbye to my friends with the words “Do you know I’m going to stop writing?” And everyone told me that what I said didn’t make any sense because I didn’t write. Which is to say that, long before I started writing, I already wanted to stop writing. I find it poetic that wanting to stop writing ultimately transformed me into a writer. It’s a paradox, yes.
VSE: In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said something that sounded very Vila-Matas to me. He stated that “during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared this would become known.” Your books often play on writers who prefer to disappear, or have a complex relationship with the idea of being swallowed up in anonymity. I was struck that for Solzhenitsyn this fear was palpable in a very different, almost opposite way than how it appears in your novels. Does the literature of repressive societies fascinate you in a different way than that of non-repressive societies?
EVM: I’m fascinated by what the human mind is capable of. I’m not at all interested in repressive societies—I had too much of the Franco dictatorship here in Spain—although these repressive societies cannot stop the force of the mind, or of literature, which nowadays—I speak of the truly great literature, that of very few authors—is independent, completely free from politics.
Two stories (which I’m not sure answer your question, but which I’m going to leave right here because I think that what’s said in them reflects my vision of what you proposed): One, the case of Kafka, who knew that literature didn’t have to root around for political realities, or worry about the politics that are ongoing. Kafka’s metaphors are so strong that they go much further than his original intentions. And they demonstrate that a creator who knows how to reflect his most intimate experiences in a profound way reaches the social sphere. In Communist Czechoslovakia Kafka’s works were prohibited in spite of the fact that, superficially, Kafka talked about problems with his father and his personal crises. But, you see, they nonetheless became dangerous to the powers of the time.
The other story is that of a young Russian, a specialist in the literature of English Romanticism, whom Brezhnev placed into a dungeon without light and did not permit to have either pen or paper, all because of an idiotic and completely false denunciation. I discovered this young Russian through Byron’s Don Juan, a work of 30,000 verses. She translated it mentally for a friend, and this is now the preeminent Russian translation of Byron . . . This indicates that the human mind is totally indestructible. And also that poetry can save a person, even in impossible situations.
VSE: You are one of the most generous writers I know of, in the sense that one discovers so many other writers through your novels. A lot of writers that are very fashionable now—like Robert Walser, Fleur Jaeggy, Sergio Pitol—are writers that you were reading long before most people. You have an ability to talk about these writers in a way that’s unlike what I see elsewhere—you make them sound extremely intriguing in a very “Vila-Matas” sort of way, and whenever I read one of your books I always know that I’ll come away with numerous new writers that I want to find out about. An aspiring young writer could do very well simply by reading your books and following all of the writers that she discovers in there. How do you discover writers?
EVM: I imagine that my “discoveries” are related to searching and reading, and above all to being attentive to those authors that at first appear irrelevant. Ever since I was very young, I’ve admired Valery Larbaud, a writer that I call “the cosmopolitan of the spirit.” Perhaps you’re now discovering this somewhat forgotten writer, a man born in Vichy in 1881, and a person who created an eccentric millionaire called Barnabooth, who wasn’t exactly a character but a heteronym.
Barnabooth, like Larbaud, belonged to that species of men whose contributions to civilization signify in principle pleasure, play, enjoyment of spirit, and uselessness in the eyes of most people. Where we can equate Larbaud with Barnabooth is in the desire to know, to learn everything, to read all of the books and their commentaries, to know all languages, to “be able to recognize himself in any text that is seen for the first time and dominate the world.” Larbaud was a master of discovering the great ignored authors (he was the first in Europe to speak of Borges, when he was only twenty-five years old, which says a lot for his extraordinary nose for literature). He loved to discover untouched literary terrain. And his work in this regard was admirable. He was an indefatigable translator and was the one who introduced into French the works of Samuel Butler and Joyce’s Ulysses (Joyce himself affirmed that Larbaud’s French version of his text was better than the original). It’s possible that the admiration for these “works” of Larbaud—to bring to light great texts of forgotten writers—could have motivated me in my desire to delve into literature that I realized or intuited hadn’t been sufficiently valued.
VSE: Are there writers that you have failed to find places for in your novels, writers that you’d still like to fit into a novel somewhere?
EVM: I’m sure that there are, or will be. It’s possible that Larbaud himself needs someone to give him the place he deserves. Whenever I think about all of this—as now, thanks to your question—I realize that what I do with these writers is rescue them from their biography and give them a new, second life.
VSE: In your 2007 book, Exploradores del abismo, you discuss an episode with the artist Sophie Calle. The text covering this story is available to readers in English as Because She Never Asked, a very striking novella. I’ve been told that this is something that actually did happen to you. Can you tell us more about what happened?
EVM: Certainly, I consider it one of my most significant texts. These events really happened to me. It began when Sophie Calle and I reached an agreement, just like as happens to the two travelers in Strangers on a Train, those two thugs created by Patricia Highsmith who agree to assassinate each other’s enemies at the same time. In our case, the pact was that for a year I would write to Sophie what she had to live. She asked for it. I immediately wrote her the first chapter, but months passed and Sophie—as happened with the second assassin on Strangers on a Train—decided not to act. I’d already begun writing my novel based on that marvelous request that Sophie had made of me in the Café de Flore in Paris, and I trusted that she was over in the Azores living what I had written for her so I could continue writing my novel. But, because she had decided not to travel to the Azores at all, I was transformed into a Bartleby, incapable of beginning a novel on any other topic. Sophie stripped me of my writing, turned me into a tragic writer of No. One day a few months later, realizing that Sophie wasn’t going to do anything—and having experienced a desperate period of total blockage—I decided to return to writing by recounting just what had happened between me and her—or rather had only begun happening. But right away I realized that in order to recount Sophie Calle’s very strange proposal and failure to complete her part of the pact, it would be best—so that it could be read without any doubt whatsoever as a real story that had truly happened to me—to present this real history as an invented one, because this would be the best way to make readers suspect that this had really happened to me. It was a little weird, perhaps. Because normally writers try to pass off a fictional story as real. And here it was the opposite: the real story, which was the most “novelistic” thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life, I had to make into a fiction so that it would be believed. One learns from these paradoxes.
VSE: In 2010 we enter the internet age with the protagonist of your novel Dublinesque, Samuel Riba, a writer who obsessively Googles himself. I’ve noticed that, like Riba, you yourself know quite a lot about what’s written about you online: for many years you’ve maintained a very robust personal website with an ever-expanding collection of links to articles about yourself and large amounts of details about your works. Do you Google yourself often? How has the internet changed your perception of your fame and the possibility of disappearing?
EVM: Humans can never be authentic and can never be ourselves. However, in spite of that, I’ve always felt forced to affirm myself in my literature, and I’ve always done so with great energy. Whenever I’ve tried to get away from myself, I’ve always returned like a boomerang. And I wonder why the hell this happens. I read this in Gombrowicz: “I’ve reached the conclusion that what sustains my self is my will to be myself. I don’t know who I am, but I suffer when I’m deformed, that’s all.”
And this is exactly what happened to me with Google. It bothers me to see myself so deformed online, so much in the hands of others. With the inestimable help of my friend Elena (a web designer and so much more), I took the initiative to create a website that “intervenes” in the chaos of Google. This was ten years ago. I’ve heard some people say that my site is the best writer’s website in Europe. I won’t deny that it’s likely among the best. In part, I created this site with Elena in order to provide answers for those who come looking for evidence supporting their ideas about my work. When this had happened in the past, I had to dive into my files and look through yellowed newspaper clippings. That’s why I’m so careful with the bibliography for each of my books, which, I admit, is very thorough. There’s also an area that’s open to collaboration with other writers, La vida de los otros. My friend the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster recently said, “Vila-Matas’s website displays a structure that parallels that of his novels.” I think she got it right. We’ve calculated that if someone wanted to read the website in its entirety, it would take over one hundred years to do so. So, basically, I’ve never wasted my time writing about the possibilities of the net—rather, from the very beginning I immersed myself in it with efficiency and enthusiasm.
VSE: In a speech you gave in 2015 you shared that Bolaño told you that “the kind of novel based on plots and storylines, a format already pretty well-known—not now, but in the nineteenth century—has had its day.” He was of the opinion that “The Invention of Morel made this kind of novel just not viable anymore—the kind of novel held together by plot. The kind of novel without structure, or play, or competing voices.” If Bolaño is right about this, what sort of novel do you feel will dominate the twenty-first century?
EVM: What sort of literature will survive? I’m going to tell you a story that I think will give an idea of what will be the literature of the future. And for this we have to imagine ourselves at the most recent Barcelona Book Day, a party that happens every April 23, where, as you may know, roses and books are given as gifts, and the whole city participates in this enormous event.
On this 23, right after I arrived at my spot in the tent to sign books, I got to watch as a frenzied crowd tried to knock over the barriers, apparently just to touch the forehead of a former politician who is now a media titan. It was a moment of total absurdity. And things had been arranged so that it would be hard for anyone other than this celebrity to sign books.
I closed my eyes and imagined that this best-selling author was asking me about the future of literature. I immediately remembered the “conversations with the retired mathematicians.” These were gatherings that Ricardo Piglia had helped with at Princeton, and he’d recently discussed them in an interview. Piglia said that the mathematicians were brilliant people, extraordinarily knowledgeable about Western literature, expert readers of Joyce and his Finnegans Wake, experts in Robert Musil, Michel Butor, Samuel Beckett, Witold Gombrowicz; they were the kind to be fascinated by Hermann Broch, Arno Schmidt, Jorge Luis Borges . . .
For Piglia, there weren’t any other readers like them in the world: “Roberto Calasso, George Steiner, and Harold Bloom are dilettantes next to these tired men: one learned Japanese at the age of forty just to read Yasunari Kawabata. They all knew that nothing was going to happen to them, so they still had their whole lives ahead of them to dedicate to reading. Robert Hollander, the great Dante scholar, gave a course on The Divine Comedy in which they read just one canto per semester: there were six or seven people seated around the roundtable, mostly mathematicians and theoretical physicists; they finished reading the Comedy after five or six years of classes, and then they began to read it again. Thus will be the literature of the future, at least I hope.”
When I came to and opened my eyes, I considered the contrast between the tired men at Princeton and the collective delirium of that savage day.
Then I said to myself: what’s good about this inaccessible spot in the tent is that you don’t have to greet anyone, and nobody greets you, no one bothers you. And then just a little bit later, almost holding my breath, I thought: however, what’s bad about this remote spot in the tent is that you don’t have to greet anyone, and nobody greets you, no one bothers you.
I was caught up in these thoughts when, to my surprise, I saw that someone had overcome the sizable obstacles to arrive by my side, extending his hand with a smile. I remained still with happiness when I saw that I had myself a person, which, considering everything, was a lot. Although, in another sense, wasn’t this moment cruel? We began to talk as if we were two of the tired men of Princeton. We talked about life, love, hate, death. It was as if we had returned back to those days when life was simply life, when you would chat and there weren’t emails or iPhones, when everybody was freer, each alone with their own metaphysics, and it was still possible for two people, in the middle of general pandemonium, to talk about the world. I want to think, I tell myself, that this is the literature of the future.
Veronica Scott Esposito is the author of four books. Her writing has appeared in publications including the New York Times, and she is a senior editor at Two Lines Press.