Sunday, February 19, 2017

Death by Saudade by Enrique Vila-Matas

The first collection of Vila-Matas' short stories in English translation is named after the fifteenth story in the table of contents, but might better have been named after the seventh, Death by Saudade because it compresses Vila-Matas' work into a black hole. Just as Harvill Secker’s abbreviation of Montano’s Malady, his second novel in English, excludes any mention of illness, the choice of this title disguises the nature of his fiction with a predictable play on genre.

This is entirely understandable, as publishers must assume potential consumers read for what is misnamed 'entertainment' rather than to assuage saudade, a Portuguese term with no equivalent in English but defined by Wikipedia as "a profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves". Indeed, to misquote Kafka, we might wonder how can one take delight in stories unless one flees to them for refuge. There's the extra worry for the publisher in that potential readers are notoriously resistant to short stories, as they minimise the pleasures of following a character as they traverse deep time. To mitigate this, short stories are narrated more often than not in the first person, with Vampire in Love no exception.  

Death by Saudade in particular is narrated by the owner of a dry-cleaning shop telling of his childhood fascination with the plenitude that lay beyond home and school, inspired by a friend's stories of his seafaring grandfather. Watching the activity on a busy street replaced reading great novels, he says. He becomes intrigued by a female vagrant who approaches women and appears to whisper something in their ear. To hear it himself he dresses up in his mother's clothes but, rather than hear any exciting secret, he is seized by her "wild, magnetic, mirror-like eyes" and feels a gust of wind on his face:
"I fled in terror because I had suddenly understood that what I had just seen, with utter clarity, was the face of the evil ravaging the streets of the city and which my parents, in low, cautious voices, called the wind from the bay, the wind that drove so many mad." [Translated by Margaret Jull Costa]
From then on and into adulthood he feels like a vagrant himself, travelling to evade anxiety and melancholy all the while "filled with the temptation to leap into the void". He walks through the city of Bernardo Soares full of beautiful places to make the leap. Back home he tries to paint what he saw on the street but never finishes anything. The plenitude that promised so much in childhood is revealed as something else: "I say to myself that life is not achievable while one is alive".

Saudade (1899) by Almeida Júnior
(note that she is reading)
You might think all this means Vila-Matas' fiction is negative, not life affirming, depressing even; everything 'entertainment' seeks to repress. This is because Vila-Matas is attuned to the enigma of fiction, of this strange need to read and write – here projected into travel and painting. His fiction shadows its logic. Why, after all, has the dry cleaner spoken at all? And why are we listening in this way? The issue of the story before us is neither whether the narrator is convincing, reliable or anything else, nor whether the form of his narration is traditional, experimental, modernist or postmodernist, but the paradox of saudade: a word whose meaning requires translation even in its language of origin, a condition that is magnetic and mirror-like, pinning the sufferer to mortality and reflecting their denial, and yet that which gives life purpose and meaning, which returns us to the child wanting to discover what is beyond and so to fictionalise himself as a woman to do so, then to duplicate the breeze in paint, and so to accommodate it, to make life and death indistinguishable. Life by saudade.

His friend finally reveals that his seafaring grandfather had in fact killed himself, and later the narrator discovers that numerous other members of the same family had also killed themselves. They had succumbed to saudade and "experienced the only possible plenitude, the plenitude of suicide". Vila-Matas' comedy is never far away.

The paradox of saudade is then the paradox of reading and writing. At the end, the narrator says he will not leap into the void, while the story demonstrates otherwise.


  1. I suppose we can assume that Vila-Matas's story is an expression of solidarity with his late friend, Antonio Tabucchi, the Italian translator of Pessoa and Lisbon-lover, who wrote about "death by Saudade" in his late-'80s story, "Last Invitation" (included in The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico):

    "For brevity’s sake I shall say nothing of other forms of suicide. But before I sign off, one at least, out of a sense of some duty to a whole culture, I must mention. It is an unusual and subtle form, it takes training, constancy, determination. It is death by Saudade, originally a category of the spirit, but also an attitude that you can learn if you really want to. The Lisbon city council has always made public benches available in appointed sites in the city: the quays by the harbour, the belvederes, the gardens which look out over the sea. Lots of people sit on them. They sit silently, looking into the distance. What are they doing? They are practising Saudade. Try imitating them. Of course it’s a difficult road to take, the effects are not immediate, sometimes you may have to be willing to wait many years. But death, as we all know, is that too."

  2. Thanks – I know Tabucchi's Declares Pereira but not even heard of this book. I shouldn't be surprised it's a reference to another writer, but it reiterates the reasons I give that make Vila-Matas a special kind of metafictioner.

    There are many belvederes where I live looking out to sea. I walk beneath them and envy the owners. My view is north, away from the sea, which might explain why I'm such a cheerful chap.

    1. Ah, yes. I did wonder about your jovial disposition. Facing away from the sea could certainly explain it.

      You're probably right that Vila-Matas is a special kind of metafictioner, but I'm not sure I understand what qualifies as “special” any more. Many contemporary writers seem so intent on constructing works for the purpose of striking readers (or at least reviewers, which in the end is about the same) as "special" that all I notice are the obvious, facile mechanisms of, well, specialness.

      I like Vila-Matas’s style a lot, at least in the English translations, but his ideas feel slight or derivative to me, especially in comparison to the high quality of his writing. Have you read Julio Cortázar’s short stories? Most of his best, I think, are included in We Love Glenda So Much and a Change of Light, two collections published in one edition by Vanguard Press’s Aventura imprint (now long OOP, but easy to find). Or maybe they merely seem like his best stories because they’re all translated by Gregory Rabassa. In any case, Vila-Matas often reminds me of a lesser Cortázar. I'm wondering what sort of impression you'd receive from the latter's stories.

  3. A Spanish work friend recommended Cortázar's stories but I've not got a copy and he never gave any titles because of course he didn't read them in English, so thanks for mentioning the edition.

    It's difficult for me to write about Vila-Matas because I don't know what I think and I don't know how to navigate between being very moved and very bored, though this confusion is part of why I value his books. 'The Illogic of Kassel' seems to address this directly, which is perhaps why I am so torn over that novel. He is never one thing but those things all at once (as I've said about Bernhard in the past).

    Let me add that there two reasons why I wrote about one story: one is that my brain shuts down my body very easily so I have to circumscribe my reading and writing, and the other is that I don't want to contain too much material such as influences, similarities, common themes across the collection, etc. I want to concentrate on what's important to me, which has little to do with filing cabinet issues.

    I know you're not saying this specifically about Vila-Matas's work, but the metafictional element isn't facile or obvious to me – or at least never only that – mainly because he shows how literature is as much part of life as anything else; an under-explored darkness. Nick Caistor put it well in a TLS review of Dublinesque: "readers may view Vila-Matas as too self-absorbed, too self-referential in his choice of the pursuit of literature as the exclusive subject of his fiction. [...] Yet [his] obsession shows that the quest to create literature is a metonym for the ability to live a life that has some meaning, rather than being entirely absurd."

    1. Yes, that makes sense (“…I don't know what I think and I don't know how to navigate between being very moved and very bored, though this confusion is part of why I value his books…”). I don’t know what to think, either, although more for the reason I mentioned: I admire his ability to manipulate language, but his devices seem trite to me. Not just the metafictional elements, which after all we’ve been playing with since the ‘60s (modernly, at least), but what Caistor alluded to in that quote: Vila-Matas’s pursuit of a life that has meaning — rather than the pursuit of meaning itself. The distance between those two concepts is, to me, where the artifice lies. Ack!, a pun. :)

      Nevertheless, I’m commenting again not to contest Vila-Matas’s worth, but to tell you that the reason I came here in the first place is because I saw your tweet advertising “a review of one story” from the collection. Although I didn’t know about your physiological constraints, I’m grateful for your desire to concentrate on what’s important to you rather than attempt to distract yourself with three or four books a week, which seems to be the norm. That might be a conversation for another day, but in the meantime, I bought your book yesterday and will be ruminating on its contents, one essay at a time, for…oh, probably the next year or so. Thank you.



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