Friday, August 13, 2010

A life that has some meaning: Vila-Matas & Modernism

English 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. Modernism in fiction may be acceptable, but such postmodern games still seem too much of a Continental fashion. Yet Vila-Matas's 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. His creations suffer because of their obsessions, and all risk ending up like Herman Melville's scrivener, locked away for their refusal to compromise with "normality".
Nick Caistor reviews Enrique Vila-Matas' Dublinesca, his new novel in Spanish.
Vila-Matas insists that there is a "moral contract" between writer and reader, and that the reader should be active, showing a "capacity for intelligent emotion, a wish to understand the other person, and to get closer to a language that is different from that of our daily tyrannies". He goes further, declaring that: "the same skills needed to write are also needed to read. Writers can fail readers, but the reverse is also true, and readers fail writers when all they look for in them is a confirmation that the world is exactly how they see it". In spite of all the playfulness therefore, the game of literature is the most serious and urgent there is.
The review is behind the TLS' subscriber paywall yet, for such diligence, sensitivity and happy seriousness, it is worth the outlay. Elsewhere in the paper, Gabriel Josipovici provides the background to his unhappy attempt to speak about such issues to a few of our daily tyrannies and concludes:
[T]hough critics and reviewers in the English language today pay lip service to T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and even Beckett and Borges, they seem not to have grasped what it was these writers were up to, the radical nature of their critique of the arts in our time. That is what [What Ever Happened to Modernism?] is about, though it seems that in England today journalists are only interested in raking mud.


  1. Anonymous7:13 pm

    When is this new book going to be translated, do you know?

  2. No idea I'm afraid, but "Paris Never Ends" novel mentioned in the review is rumoured to be due from New Directions.

  3. According to this blog entry by Vila-Matas's UK editor, the contract for translation of Dublinesca is now being drawn up - so, who knows.

    Harvill Secker in the UK will also be publishing Paris Never Ends next year, though exercising their habit of retitling (as with Montano / Montano's Malady) - to Never Any End to Paris.

  4. Thanks John. "Paris Never Ends" is the literal translation (according to Google Translate anyway) AND it sounds good, while "Never Any End to Paris" is just inelegant and unmemorable. So while they circumcised "El mal de Montano", they're now adding unnecessarily to this new book. I'd like to know why.

  5. Well. We now have a response on Montano from Vila-Matas's editor at Harvill Secker:

    "I have discovered that decision to change title of Vila-Matas's MONTANO MALADY was a marketing one: people don't like the idea of illness!"

    Breathtaking, really. One could understand (though still object) if this was a Richard & Judy book, aimed at the pap-seeker. I was going to end this with a smart comment about how somebody should have told [author of famous multi-million selling classic novel with an illness in the title] about this public aversion ... but I couldn't think of one. My god, maybe she's right.

  6. Trivia question: List Great Novels with Illness in the Title ...

    Tropic of Cancer; Cancer Ward; The Da Vinci Cold?

    The irony for the marketing bods in this case is that MM was nominated for the Warwick Prize in the ND edition precisely because it had the correct (i.e. full & literal) title.

  7. The fun of translation is the difficulty of getting the subtle meanings of the author conveyed.
    París no se acaba nunca Would be most literally translated as "Paris Doesn't Ever End" which I'm not sure is standard English ("Paris doesn't end like, ever, man!") and with a certain emphasis given to the "ever".
    While "Paris Never Ends" would be equivalent to París nunca se acaba, I agree that it sounds much better than the terribly clunky "Never Any End to Paris", but such a title gives a bit to much weight to Paris, and I think the weight is rightly placed on the concept of infinitude.
    Bah, words, semantics. How we love them.



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