witty and elegant, what makes enrique vila-matas’s NEVER ANY END TO PARIS something more than a (witty and elegant) memoir of his literary apprentice years is the transformational yet thin veneer of fiction that coats this ingenious novel. the book follows a spanish writer (with a more than passing resemblance to vila-matas) who recalls — in a lecture spoken during a three-day symposium on irony — how in the mid-1970s he had moved as a young man from barcelona to paris to work on his first novel in a garret apartment rented from no less a personality than marguerite duras.
in paris the young writer lives off an allowance from his father and nurses his despair with a hilarious and familiar tenderness. along the way he bumps into a host of literary notables (e.g. perec, barthes, beckett), but the writer who haunts him the most is the Ghost of Paris Past: ernest hemingway. specifically it’s the hemingway of A MOVEABLE FEAST who recalled his own years in the City of Light as “very poor and very happy” — so unlike our irony man who, looking backward, can only say he was “very poor and very unhappy.”
papa hemingway seems to enthrall our narrator’s imagination not only due to the virile charisma of his exploits and writing but perhaps more importantly because of the clear limits his talent impotently struggled to overcome. he quotes julien gracq who wrote hemingway “knows he will never bore us; he puts marks on paper as naturally as others walk down stairs. His mere presence bewitches us; then we go outside to smoke and stop thinking about him.”
this assessment on hemingway leads to a division of the world into two types of writers: the ordered and bourgeois manner of a writer like thomas mann versus the chaotic disordered hurricane of talent à la rimbaud. while aging is the historical force that implodes this dialectic (our narrator realizes with a glance at his obsessively ordered writing desk that he has become what in his youth he had once disdained) there remains a potent yearning for the virtuosic chaos of a poet like the young rimbaud. it’s this bittersweet longing for an imperfect past that gives the novel its emotion; and it’s the advantage of hindsight that allows it its wit.
* * *
is the book a lecture or a novel? the book asks itself this question repeatedly and while no doubt existing as a kind of conflation of the two, collage is the name that might most tellingly reveals its structure. like benjamin’s collection on 19th century parisian arcades or the late novels of david markson, vila-matas is determined to make a work of literature through quotation. and while in an extreme sense all acts of fiction are collages, here the items chosen – from autobiography and memory, from literary history and anecdote, from criticism and gossip – are arranged less for the illusion of plot or even movement but rather in order to present a portrait of the artist as a young man. or, more specifically, the portrait given is of the artist as an older man looking back at himself as a younger one. it serves vila-matas’s purposes to portray his younger (fictional) self as a struggling poseur and plagiarizer of stances, so he puts his most learned lines in the mouth of his chief foil and best friend raúl escari. and on the very notion of unity in the novel he has escari say the key truth: “[I]t’s not a question of unity or a degree of tolerance for digression. It’s a more profound or complex matter than it appears to be. The paragraphs should be connected to each other. Nothing more and nothing less.”
the third in a series of translations of vila-matas into english by new directions (a fourth, DUBLINESQUE, is just out), all with a meta-literary premise, NEVER ANY END TO PARIS seems to me the most successful so far. in part this is because of the graceful translation by anne mclean, which allows the humor to come across intact, but as well it is because vila-matas’s irony works particularly well in this fictional autobiography—because it seems here so sincere. our narrator admits as much: “Everything I’ve said about irony is not at all ironic. The fact is, after all, art is the only method we have of pronouncing certain truths. And I can’t think of a greater way of stating truth than being ironic about our own identity.”