September 2011

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Never Any End to Paris

Just when it seemed like Paris was old beans the City of Lights makes a comeback, even if in an almost kitschy, almost ironic, almost inauthentic way. The birthplace of the avant-garde seemed to have exhausted itself, and run its various Romantic spin-offs into middle-aged honeymoon material, where seeming sophisticated was like the privilege of wearing flip-flops in December, but not so. Apparently Paris can still make us nostalgic for nostalgia.

Paris was still the bohemian Cancun when, in 1925, the newlywed couple Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson arrived. Sherwood Anderson had encouraged Hemingway to return to Europe, and so he did, as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Morning Star. Not unlike the ever-expanding neophyte Brooklynites found gritty, gray urbanity, fresh and exciting. It was certainly a long jump from quiet and conservative Oak Park -- of which Frank Lloyd Wright said, "So many churches for so many good people to go to." Eking it out for artistic glory was thrilling stuff: meandering in Les Deux Magots, workshopping with Gertrude Stein, training Ezra Pound to box, or following around Fitz and wifey. You have to admit, there is something glamorous about modernity in American letters, not afforded their predecessors -- like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, or Edgar Allen Poe (although Whitman did get a taste of it before he died).

Today it feels like we´re so far from Romanticism, that even Modernity seems Dr. Panglossy. Just thinking about it makes one nostalgic for nostalgia. Remember what is was like when we used to remember back when? That´s what Enrique Vila-Matas is getting at in his novel, Never Any End to Paris. Vila-Matas, Barcelona native, left Franco’s Spain for Paris in the '70s, dreaming of Paris in the 1920s, more specifically, dreaming of the archetypal struggling writer, as Ernest Hemingway described himself in A Moveable Feast. Unlike Hemingway, however, Vila-Matas is alone, renting out Marguerite Duras’s chambre, where before him half a dozen intellectuals and artists.  

Vila-Matas’s novels kind of follow a formula: various prosaic digressions, a slew of quotations, often from authors he admires, spiraling to the bottom of the book, where the theme is squeezed until there is only the rind left. It's often hard to say when Vila-Matas is writing fiction. There is the believable -- a novel in the works, an affair with a girl of lower social status, dependence on his father for money -- and there is the unbelievable -- running into Roland Barthes, spying on Samuel Beckett, getting artistic advice from Copi. Somewhere in there is fiction to be sure, but where?  

As Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast far from his days of cranking it out in anonymity, so Vila-Matas recalls writing his first novel, The Lettered Assassin, as a renowned Spanish author mid-career, thirty years later. After disappointment with poetry, Vila-Matas decides to be novelist, and so he gets to Paris and gets working. Of course, it’s not easy. His first novel -- basically the killing joke rendered in literature -- sounds terrible, decades later. His artistic circle is hardly any help. His books do little to shed light on how best to attack the blank page. Everyone has their own way, and Vila-Matas will have to find his own. The book begins with Vila-Matas enrolling in the annual Hemingway look-alike contest in Key West, and ends recognizing that what he saw in Paris -- namely grey -- was actually a reflection of himself.

That said, the black-and-white pictures I found on Vila-Matas’ website change everything for me. It seems Duras was really there, as was Sergio Pitol, Raul Echari and even William Borroughs. I kind of wish the pictures were printed in the book. They would have made even the least credible claims seem true. Although I guess questions of veracity, authorship and text were all meant to be challenged.

Never Any End to Paris came out in 2003, when maybe these sorts of devices seemed novel. And yet for all of this almost experimentation, the book is quite conventional, accepting norms like self-hood and language, time and place. Even its fragmented, unfinished quality, seems like an extrapolation from modernity, except perhaps that Vila-Matas lacks the verve and excitement of the fox or Stein. Is that his point? Are we even more cynical than the cynical '70s? Is literature even possible?

Had Vila-Matas instead focused on the wild meetings between Dada and Surrealism -- who nuts like Pound dismissed -- this would be another book, another Paris, for sure, one with a much greater “spleen.”