Shelley (and later Paul Valéry) suggested that all literature might be the work of a single Author and that, throughout the ages, writers have merely acted as His (or Her) amanuenses. A visit to any large bookshop today seems to confirm this thesis: an infinitude of almost identical accounts of Da Vinci conspiracy theories, immigrant life in London or Los Angeles, dysfunctional families in Brooklyn or Glasgow, offer readers the impression of bewildering déjà vu. If literature has one Author, it’s time for Her (or Him) to change subjects. The figure in the carpet is wearing thin.
Enter Enrique Vila-Matas. For the past 30 years, aware of the futility of telling interesting stories in a world bent on stolid repetition, Vila-Matas has chosen to construct his books out of bits and pieces of the available literature itself, renewing even the idea of collage or bricolage so dear to the practitioners of experimental art in the early 20th century. Vila-Matas, however, never gives the impression of experimenting; there’s no feeling of trial-and-error in his work. Rather, what he does is hold with the reader an intelligent conversation (monologue is perhaps a better word) made up of quotations, literary anecdotes, personal readings and startling associations, that build up an illuminating and brilliant farrago. If he has any ancestors, they belong to the 17th and 18th centuries: Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton, Denis Diderot and Lawrence Sterne. All of Vila-Matas’s books have something of Tristram Shandy.
After several excellent books, admired almost secretly by a restricted group of readers, Vila-Matas achieved international fame in 2000 with Bartleby & Co., an exploration of the limits of literature through a catalogue of writers (real and imaginary) who, like Melville’s famous scrivener, ‘prefer not’ to write. Absence of literature is the subject of this book (just as absence of action is the subject of Sterne) and around that absence, Vila-Matas wove a splendid meditation on the morose nature of our time that, under the pretence of febrile activity and snappy urgency, sits and does nothing. Read More
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