Reading Reality through the Imagination: In Conversation with Enrique Vila-Matas
That Famous Abyss (Wunderkammer, 2020) is a book of exclusive interviews with Enrique Vila-Matas by cultural journalist Anna María Iglesia, covering such themes as why write, the places of literature, the art of disappearing, and the poetics of failure. The result is a text that is equally reflective as it is biographical and intimate, filled with the great names of literature and art alongside personal anecdotes and memories of the author. The following exchange appears in chapter 1, “Why Write?”
Anna María Iglesia: Why do you write?
Enrique Vila-Matas: Do I need to tell the truth?
Iglesia: Of course not. In fact, this is not a biography.
Vila-Matas: Much better, then.
Iglesia: A few years ago, when asked this same question by a journalist, you answered: “In some remote time, some ancestor made that first loop. We are nothing but their imitators, a link in the uninterrupted chain of tradition. So the one who needs to be asked as to why I write is that ancestor; ask him why he wanted to move beyond that knot.”[i]
Vila-Matas: Well, I imagine that finding that ancestor will prove impossible for you. I see it like someone who spoke in the name of God. As far as I can go, I think, is to try to speak in the language of poetry, that language without name. Look, in reality, I’ve spent my whole life unaware of why I write, to the degree that, when my parents died, I discovered in one of their closets two short stories I had written when I was five years old. When I wrote them, I was still a long way off from being truly a writer, but the love stories told therein predicted what I would dedicate myself to in life.
Iglesia: And those first love stories, were they unhappy or happy?
Vila-Matas: They weren’t unhappy, but neither were they happy. In those days, I didn’t even know that things could also be seen from the opposite side to the light.
Iglesia: Truman Capote says that writing stopped being fun “when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad.” When did you discover that in order to be a writer you had to not just write, but also write well?
Vila-Matas: It seems to me that I suddenly discovered the abyss that separates the activity of writing from that of writing well one afternoon early in 1966 when my literature professor in school read aloud, seeking to ridicule me, the opening of my writing exercise. “As you can see, the student Vila-Matas informs us in this text of the weak light from his desk lamp,” that professor commented after reading the first lines. Everyone laughed and I felt it as a mockery of my parents’ precarious financial situation and an unjust attack upon my writing, because through that lamp (about which I said “it drowsed above my sleepless eyes”) I described something strongly felt and very real, my state of mind in that moment, something, let us say to understand each other, “very much my own.” This detail (the fact that it was something “very mine”) made me see that it was the first time that I wrote well, that I had made the leap from writing mechanically (to simply pass that assignment) to writing from an intimate need to write. Meanwhile, my stupid classmates kept laughing, about the weak light from my lamp I supposed. And I remember that, as a way of silent resistance to external stupidity, I was repeating to myself the entire time a sentence by Manolete that my maternal grandmother had taught me: “I am the one who knows when I’ve been a good matador.”
Iglesia: Returning to your childhood, I think of that stroll in San Juan, which was turned into La calle Rimbaud.
Vila-Matas: La calle Rimbaud is a text about my childhood and that early path in life: the walk from home to school and from school back home; the route I’ve walked more times over the course of my days; the itinerary I know best. It is a text about my childhood that is so precise, perhaps that’s why I’ve never again written anything more about it.
Iglesia: Nonetheless, that reconversion of the street makes me wonder: do you take refuge in fiction or flee from reality?
Vila-Matas: I don’t flee from reality. My favorite writers (Cervantes, Kafka, Beckett, for example) fought with titanic efforts against all forms of deceit; theirs was a combat with an obvious paradoxical tone, for they were up to their necks in the world of fabulation, but they sought the truth through nothing less than that, through fiction.
It is a fiction that brings me closer to a truth that is not invented but is always a fiction tied necessarily to reality, to the squeaky stupor this produces.
Iglesia: “Everything in the book is true because nothing is invented and because already then, eleven years ago, I wrote fiction trying to move closer, not to reality, but to the truth,” you say in the prologue to the 2013 Seix Barral edition of París no se acaba nunca.
Vila-Matas: It is a fiction that brings me closer to a truth that is not invented but is always a fiction tied necessarily to reality, to the squeaky stupor this produces.
Iglesia: In what sense?
Vila-Matas: I think Juan Marsé expresses this best in Caligrafía de los sueños, in a paragraph in which he tells how his young protagonist “discovers suddenly that the invented can have more weight and solidity than the real, more life of its own and more meaning, and as a consequence more possibilities of enduring against oblivion.”
Iglesia: On one occasion, speaking with Rodrigo Fresán . . .
Vila-Matas: Just a moment. Now that you mention Fresán, the title of his novel La parte inventada always reminded me of that paragraph by Marsé which I just quoted for you, although I know that Fresán’s title doesn’t come from there but from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night: “Only the invented part of our life—the unreal part—has had any scheme, any beauty.” I suppose that is why for many of us there are characters from novels who are much more real than our neighbors across the way.
Iglesia: What Fresán mentioned to me is that there are literatures which seem to be born directly from the library and that yours could be one of these.
Vila-Matas: Life and literature have always gone so hand in hand in me that it’s hard for me to accept that my literature comes from books; rather it comes from the books that are in life, and let’s not forget that books form part of life.
Iglesia: More than once you’ve said that writing is not the same as being a writer. How would Michel Leiris say it, the writer is one who understands literature as a risk?
Vila-Matas: That comment about “writing is not the same as being a writer” was attributed to me through an error in translation. In Paris in 1993, Christian Salmon founded Autodafé, the magazine in eight languages of the International Parliament of Writers, and he invited me to write something. I sent a text centered on explaining that “writing was not the same as moving through life as a writer.” André Gabastou translated my text perfectly as always, but he changed the title when they asked him to abbreviate it, and it turned out that he titled it in a clever and someway enigmatic way: Writing is ceasing to be a writer. Thanks to that title, the text had an extraordinary success when the Spanish version appeared in the Barcelona Review; I supposed that everyone wanted to know what that strange affirmation meant . . .
And so, you ask me what I think is the bull’s horn that the writer must always face, and as I now see variously at once, I shall focus on just one, the most intellectual one: I consider a writer above all else one who seems to have paid heed to Barthes when he proposed to a critic-friend of his that he renounce a false objectivity and move “toward literature, no longer as an object of analysis, but as an activity of writing.” In other words, the kind of narrator I like best is one who previously has worked as a critic and who at a specific moment knows how to understand that, if he wishes to honor literature, he must become a writer directly; that is to say, to enter the arena and to prolong, through other means, that which has always been at play in literature: the exploration of certain abysses.
The kind of narrator I like best is one who previously has worked as a critic and who at a specific moment knows how to understand that, if he wishes to honor literature, he must become a writer directly.
Iglesia: In the first story of Exploradores del abismo (Explorers of the abyss), the narrative voice says: “I now feel simply outside of here and I’ve chosen to take a step further and to cast my gaze into other spaces, to convert myself into an explorer of that famous abyss.” The stories are an attempt to be other, to “un-vilamatas” yourself. Does the literary abyss lie precisely in this: in a confrontation between what is known and the exploration of new spaces?
Vila-Matas: Yes, I would say, in trying to always go beyond our possibilities. I destroyed myself physically trying to be a congenial writer, that is to say, I thought that in order to write very well I had to literally go in search of the bull’s horn and risk my life and I nearly lost it, and everything came to a head in 2006 in what I call “my physical collapse.” I left behind some good books that practically cost me my life, El mal de Montano and Doctor Pasavento, for example. On returning to the world after the collapse, I decided to try my luck with a book of stories that would tie in to Suicidios ejemplares and, over the course of a calm convalescence (I didn’t lose energy, but I stopped drinking), I was writing stories about “explorers” of the most varied abysses, as if trying to find which out of all of them best matched my personality. I finished the book and delivered it to Anagrama. Months went by.
Then one day, Exploradores del abismo was published and suddenly, without any advance warning, a journalist from El País called me at home to ask me some questions about the book. I had fallen out of the habit of speaking about literature and had the feeling of talking about my work from before the collapse as if it were the work of someone else, as if I were a kind of manager or heir of that work, which even seemed distant and very strange. I lived that telephone interview as if it were the beginning of a story in which I was the central character, a kind of imposter, someone who spoke in my name, the name of the Vila-Matas who I pretend to have once been. . . . To be clear: it’s not that I wanted to “un-vilamatas” myself, but that I had done so without trying. Well, that is what I thought.
I began to write Dublinesca convinced I was someone else and that this would be very noticeable in what I wrote. Dublinesca is written to explore who I had become. As I wrote it, I remember explaining to Ricardo Piglia (walking the long streets of Puerto de Santa María) that I was someone very different from the person he had met a few years before. It was a very intense stroll and conversation, almost wild. Suddenly, Piglia stopped walking and, on a dime, looked me in the eye and told me (it was an absolute surprise to me): “I don’t see that you’ve changed at all. Writing for you continues to be a concentrated form of thought.”
Iglesia: Is what makes you most uncomfortable about being a writer the public aspect, this having to speak beyond your books themselves?
Vila-Matas: In the great novels, an illusion of knowledge always persists, an imminence, that is to say, a revelation that doesn’t take place, which Borges said was precisely the art. That is why John Ashbery insists so much that it is impossible to be a good artist and at the same time be able to explain your work in an intelligent way. Sometimes I wonder what my novel is about—or even my entire body of work; I remember the elevator operator of a hotel in Lima asking me this—and I usually answer that my book is about everything that is written in it, not a word more and not a word less.
And yes, lately that public aspect makes me uncomfortable, especially having to recount the plot of my last novel when the truth is that the plots of my recent books are slight, pure pretexts to carry out my readings of reality through imagination. In fact, although I repress it as much as I can, deep down I really hate all those who make use of a plot or storyline to write one of those conventional novels that purports to offer the reader “a vision of the world.” Those plots, those storylines! When I think of all that, I always seek ways to disengage myself as much as possible from that kind of obligation and to try to be free and wind up returning to the last words of Ferlosio’s speech when he won the Premio Cervantes: “The plot stopped and happiness ensued.” It’s a sentence that might well have been said by A. G. Porta, a magnificent novelist from Sant Andreu, Barcelona, and a specialist in the joy of not explaining his books.
Recently, a young Italian writer, Gennaro Serio, must have found out about my aversion to a certain type of interviewer. With Notturno di Gibilterra, he’s won the Italo Calvino prize with an intrigue about my sudden disappearance from the Grand Hotel Rodoreda, in Barcelona, shortly after the journalist who was to interview me has been murdered.
The plots of my recent books are slight, pure pretexts to carry out my readings of reality through imagination.
Iglesia: The novel Notturno de Gibilterra makes me think of your first novel, La asesina ilustrada. There, a book murdered all the readers who read it. A declaration of intentions?
Vila-Matas: It’s possible that Gennaro Serio was inspired by La asesina ilustrada when it came to imagining the criminal behavior he gives me in his novel. In Corriere della Sera, they asked him why he chose me as a character, and he answered that it was because I am a great reader who enjoys talking about the end of literature and because I really have the face of a murderer.
Iglesia: As far as the plot goes, I’m reminded of some advice by Chekhov, “Take something from ordinary, real life, without neither a plot nor an ending.”
Vila-Matas: Just yesterday I was reading “El budín esponjoso,” a story by the wonderful Argentine author Hebe Uhart, a writer of the minimal, a specialist in the slice of life, in a Chekhovian style. Even knowing beforehand the kind of writing she practiced, I was astonished that the story didn’t go beyond narrating how, as a girl, she had tried to make in her mother’s kitchen a paradiso sponge cake.
Iglesia: The question of why one writes always implies a questioning of the commitment to what one writes.
Vila-Matas: I am of the camp that suspects that careful attention to the work is the writer’s only moral conviction.
Iglesia: And that work, that of writing, can it only be understood as an “extreme moment of freedom”?
Vila-Matas: Writing cannot be more strongly connected to freedom, to extreme freedom. That’s Cervantes’ lesson in Don Quixote. Or is it perhaps the key to living better cannot lie in the joy of writing when it is tied to the exercise of freedom, or to that variety of freedom which Cervantes discovered in madness?
Iglesia: Marguerite Duras says: “To write is to try to know what one would write if one wrote.” Is writing a rehearsal, an exercise?
Vila-Matas: The key lies in that “if one wrote” because it gives to understand that we will never get anywhere. Abut this, Agamben says that it is like when someone looks at something at twilight, it is not so much that the light is uncertain, but that one knows it won’t be possible to finish seeing it, because of the diminishing light. And Pessoa, who thought something similar, said that he always wound up writing as if fulfilling a punishment: “The greatest punishment is to know that whatever I write will be futile, flawed and uncertain.”
Iglesia: Assuming that what one writes will always be flawed, should one always write thinking of writing a masterpiece?
Vila-Matas: One must write from humility. Because humility, Kafka said, offers everyone, even those who despair in loneliness, the closest relationship with their fellows. One must write from the strictest humility without ever closing the door of creating a masterpiece.
Iglesia: Duras’s words bring us to another of the key themes in your work and to a central figure such as Robert Walser, about whom you say: “Writing that one cannot write is also writing.” Is writing also the impossibility of writing?
Vila-Matas: Obviously. Walser himself said it clearly when he confessed: “I wouldn’t wish on anyone to be me. Only I am able to endure myself. To know so much, to have seen so much and to say nothing about nothing.” In short, perhaps because of all this I’m saying, in Esta bruma insensata, the central question switches between two trends: faith in writing and the radical rejection of that faith. I am very sympathetic to both attitudes.
Iglesia: “It is my intention, therefore, to make my way through the labyrinth of the No, down the roads of the most disquieting and attractive tendency of contemporary literature: a tendency in which is to be found the only path still open to genuine literary creation,” we read in Bartleby and Co. Returning to the earlier question: Do you write to save literature from its impossibility?
Vila-Matas: Paradoxically, it is a way of managing to keep literature alive, letting one be carried by the conviction that only those who write aware of the end of literature can make it survive. Look, I wrote Bartleby and Co influenced in part by a wonderful book, El estadio de Wimbledon, by Daniele del Giudice (translated into Spanish by Ignacio Martínez de Pisón for Anagrama). In that novel—Italo Calvino considered it “a story” that announced a new era for literature—Del Giudice wonders about the brilliant Bob Bazlen’s strange rejection of writing and, fifteen years after his death, journeys to Trieste to question those who knew him and at the same time ask himself if it is worth his continuing to write.
What the story tells is the transformation of the narrator who, having begun his investigation wanting to conserve Bazlen’s idea according to which “it is no longer possible to keep writing,” winds up giving this negation a twist of the screw and writing the book. I asked Del Giudice when he visited Barcelona (during a lovely dinner at the restaurant Can Massana) how it was that the narrator had wound up writing the book, and he told me that the force of despair made the work of art more vigorous and paradoxically more precarious, which led me to think of Duchamp’s famous ready-made, which was a negation of art and at the same time gave rise to another interpretation of the artistic phenomenon. I think that in these negations of sculpture, of literature, there is a passion for what is being denied.
For me there is an ethical search in the struggle to create new forms. And those who don’t struggle, don’t risk, only sink literature, give it the final death blow.
Iglesia: And that passion for what is denied, in this case literature, allows for literature itself to be transformed, as the professor Enrique Schmuckler says in an article about your work, into “a possible experience.”
Vila-Matas: Yes. And this is compatible with my idea that the written work is founded upon nothing and, therefore, one must never forget that everything is possible there, especially if we separate ourselves from the machinery of conventions. Moreover, to be valid a text must open new paths, or at least try to, attempting to say what has not yet been said. For me there is an ethical search in the struggle to create new forms. And those who don’t struggle, don’t risk, only sink literature, give it the final death blow.
In a great essay that I’ve lost, but which I assure you exists, Cyril Connolly begged for a whole family of conventions to be annihilated, all the novels that dealt with more than one generation or any period before 1918 or about super-intelligent but impoverished children in rectories, all the novels located in Oxford, Cambridge, Hyde Park, all the thin and emaciated faces of the intellectuals, all characters taller than five foot, nine inches, all those silly phrases from novels, like “I shall make you a cup of coffee” or “Honey, I’ve found a little house,” etc.
Iglesia: Therefore, you write because, like the character of Simon, the collector of quotes in Esta bruma insensata, you continue believing, despite everything, in literature and, above all, in the possibility of moving beyond literary conventions.
Vila-Matas: Yes, but I don’t want to resemble Simon, an opportunist who publishes his novel based on real events only because he sees the possibility of thereby improving his precarious economic situation. I want to resemble myself, a guy who ascribes to what someone called the mad wisdom that, if I don’t remember incorrectly, consists of believing in what we do and that what we do matters, but not overmuch, such that at any moment we could abandon it and, nonetheless, we can also continue believing firmly in it.
Translation from the Spanish