An outdoor café is an ideal setting to read Enrique Vila-Matas’ stories; you can imagine the writer himself happening by and making you a character in the untranslatable sound-and-light show that must run through his head. The café where I began reading Vampire in Love was in New York’s Hudson Valley, and a chalkboard sign beckoned customers by asking, “Do you need more coffee? Do you hear colors? Switch to decaf.”
Or, keep pouring down the caffeine, and maybe you’ll begin to understand the gauzy boundaries between the senses in this amazing Spanish Catalan writer’s paean-to-post-Modernism and myriad literary-greats, a melding-of-genres meta-fiction. Vila-Matas, born in Barcelona in 1948, has written 20-some odd novels and has collected at least a dozen international literary prizes over the course of his career, but only in the past decade has his work begun to appear in English, largely through the efforts of New Directions Publishing.
The truth is, I didn’t read Vampire in Love in the café. I just passed the sign and thought I should be reading it. Then I noticed a man who looked a lot like Vila-Matas walking by. I followed him around a corner—until he turned and admonished, “I’m just impersonating the author.”
That’s what it’s like to read Vila-Matas. A narrator who is the author often follows a character to chase down that person’s story, and the narrator gets cagey about who he is and what is really happened. In playing the narrator he seems ever conscious of the mantle he’s borrowed from others, notably Jorge Luis Borges, who blurred genre boundaries and deployed elaborate literary hoaxes to interrogate literature as we knew it, and Roberto Bolaño, who idolized Borges and used detective characters to cast a jaded eye on the literary world. Vila-Matas often has someone spying on his characters, including the narrator/author and is aware that his presence will upend them.
“I am a pursuer of other people’s lives, a kind of lazy detective, a storyteller,” one such narrator explains in “The Hour of the Tired and Weary,” a story in which the color palette is all vivid, film-noirish shades of gray that seep into your bones like damp weather. Vila-Matas describes the time of day, twilight, as “the crepuscular hour when even the shadows grow weary.” Indeed, while his characters consume a lot of coffee, and a lot of whiskey and amphetamines, what fuels them more than substances is a kind of synesthesia. That is, his stories are full of a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second pathway. Life and art wind together in a crepuscular way, as do life and death.
Take the story “Rosa Schwarzer Comes Back to Life,” about a 50-year-old Dusseldorf museum guard whose very name walks the line between a painting she calls “Monsieur Pink” and Paul Klee’s “The Black Prince.” The latter painting calls to Rosa with an Orientalist-style fantasy of tom toms and “the land of suicides.” Ultimately she swallows a cyanide capsule and enters the canvas, where the prince and his subjects “from the countless huts bathed by an ocean of crystalline waters” welcome her in evening dress—but Rosa decides unreality is just as unpleasant as reality and performs a reverse suicide that sends her spiraling back to her monochrome life, her adventure unnoticed by her cheating husband and inattentive sons.
Yet, Klee’s “The Black Prince,” in spite of the African-inspired motifs in the prince’s accessories, is a fairly minimalist composition. No huts or crystalline waters, just a black background, color blocks for facial features: in short, art as a sensory pathway. Vila-Matas owes a debt to Klee and all of the Dadaists—in fact he’s been down that road with his novel A Brief History of Portable Literature, first published in 1985 and an instant cult classic among Spanish readers.
The novel invents a secret society called the Shandies that included Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, Aleister Crowley, and Jacques Rigaut, whose suicide the other society members view as a perfect work of art. Vila-Matas also echoes what Picasso said while he was dabbling in Dada, that art is a lie that makes our dreams come true. So, if the boundaries between life and art are hazy, perhaps life is also a lie, unreality as much a burden as reality, death as absurd as life.
Frequently, Vila-Matas has his characters contemplate suicide, but relief from life eludes them. In A Brief History he deploys the Swiss novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars as a mouthpiece for this judgement: “There would be nothing worse than killing yourself and making a fool of yourself, and, to top it all off, not even knowing you’d done that.”
Famous writers and artists often appear in Vila-Matas’s fiction. When he was a young writer he lived in Paris for two years, in an attic that Marguerite Duras had once rented. In the story “Sea Swell” the narrator is a young amphetamine-popping, would-be writer—that is, he might write if he weren’t taking so many pills that he’s become non-verbal. The narrator tells the story of a night when, newly arrived in Paris, his friend Andrés took him to Duras’s apartment for dinner. Sonia Orwell is there too, and Duras is preparing a scrumptious dinner of baby squid “leaping and dancing about in the frying pan,” with a cigarette in her mouth that gets fried to a crisp. But even before dinner is ready, Andrés highjacks the story with a demonstration of both the artist’s license to lie and the banality of suicide.
For many English-language readers Vampire in Love will provide the first chance to read Vila-Matas’s short stories en masse. The stories are a retrospective of his career, and a thoughtful editor seems to have arranged them by accessibility—ie. the most fully realized works come at the beginning. The result seems rather generous; Vila-Matas sharing his musings, or at least a carefully curated selection of them. If this were an art retrospective the large, splashy canvases would occupy the entry hall, then you’d wander into a smaller space filled with rougher sketches. There’s a writer’s workshop feel to the story “An Idle Soul”, in which the narrator claims to be the mosquito net over a couple’s bed. Vila-Matas could have scrapped everything in that story but the memorable final line: “They say the imagination is a place where it’s always raining.”
The title story, “The Vampire in Love” is about a Thomas Mann-like misfit, an ugly man stalking a beautiful choirboy and contemplating suicide, a story that offers a kaleidoscopic tribute to being alive, yet is a tad doctrinaire in its Vila-Matas checkpoints: the author passing the vampire in the street, the gun that sends the vampire reeling into a less-than-spectacular finale.
But don’t avoid the backspace; the experiments that fall flat only illuminate those in which Vila-Matas probes the archeology of a writer’s thoughts and digs out treasures. A writer must have invented memories, no? That’s the title of one of his stories, a series of loosely conjoined vignettes recalling a bar in the Azores frequented by whalers and things a lot of writers may or may not have said. There is “I’m Not Going to Read Any More E-mails”, about the messages a writer, who likes the sound of his own thoughts, might send to friends without reading theirs, resulting in such observations as: “Conceited critics only improve when they have a bit of a suntan,” and, “I never read anything for fear of reading something good.”
And the appropriate signature piece, “Vok’s Successsors,” about a writer contemplating, who will, by dint of legal documents, inherit his mind. It starts with a man following the narrator, who is himself the heir of a great writer named Vilém Vok. If, as Borges wrote in an essay on Kafka, “Every writer creates his own precursors,” Vila-Matas is playing with the idea that a writer can also designate those who will follow his inspiration. Not incidentally, Vilém Vok is a pseudonym he’s used in the past – and he has told interviewers that a younger writer once did follow him and offer to write his books for him.
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