Never any End to Paris
A Novel by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
(2003) 2011 / 197 Pages
The Setup: This brilliantly ironic novel about literature and writing, in Enrique Vila-Matas’s trademark witty and erudite style, is told in the form of a lecture delivered by a novelist clearly a version of the author himself. The “lecturer” tells of his two-year stint living in Marguerite Duras’s garret during the seventies, spending time with writers, intellectuals, and eccentrics, and trying to make it as a creator of literature:
“I went to Paris and was very poor and very unhappy.” Encountering such luminaries as Duras, Roland Barthes, Georges Perec, Sergio Pitol, Samuel Beckett, and Juan Marsé, our narrator embarks on a novel whose text will “kill” its readers and put him on a footing with his beloved Hemingway. (Never Any End to Paris takes its title from a refrain in A Moveable Feast.) What emerges is a fabulous portrait of intellectual life in Paris that, with humor and penetrating insight, investigates the role of literature in our lives. (From the hardcover edition)
There Is Never Any End to Paris is the title of a chapter from Ernest Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast, a memoir written about the author’s experiences living in The City of Light in the 1920s. It’s from here that Enrique Vila-Matas draws his inspiration, crafting a fictional memoir of his own that is written in the form of an absurd three day lecture in which he recounts his experiences living in Paris in the 1970s as he struggled to write his very first novel titled The Lettered Assassin (if I’m not mistaken in reality this was actually Villa-Matas’ second novel and it still has not found its way to English translation.)
Two things immediately become clear to the reader about the fictional version of Vila-Matas: he idolizes Hemmingway and he’s obsessed with irony. In fact the book opens with him describing, much to the consternation of his wife who strongly disagrees, that he looks more and more like Hemmingway every day. He even flies to Florida to enter a lookalike contest only to be disqualified before the judging ever begins because, well, he doesn’t really look anything remotely like Papa. Embarrassed, but undeterred by the experience he sticks to his conviction that the two bear striking physical similarities, even when it’s obvious to nearly everyone else that they most certainly do not.
On the surface Vila-Matas appears to be a man that believes only what he wants to believe. Does he then believe that he’s got what it takes to be a good writer? As the fake memoir unfolds the answer to that question appears to be that he’s filled with nagging doubts.
Fleeing a life lived with his parents in Barcelona, the young aspiring novelist makes his way to Paris where he lives in near poverty and rents a garret (attic or very top space of a building) from the famous French writer Marguerite Duras. When he asks her for advice with regards to writing his novel she provides him with a piece of paper with the following instructions:
1. Structural Problems. 2. Unity and harmony. 3. Plot and Story. 4. Time. 5. Textual Effects. 6. Verisimilitude. 7. Narrative technique. 8. Characters. 9. Dialog. 10. Setting(s). 11. Style. 12. Experience. 13. Linguistic register.
Feeling overwhelmed, but nonetheless determined Vila-Matas embarks on the journey of writing a novel with which he hopes to kill his readers. The irony of creating a potentially famous piece of literature that would literarily murder every single person who would have otherwise been around to praise it is of course not lost on him.
By way of his three day lecture he reconstructs his time in Paris by dropping a slew of literary references, name checking those that hung out with regularly and even those he only met in passing once or twice. He tells tales of his attempts to visit Hemmingway’s old haunts and gives his take on the contentious relationship the author had with his friend and rival Scott Fitzgerald. He also recounts how he struggled, but persevered in his attempt to write his very first novel.
As a whole the books makes for a highly entertaining, ironical piece, but there are moments where one wishes Vila-Matas would move things along a faster clip. Being a tale that’s comprised of 113 short chapters there are bound to be few misses, but when two, three, or more of them are strung together things can lean towards the tedious.
Come for the pieces about Hemmingway which are gold, stay for the descriptions of life in Paris in the 1970s which are silver, enjoy the unique memoir / novel / lecture storytelling technique which is bronze, and endure the rest which is brilliant in small doses, but does tend become a bit tiresome at certain points.