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Anne Serre: Voyage avec Vila-Matas [Journey with Vila-Matas]

This is the second work of fiction on this site about Enrique Vila-Matas, as opposed to the many by him. (This is the other one).

It is seemingly a non-fiction account of an author attending a literary festival, at which Vila-Matas is present, but it is not. Our narrator is a female novelist (fortunately, with French, we know that because of the adjectives she uses for herself are in the feminine) who does share similarities with our author – both were born in Bordeaux and both lost their mother when they were still children – but also has differences. For example, our narrator published her first book in 2012 while our author published her first book in 1992. We must assume, therefore, that our narrator is partially if not entirely fictitious.

Our narrator is somewhat quirky. She lives on her own, likes to sleep in during the morning and has killed her mother ten times. No, she is not a murderess. She is frequently invited to literary festivals and the like and enthusiastically accepts, only to get cold feet nearer the date and then cancelling, usually using the excuse that her mother has just died, even though she, in fact, died when our narrator was twelve. She is the sort of person that likes a calm, ordered life but she grew up in a household which was anything but calm.

She reads a lot and mentions numerous authors, some of whom she has met, frequently quoting from their books, most of whom are entirely fictitious. However, many real authors do make an appearance, including,of course, the aforementioned, eponymous Enrique Vila-Matas. She has been reading and re-reading Vila-Matas and we get a lot of commentary on him, including his obsession with fathers. She has, in particular, been reading Kassel no invita a la lógica (The Illogic of Kassel), which is about Vila-Matas attending a literary festival (which he really did).

She has been invited to a fictitious literary festival in Montauban, primarily because the main speaker is a friend of hers (and, of course, fictitious). Much of the early part of the book is about her train journey from Paris to Montauban, during which nothing much happens and a lot happens. A lot happens because she does talk to a friend but also because we follow her musings. One of her earliest musings is about sex. She imagines randomly leaving the train and going off with a strange man to a hotel for sex. More than once she will imagine getting off the train before Montauban, but she does not.

She bumps into Brigitta at the station in Paris. Brigitta is a (fictitious) novelist who writes in both French and German. Our narrator has not read her latest novel Die Welt von tomorrow as she does not read German. Despite the fact that they are friends and have not seen each other for a couple of years, she is determined not to sit near Brigitta on the train and feels that Brigitta will feel the same way so that each one can do what they normally do on the train – read, sleep, look at the view… She will later imagine that she really met Brigitta for the first time in a Vila-Matas novel.

Brigitta has one interesting sideline. She collects the opening sentences from books and has a massive website (called My Obsession) with over 5000 such sentences.

So we follow our narrator’s musings on the train. She thinks about Vila-Matas, whom she has once met but was disappointed because Vila-Matas the author, as is the case with all authors, is not the same as Vila-Matas the man. Other musings include what photos writers have on their desk of other writers. It used to be Kafka but she has a photo of Proust, not the usual one, but the one where he looks like Kafka.

She has a seat to herself but the opposite seat is occupied by a woman who seems to spend the entire journey asleep (she will later turn out to be a musician attending the festival and is exhausted from her performance the night before) so our narrator imagines Vila-Matas sitting on the non-existent seat next to this woman. He, too, falls asleep, perhaps having fantasies about the sleeping woman. But she also wonders about answering questions about her previous novel (which she has more or less forgotten) at the festival, about Bordeaux, where the train stops and where she was born and about her latest book about a writer at work, though this will change to writing a novel about Bordeaux and then to the novel we are reading, i.e. one about her attendance at a literary festival and Vila-Matas.

At the festival she does, of course, see Vila-Matas. Or does she? In other words, is she imagining him? She imagines him as a spy and thinks he has a crowbar and file in his pocket. She talks to him though he may well not be there. She even mentions visiting his flat in Barcelona and wandering around it when he is there, though he does not notice her. At night, they have adjacent rooms and seem to communicate through the wall. And it all ends with the arrival at the festival of the Italian actress Anna Magnani, who died forty-three years before the festival.

This is the just the first part (of three) of this novel. The second part features, as its protagonist, Vila-Matas himself. He is in his flat in Barcelona and receives an email from a woman called Rosanna Carriera whom, as far as he can recall, he has never heard of. She claims that he is the father of her twenty-year old daughter. He can remember everyone he had sex with twenty years ago – only his wife Adriana (the real Vila-Matas’ real wife is called Paula) – so this cannot be true.

However, despite his misgivings, he decides to follow up, not least when he receives subsequent emails from Rosanna. He tells his wife and other people about the email and each one immediately sees it as basis for a future novel. Indeed, this is one of the annoying things in his life. Every time something happens to him or them, they say it should be the basis of a novel.

He contacts a friend to whom something similar happened some time ago and the friend tells him that a detective solved it for him but the detective has since been murdered. He cannot locate the woman but, seemingly, the daughter locates him.

The final and shortest section has her on another train journey with more musings, about various towns in France and about, of course, Vila-Matas (is it time to let him go as she let Kafka go some time ago?) She concludes that Vila-Matas is really just a fictional character or, rather he is both a fictional character and a writer just like Robert Walser.

This is both a very witty novel and a very clever one. Obviously the main subject is the borderline between fiction and reality. Where is it? What is it? And how fluid is it? The answer to the latter question, at least from the point of view of this novel, is very. What makes it fascinating is that she jumps all over the place with interesting ideas, often changing point of view from one sentence to the next, while at the same time, mocking both herself and others.

I would be curious to know what Vila-Matas’ reaction was to this book? We know he can read French and, anyway, the book has been translated into Spanish (but not into any other language). Did he know in advance? Did Serre ask his permission to fictionalise his life? If not, was he upset? Whatever the case, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I had no idea where it was going but the journey was well worth it.

Publishing history

First published 2017 by Le Mercure de France
No English translation
First published in Spanish as Viaje con Vila-Matas in 2018 by L’Art de la Memoria
Translated by Montserrat Gallart i Sanfeliu