Enrique Vila-Matas: Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil (A Brief History of Portable Literature)
If you have read any other Vila-Matas literary ramblings, the format of this book will be familiar to you. He takes a subject – in this case portable literature (of which more anon) – seems to start off on that subject, then goes shooting off on all sorts of fascinating tangents, mainly though certainly not all literary. The story is peopled with a host of writers and other artistic types, a few of which you will have heard of, most of whom you probably won’t have heard of, either because you have not heard of them or because they are Vila-Matas’ own inventions, mixed in with the real characters he also writes about.
Portable literature is nominally based on a travelling desk, where a writer carried all of his stuff – pens, papers, books, etc – in this case which, when opened, acted as something like a desk, to be used on trains, etc. The precursor of the laptop if you will! Marcel Duchamp’s may be the most famous. While this idea is used throughout the book, it really is an excuse to focus on a wide range of writers, who shared similarities and whom we would call, variously poètes maudits, outsiders, cult writers or simply something like outcast or a writer whoo does not conform to the general establishment norms. These morph into a secret society called the Shandy Secret Society (after Tristram Shandy), known as the Shandies. They have various rules, including behaving like children, remaining unmarried, being innovative, having a strong sexuality, nomadic and a disinterest in grand statements, a tireless nomadism, a fraught coexistence with doppelgängers, a sympathy for negritude, and the cultivation of the art of insolence.. Two key events were the pillars on which the history of portable literature is built – the nervous breakdown of the writer Andrei Bely and the composer Edgar Varèse falling from his horse, while parodying Apollonaire leavng for war. Of course, none of this makes sense and that is the fun of it.
The society started in 1924. The very real Francis Picabia asks his former lover, the very fictitious Berta Bocado (bocado means a bite to eat), to check out Andrei Bely to see if he is one of us. Unfortunately, she mistakes Bely for another Russian, Vladimir Ulyanov, i.e. Lenin. She gives a strange report on the man she thinks is Bely and Picabia feels there may be a coded message behind it. Marcel Duchamp, who is one of us, has a dream in which the phrase C’est Bely le plus vieux du Port Actif (i.e. It is Bely, the oldest man in Port Actif. Port Actif is a (fictitious) town at the mouth of the River Niger, but is also a play on words in French as, when spoken, can more or less be pronounced as portatif, the French for portable. While none of this makes much sense to us, it does to Picabia, Duchamp and three other friends, the fictitious Ferenc Szalay and real Paul Morand and Jacques Rigaut and they set out for Port Actif. Apart from a café called the Café du Louvre, they find nothing much there, till they bump into an elegant femme fatale, who turns out to be Georgia O’Keeffe.
Back in Paris the society has its inaugural meeting at Shakespeare and Co., the English language bookshop, and, thereafter, a host of characters – real, unreal and supernatural – are involved. Rigaut sets up his General Suicide Company and, eventually kills himself. Werner Littbarski, named after Oskar Werner, the actor who appeared in Jules and Jim and an Austrian footballer, finds a rare mistake in the writings of Karl Kraus and becomes the ideal host of a party held by the society in Vienna. Borges and F Scott Fitzgerald put in an appearance, as do a host of lesser-known writers and artists. The party transfers to Prague, where most of the participants meet an Odradek, a creature from a Kafka novella but which here are sorts of non-human or quasi-human doppelgängers.
The society travels round Europe, never feeling comfortable with wherever they are, not least because of the Odradeks and similar creatures that seem to haunt them. Salvador Dalí, Robert Walser and Aleister Crowley are just some of the well-known names that make an appearance in their ranks. In many of his other books, the author himself puts in an appearance and, indeed, often plays a significant role. In this book, he only puts in a brief appearance and then only to complain that everything he sees and does reminds him of the Shandies.
You either like this sort of book or you don’t. I found it thoroughly enjoyable, indeed, perhaps one of his best. It is witty, clever, highly informative and totally improbable. What more could you want in a novel?
First published in 1985 by Anagrama
First English translation by New Directions in 2015
Translated by Anne McLean and Thomas Bunstead