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Enrique Vila-Matas: París no se acaba nunca (Never Any End to Paris)

If you like post-modern fun and games, you should enjoy this novel. While the novel is nominally about Vila-Matas’ apprenticeship years in Paris (though he is never named), it is riddled with in-jokes, jumping about, tongue in cheek comments, dodging around the boundary between fact and fiction, writing about writing, odd anecdotes and, of course, an Ernest Hemingway look-alike competition. Indeed, the book starts with the Hemingway look-alike competition. VM (as I shall call him) is determined that he looks like Hemingway. His wife and others try to convince him that he does not. Nevertheless, he enters the competition in Key West, sporting a false beard. To his chagrin, he is disqualified, not because of the false beard but because he looks nothing like Hemingway. His resemblance (or lack of ) to Hemingway will remain a running joke throughout this book. Of course, Hemingway spent much time in Paris and wrote a book about The Moveable Feast and, at least initially, Hemingway will be something of an idol for VM, though this does fade later in the book.

The story is about two years that he spent in Paris, writing his first novel. Unfortunately, though the book under review has been translated into English, his first novel has not. As he makes numerous references to this book, and shows where often very minor details of that book came from, some of the charm of this book will be lost on those who have not read his first novel in Spanish (or a translation into another language) but there is still plenty to enjoy if you have not read his first novel. VM had, at his father’s instigation, studied law and his father was hoping that he would become a lawyer. However, he decided to spend some time in Paris, trying to become a writer and his father agrees to subsidise him, on condition he return to continue his legal studies afterwards. His father is not particularly generous and he struggles financially. Soon after his arrival, a Spanish friend introduces him to Marguerite Duras and she offers him a garret at the top of his house at the nominal rent of 100 francs a month (which he rarely pays) and he stays there. Previous tenants include Copi and François Mitterand when he was in the French resistance. (Name-dropping is a key part of this book.) Their relationship is also a key part of the book, though he does not understand her refined French. He is, however, very much a spectator of Duras and her friends when India Song is being filmed.

This book is nominally in the form of a lecture given over three-days to an audience not always on his side and, indeed, he has an interchange with an audience member. The lecture is not, however, on his stay in Paris (or, rather, it is but that is not the main subject) but on the subject of irony, a topic he plays around with but never fully addresses. He stresses that he does not like what he calls ferocious irony but the kind that vacillates between disappointment and hope. However, the lecture is, as he says, an ironic revision of his two years in Paris. He jumps backward and forward, starting with a prior and very short visit to Paris but also mentioning a recent visit to Paris, with his wife, some thirty years after the visit that is the subject of this novel.

VM goes off on all sorts of tangents. These include his relationship with Duras and his relationship with the various Spanish and Latin American writers living in Paris. Many of the Spanish ones, including VM, are waiting for Franco to die and when he does (after a false announcement), there is much celebrating. We also learn about his struggles to become a writer. He has no idea how to write a novel or what to write. He steals the idea of his book – the idea that reading a book can kill you and also that the murderer is the narrator – from the Spanish writer, Miguel de Unamuno and is annoyed when he reads the obituary of Agatha Christie to learn that she has used the idea of the murder/narrator. The structure of the novel is stolen from Nabokov. Duras gives him an interesting list of what a writer needs to focus on and one of his Spanish writer friends adds his suggestions. Both lots of suggestions leave him baffled. What is linguistic register? he wonders. He takes the full two years to write the book and is not happy with it (and is still not.) As mentioned, he gives numerous examples of things he sees and hears which he uses in the book. For example, the look of one of the characters is taken from a look Isabelle Adjani gives him at a party when he tries to be clever but, being drunk, makes a stupid statement. Adjani is one of the many celebrities whose path he seems to cross, almost by accident and almost as if this was quite normal, though this does not stop him quoting Cioran on the fact that while Paris is full of interesting people you never meet them but only the annoying ones. This is not the only contradiction in the book.

Part of the novel is his love affair with Paris though it is a very ambiguous affair. As the title states, Paris never ends. Everything else does but not Paris. (The idea comes from Hemingway, who said There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other . . . Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.. Hemingway also said If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you.) As Proust says, the past does not move and nor does Paris. He loves Paris but he finds it lonely (despite all the celebrities he keeps meeting) and, at times, does not like it. He tries to be a Parisian intellectual, reading the poètes maudits and even dressing in the way he thinks a Parisian intellectual should dress. He now feels that he knows Paris, its streets, its cafés and even its bus timetables, far better than he knows his home town of Barcelona.

He flirts with fashionable Parisian intellectual trends, such as situationism, Ouilpo and pataphysics, not having any idea what they mean, which is, of course, a tongue in cheek way of mocking them. He plays around with irony. The most ironical phrase he knows is the epitaph of Marcel Duchamp – D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent. [After all, it is always others who die.] He even dreams of New York, a city he has scarcely visited. He is afraid of two things – women and writing. But he meets Jean Seberg, Jean Marais, Perec, a faux Perec, Borges (in a secret, hidden bookshop), Samuel Beckett and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway. He is even mistaken for and arrested as the terrorist Carlos the Jackal.

It is great fun but is recounted in a generally straightforward way, with the irony or tongue in cheek approach kept low key but often there. Does he learn how to become a writer? Probably but then it is despite himself, despite the advice from others and, maybe, despite or maybe because of Paris. Whatever the case, he will always have Paris.

Publishing history

First published in 2003 by Anagrama
First English translation by New Directions in 2011
Translated by Anne McLean