:: Article

Paying for the Lights of Bohemia

By David Winters.


Never Any End to Paris, Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, New Directions 2011

Tonight I tried to write down my thoughts about Enrique Vila-MatasNever Any End to Paris. I failed to write what I wanted to write, and ended up reading obsessively. I read in Kafka’s diaries,

‘I read in Flaubert’s letters: “My novel is the cliff on which I am hanging, and I know nothing of what is going in the world” – Like what I noted down about myself on 9 May.’

Like what I’m noting down right now, I thought.

When is a book not a book, but a kind of cliff or precipice? Vila-Matas’ sixteenth novel knows that it isn’t a novel. Yet is it even the ‘fictionalised memoir’ it claims to be? The text is framed (feigned, faked up) as a ‘three day lecture’, given by a man who both is and isn’t the author of a book called, after Hemingway’s refrain, Never Any End to Paris. His subject: an ‘ironic revision’ of two years of his youth, misspent in a room he rented from Marguerite Duras, in the Paris of Barthes and Beckett and all those others: an ironised image of Paris in an already fictional ‘70s.


The book, or lecture, tells of the ‘farcical garret life’ of a writer ensnared in the error of becoming a writer. Becoming, perhaps, Vila-Matas, or else his nameless namesake, the lecturer, an old man immersed in the ‘irony’ of his ‘not having been aware of irony as a young man’. In a Borgesian take on the problem of types and tokens, the place where these identities overlap is the very place they diverge. The protagonist labours absurdly over his first novel, The Lettered Assassin, a project whose preposterous aim is ‘to kill its readers’. In reality, Le asesina ilustrada (1977) was the second of Vila-Matas’ novels. Do the two books coincide? Such questions are raised but never resolved, which is why Never Any End to Paris resembles an edge or an opening, not onto anything outside itself, but onto literature, a leap from a sheer drop, located within the book’s written limits. In this sense, the text may best be read as its own invention, with no prior knowledge of the life of its author. The true world the book opens onto is one where a writer called ‘Enrique Vila-Matas’ never existed. Let alone Hemingway. Let alone Paris.


We can all laugh, ironically, at the earnest young writer who looks for guidance in Unamuno and Rilke, and whose memoirs, jokes Vila-Matas, might be titled Of Pipe-Smoking and Despair. Yet the deeper importance of irony in Never Any End to Paris lies in its use as a tool for breaching infinity. In the same way, the meaning of the phrase ‘there is never any end to Paris’, or rather, the meaning it amasses via Vila-Matas’ many repetitions, is that there is never any end to Never Any End to Paris, and that the book is nothing but the means by which it lays bare this essential endlessness.

It does so by thematising memory and history through repetition, and through the correlative ‘weak central coherence’ of an anecdotal style. After all, if the protagonist’s mother likens him to a ‘broken record’, it’s because his speech is stylistically true to the circular ruins of his ‘broken life’. Hence sections 62 through 67 of the book each begin with the sentence ‘I went to the cinema a lot’. Each then veers into a new episode; a new attempt to access a memory, always by means of a mediating text: a film, a book, a focal fiction. These repetitions do not occur for their own sake; their point is to press home the prospect of an infinite series. The work exhibits its worklessness by poising its prose on the brink of such bounded infinities. What’s more, in the world of this book, the infinite is not without content; it’s made up of memory, as when the narrator quotes Borges quoting his father: ‘Each time I remember something, I am not merely remembering it, but rather I am remembering the last time I remembered it’.

The past is an abyss, but this is the reason why ‘nothing should be considered lost to history’. It’s why the book stays open after its closure. There is never any end to it.


To write, for Vila-Matas, is to stand in the shadows cast by literature. What does this mean? Consider the way the narrator of Never Any End to Paris approaches literature’s many legacies (literature is always its own legacy) from the angle of a bystander. A chance sighting of Beckett reading the paper in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Kristeva and the Tel Quel crowd glimpsed through a car window. The would-be novelist encounters every great writer of the moment, but only as an accessory to their most meaningless incidents. At best he goes unnoticed. At worst, he embarrasses everyone. One day he finds his friend Raúl Escari sharing a joint with Burroughs at the top of Notre Dame. He feels ‘excluded from the scene’, as he does from all other literary scenes, which for him are forever ‘scenes of mystery, disturbance and jealousy’. At the book’s ironic climax, the young writer is found liable for the electricity bills of every eminent figure who formerly lived in Marguerite’s garret, in arrears to an anxiety of influence, ‘paying for the lights of bohemia’.

Vila-Matas writes that he first read Hemingway at fifteen, and at once was obsessed with Hemingway’s myth: the myth of the life of the writer. Cast in the light of his myth, is Hemingway then even Hemingway? Could he be anyone? The book begins with an unlikely lookalike contest, where the narrator fails to live up to his idol’s image. Later, Hemingway’s name is raised to a narrative function (purified, sublimed), a mask to be worn by anyone. At one point a man called Alfonso claims to be Hemingway, and the protagonist faithfully plays the part of Fitzgerald. By the end of his life as retold in the book, even the ‘real’ Hemingway falters, falls short of himself, driven to suicide by his ‘failure to be his own myth’.


In the same vein, we see Georges Perec give a reading at a ‘secret bookstore’ in Rue Littré, only this Perec is not Perec, but an imposter who looks nothing like him. Next, the narrator’s friend offers him her advice, but her words turn out to be taken from Gatsby. This is a book that posits a possible world where every word everyone says is a quote from a novel. There, writers’ lives are common property, and literature a collective myth, not read but lived. If the narrator doesn’t look a bit like Hemingway, nor does Hemingway. Nor do I, or the others (je est un autre) look like ourselves. Literary lives are endless, numberless, nonidentical.

‘Did one ever get to be a real writer?’ the writer asks towards the end of Never Any End to Paris. ‘Are the writer’s years of apprenticeship, for instance, so exalted and so hackneyed, merely a fallacy?’ There are many things this book is not. Among them, it is not a novel of ‘coming of age’, not a writerly Künstlerroman. Or it is, and it is nothing but that, but it is one that doesn’t build towards a writer’s life as something fixed and finished, something made. No, the life it writes is always only something written. A writer’s life is not his own, and neither is his name. Both belong to writing, and to writing’s never-ending need to ‘dissolve, dissociate, disintegrate every little outbreak of personality or conscience’. In the end, then, literature is everything that endlessly eclipses life, outlives it.


David Winters stopped smoking but still despairs. He writes experimental fiction and critical theory, and is a co-editor at 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 26th, 2011.