IN the closing paragraph of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s beguiling, posthumously-published paean to the great French capital of the ‘20s, he writes: “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other... (This) is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”
Translated by Ann McLean
Vintage, £8.99; Kindle, £4.35
It is around these words that Enrique Vila-Matas builds his loose but wickedly playful narrative, a novel masquerading as memoir.
The narrator here is some doppelgänger version of the author himself, a self-admitted Hemingway fanatic, a condition so serious that when we first encounter him he has been disqualified, in the most humiliating fashion imaginable, from the famous Hemingway lookalike contest, held annually at Sloppy Joe’s in the Florida Keys.
Shamed by his defeat, he flies back to Paris, to meet with his wife and to refresh his memories ahead of a lecture that he is due to give in Barcelona — six hours across three days on the subject of ‘Irony’ that will riff on the very title of this book.
“Am I a lecture or a novel?” he asks early on in the proceedings, and the answer, if there is one, is that he (as in, the story) is both, and more, all at once.
Much of his material here is culled from a period during the mid ’70s when, as a young and aspiring writer, he set out for Paris and the bohemian existence that he hoped would light the fuse on a long and glorious career.
But while Hemingway’s Parisian days were marked by apparently happy poverty, Vila-Matas, equally impoverished, finds very much the opposite mood awaiting him.
He catches a few breaks, such as the offer of a garret room in the home of the eccentric Marguerite Duras, and from being in her vicinity he gets to encounter a veritable pantheon of the city’s artistic glitterati.
Duras seems strange to him, and distant, and when, in trying to show off, he speaks with swagger of an ambition to write a novel of such impact that it will bring about the immediate death of anyone who dares read it, she chides him with quiet ridicule but then proceeds to drip-feed him advice.
Even with these helping hands and moments of inspiration though, those two years prove difficult, as he struggles to develop his craft and score some solid footing.
Vila-Matas, author of some two dozen novels, has long been considered one of the modern giants of Spanish-language literature.
He is an innovative and always ambitious stylist of intellectually complex meta-fictional soirées that frequently challenge our notion and acceptance of reality. He is best known for books like Bartleby & Co., A Brief History of Portable Literature, and his masterpiece, the wonderfully comic Bloomsday funeral-for-the-printed-word, Dublinesque, his award-laden work that has been translated in more than thirty languages.
One of the joys of reading this author is the constant blurring of the lines that separate fiction from fact.
The irony will not be lost on anyone that despite his obvious devotion for Hemingway, he has produced a book that might be the polar opposite, in terms of style and narrative approach, to that of his idol, but then that is as it should be because Vila-Matas is, in his way, just as much of an original as Papa was.
And if 1970s Paris was very different from the one that Hemingway had known half a century earlier, then its streets and cafés still felt thick with the ghosts of all that literary greatness — proof that it truly is a city without end.
This sweet, fun and endlessly clever novel makes the very best of that fact.
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