‘A Brief History of Portable Literature’ by Enrique Vila-Matas – Shandyism

‘A  Brief History of Portable Literature’ by Enrique Vila-Matas    (1985)   84 pages  Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Thomas Bunstead

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I am afraid I have gone all PostModern and MetaFiction on you people with Enrique Vila-Matas.  How much chance is there that many of you earnest readers of realistic novels will be drawn to the playful skepticism and irony of Vila-Matas as he describes the characters and events in his imaginary 1920s literary movement, Shandyism?   The problem is that I quite liked it.

‘A  Brief History of Portable Literature’  is a whimsical novella about a supposed European literary and art movement of the 1920s called Shandyism.  Shandyism was the crazed movement that came after Dadaism, that actual avant-garde movement that rejected reason and logic and prized nonsense, irrationality, and intuition.   Some of the same characters who were associated with Dadaism such as Marcel Duchamp,  Tristan Tzara, and Francis Picabia show up in the Shandy secret society as well as such names as Blaise Cendrars, Paul Klee, Georgia O’Keefe, Frederico Garcia Lorca, and many, many others.  The people are real even if the movement isn’t.  They throw a raucous party in Vienna and spend a sojourn on a stationary submarine called the Bahnhof Zoo.

Shandyism was loosely based on the famous Laurence Sterne novel ‘Tristam Shandy’ and also on the alcoholic drink shandy.  In other words, this is a cock and bull story.

Here are some of the essential requirements for being a Shandy apart from the demand for high-grade madness:

“an innovative bent, an extreme sexuality, a disinterest in grand statements, a tireless nomadism, a fraught coexistence with doppelgangers, a sympathy for negritude, and the cultivation of the art of insolence.”

What makes this novella particularly problematic is that there are probably dozens of in-jokes regarding characters whose names are recognizable but with whom I’m little familiar such as Walter Benjamin and Aleister Crowley.  Even though I did not catch all the in-jokes, I enjoyed the spirit of the thing.

Perhaps the novel that ‘A Brief History’ most reminds me of is ‘Nazi Literature in the Americas’ by Roberto Bolano.  Both of these novels are definitely post-modern and are written with tongue firmly in cheek.

I can only hope that there may be a few of you who have grown a little weary of the usual fare and for a change want to reach out to something new and radically different.  I would not recommend ‘A  Brief History of Portable Literature’ as your first choice, but either ‘Never Any End to Paris’ or ‘Dublinesque’ by Vila-Matas would be good places to start into the ironic world of post-modern metafiction.

 

Grade:    B+  

 

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12 responses to this post.

  1. It all sounds very much tongue in cheek tony like the Bolano book was

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  2. I’m intrigued by this one and hope to read it later in the year. Loved his Never Any End to Paris, which made my end-of-year highlights last year.

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    • Hi JacquiWine,
      So you are already tuned in to Enrique Vila-Matas. I made ‘Dublinesque’ my top pick for 2014. ‘Never Any End to Paris’ probably would have made my end of year list too, except I was still having problems deciding if it was a memoir or novel at that point. Today I would definitely include it as fiction. 🙂

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      • I am, and I’m with you on Paris, it’s fiction. Dublinesque is another winner, so I’m not surprised to hear you picked it as your book of the year. I really like Vila-Matas’ playful style, and he never takes himself too seriously. Next up for me: Bartleby & Co.

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  3. I rather like the sound of this – sounds playful and fun. I’m always up for giving meta-novels a go.

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    • Hi Annabel,
      Great to see someone who has an open mind about the thing. 🙂
      I must say that not all post-modern efforts appeal to me. I didn’t much care for 10:04 by Ben Lerner. However Enrique Vila-Matas I nearly always like.

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  4. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on July 30, 2015 at 8:58 AM

    Ooh – I *love* the sound of this – great review!

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  5. Ooh, I’ve been wondering about this book! I loved Tristram Shandy and this sounds delightfully off the wall. I’ll definitely be giving it a read!

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    • Hi Stefanie,
      Of the two new Vila-Matas books just published (I’ve read them both), I lean toward this one. This one is a young effort, a little choppier than his recent novels, but it is much more playful than the other one and fun to read. It is also much shorter.

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