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