Posts Tagged ‘Enrique Vila-Matas’

‘Mac’s Problem’ by Enrique Vila-Matas – The Pleasant and Sometimes Inspired Meanderings of a Literary Sage/Fool

Mac’s Problem’ by Enrique Vila-Matas (2017)  211 pages                  Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes

Like several of Enrique Vila-Matas’s previous novels, ‘Mac’s Problem’ is a way-out modernist novel about reading and writing fiction, in this case a group of short stories written decades ago by our narrator Mac’s neighbor in Barcelona. Each short story was based on a famous author from the twentieth century (John Cheever, Djuna Barnes, Raymond Carver, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, etc.) I won’t go any further into the plot which takes many surprising and wicked turns but would be quite boring if I tried to summarize it.

In this novel, Vila-Matas dispenses literary and philosophical wisdom from a wide variety of sources in an offhand way. I find this technique entirely fascinating, but I’m sure many readers may not take to it. I suppose how you react to this novel will depend on what you think of this first quote that Vila-Matas mentions which is probably the keystone for the entire novel.

As Nathalie Sarraute once said – writing is really an attempt to find out what we would write if we wrote.”

I’m sure some of you will see this quote as meaningless, a tautology. However I find it quite brilliant in its own crazy unique way. So goes this entire novel which is filled with these kind of statements from many persons.

As a writer, Vila-Matas lives for distractions, and sometimes the distractions are the most interesting parts of ‘Mac’s Problem’. For instance, since the narrator of the book of stories that Mac wants to rewrite is a ventriloquist, Mac recalls all the ventriloquists he has encountered in his life. This is a quite amusing distraction.

Occasionally reality intrudes on our fiction writer.

If you ask me, reality doesn’t need anyone to organize it into a plot; it is itself a fascinating, ceaseless creative center. But there are days when reality turns its back on the aimless drifting center that is life and tries to give events a novelish turn.”

Once in a while our narrator even gets down to earth away from his airy fictional concerns, especially when he is dealing with his wife Carmen.

And perhaps the worst thing was not being able to say any of this to my wife, because it would only prove to her that I was already crazier than she already thought I was.”

Sometimes the author can be annoying. First Vila-Matas quotes Schopenhauer saying that the true national characteristic of the Germans was ponderousness. Then Vila-Matas writes his own long ponderous sentence in imitation of the German writers. A reader gets impatient with this sort of tiresome game. This reader also got annoyed with his long summaries of the plot lines of the imagined stories in this collection that he wants to rewrite.

But overall, ‘Mac’s Problem’ is exasperating in a good way.

But we forgive Vila-Matas. He is buoyant; we come back to his pleasant meandering, his strolls around the Coyote neighborhood where he lives.

Like all of Vila-Matas’s works, ‘Mac’s Problem’ is a hit-and-miss affair with plenty of misses, but the hits outweigh the misses so it is well worth reading.


Grade:    B+


‘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


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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