Visit one of the three predominant English bookstores in Paris on any given day and you'll see English speaking tourists demanding a copy Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. The myth of the writer lingers in Paris almost more than it does anywhere else. For the main character of Never Any End to Paris not only does he write a book reflecting on his early days as tinged with similarities to those of the young Hemingway, he believes he looks like Hemingway. He enters the Hemingway Look-Alike Context in Key West, Florida only to be disqualified for having an "absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway." This does little, however, to diminish his conviction that every day he looks more and more like Hemingway. A hundred or so pages later the issue becomes more complicated. Our narrator meets a Spanish political exile who is dressed as young Hemingway and who when asked about this replies, "That's because I am Hemingway. I thought you'd realized that."
Enrique Vila-Matas is one of those writers you have to know; to know him start with this novel. Sparkling with odd coincidences, layered remembrances, and referential passages, the book spins a tale with a sort of grounded uncanniness. It is simultaneously an homage to Hemingway and other writers, a remembrance of things passed and past, and a conference speech in progress. The author describes his days living in a Paris garrett and working on a book titled The Lettered Assassin, which must refer to Vila-Matas' book in Spanish titled La asesina ilustrade from 1977, that he hopes will cause the death of each reader as soon as the last page is reached. In fact once the book is written it's sort of the death of Paris because the writer moves back to Barcelona. This is also a book about authors the writer met or did not meet and about what it means to be a young writer possessing questions, energy, and hope in about equal proportion as told by the older writer now filled with irony.
Like A Moveable Feast, worked on by Hemingway late in life and published only after his death, the story is that of a well-read author taking a backward look. Vila-Matas however loves to toss in his own brand of referential game. For example, the young writer is invited to hear the famous author Georges Perec at a secret event. He shows up, gives the password, and watches an imposter (he'd already met Perec and so he knew what he looked like) relate a story about a scrivener who sits behind a folding screen refusing to do anything. The author leaves stating, "I didn't understand a thing." In a novel such a statement is always a sort of Nabokovian tip off. The scrivener story is the Herman Melville short story Bartleby the Scrivener who when asked to do his job always replies, "I would prefer not to." But it spins deeper. Vila-Matas' first book to be published in English was Bartleby & Co., a novel about writers who stop writing, often for years, which poses the question: can not-writing be as artistic and as productive as writing? What if a writer simple prefers not to write? Vila-Matas style is similar to that of Javier Marias or Roberto Bolano meaning expect less plot and more literary fun. Here one reads to jump into the maze, to get lost the winding streets of a remembered Left Bank, Hemingway territory. Vila-Matas is a significant and exceptional writer who thankfully, for those of use who do not speak Spanish, is now being published in English. This is novel two in English; another is projected to come out this fall, then we can hopefully look forward to the remaining eighteen. Willard is also a reviewer for BookPleasures.