Like an Enrique Vila-Matas novel, I am going to run with a theme and see where that journey takes me. Whilst not specifically participating in Spanish Literature month, I did manage to read a few Spanish (and a Catalan) works, and towards the end of July I took the journey to Kassel and the dOCUMENTA 13 event, through the words of Vila-Matas. I was entranced, I had joined him on his journey to find Europe, to push the artistic boundaries and to explore the avant-garde. So where to next? Simple really, read Enrique Vila-Matas’ contribution to “A Thousand Forests In One Acorn”.
This is a book celebrating Spanish Literature and is specifically a work featuring twenty-eight living writers (they were all living at the time the work was compiled, however unfortunately a couple have passed away since). Each writer is set the challenge of identifying their key or favourite pieces they have written explain why they are favoured, talk about their literary influences and in the majority of cases answer Valerie Miles’ questions (the imagination, editor and presenter of this project). Then the work in question is presented, finishing up with a bibliography of their works and a listing of the writer’s awards and recognitions. As the Prologue explains, this behemoth, weighing in at over 700 large, small font, pages, the works of only established writers was considered as it is assumed younger writers may not have reached (or be able to identify with) the peak of their powers as yet, and therefore may not have created their favourite piece.
Given my yearning for more Vila-Matas, I jumped straight into this work with his offering, a section from “Because She Didn’t Ask”. This is again a first person narration of Vila_Matas writing a story for Sophie Calle, who will live out the story for at the most one full year. Sophie Calle is a French writer, photographer, conceptual and installation artist, one of her well known traits is to follow strangers and investigate their private lives. She has collaborated with writer Paul Auster, specifically asking him to invent a fictive character which she would attempt to resemble. In fact Enrique Vila-Matas mentions the Paul Auster connection with his fictional meeting of Calle in Paris. In Vila-Matas’ work, Auster had declined the invitation he is will to accept. As per “The Illogic of Kassel” the notebook style of our writer reveals the delays to the project, what this does to his own creative process and the onset of writer’s block. Again another revelation of the art of writing, the creative process, the art of literature:
I go over the first lines in my red notebook. I wrote them down last year, on the 1st of September: “The sun is rising in my study with high windows as I inaugurate my red notebook or diary, where I’ll write about Barcelona and other nervous cities, asking myself my name, who is it that’s writing these words, and it occurs to me that my study is like a cranium from which I spring anew, like an imaginary citizen…”
How the devil could I bring such intensely literary sentences to life? I’m in the same room where I wrote them the first time around, but it’s hard to feel as though my study were a cranium from which I spring anew, like an imaginary citizen.
I realize the sentences that inaugurate my diary can’t possibly be brought to real life, they’re pure literature. How could I saunter around my desk leisurely, thinking I’m walking around the inside of a skull? As a result I yawn, I mope, I feel more paralyzed than ever. Then suddenly it dawns on me that by yawning, by opening my mouth, I’ve found the best way of feeling these literary sentences of mine as something experienced. Yawning worked a small miracle and I stretched and began splintering like an abyss and went so far as to merge with the void.
In my memory only the cranium remains, which my imagination is depositing at this exact moment on top of my table, like someone lowering their head to rest on their desk at work.
Whilst I won’t give away the outcome of Vila-Matas’ piece and interactions with Sophie Calle, it is another wonderful insight into the mind of a writer, one who is not emanoured to follow your usual rules of engagement, one you need to put yourself at his mercy and go along for the ride. At one stage in the excerpt Vila-Matas becomes ill and as a result he is hospitalised, wanting something to read he references Sergio Pitol and his sentence “I adore hospitals”, so in pure Vila-Matas style, I’ll let him write my journey and the next writer from this collection I visited was Mexican Sergio Pitol himself…
Pitol was bedridden from age six until age twelve with malaria and as a result he became a voracious reader, in his own introductory words, “A full-time traveller, a treasure hunter.” This is one of the joys of this book, having the writer themselves explain a little about their chosen work, and their influences (but more on that later).
Pitol’s selection was “By Night in Bukhara” taken from “Nocturno De Bujara”. Bukhara is in Uzbekistan, and is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site. Our writer goes there, “one of the navels of the universe”, “Where the earth is able to form a connection with the heavens”. A fragmentary tale, intertwined with a story off a rich Italian artist who the writer and his friend have sent from Poland to Samarkand, blended with a fable of princesses and pain, injury and the sense of touch. Mystical like the place Bukhara itself:
The heart of Bukhara doesn’t seems to have seen a single change in the last eight centuries. I walked with Dolores and Kyrim through the labyrinth of alleys barely wide enough for two people. Extremely narrow paths that opened amazingly onto wide plazas from which rose the mosques of the Po-i-Kalan, of the Lab-i-Hauz, the Samani and Chashma-Ayub mausoleums, the slender, herculean Kalan minaret, the ruins of the ancient bazaar. At a certain hour, late into the evening, the traveler wandering through empty alleys (flanked by one-storey, and occasional two-storey, windowless houses with wooden doors whose every centimetre is carved over, each different from the one before, narrating in some way the history and signalling the position of the family that inhabits it, reinscribed every hundred-and-fifty or two-hundred years with the same designs, legends, and symbols they bore in the eighteenth, fifteenth, and twelfth centuries) can hear the echo of his own steps coming back to him from another time.
Pitol, originally a diplomat, had a wealth of travelling and life experiences, this theme coming through strongly in his writing. The work in this collection was translated by Steve Dolph. To think a Mexican, writing in Spanish is giving us a tale from Uzbekistan!!! With fifty-two works listed in his bibliography in this book, it is amazing to think that his first work to be translated into English was released only this year, the massive novel “The Art of Flight” translated by George Henson and published by Deep Vellum, with an introduction by….Enrique Vila-Matas himself. But that’s where my trail comes to an end; Pitol had no references to contemporary Spanish language writers in his work so I moved on to Javier Marias, author of numerous works, many with English language translations including “The Infatuations” (tr Margaret Jull Costa).His selected piece is from “Tomorrow In The Battle Think Of Me” (translated by Esther Allen), interestingly the novel being released in English in 1996 by New Directions and being translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
Given a number of readers here know Marias’ work, I thought the more prudent section to quote is from his influences (titled “In Conversation With The Dead” for each writer):
And of course Cervantes, although in the case of Cervantes he comes to me directly in the Spanish language, but also indirectly in the English language because I did translate Tristam Shandy about 30 years ago, and it was a hard task and a long one, and Sterne was so influenced by Cervantes in that novel that in a way I would say that perhaps it is much more Cervantine than any Spanish novel of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. And of course by translating that book when I was young I learned so much about writing and about the use of time in the novel, that I also have a rather permanent dialogue as it were with Sterne himself and with Cervantes as well. Of course there are many others, the authors I have translated into Spanish, because translation is one of the best possible exercises for a writer. If you know two languages and you can translate, I think that’s the best way to learn how to write. If I had a creative writing school, which I would not, but if I did, I would only have students who speak at least two languages and make them translate. Because you happen to be not only a privileged reader, but a privileged writer if you can renounce your own style, if you have one, and adopt some else’s – someone who is much better than you, always if you are translating classics at least – and if you can rewrite that in your own language in an acceptable way, let alone if it is in a very good way, you are sharpening your instruments and you writing will improve tremendously. I translated poetry by Nabokov and Faulkner, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Stevenson, Auden, Thomas Browne, Isak Dinesen, Yeats.
Finally for this review I read the section for Antonio Muñoz Molina, I read and reviewed his massive “In The Night of Time” (translated by Edith Grossman) last year, and although I found it rather tedious, I thought it was time to explore another of his works to see if this would resonate with me a little better. He includes two works in this collection, including a piece from “El Jinete Polco” (“The Polish Horseman”), translated by Valerie Miles, and piece from “Sepharad, A Novel”, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
You are not an isolated person and do not have an isolated story, and neither your face nor your profession nor the other circumstances of your past or present life are cast in stone. The last shifts and reforms, and mirrors are unpredictable. Every morning you wake up thinking you are the same person you were the night before, recognizing an identical face in the mirror, but sometimes in your sleep you’ve been disoriented by cruel shards of sadness or ancient passions that cast a muddy, somber light on the dawn, and the face is different, changed by time, like a seashell ground by sand and the pounding and salt of the sea. Even as you lie perfectly motionless, you are shifting, and the chemistry that constitutes your imagination and consciousness is altered infinitesimally every moment. Whole scenes and perspectives from the distant past fan out, open and close like the straight lines of olive groves or plowed furrows seen from the window of a racing train. For a few seconds, a taste or a smell or some music on the radio or the sound of a name turn you into the person you were thirty or forty years ago. You are a frightened child on his first day of school, or a round-faced young man with shy eyes and the shadow of a mustache on his upper lip, and when you look in the mirror you are a man over forty whose black hair is beginning to be shot with gray, whose face holds no traces of your boyhood, though a sort of unfading youth accompanies you as an adult, through work and marriage, your obligations and secret dreams and responsibility for your children. You are every one of the different people you have been, the ones you imagined you would be, the ones you never were, and the ones you hoped to become and now are thankful you didn’t.
An exploration of the shifting conditions of self, a passage which may lead me to explore more of Antonio Muñoz Molina’s work. This is the beauty of this collection, you can dabble in known or unknown writers, have an appetiser of their offerings before taking the plunge with a full novel or collection of their works. Readers or fans of Spanish language literature should include a copy of this work on their shelves, a work which I couldn’t read from cover to cover, but one I will reference over and over again in the coming years.
I will be referencing it again in the coming weeks as I participate in Women in Translation Month, the inclusion of only five of the twenty-eight writers being women is of a concern, however I plan to have a daily post on this blog either reviewing a work or looking at a snippet of a writer’s work, a short story or an excerpt from this collection, giving you a few resources so you can explore their writing further. Stay tuned during August as I bring you highlights from this book….and another….but more on that later.