A Brief History of Portable Literature – Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Anne McLean and Thomas Bunstead)

As regular readers of this blog, and especially my followers on Twitter, would know, I have an obsession with Enrique Vila-Matas, so when his latest book was released I was all ready to attack a newly translated work of his. This work was released in 1985 in Spanish so it has taken a long time to be translated into English. Unfortunately the book turned up at the start of August, which is Women In Translation Month, so my obsession had to wait another month, then in September other more pressing books made it to the top of the “to be read” pile, so it was with great joy that I picked this slim work up on the weekend and settled down to another dose of the enigmatic Vila-Matas.

This work was written fifteen years before Bartleby & Co, however it was translated into English and released eleven years after that work. And the similarities are numerous, whilst “Bartleby & Co.” explored the “literature of the No”, this work looks at “portable literature”.
What is “portable literature”? As a reader you travel into the world of “portable literature” via the Shandies, from Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy”, via “non-existent literature, seeing as none of the Shandies knew what it consisted of (though paradoxically this was what made it possible). It was a literature to whose rhythm the members of the secret society danced, conspiring for the sake of – and on the basis of – nothing.”
Yes this is a book that explored the history of a non-existent literature. Another of Enrique Vila-Matas’ red herrings. Our book shows an utter disdain for what is considered important, even portable literature’s history isn’t.
As per a number of Vila-Matas’ other works, this one contains mysteries, are we reading his book? Or are we reading an imaginary book written by somebody else?
“I’ve managed to find out that Tristan Tzara has begun writing a brief history of portable literature: a kind of literature that, by his reckoning, is characterized by having no system to impose, only an art of living. In a sense, it’s more life than literature. For Tzara, his book contains the only literary construction possible; it is a transcription made by someone unconvinced by the authenticity of History and the metaphorical historicity of the Novel. Employing greater originality than most novels, the book will offer sketches of the Shandy customs and life. Tzara’s aim is to cultivate the imaginary portrait (a form of literary fantasia concealing a reflection in its capriciousness), to endeavour in the imaginary portrait’s ornamentation.”
This is supposedly taken from a postcard written by Aleister Crowley, the famed occultists, novelist, ceremonial magician, poet, painter and mountaineer. However it reads as though it is a precursor to the work we are actually reading, which is a set of “sketches of the Shandies customs and life”.
This is a very slim book, weighing in at only eighty-six pages (including the “essential bibliography”), but “to miniaturize is to make portable, and for a vagrant and an exile, that is the best way of owning things.”
Larbaud was also a traveler of words: “I fixate on winding clocks to make sure they tell the right time, putting things where they belong, polishing those things that have gotten tarnished, bringing to light things relegated to the shadows, mending and cleaning old toys from forgotten civilizations in people’s lofts…” It was in one such lift that Larbaud decided on the phrase that came to be used to swear in new members to the secret society, a definition from Tristram Shandy: “Gravity: a mysterious carriage of the body to cover the defects of the mind.”
As per a number of other books by Vila-Matas, there are innumerable references to other writers, other books, even F. Scott Fitgerald makes an appearance, with a story containing drugs that leads to the creation of an insignificant quote from “The Great Gatsby”.  Salvador Dali, Jorge Luis Borges, Laurence Sterne, Paul Klee and a plethora of others appear.  Yet another work that can lead you down many a rabbit burrow.
We have the recurrence of the number twenty-seven and other McGuffins (see my review of “The Illogic Of Kassel” to understand what that means).
This book reads like an early work, the ideas and concepts are all there, the whole just seems to be missing, whereas “Bartleby & Co.” explored “literature of the No” through footnotes on an imagined text, the narrative style of this book is a little broken at times and seems out of place. The tricks that Vila-Matas performs are all here, Shandies, misleading plot lines, footnotes, but at times it felt a little rambling, with no core.

However as a work that is exploring the insignificant, it is possibly perfect in doing so, given it is actually an insignificant work. Similar to Milan Kundera’s latest work “The Festival of Insignificance” this book also explores the minute, the not required, the insignificant. Personally I feel this one explores such in a better manner, but then of course I would, an unabashed Enrique Vila-Matas fan. So much so that I may have a few lazy $$$ as a bet on him to pick up this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature at the 60/1 – award is going to be announced this Thursday!!!
Source – personal copy.

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