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Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Anne McLean - book review: 'A struggle between nostalgia and irony in a fake memoir'

 

Enrique Vila-Matas's newly translated novel begins quite badly, but by the end of it I was fully seduced by its self-portrait of the artist as a young writer undergoing an exemplary apprenticeship in Paris. Vila-Matas is a much-garlanded Spanish novelist, and his books are some of the most bookish around. They feature scribblers and publishers as characters, and abound in references to writers both well- and lesser-known.

At worst this can make them seem cliquey – but then you're reading the books pages you're probably part of that clique already. At best they send you off on all sorts of new adventures – for me, this time around, it's in search of Argentinian Edgardo Cozarinsky's Urban Voodoo, "a book that was ahead of its time in the way it mixed essay with fiction… composed of stories that were like essays and essays that were like stories".

Never Any End to Paris, by contrast, is a fictionalised memoir in the form of a lecture. In it, Vila-Matas recounts his time spent in Paris in his twenties, when he was struggling to write his second novel, the as-yet-untranslated La Asesina Ilustrada. He was drawn there by the spectre of Hemingway, and it's his airily self-deprecating references to "Papa" that get the book off to such a bad start: "I don't know how many years I spent drinking and fattening myself up believing – contrary to the opinions of my wife and friends – that I was getting to look more and more like Hemingway, the idol of my youth."

It may be Hemingway he idolises, but it's Marguerite Duras who takes the young Vila-Matas under her wing, lodging him rent-free in her garret, giving advice (including a 13-point set of instructions for novel-writing) and eventually stunning him out of his complacent sense of who she is with a blunt answer to his tart question: "I write to keep from killing myself."

The book really comes down to a struggle between nostalgia and irony. "When you hear me say, for example, that there was never any end to Paris," the author warns, early on, "I will most likely be saying it ironically." The phrase, of course, comes from A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's ultra-nostalgic take on his penniless Parisian years. But irony is just the seasoning that stops us gagging on the nostalgia that pervades and rules Vila-Matas's book. We see not just Duras, but Perec, Beckett, Isabelle Adjani, an invisible bookshop… Ah! To have been there! To have lived that! Whatever his intentions, this wonderful book only reconfirms the never-ending-ness of Paris… for a while at least.

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