In the olden days, before creative-writing courses, a young man with a yen to be a novelist would head to Paris. Once there, he would stock up on Gauloises, head to Les Deux Magots and, with intense concentration, attempt to absorb osmotically whatever genius loci had proved so inspirational to Sartre & Co. Occasionally, a fine novel would be written; more often than not, our hero would learn that graft and talent, not hallowed streets, are the alpha and omega of becoming a writer. Enrique Vila-Matas, now the doyen of Hispanic authors, made such a pilgrimage in 1974 and his charming and wry new novel is the scarcely fictionalised account of his two years in the city, told by his more mature self in what he claims to be a lecture but is, in fact, 113 reminiscences that vary in length from a few pages to a few sentences.
Our narrator – let’s call him, I don’t know, Enrique – arrives intent on being hailed the new Hemingway. This is scarcely likely to happen since he is gauche, crippled with self-consciousness and wrenching out of himself with much anguish a very un-Hemingwayesque novel entitled The Lettered Assassin, a story