Once upon a time, if a novelist was lucky, she might occasionally receive kindly questions about her work. How do you get your ideas and do you write at a desk and are your books autobiographical? And the novelist would explain that actually she wrote while hiding behind the sofa and, no, her books were not autobiographical. Then Karl Ove Knausgaard announced that his novels were highly autobiographical, though invented as well. This caused a little confusion, and Knausgaard was lambasted in his native Norway for being insufficiently factual in his fiction. More recently, there has been speculation that the pseudonymous novelist Elena Ferrante might be someone other than her pseudonym.
In such strange times, it is a particular joy to read the brilliant ironic travesties of Enrique Vila-Matas. Vampire in Love is a selection of his short fiction, published in English for the first time. Born in Barcelona in 1948, Vila-Matas grew up under Franco’s dictatorship and began his career as a journalist. Possibly as a result, or possibly for other reasons entirely, he has wilfully obscured details of his life, and advised members of the press to ‘reinvent the whole thing entirely’. His erudite, hybrid works demolish the boundaries between fiction and reality, novel and essay: in Bartleby & Co. (2000; translated into English in 2004), a literary addict compiles a mock taxonomy of writers who failed to write; in Never Any End to Paris (2003; translated 2011), a ‘poor, young man’ goes to Paris and writes a novel that seems to kill anyone who reads it; in Montano’s Malady (2002; translated 2007), the protagonist confuses events from fiction with his own memories and ends up thinking he has ‘taken possession of the soul of Robert Walser’.
In the opening story of Vampire in Love, ‘A Permanent Home’, the narrator is summoned to his father’s deathbed. He goes there hoping for a climactic revelation, when all his uncertainties will be resolved. Yet his father just unfurls a series of more and more preposterous stories, until the narrator perceives that ‘quite astonishingly for someone on the verge of dying – my father … was continuing ceaselessly to invent’. Outraged at first, gradually he understands:
My father, who had once believed in many, many things only to end up distrusting all of them, was leaving me with a unique, definitive faith: that of believing in a fiction that one knows to be fiction, aware that this is all that exists, and that the exquisite truth consists in knowing that it is a fiction and that, nevertheless, one should believe in it.
Clearly, this is something of a paradox. In Vila-Matas’s work, general reality is coercive and deeply weird; the only possible salvation lies in the ‘exquisite truth’ of fiction. Furthermore, he suggests, why would you permit others to tell you what is ‘real’, when they are all as mortal and doomed as you? In the darkly funny ‘Rosa Schwarzer Comes Back to Life’, a museum worker turns fifty and asks herself, ‘What is the point of my life?’ The question is so wildly unanswerable that Rosa finds herself drinking with a madman in a local bar and contemplating suicide. ‘Sea Swell’ is an improbable literary anecdote in the manner of Never Any End to Paris, in which a feckless narrator attends a Parisian party with Marguerite Duras and Sonia Orwell. This elegant literary soiree is comically debauched; the narrator is high on amphetamines and his manic-depressive friend, Andrés, drinks all the Beaujolais and throws himself into the Seine.
In this anti-realist landscape, everything echoes something else. As the narrator of Bartleby & Co. says, ‘Nowadays we have no option but to repeat.’ After the aesthetic revolutions of the early 20th century, writers and artists are stuck in tribute-modernism, with ‘only a few, insignificant details waiting to be explored’. For Vila-Matas’s personae/narrators, writing is a form of passionate vampirism – hence the title. This might all seem like one postmodernism too far, yet Vila-Matas conveys agonising depths of solitude and longing in his work as well. The title story describes the mournful inner world of Ferrato, who slightly resembles a vampire and has been abused and jeered at for so long that he has ‘grown tired of being good’. Another story, ‘Greetings from Dante’, features a woman whose child refuses to speak, until at the age of ten he starts shrieking like a ‘stupid, utterly unfeeling bat’. But – as with Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill’ – it is uncertain whether the cries emanate from the son or his desperate mother. ‘Invented Memories’, which reminds us of Montano’s Malady, is narrated by a man ‘with scarcely any biography. Until I decided to invent one for myself.’ He adds:
literature is like a message in a bottle … because literature needs a recipient too; and so, just as we know that someone, some unknown person, will read our shipwrecked sailor’s message, we also know that someone will read our literary writings: someone who is not so much the intended recipient as an accomplice, insofar as he or she is the one who will give meaning to our writing … And that is precisely what is so strange and fascinating about literature, the fact that it is not a static organism, but something that mutates with every reading, something that is constantly changing.
This may be Vila-Matas’s philosophy too, but we will never know precisely when his narratorial personae represent him and when they do not – which is the beautiful and salutary point. The narrator’s final provocation evokes a rich counterfactual tradition of high ironists, including Kafka, Woolf, Borges and Bolaño: that fiction is the only reality because ‘life itself doesn’t actually exist’.