Never Any End to Paris
by Enrique Vila-Matas (París no se acaba nunca, 2003)
translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean (2011)
New Directions (2011)
197 pp

I was really anxious to read Never Any End to Paris when it came out at about this same time last year. Indeed the opening pages pulled me in pleasantly. But something happened and I hit a stall somewhere in the middle. I put it down and didn’t pick it up again until recently when it became a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. Now, this is the perfect book for someone out there, but I still had a hard time getting through it.

Back to that great beginning though. Our narrator — a man who clearly resembles Vila-Matas himself — tells us about a trip he made to Key West, Florida, to enter a Hemingway look-alike contest:

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. Since no one even agreed with me about this and since I’m rather stubborn, I wanted to teach them all a lesson, and, having procured a false beard — which I though would increase my resemblance to Hemingway — I entered the contest this summer.

He is disgraced and comes in last; or, rather, he doesn’t place at all since he is disqualified, not in resembling Hemingway in the slightest. The narrator is telling this story from a lectern. This book is, in fact, a three-part lecture about irony that the narrator is presenting — well, more like rambling. That’s not a criticism. He is improvising:

You’ll see me improvising on occasion. Like right now when, before going on to read my ironic revision of the two years of my youth in Paris, I feel compelled to tell you that I do know that irony plays with fire and, while mocking others, sometimes ends up mocking itself. You all know full well what I’m talking about. When you pretend to be in love you run the risk of feeling it, he would parodies without proper precautions ends up the victim of his own cunning. And even if he takes them, he ends up a victim just the same.

The principle part of the narrators lecture on irony consists of his experiences in the mid-seventies living in Paris in a flat he rented from Marguerite Duras. His fascination with Hemingway already in full swing, he lived there trying to relive the famous author’s experiences related in A Moveable Feast (from which this book gets its title): “Well, when I was fifteen years old I read his book of Paris reminiscences in one sitting and decided I’d be a hunter, fisherman, war reporter, drinker, great lover, and boxer, that is, I would be like Hemingway.” His life, like his personages, does no such thing. Not even his time in Paris is like the great writer’s; while Hemingway says he was poor and very happy, the narrator’s time in Paris is poor and very unhappy. But it does stick with him.

This whole set up is fascinating. Indeed, the whole book is fascinating as the narrator recounts an intellectual coming-of-age, encountering a variety of Paris intellectuals (one of my favorites being the one with Georges Perec). The narrator certainly doesn’t hold himself bound by the topic of his lecture, freely going wherever his story takes him. Indeed, the narrator hardly holds himself bound by the structure of a lecture. The books itself, at 197 pages, has 113 sections, some more and some less related to other sections.

Also, hopefully from the few quotations above, it’s obvious the writing is impeccable, propulsive, the translation fine as can be. So what was my problem?  It’s totally my problem, though one I think many others will share. Much of this book is told to other insiders. I’m not quite there, I’m afraid. Perhaps with some more knowledge of mid-1970s Paris and the intellects at work then this would have been more compelling to me. I still really did enjoy this book, it just turned out it was one I could put down and not pick up again, never quite feeling a loss. I’m glad I’ve now finished it, and I hope it finds its way to its proper readers.

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