enrique vila-matas on robert walser

Sometimes one stops writing because one simply falls into a state of madness from which one never recovers. The best example of this is Hölderlin, who had an involuntary successor in Robert Walser. The former spent the last thirty-eight years of his life enclosed in the attic of the carpenter Zimmer, in Tübingen, writing strange and incomprehensible verses which he signed with the names Scardanelli, Killalusimeno and Buonarotti. The latter spent the last twenty-eight years of his life shut up in the mental hospitals first of Waldau and then of Herisau, engaged in a frenetic activity of microscopic handwriting, fictitious and indecipherable gibberish scrawled on minute pieces of paper.

I think it might be said that, in a certain way, both Hölderlin and Walser carried on writing. “To write,” Marguerite Duras remarked, “is also not to speak. It is to keep silent. It is to howl noiselessly.” Of Hölderlin’s noiseless howls, we have the record of, among others, J. G. Fischer, who gives the following account of his final visit to the poet in Tübingen: “I asked Hölderlin to write some lines on anyone topic, and he asked me if I would have him write on Greece, on Spring or on the Spirit of Time. I replied the last of these three. And then, with what might be described as a youthful fire burning in his eyes, he settled himself at his desk, took a large sheet of paper, a new pen, and began to write, marking the rhythm on his desk with the fingers of his left hand and expressing a hum of satisfaction at the end of each line while nodding his head in a gesture of approval … ”

Of Walser’s noiseless howls, we have the copious testimony of Carl Seelig, the loyal friend who continued to visit the writer when he ended up in the mental hospitals of Waldau and Herisau. Out of all the “portraits of a moment” (the literary genre Witold Gombrowicz was so fond of), I choose the one where Seelig caught Walser at the exact moment of truth, that instant when a person, with a gesture — Hölderlin’s nodding of the head, for example — or a phrase, reveals who they really are: “I shall never forget that morning in autumn when Walser and I were walking together from Teufen to Speichen, through a thick fog. 1 told him that day that perhaps his work would last as long as Gottfried Keller’s. He stood rooted to the spot, viewed me with utter seriousness and asked me, if I valued his friendship, never to repeat such a compliment. He, Robert Walser, was a walking nobody and he wished to be forgotten.”

Walser’s entire work, including his ambiguous silence of twenty-eight years, is a commentary on the vanity of all initiative, the vanity of life itself. Perhaps that is why he only wanted to be a walking nobody. Someone has compared Walser to a long-distance runner who is on the verge of reaching the longed-for finishing-line and stops in surprise, looks round at masters and fellow disciples, and abandons the race, that is to say remains in what is familiar, in an aesthetics of bewilderment. Walser reminds me of Pique mal, a curious sprinter, a cyclist in the sixties who suffered from mood swings and would sometimes forget to finish a race.

Robert Walser loved vanity, the fire of summer, women’s ankle boots, houses illumined by the sun, flags fluttering in the wind. But the vanity he loved had nothing to do with the drive for personal success, rather it was the sort that is a tender display of what is minimal, what is fleeting. Walser could not have been further from the heady heights, where power and prestige dominate: “Were a wave to lift me and carry me to the heights, where power and prestige are predominant, 1 would destroy the circumstances that have favoured me and hurl myself downwards, to the vile, insignificant darkness. Only in the lower regions am I able to breathe.”

Walser wanted to be a walking nobody and what he most desired was to be forgotten. He realised that every writer must be forgotten almost as soon as he has stopped writing, because the page has been lost, has literally flown away, has entered a context of different situations and sentiments, answers questions put by other men, which its author could not even have imagined.

Vanity and fame are ridiculous. Seneca claimed that fame is horrible because it depends on the judgement of many. But this is not exactly what made Walser desire to be forgotten. More than horrible, worldly fame and vanity were, to him, completely absurd. This was because fame, for example, seems to assume that there is a proprietorial relationship between a name and a text that now has an existence, yet which that pallid name can surely no longer influence.

Walser wanted to be a walking nobody, and the vanity he loved was like that of Fernando Pessoa, who once, on throwing a chocolate silver-foil wrapper to the ground, said that, in doing so, he had thrown away life.

­—from Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby & Co. (translated by Jonathan Dunne), New Directions, 2004

another tribute to the great enrique vila-matas: short fiction by roberto bolaño


“Enrique Martín”

Roberto Bolaño 


for Enrique Vila-Matas 


 A poet can endure anything. Which amounts to saying that a human being can endure anything. But that’s not true: there are obviously limits to what a human being can endure. Really endure. A poet, on the other hand, can endure anything. We grew up with this conviction. The opening assertion is true, but that way lie ruin, madness, and death.

I met Enrique Martin a few months after arriving in Barcelona. He was born in 1953 like me and he was a poet. He wrote in Castilian and Catalan with results that were fundamentally similar, though formally different. His Castilian poetry was well meaning, affected, and quite often clumsy, without the slightest glimmer of originality. His model (in Castilian) was Miguel Hernández, a good poet whom, for some reason, bad poets seem to adore (my explanation, though it’s probably simplistic, is that Hernández writes about pain, impelled by pain, and bad poets generally suffer like laboratory animals, especially during their protracted youth). Enrique’s Catalan poetry, by contrast, was about real things and daily life, and only his friends ever read or heard it (although, to be perfectly frank, the same is probably true of what he wrote in Castilian; the only difference, in terms of audience, was that he published the Castilian poems inmagazines with tiny circulations, seen only, I suspect, by his friends, if at all, while he read the Catalan poems to us in bars or when he came around to visit). Enrique’s Catalan, however, was bad (how he managed to write better poems in a language he hadn’t mastered than in his mother tongue must, I suppose, be numbered among the mysteries of youth). In any case Enrique had a very shaky grasp of the rudiments of Catalan grammar and it has to be said that he wrote badly, whether in Castilian or in Catalan, but I still remember some of his poems with a certain emotion, colored no doubt by nostalgia for my own youth. Enrique wanted to be a poet, and he threw himself into this endeavor with all his energy and willpower. He was tenacious in a blind, uncritical way, like the bad guys in westerns, falling like flies but persevering, determined to take the hero’s bullets, and in the end there was something likable about this tenacity; it gave him an aura, a kind of literary sanctity that only young poets and old whores can appreciate.

At the time I was twenty-five and thought I had done it all. Enrique was the opposite: there were so many things he wanted to do, and, in his own way, he was preparing to take on the world. His first step was to bring out a literary magazine, or fanzine, really, which he financed with his savings (he had been working in some obscure office near the port since he was fifteen). At the last minute, Enrique’s friends (and one of mine among them) decided not to include my poems in the first issue, an incident that, I am ashamed to admit, led to an interruption of our friendship. According to Enrique, it was the fault of another Chilean, an old friend of his, who had opined that two Chileans was one Chilean too many for the first issue of a little magazine devoted to Spanish writing. I was in Portugal at the time, and when I got back, I decided that was it: I would have nothing more to do with the magazine and it would have nothing more to do with me. I refused to listen to Enrique’s explanations, partly because I couldn’t be bothered, partly to assuage my wounded pride, and I washed my hands of the whole business.

 We didn’t see each other for a while. But in the bars of the Gothic Quarter I would sometimes run into mutual acquaintances, and they kept me laconically informed of Enrique’s latest adventures. That’s how I found out that the magazine (prophetically named White Rope, although I’m sure it wasn’t his idea) had folded after the first issue, and that the first performance of a play he had tried to put on at a cultural center in the Nou Barris district had been greeted with boos and jeers, and that he was planning to launch another magazine.

One night he turned up at my apartment. He was carrying a folder full of poems and he wanted me to read them. We went out to dinner at a restaurant in the Calle Costa and over coffee he read me a few of the poems. He awaited my judgment with a mixture of a self-satisfaction and fear. I realized that if I said they were bad, I would never see him again, as well as getting myself into an argument that could easily continue into the small hours. I said I thought they were well written. I wasn’t overly enthusiastic, but carefully avoided the slightest criticism. I even said I thought one of them was very good, in the manner of León Felipe, a nostalgic poem about the landscapes of Extremadura, where Enrique had never lived. I don’t know if he believed me. He knew I was reading Sanguinetti at the time and subscribed (though not exclusively) to the Italians views on modern poetry, so I could hardly be expected to admire his verses about Extremadura. But he pretended to believe me; he pretended to be glad he had read me the poems and then, revealingly, he started talking about the magazine that had perished after the first issue, and that’s when I realized that he didn’t believe me but wasn’t going to say so.

That was it. We talked a while longer, about Sanguinetti and Frank O’Hara (I still like Frank O’Hara but I haven’t read Sanguinetti for ages), about the new magazine he was planning to launch (he didn’t invite me to contribute), and then we said good-bye in the street, near my house. It must have been a year or two before I saw him again.

At the time I was living with a Mexican woman and it looked as if the relationship would be the death of her, and me, and the neighbors, and sometimes even the people who ventured to pay us a visit. Once was enough for our unfortunate visitors, and soon we were hardly seeing anyone. We were poor (although the woman came from a well-to-do family in Mexico City, she absolutely refused all their offers of financial assistance); our battles were Homeric and a dark cloud seemed to be looming over us day and night.

That’s how things were when Enrique Martin reappeared. As he crossed the threshold with a bottle of wine and some French páté, I had the impression he had come as a spectator, to watch the final act of a major crisis in my life (although, in fact, I felt fine, it was my girlfriend who was feeling rotten), but later, when he invited us to dinner at his place, and was so keen to introduce us to his girlfriend, I realized that he hadn’t come to observe but, probably, to be observed, or possibly even because, in a sense, my opinion still mattered to him. I know I didn’t appreciate this at the rime. For a start, I was annoyed by his sudden appearance, and tried to make my greeting sound ironic or cynical, though it probably just sounded apathetic. To be honest, in those days, I wasn’t fit company for anyone. This was common knowledge: people avoided me or fled my presence.

But Enrique wanted to see me, and for some mysterious reason, the Mexican woman liked Enrique and his girlfriend, so we ended up having a series of meals together, five in all.

Naturally, by the time we resumed our friendship— though the term is no doubt excessive—we disagreed about almost everything. My first surprise came when I saw his apartment (when our ways had parted he was still living with his parents and although I later heard that he was sharing a place with three friends, for one reason or another I never went there). Now he had a loft in the Barrio de Gracia, full of books, records, and paintings, a large though perhaps rather dim dwelling that his girlfriend had decorated with eclectic taste, and they had some interesting things: objects picked up on recent trips to Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt, some of which were more than tourist souvenirs or imitations. My second surprise came when he told me that he had stopped writing poetry. He said this after dinner, in the presence of my girlfriend and his, although the confession was in fact directed specifically at me (I was playing with an enormous Arab dagger, with ornamental work on both sides of the blade; it can’t have been very practical to use), and when I looked up he was smiling as if to say, I’ve grown up, I’ve realized you can enjoy art without making a fool of yourself, without keeping up some pathetic pretense of being a writer.

The Mexican woman (who was forthright to a fault) thought it was a shame he had given up; she made him tell the story of the magazine in which my poems hadn’t appeared, and in the end she judged the arguments that Enrique had marshalled in defense of his renunciation to be sound and sensible, but predicted that before too long he would be writing again with renewed vigor. Enrique’s girlfriend agreed with her completely, or almost. Both women seemed to think (although Enrique’s girlfriend, for obvious reasons, held this opinion more strongly than mine) that his decision to concentrate on his job—he’d been promoted, which meant he had to travel to Cartagena and Málaga for reasons I didn’t care to ascertain—and spend his spare time looking after his record collection, his apartment, and his car was far more poetic than wasting his time imitating León Felipe or at best (so to speak) Sanguinetti. I was totally noncommittal when Enrique asked my opinion (as if it might be an irreparable loss for lyric poetry in Spanish or Catalan, for God’s sake). I told him I was sure he had made the right decision. He didn’t believe me.

That night, or at one of the other four dinners, the conversation turned to children. It was inevitable: poetry and children. I remember (and this I remember with absolute clarity) Enrique confessing that he would like to have a child. The experience of childbirth, those were his words. Not to share it with a woman, no, he wanted it for himself: carrying the child for nine months inside him and then giving birth. I remember, as he said this, I felt a chill in my blood. The two women looked at him tenderly, but I had an intimation, and this was what chilled me, of what would happen years later, and not many years, unfortunately. When the feeling faded—it was brief, just a twinge—-Enrique’s declaration struck me as a quip, unworthy of reply. Predictably, the others all wanted to have children, and I, predictably, didn’t, and in the end, of the four who were present at that dinner, I am the only one who has a child. Life is mysterious as well as vulgar.

It was during the last dinner, when my relationship with the Mexican woman was on the point of exploding, that Enrique told us about a magazine that he contributed to. Here we go, I thought. He corrected himself immediately: That we contribute to. The plural puzzled me momentarily, but then the penny dropped: Enrique and his girlfriend. For once (and for the last time) the Mexican woman and I were in agreement: we asked to see the magazine straight away. It turned out to be one of the numerous periodicals sold at newsstands, with stories on subjects ranging from UFOs to ghosts, and taking in apparitions of the Virgin, little-known pre-Columbian civilizations, and paranormal events in general. It was called Questions & Answers, and I think it’s still being published. I asked—we asked—how exactly they contributed. Enrique (his girlfriend said practically nothing during this last dinner) explained: on weekends they went to places where there had been sightings of flying saucers; they interviewed the people who had seen them, examined the surroundings, looked for caves (that night Enrique affirmed that many mountains in Catalonia and the rest of Spain were hollow); they stayed up all night, snug in their sleeping bags, with a camera at the ready, sometimes just the two of them, more often in a group of four, five, or six. It was a nice way to spend the night, out in the open, and when it was over, they wrote a report, part of which was published with photos in Questions & Answers (so what happened to the rest of it?).



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