Authors: Enrique Vila-Matas
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Never Any End to Paris
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
NEW DIRECTIONS PUBLISHING
For Paula de Parma
Never Any End to Paris
I went to Key West in Florida this year to enter the annual Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest. The competition took place at Sloppy Joe’s, the writer’s favorite bar when he lived in Cayo Hueso, at the southern tip of Florida. It goes without saying that entering this contest — full of sturdy, middle-aged men with full gray beards, all identical to Hemingway, identical right down to the stupidest detail — is a unique experience.
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 ever agreed with me about this and since I am rather stubborn, I wanted to teach them all a lesson, and, having procured a false beard — which I thought would increase my resemblance to Hemingway — I entered the contest this summer.
I should say that I made a ridiculous fool of myself. I went to Key West, entered the contest and came last, or rather, I was disqualified; worst of all, they didn’t throw me out of the competition because they discovered the false beard — which they did not — but because of my “absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway.”
I would have been satisfied with just being admitted to the contest; it would have been enough to prove to my wife and friends that I have a perfect right to believe I’m looking more like the idol of my youth every day, or, to put it a better way, it would have been the last thing left that allowed me to still feel in any way sentimentally linked to the days of my youth. But they practically kicked me out.
After this humiliation, I traveled to Paris and met up with my wife and in that city we spent the whole of this past August, which she devoted to museum visits and excessive shopping and I, for my part, devoted to taking notes towards an ironic revision of the two years of my youth I spent in that city where, unlike Hemingway, who was “very poor and very happy” there, I was very poor and very unhappy.
So we spent this August in Paris and on September 1, as I boarded the plane that would take us back to Barcelona, on my seat, row 7 seat B, I found a couple of pages of notes for a lecture entitled “Never Any End to Paris” that someone had forgotten, and I was extremely surprised. It was a lecture to be delivered at a symposium in Barcelona on the general theme of irony, in three two-hour sessions over the course of three days. I was very surprised because in Paris I had just written a bunch of notes for a lecture with the same title that was to be delivered at the same symposium and was also planned to last three days. So I felt like a real idiot when I realized that I was the one who had just dropped those notes on my seat, the same way others throw down the morning paper to take possession of their assigned places in the plane. How could I have forgotten so quickly that I was the one who’d just thrown those notes down? All I can tell you now is that they were destined to become “Never Any End to Paris,” the lecture I have the honor of delivering to all of you over the next three days.
You’ll see me improvise 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 who 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. As Pascal said: “It is almost impossible to feign love without turning into a lover.” Anyway, I propose to ironically review my past in Paris without ever losing sight of the dangers of falling into the chattiness that every lecture entails and, most of all, without forgetting at any moment that a chatterbox showing off is precisely the sort of thing that constitutes an excellent target for the irony of his listeners. That said, I must also warn you that when you hear me say, for example, that there was never any end to Paris, I will most likely be saying it ironically. But, anyway, I hope not to overwhelm you with too much irony. The kind that I practice has nothing to do with that which arises from desperation — I was stupidly desperate enough when I was young. I like a kind of irony I call benevolent, compassionate, like what we find, for example, in the best of Cervantes. I don’t like ferocious irony but rather the kind that vacillates between disappointment and hope. Okay?
I went to Paris in the mid-seventies and there I was very poor and very unhappy. I would like to be able to say that I was happy like Hemingway, but then I would go back to being the poor, young man, handsome and stupid, who fooled himself on a daily basis and believed he’d been very lucky to be able to live in that filthy garret that Marguerite Duras rented him for the symbolic sum of a hundred francs a month, and I say symbolic because that’s how I understood it or how I wanted to understand it, since I never paid any rent despite the logical, though luckily only sporadic, protests of my strange landlady, and I say strange because I presumed to understand everything anyone said to me in French, except when I was with her. Not always, but often, when Marguerite spoke to me — I remember having mentioned it with much concern to Raúl Escari, who was to become my best friend in Paris — I didn’t understand a word, not a single word she said to me, not even her demands for the rent. “It’s because she, great writer that she is, speaks a
French,” Raúl said, though his explanation didn’t strike me as terribly convincing at the time.
And what was I doing in Duras’s garret? Well, basically trying to live a writer’s life like the one Hemingway recounts in
A Moveable Feast
. And where had the idea that Hemingway should be my virtually supreme reference come from? 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.
A few months later, when I had to decide what I was going to study at university, I told my father that I wanted to “study to be a Hemingway” and I still remember his grimace of shock and incredulity. “You can’t study that anywhere, there’s no such university degree,” he told me, and a couple of days later enrolled me in Law School. I spent three years studying to be a lawyer. One day, with the money he’d given me to spend over the Easter vacation, I decided to travel to a foreign country for the first time in my life and went directly to Paris. I went there entirely on my own and I’ll never forget the first of the five mornings I spent in Paris, on that first trip to the city where a few years later — something I couldn’t have known at the time — I would end up living.
It was cold and raining that morning and, having to take refuge in a bar on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, it didn’t take me long to realize that by a strange twist of fate I was going to repeat, to
the situation at the beginning of the first chapter of
A Moveable Feast
, when the narrator, on a cold and rainy day, goes into “a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly,” on the Place Saint-Michel and hangs up his old waterproof on the coat rack to dry, puts his hat on the rack above the bench, orders a
café au lait
, begins to write a story and gets excited by a girl who comes into the café and sits by herself at a table near the window.
Though I went in without a waterproof or a hat, I ordered a
café au lait
, a little wink to my revered Hemingway. Then, I took out a notebook and a pencil from the pocket of my jacket and started to write a story set in Badalona. And since the day in Paris was rainy and very windy, I began to make the day like that in my story. All of a sudden, in a new and fantastic coincidence, a girl came into the café and sat by herself at a table next to a window near mine and started to read a book.
The girl was good-looking, “with a face as fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin.” I looked at her with startled eyes. In the prudish, Franco-ruled Barcelona I came from, the very thought of seeing a woman alone in a bar was inconceivable, let alone reading a book. I looked at her again and this time she disturbed me and made me excited. And I thought I’d put her in my story too, just as I’d done with the miserable weather, I’d have her walking in Badalona. I left that café converted into a new Hemingway.
But a few years later, in February 1974 to be precise, when I returned to Paris — that time, though I didn’t know it, not to stay for five days but for two years — I was no longer the vain young man of that rainy and cold morning. I was still quite an idiot but maybe not so vain; in any case, I had learned by then to be somewhat shrewd and prudent. And that I was one afternoon, on Rue Saint-Benoît, when my friend Javier Grandes, whom I had gone to visit — or rather to spy on — in Paris, introduced me to Marguerite Duras in the middle of the street and she, surprisingly, after a few minutes — guided perhaps by her trust in Javier — had already offered me the garret room, which had sheltered before me a string of more or less illustrious bohemian tenants and even the odd, also illustrious, politician. Because many other friends of Duras had lived in that garret, among them, Javier Grandes himself, the writer and cartoonist Copi, the wild transvestite Amapola, a friend of the magus Jodorowsky, a Bulgarian theater actress, the underground Yugoslav filmmaker Milosevic, and even future president Mitterrand, who in 1943, at the height of the Resistance, had hidden there for two days.
I was, in fact, shrewd and prudent when Duras, in the final question of the coquettish, intellectual interrogation to which she submitted me, pretending she wanted to find out if I deserved to be the new tenant of her garret, asked who my favorite writers were and I listed her along with García Lorca and Luis Cernuda. And although Hemingway’s name was on the tip of my tongue, I was very, very careful not to mention him. And I think I was quite right, because even though she was only flirting and toying with her questions, surely an author not much to her taste — and it seemed unlikely that Hemingway would be — could have ruined that game. And I don’t even want to think what would have become of my brilliant biography without that garret.
I went to Paris this August and, walking with my wife past the corner of Rue Jacob and Saints-Pères, I suddenly remembered the episode when Hemingway, in
of Michaud’s restaurant, approves the size of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dick. I remembered the scene from
A Moveable Feast
with such precision that I went through it in my head at great speed and even felt the temptation to look at my own dick, anyway, I recalled it so quickly that in a few seconds I was left without it, without the scene, that is, my dick remained in place. Then, I wandered for some stray seconds, with nothing to think about until I bought
, took a taxi and went with my wife to the terrace of the Café Select, on the Boulevard Montparnasse, and there, while she was in the washroom, I unfolded the newspaper and entered fully into the first sentences of an article by Claudio Magris in which he spoke of a giant plot to assassinate summer: “Summer mine, do not draw to a close, sang Gabriele D’Annunzio, who loved it for being the season of plenitude and abandon and would have liked it never to end . . .”
Everything ends, I thought.
Everything except Paris, I say now. Everything ends except Paris, for there is never any end to Paris, it is always with me, it chases me, it is my youth. Wherever I go, it travels with me, it’s a feast that follows me. There can be an end to this summer, it will end. The world can go to ruin, it will be ruined. But to my youth, to Paris, there is never any end. How terrible.
In the novel
Travels With My Aunt
, by Graham Greene, there is a brief dialogue that was going to be the general epigraph of this three-day lecture. I didn’t read it at the very beginning, when I should have, but in any case I’ll read it now. It is, ladies and gentlemen, a rather unorthodox epigraph, for it doesn’t illuminate the text that follows, in this case my lecture. Generally epigraphs are like a résumé of what awaits, they help us to better understand what’s coming next. My epigraph, however, does not illuminate the text that follows at all. Or to put it another way, it illuminates, but it does so absurdly. It illuminates my lecture, because I doubt anyone’ll ever figure out exactly what it was I was trying to say about irony, in the same way we don’t know what Graham Greene meant to say with his dialogue. He probably didn’t mean anything. Do you understand me when I say one says the most by
not saying anything?
Here’s the dialogue, my epigraph for this talk:
“Now you’re being ironical again. I mean I wanted to tell you my great trouble, but how can I do it if you’re ironical.”
“You said just now that irony was a valuable literary quality.”
“But you aren’t a novel.”