Tyler Curtis reviews Enrique Vila-Matas's A Brief History of Portable Literature

Imagine a machine that can pinpoint in any given book its most reprehensible quality. A contraption that, through a sophisticated process of cylindrical chambers and lenses, purges a text, reducing it to its most essential, that is to say, most portable, state, spitting it out the other end, illuminated by a brilliant blue light.

This is surely engineering at its most pseudo-scientific and ridiculous, flying in the face of physics, but such an invention is worthy of the Shandies, the secret society in Enrique Vila-Matas's 1985 novel A Brief History of Portable Literature, recently translated into English by Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean. The hilarity of such a machine is compounded by its being the product of none other than a fictionalized Walter Benjamin, himself a Shandy. Benjamin conceived it during his time freeloading at a sanatorium built by a commercially successful but aesthetically bankrupt hack, his novels "not in the least bit portable," but rather "filled with banalities." And while it may be just another of Vila-Matas's trademark metaphysical gags, the very possibility of interpretation—perhaps the central concern at the core of his decades-spanning project at large—is here called into question. This is only one such project conjured by Vila-Matas's secret literary public, obsessed with the question of literature at its most portable, and Benjamin is only one among many writers whose histories are remixed into this novel.

Like Vila-Matas's fictionalized Tristan Tzara, who himself pens "a brief history of portable literature," this book offers sketches of Shandy life, which is an exploration into a purer form of art through the art of living, art without systems, art made portable. Vila-Matas's novel is condensed and embedded in its own text in the form of Tzara's, and "contains the only literary construction possible; it is a transcription made by someone unconvinced by the authenticity of History and the metaphorical historicity of the Novel," itself a fragment of an oeuvre standing as a monument to the plasticity of literary history.

Vila-Matas's novel is itself an indictment of writing and its history, and especially of the notion that it can be brought to a more transmittable state. Can literature truly be portable in the most, er, portable sense? That is, scrutinized and broken down to its essential character. Benjamin and Marcel Duchamp, another of Vila-Matas's Shandies, both carry deep and powerful passions yet few material things. They've learned that "to miniaturize is to make portable, and for a vagrant and an exile, that is the best way of owning things." Fracturing and rearranging text to achieve some semblance of insight may very well be the task of the critic, or at least of the critic qua critic, but not of the poet, whose language resists that of the everyday. Nevertheless, the Shandies try to make it so, eliminating distractions as they bicker and shamble across the globe. Their escapades are laughable but retain an almost fable-like quality, doggedly dragging a greater theological truth through the chaos in their wake.

But some Shandies recognize the inherent paradox from the very beginning. To make miniature, to distil, is to conceal: "What is reduced finds itself in a sense liberated from meaning. Its smallness is, at one and the same time, a totality and a fragment." Perhaps then this notion of interpretation as the entry point to a kernel of truth is entirely misguided, and so the Shandies must be as well. Critical inquiry, historicizing the literary, compiling the oeuvre, these are no longer means to insight, necessarily, but impositions on the work. But are they processes of fragmentation, or are they justified by a dormant completeness à la Vila-Matas's ever-optimistic Benjamin?

The novel's femme fatale, Berta Bocado, proposes another hypothetical machination in the form of the "total book: a book of books encompassing all others." Her colleagues among the Shandies ridicule her; such a book would be impossibly huge, "anything but portable," or so they say. Such derision, at least from the text's author, seems disingenuous. Many of Vila-Matas's novels attempt to encompass all other books, and this one in particular is rather small, likely his most portable. What's more, this edition is a translation, at once a fragment of the original and its essence made moveable, albeit tentatively. In this way the specter of Borges, among others, follows Vila-Matas. Take, for example, one of Vila-Matas's later works, Montano's Malady, in which a casual reference to a French edition of Borges's The Aleph is anything but casual. Borges's book makes a brief appearance in the novel's second part, and the narrator, in the space of opening and shutting the book, resolves to invent a son named Montano, a literature-sick writer who sees only fictions in the world around him ("Literature may also be part of the world in the same way as leaves are"). The first part of Montano's Malady, not unlike his earlier effort, Portable Literature, is an entry point into an entry point: a venture to paint a total portrait of a world saturated with books.

Borges's The Aleph, however brief its appearance in Montano's Malady, besets Vila-Matas with its latent significance. One might find the troubling little stone from its titular story hidden amongst the rubble left by the Shandies as they stumble across the hemisphere, haunting their efforts until it winds up in the hands of "Montano" for but a passing moment in a café. In Borges one finds the blueprint for Bocado's all-encompassing book, either in an eschatological moment of cartographic over-ambition, or in the point that contains all other points, a bird that is somehow all birds, or an angel facing in every direction at once. But the most frightening hurdle she would face in undertaking such a work, other than sexist barriers courtesy of a rather self-indulgent and insecure book club, is the paradox of the Aleph—the Aleph being quite possibly the only true instance of portability, but entirely unfathomable. That is, how can one take a compressed experience of all that is and fashion it into a narrative, which is built of successive movement? The Aleph's owner, Carlos Argentino, went mad in his efforts to understand it.

Vila-Matas's erudition here is exhaustive, and on display throughout is his lifetime of reading, escorting us to the depths of this investigation. Borges's Aleph is an implausible monument to the fact that everything in space exists all at once and exposes the limits of human communication, which distorts what is essentially simultaneous into a troubled successive motion of thought. The Aleph is an experiential impossibility yet it is an incomprehensible truth. Its very existence undermines the temporal movement of language, compressing it into a single point. Contrast the idea of the Aleph with something like the psychiatric mysticism of Tlön, which asserts the primacy of language's temporal limitations, life and the universe merely being a series of mental processes in succession. The Tlönian school of thought is much more comforting as it fits within a more familiar framework, whereas the Aleph drives someone like Argentino comically insane. To make literature into a single and portable point is undeniably frivolous, yet this is the ambition of Vila-Matas (or, the Vila-Matas who inhabits the novel) and the Shandies, almost aware from the get-go. Here we find the society's folly, and as we bear witness to its misadventures we can't help but feel as if we're in on the joke. Or are we? We reserve contempt for the absurdities of a fictional society, but how often do we turn it inward toward our own attempts to "make portable," to pass a total experience through the relay of a fractured sequence of thought, with the hope that we might rearrange these pieces back into a more comprehensible whole? Problematizing this is important for Borges, as well as for his spiritual offspring in Vila-Matas. Language dissolves and obscures experience, and the Shandies' attempts to resurrect it in the literary usher us through an episodic series of bizarre and failed experiments, which, ironically, conceal that much sought-after experience in its pages.

Contrast this desperate fervor for the unsullied experience with the work of a writer like W.G. Sebald, whose lamentation of the ephemeral experience is palpable, though his meditation on the matter does not engender resistance. Sebald knew that the totality of things can only be seen in succession, like a current of information. He captured instances from that stream, turning each moment into a universe in itself, much like the physics of Zeno's arrow. With relative confidence one might suspect this as the reason why Sebald, another heir of Borges, causes such anxiety for someone like Montano-the-Critic, upon receiving a review copy of The Rings of Saturn. In The Rings of Saturn there is a tragic completeness to one's own history, tragic insofar as it is invariably obscured by the passage of time. Sebald built new worlds out of moments in time, appropriating photos, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera, launching into dream-like ambulation from just a single one of these instances ("It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes"). In this way there is a kind of auto-undermining of the certainties of facts and history, even his own. Sebald knows this is the only truth. Where he expresses a blissful yet melancholy acceptance of this, in Vila-Matas there is contempt for it: not isolating moments as the seeds for new worlds but revising an entire century of writing and assembling a veritable collage of rewritten histories, exposing their malleability. Despite Montano's anxieties in one novel and the persistence of the Shandies in another, Sebald and Vila-Matas resonate rather well with each other, even beyond the Borgesian in their DNA; both are concerned with what the Shandies would call portability. For Sebald, life invades the literary and fundamentally changes upon impact, being made portable in a pile of paper. For Vila-Matas, literature antagonizes the world, gouging out its most 'portable' qualities and mangling them in the gears of its formal machines.

The poetics of play in Vila-Matas versus those of the most carefully constructed page in Sebald become somewhat less distinct once understood as responses to a similar inquiry: to what extent can literature condense? To what extent can it be condensed? The Shandies in A Brief History and the fishermen in The Rings of Saturn are not dissimilar to one another: "They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness." Montano's distaste for Sebald is not a moment of contrast but rather a foregrounding of these concerns. That "emptiness" is the vessel in which one just might be able to produce that great Aleph of a novel, the one composed of all books, or the space in which Benjamin's literary machine might exist, or where doppelgängers torment their Shandy counterparts. In that same emptiness several Shandies might contemplate suicide as an inextricable aspect of the literary experience. This notion of a death that provokes the infinite capabilities of literature is most likely an homage to (and parody of) Maurice Blanchot, whose name is amply checked throughout Vila-Matas's writing; art destroys the symbols of the everyday as it appropriates them, and in turn our attempts to return the alterity of art to a more comprehensible state (be it through criticism or translation) break down and transform it into something else again. The negation is eternal, and chasing these threads through the void is central to the Shandy mission, so naturally the group shambles around, hilariously trying to plug the void with stuff.

Any interpretation, even Bunstead and McLean's translation, is an endeavor to make portable—to comprehend. This is Vila-Matas at his most quintessential, but A Brief History of Portable Literature is not the work of a fully developed master of contemporary Spanish writing, the likes of which we meet in Montano's Malady and Bartleby & Co. The book does occasionally stumble as so much 'postmodern' art often does: where certain moments in Portable Literature may have been poignant in the author's mind, they are occasionally flippant in execution. But these instances are few, hardly diminishing its strength as a sophisticated investigation into the possibilities of writing and its histories. Here is a novel in which one can observe Vila-Matas's theory of reading unfold in real time, made manifest in the strange and frivolous undertakings of what really amounts to a collective of eccentric readers, a cohort with whom we have all too much in common.