A Brief History of Portable Literature and The Illogic of Kassel, by Enrique Vila-Matas

kassel“Only from the negative impulse, from the labyrinth of the No, can the writing of the future appear,” writes the narrator of Vila-Matas’s 2000 work, Bartleby and Co. If literature’s negative impulse was once directed at a world that it critiqued or transfigured from a position of relative detachment, in Vila-Matas’s work that negation has turned inward, and is directed against literature itself. His novels resist their own status as literature, but can only do so by confronting it and taking it as their inescapable subject matter. This is not quite the playfulness of postmodern metafiction, though it is certainly metafictional and in some ways playful. Instead of postmodernism we might instead call it post-literature. The trope of the funeral for literature employed in Dublinesque is one that might be applied to Vila-Matas’s work as a whole, underpinned by an irony that is closer to the gallows humor of Samuel Beckett or Thomas Bernhard than it is to the exuberance of John Barth or Thomas Pynchon. Modernism was always among other things the pursuit of forms of expression that stand outside of and contradict the logic of an increasingly commodified culture, which packages experience into easily assimilated units of meaning. If postmodernism is in some sense a liberation from the prohibitions of modernism and an embrace of commodity culture, Vila-Matas’s work is a tragicomic confrontation with modernism’s dwindling conditions of possibility in the era of postmodernity.

Read the full review at Music & Literature

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  1. This review has got me interested in Vila-Matas who I hadn’t heard of before (my knowledge of literature is extremely limited, unfortunately).

    Thus my question, if you would be so kind: Is there anybody else in more recent contemporary literature who is carrying on in the same, similar or comparable (in the contemporary situation) style to Beckett and Bernhard?

  2. Well, Vila-Matas is a very good place to start. Beckett and Bernhard are names that tend to get invoked whenever anyone does anything that deviates in some way from conventional realist narrative, though the authors I list at the end of the article all seem to me to be in some way carrying on the modernist tradition in which Beckett and Bernhard both write. Of the better known contemporary authors, WG Sebald is very influenced by Bernhard, and JM Coetzee is heavily influenced by Beckett and Kafka (as is especially obvious in his earlier work, eg In the Heart of the Country). Both are wonderful. You might also try James Kelman, eg How Late it Was, How Late, or A Disaffection, and Laszlo Krasznahorkai (especially The Melancholy of Resistance – you can find my review by searching on this blog). The blog ‘This Space’ (linked on my blogroll) is also an excellent place to go to find out about contemporary European modernist authors

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