Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, just reviewed for TheBookbag.
There is never any end to Paris. The sentence pops up, hypnotic, through most of the book. At times ironic, thoughtful or questioning, it is a quote from Hemingway’s novel, A Moveable Feast, in which the American author looked back at his days in Paris, where he was ‘very poor and very happy.’ The narrator of Never Any End to Paris tells us that when he lived in Paris, he was ‘very poor and very unhappy.’
The narrator is based on Enrique Vila-Matas and he presents the book as a three-day lecture on Irony. Irony, indeed, is the book’s central theme. The narrator quotes other writers on the subject. Sometimes the definitions contradict one another. Or rather, each one illuminates a new facet of irony. Often, it seems to be used as a way of trying to apprehend reality. The narrator’s own definition, in the context of a book that goes through so much, is vivid: he prefers irony ‘that vacillates between desperation and hope.’
Vila-Matas has described Never Any End to Paris as a parody of a bildungsroman. The narrator sounds a lot like Vila-Matas – the title of the novel he’s writing is ‘The Lettered Assassin (Vila-Matas’ novel La asesina ilustrada, is in fact his second novel but was written in Paris). The Paris he describes is a hyper-charged concentrated extract of literary life. The narrator is friendly with exiles, transvestites, writers and poets. He hangs around at the Café de Flore and prestigious literary figures are never far away. One day, when he’s walking in the street, a car screeches to a halt. In it, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers and Marcelin Pleynet on their way to China. At a party, the narrator meets the beautiful actress Isabelle Adjani. He will use her eyes, turned towards him in murderous disdain, as those of the killer in his first novel.
The book that he’s writing progresses and matches the novel’s narrative arc. The narrator has decided to write a book that will kill those who read it and his apprenticeship is keenly portrayed. The narrator’s younger self, a pretentious young man who smokes a pipe and likes to be seen at café terraces pretending to read profound books, is certain that he wants to be a writer. As he has no idea how to go about it, he goes around collecting advice. He acquires a sense of irony and tentatively builds up experience as he writes, often lonely and desperately poor in the garret he rents from Marguerite Duras.
Although the books proffers to be a lecture and ambles off in different directions, much like a man reminiscing about his past then remembering to pick up the threads of the lecture about irony, Paris and Hemingway, it seems to be built according to a remarkable structure. Like in a piece of contemporary music, the repeated use of similar sentences creates different tunes. At one point, each paragraph begins with ‘I went to the cinema a lot,’ expanding on the idea until it has been explored in full. It is rhythmic and riveting. Then the narrator jumps to Hemingway’s liberation of the bar of the Ritz hotel, then to Franco’s death.
Never Any End to Paris is a delightful novel, both a homage to Hemingway and the lively tale of a literary apprenticeship in what was, in the 1970s, the centre of the literary world.