How Vila-Matas Got to the Garret
(Here, Scott Esposito writes about “Sea Swell,” found in Issue 25 of Two Lines. To read that and so many more translations, purchase the issue here.)
It’s hard to believe that Enrique Vila-Matas first became known to me nearly 10 years ago. I was living in Mexico and I happened to read an interview with him in the Mexican journal Tempesdad, right as New Directions was releasing the first two books of his ever to be translated into English: Bartleby & Co and Montano’s Malady. That was back in 2007, some 30 years after Vila-Matas had first begun publishing his work.
Ever since that first interview I’ve been a big fan of Vila-Matas, so it’s very much an honor to be featuring his work in Two Lines Issue 25, both in print (“Sea Swell”) and online (“Vampire in Love“).
I’d have to say that “Sea Swell” is the Seinfeld of Issue 25—it’s your quintessential story about nothing, the shaggy dog tale. It very much seems to come out of the Surrealist tradition of André Breton, sort of like a (strange) slice of life. Although (in correct Surrealist tradition) it lacks anything at all like an epiphany—maybe an anti-epiphany, if anything—and what you get is simply a lot of very weird texture adding up to . . . well, that’s hard to say. You just have to read it.
“Sea Swell” takes us back to the early days of Vila-Matas’s career, when he was a very young writer and was just beginning to venture out from Barcelona to the wider literary world. One of the first things he did was to go to Paris to meet his literary idols and learn from them how to become a true writer. It was there that he famously (or infamously) rented a small attic room from Marguerite Duras, where he wrote his second novel and received the wisdom of the ages from the French master.
Vila-Matas tells the story of his Parisian time with Duras at length in his novel Never Any End to Paris, and “Sea Swell,” which comes from the upcoming short story collection Vampire in Love, is a sort of prequel to it. Here, a terribly shy, disastrously awkward Vila-Matas gets hopped up on amphetamines and then is brought by his friend to Duras’s apartment to meet the legend for the first time.
She is cooking squid and managing to drop her lit cigarette into the pan while, implausibly, Sonia Orwell, the second wife of the English author George Orwell, looks on from the dining room. (In true Surrealist tradition, we never figure out exactly why Orwell is there.) In order to secure the attic for rent, Vila-Matas just needs to say a few charming things, but he can hardly get a word out. To make matters worse, his friend suddenly steals all the attention by concocting a bizarre and oddly detailed rant about being born in Atlantis.
It’s pure Vila-Matas—the whole story feels like some grossly distended MacGuffin (and Vila-Matas loves his MacGuffins, particularly when they’re grotesquely disproportionate). We’re not really sure if the narrator is Vila-Matas or not, if Sonia Orwell is that Sonia Orwell, what the point is, or what Atlantis has to do with anything.
But then, the ending, when it at last arrives, is completely unforeseeable and pitch perfect. There is something unquestionably true and deliciously enjoyable about reading this ridiculous, hard-to-believe quasi-reminiscence.