For all of David Shields’ postmodernist pronouncements that fiction is reality and reality fiction, most readers still look to literature, for good or ill, with the conventional expectations of narrative, plot, and story. Challenging these notions by treating writing like art, and form as primary above content, is the purview of writers pushing back against expectation. Call it what you will: postmodernism, avant-garde, metafiction—these slippery and blurry boundary terms are useful mostly as analytic categories for sorting different literary techniques.
Among them, the style of inserting essayistic prose or literary criticism into fiction has become a common method of genre-blurring—a form of literary mashup. One of the earliest and best practitioners, Jorge Luis Borges, turned the technique into a kind of interrogation of literature itself, his reviews of fictional books collapsing the distance between subject and form, creativity and reportage, story and history. Now, one of the finer descendants of this form of literature is receiving his English-language due, and it couldn’t be more overdue.
A Brief History Of Portable Literature, by the Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas, is the latest of the author’s works to be translated into English over the past decade. It’s the text that first garnered him widespread recognition upon its 1985 publication, and it’s easy to see why. In only 84 pages, Vila-Matas has crafted a dizzyingly original work, a fictional history full of witty commentary on the giants of avant-garde art and inventive reflections on the era when high modernism reigned supreme. It’s a self-consciously slight text, whose own humble spirit keeps it from ever feeling exhaustive or too bogged down in minutiae. An impressive achievement, considering the minutiae is the point. As the history’s author says of his own subject matter at one point, after failing to unearth a particular historical artifact, it is “neither an enigma, nor particularly important; in fact, I don’t even think this history of the portable literature is.”
This breezy dismissal of the value of the work mirrors the metafictional subject matter. It’s an account of the Shandies, a secret society of artists in the 1920s, dedicated to the notion of “portable” literature: texts that are small, unserious, and cultivated with an eye for unlocking worldly mysteries. The Shandies modeled the idea on Duchamp’s box-in-a-suitcase, which contained miniature reproductions of all the artist’s work. They elevate the small, the minor, the daring, the anti-institutional, all in service of a conspiratorial society dedicated to a lack of serious purpose. Vila-Matas’ other “Shandy-esque” characteristics include: “an innovative bent, an extreme sexuality, a disinterest in grand statements, a tireless nomadism, a fraught co-existence with doppelgängers, a sympathy for negritude, and the cultivation of the art of insolence.”
These traits are all paired with the absolute requirement of bachelorhood, for this is a society of men, above all else. Though women are aware of the group, and indeed were the inspiration for it (Georgia O’Keeffe triggers the birth of the conspiracy), it is as “femme fatales” who support and inspire the artists, never as the artist themselves. No doubt this is part of Vila-Matas wily commentary on the nature of artist collectives, especially ones leavened with the paranoia of secrecy, but it also comes across as hoary sexism, with the “meta” aspect questionable.
The Shandies are a lively bunch of noteworthy artists and weirdos. Vila-Matas stacks the group with Paul Klee, Maurice Blanchot, Blaise Cendrars, Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, and other luminaries from the early 20th century. Aleister Crowley plays a pivotal role, especially in the eventual dissolution of the group. For the Shandies only existed as such for a few short years; part of the group’s mission involved knowing full well that “if they wanted the conspiracy to work better, it first had to vanish from the map.” The artists had to bury the existence of the group so that it could live on, as history, which can only ever be entered once it has passed on.
Eventually, this faux-archaeological recounting of meetings, texts, and wild parties begins to attain depths. The troubles and questions of these artists start to resemble the troubles and questions of anyone, be they reader, writer, or anyone otherwise engaged in creative pursuit. The mysterious demons that haunt the Shandies—Vila-Matas dubs them “Odredeks”—become powerful allegories for any struggle in service of making something worthwhile. The protestations of silliness and time-wasting end up masking an encomium not only to literature, but to the question of why we read. A Brief History Of Portable Literature is a work by a deeply serious writer, dressing up his paean to the writer-reader relationship in the trappings of an experimental and lighthearted little book. If it’s not one of the better books of 2015, that’s only because it was already one of the better books of 1985.