Mac’s Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

A selection of my favorite passages from the book

First Lines

  • I’m fascinated by the current vogue for posthumous books, and I’m thinking of writing a fake one that could appear to be “posthumous” and “unfinished” when it would, in fact, be perfectly complete. Were I to die during the writing process, the book really would be my “final, interrupted work,” and that would, among other things, ruin my great dream of becoming a falsifier. Then again, a beginner must be prepared for anything, and I am just that, a debutant. My name is Mac. Perhaps because I am only a beginner, the best and most sensible thing would be to wait a while before attempting anything as challenging as a fake “posthumous” book.

Essence of the Story

  • It’s as if what she really meant is: “The Mercury-Sun conjunction for Aries indicates that only the book matters, but that, ultimately, the book is there only to lead you on in your search for the book.”
  • All of which leads me to suspect that what’s going on with me is this: before the time comes for me to set about rewriting my neighbor’s novel, my reading of the book is obliging me to actually live out certain scenes first.
  • I’ve always been fascinated by that German quality. More than that, I’d like to spend one day of my life, or at least part of a day, just being a German writer of deeply tedious prose, the most incredibly boring German writer ever, a German who would take real delight in the pleasure it would give him to write those boring, knotty sentences, in which one’s memory, without any help at all, would, for five whole minutes, follow the lesson being taught, until, finally, at the end of that protracted Teutonic sentence, the meaning behind what is being said would appear like a lightning flash and the puzzle would be solved. The motto of many German writers was always this: may heaven grant the reader patience.

On Literary Creativity and Otherwise

  • and I want to say this now with no more beating about the bush — in order to write one must cease to be a writer.
  • I love short stories. I don’t, on the other hand, have much sympathy for novels, because they are, as Barthes said, a form of death, transforming life into Fate. If I were to write a novel, I’d like to lose it the way you might mislay an apple after buying a whole bagful from the local Pakistani convenience store. I’d like to lose it just to prove that I don’t care one bit about novels and prefer other literary forms.
  • I realize now that I behaved as if I didn’t know that — ultimately — perfect paragraphs don’t stand the test of time, because they are mere language, and can be destroyed by a sloppy typesetter, by changes in fashions and usage, in short, by life itself.
  • Creative people are punished for aspiring to find happiness in the public exercise of the imagination and the written word.
  • The anonymous narrator, who employs what Hemingway called the Iceberg Theory, pours all his skill into the hermetic telling of that other secret story — two revelers in love with a young woman they never mention — and so skilled is he at the art of ellipsis that the reader becomes aware of that other, absent story of which the girl in question would be the protagonist.
  • I found the parakeet’s squawks rather inspiring, but I couldn’t say this to her, because it would only have made matters worse. The squawking was helping me to write, especially when the bird communicated — through the open window — with its brothers and sisters, the family of parakeets that appeared to be waiting for it outside. I sat writing in the middle of the imaginary flight path of those desperate cries, which traveled up from the depths and out onto the street, where they were greeted by the squawks of other parakeets who, from the tops of the trees, seemed to be asking my accidental pet where its anguished cries were coming from. And perhaps the worst thing was not being able to say any of this to my wife, because it would only prove to her that I was even crazier than she already thought I was.
  • I imagine Sánchez in the building next door, he, too, safe in his apartment, bedding down for a night of replenishing sleep, but then, quite suddenly, jumping to his feet, as if the slightest of noises, coming from underground, had alerted him to the as-yet-undefined danger that I, his neighbor, represent to him; I, who, unbeknown to him — or anybody — have spent weeks thinking constantly about all the modifications I’ll make to Walter’s memoirs. And I haven’t even finished reading them yet.
  • I entitled “Diary of a Washed-Up Contractor.”“Why a contractor?” she asked. “I see, so the word ‘contractor’ alarms you, but never mind that I consider myself washed up.”
  • There’s no point in denying that I adore the enormous, mad, limitless extravagance of Foster Wallace’s obsessive footnotes. I see in them a kind of troubling, irrepressible impulse to keep on writing, to write until you’ve written everything, and to transform the world into one great perpetual commentary, with no final page.
  • If I were to rewrite “Something in Mind,” that narrator would be a double of me — but it would never be me myself, because I consider that impossible: as far as I know, the person speaking (in a story) is not the person writing (in real life), and the person writing is not the person he is — he would be a duplicate
  • No, I wouldn’t stand in her way, I said, meanwhile quietly cursing her absurd determination to reassert herself as a woman of science and not of literature, as if, in order to reaffirm her personality, she had to be the polar opposite of me.

On Repetition

  • My vocation is as a modifier of things. And as a repeater of things, too. But that vocation is more commonplace. Essentially we are all repeaters. Repetition, that most human of gestures
  • “The fear of repeating yourself is offset by the joy of knowing that you’re making your way forward in the company of stories from the past.”
  • We come into this world in order to repeat what those who came before us also repeated. There have been supposedly significant technical advances, but as regards our human nature, we remain unchanged, with exactly the same defects and problems. We unwittingly imitate what those who preceded us tried to do. These add up to mere attempts with very few successes, which, when they do occur, are always second-rate. Every ten or fifteen years, people speak of new generations, but when you analyze those generations, which, on the face of it, do appear to be different, you see instead that they merely repeated, like a mantra, how urgent and vital it is to overturn the previous generation and, just to be safe, the one before the previous one, which, in its time, tried to erase the one before that. Oddly, though, no generation wants to position itself on the margins of that Great Path, but, rather, on the firm ground occupied by the previous generation. They must think there’s nothing else beyond that firm ground, and this belief ultimately leads them to imitate and follow in the footsteps of those they started out despising. And so it goes on, not a single generation has placed itself on the margins or has said, almost as one voice: we don’t like this, you can keep it. The young arrive, only to slink away the next day, no longer young, but old. In fleeing from the world, they’re destroyed; and their memories are destroyed and they die, or they themselves die, so destroying their memories, which were born dead. This rule knows no exception.
  • I felt there was no escape, that I was stranded in the circular geography of Coyote, and, at the same time, at the end of the world, knowing that, even if I traveled to the ends of the earth, I would always return to Calle Londres. The truth is that noting down all these incidents or simple details was doing me good, perhaps because I was immersed in the kind of banal activities described in all my favorite diaries. That’s why, for some time, while I walked, I devoted myself to seeking out the irrelevant.
  • Every ventriloquist knows that if there’s one thing that characterizes a voice, any voice — including the first voice — it’s the knowledge that the voice will not last; it emerges, shines brightly only to fade again, consumed by its own brilliance. A voice has something in common with a falling star with none to see it. There is no voice that doesn’t eventually burn out. You can recapture it, but you never truly find it again; to think otherwise is as naive as thinking that a time machine could carry us back to the beginning of everything. You can imitate a voice, or repeat what a voice has said, and in that way prevent it from disappearing altogether, but it will no longer be the voice, nor will it say exactly what that voice said. Repetitions, versions, perversions, interpretations of what the extinguished voice said will inevitably produce distortions. Voices are the building blocks of literature, which, for me, is a way of keeping alive the flame of tales told around the fire since the dawn of time: a way of turning around the impossibility of accessing something that is lost by at least reconstructing it, even when we know that it doesn’t exist and that the best we can hope for is an imitation.

Thought-Provoking Instances

  • That’s how I began yesterday, with the intention of maintaining a readiness to learn slowly and steadily and perhaps, one day, achieve a depth of knowledge that might allow me to take on far greater challenges.
  • Women seem better able to quash all those absurd concerns that haunt and devastate us poor men; we are always more foolish and tormented than our female counterparts, who seem to have a sixth sense that allows them to simplify problems intelligently
  • It happened to me, and I know it’s happened to others: the first time I went to Lisbon, I had the feeling that I’d lived there before; I didn’t know when, and it made no sense, but I felt that I’d been in that city before ever having been there.
  • These are pictures that emerge from the beauty of this gray day, serenely advancing along the streets of Coyote, and which emerge, too, from my own debutant artist’s world: those mental sketches, always so close to what is actually happening, that are rather charming and, fortunately, rather naive mental engravings; naive, in my case, because the person producing them is still in the initial phase of everything and has no aspirations to go much beyond that, satisfied with the calm state of being the beginner, satisfied with the happy state of the beginner, able to travel from his place at the window, never losing sight of the fact that he is content with the comfortable grayness of his modest knowledge. In short: let others advance.
  • If you ask me, reality doesn’t need anyone to organize it into a plot; it is itself a fascinating, ceaseless creative center. But there are days when reality turns its back on the aimless drifting center that is life and tries to give events a novelish turn.
  • It was a matter of blocking out everything that had the power to upset me and that might seriously hinder the diary’s legitimate function: to make me happy. I was loving these carefree days, where even my strongest-held beliefs were dissolving into easy indifference.
  • I spent the whole morning telling myself that there wasn’t a moment to waste. By the afternoon, nothing much had changed. Once again, I obsessed over not wasting a minute while wasting them all.
  • Sometimes, strange though it may seem, all it takes for us to discover the unknown is the faintest curl of the lip, a tiny random gesture, the briefest flash of insight, and we discover it — as Rimbaud said —“not in some far-off terra incognita, but in the very heart of the present moment.”
  • I thought about the fragility of the strange and ultimately improbable air surrounding us and which we never think of as being made for us, and also about our intuitive sense of exile, of rootlessness, all those things that make us long to go home, as if that were still possible.
  • But I’ve always had my doubts about suicide, because, whenever I think of it, I can’t help remembering that the man who kicks away the chair he is standing on takes the leap into the void only to feel that the rope around his neck binds him ever closer to the very existence he wanted to leave.


  • As Nathalie Sarraute once said — writing really is an attempt to find out what we would write if we wrote
  • Kierkegaard was referring to this attractive aspect of repetition when he said that repetition and recollection were the same movement, only in opposite directions, since “what is recollected is repeated backward, whereas repetition properly so-called is recollected forward. Therefore repetition, if it is possible, makes a man happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy. . . .”
  • “The man who thinks he can live without others is mistaken; the one who thinks others can’t live without him is even more deluded.”
  • A quote from Bernard Malamud: “What’s next isn’t the point.”
  • “I do not evolve: I travel,” wrote Pessoa. In a way, this reminds me sometimes that one can know a man better by what he despises than by what he admires,
  •  “I can forgive you for murdering your wife and your mother, for burning our beloved Rome, for befouling our fair country with the stench of your crimes. But one thing I cannot forgive is the boredom of having to listen to your verses, your second-rate songs, your mediocre performances. Adhere to your special gifts, Nero — murder and arson, betrayal and terror. Mutilate your subjects if you must; but with my last breath I beg you — do not mutilate the arts. Farewell, but compose no more music. Brutalize the people, but do not bore them, as you have bored to death your friend, the late Gaius Petronius, so much so that I’ve chosen to kill myself rather than have to continue listening to your ridiculous attempts at poetry.”
  • “What we all dread most is a maze with no center. That is why atheism is only a nightmare.”
  • Pessoa said that some men rule the world and others are the world.
  • Roland Barthes once said that the only possible success a personal diary can hope for is to have survived the battle, even if that means distancing oneself from the world.
  •  “When you learn of my death that will be my moment of triumph! You will never have loved me so much, and I will never have occupied so much space in your life.”

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • Life seen as a single afternoon, as an elemental, anodyne afternoon; very occasionally glorious, but never without a grayish undertone.
  • I drank too much in the house of the literatureless; that is, at Julia and her husband’s place. By the end of my visit, I verged on the ridiculous, although, luckily, I didn’t make a complete fool of myself and was able to bite my tongue and not tell Julia — in somewhat rambling terms, which I hope to be able to reproduce here now — that I saw her as a great river, and that this new condition of hers — as a powerful rushing stream and not as a sister — was transforming her, in my eyes, into the most fitting and precise image of the course of my own life. It was as if she and her waters encapsulated both my past and my destiny, so closely were both these impressions linked to our favorite childhood holidays
  • I’ve noticed lately that the things that happen to me seem far more narratable than before I started writing this diary, when I was merely submerged in the eternal monotony of the real and, more specifically, in the tedious maelstrom of the construction world, in the day-to-day of business, always glumly marooned on the gray plains of the quotidian.
  • Everything I studied, saw, and learned were illuminated by a kind of potent light I can’t identify, perhaps because it’s merely the subtle glow given off by everything that I am starting to learn.
  • She then started saying how I do less and less each day — as if, once again, she were making a concerted effort to ignore the existence of my diary, and as if my having witnessed a possible murder were proof of my idleness — and she asked what I’d done that morning, wanting to know — as she put it — if I’d spent it sitting on my hands. I considered how fickle a thing falling in love can be and how it can flare up or die down in a moment. My hands were kept pretty busy, I told her. And if plates didn’t fly, that’s only because they happened to be out of Carmen’s reach.
  • It was followed by another contradiction, for Claramunt told me that he greatly admired the sudden sound, which, in Antiquity, must have broken the silence of the original chaos of the universe; and he added rather emphatically that he also admired the grandeur and portentousness of humanity’s first sages, who invented — wherever it was they did invent it — the most extraordinary of all works of art: grammar. They must have been real marvels, he said, those gentlemen who created the different parts of the sentence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s