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Salon Preview: The Artist as Stalker

Next week, Thursday, February 11th, is our first Two Voices Salon of 2016. Valerie Miles will be joining us via Skype to discuss her career as an editor, writer and translator, as well as her recent translation Because She Never Asked by Enrique Vila-Matas.

While in no way obscure, Vila-Matas has not enjoyed the same degree of fame in the United States as that of his contemporary Roberto Bolaño. And yet Vila-Matas is undoubtedly a towering force in Spanish literature. A Barcelona native, he has written more than twenty novels over the course of his career. He is known for creating strange worlds in his aptly named “auto-fiction,” where fiction and reality are fused into an indistinguishable and singular entity.

Vila-Matas first turned heads with the publication of Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil (A Brief History of Portable Literature came out last June from New Directions, translated by Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean), a slim novel of less than 100 pages. The story revolves around a secret literary society of so-called “Shandies,” a name contrived from Laurence Sterne’s groundbreaking 1759 novel Tristram Shandy. The Shandies are well-known artists and writers turned fictional characters: Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Georgia O’Keefe, Witold Gombrowicz, Federico García Lorca, and others. The result, as you can imagine, is bordering on absurdity. Vila-Matas continues in this vein with Because She Never Asked, although this time his subject is the French artist Sophie Calle.

Who is Sophie Calle? She’s a photographer, a stalker, a detective, a character in a novel. And she may very well be the perfect counterpart to Vila-Matas. She dives into her projects, persistently, violently, like a detective in search of evidence. Her relationship with her subject transforms into that of pursuer and pursued, and nothing and no one is off-limits. In fact, Calle once arranged for a private investigator to follow her, leading the unsuspecting man around Paris and inverting the typical relationship between artist and subject.

Another project sprung from an address book Calle found by chance. She photocopied the pages before sending it back to the owner and preceded to contact the people recorded in its pages in order to piece together a portrait of the address book’s owner. All of this, of course, without the owner’s permission or knowledge. Naturally there was a bit of a scandal.

You have to wonder about the relationship between an author and his equally mischievous protagonist. Is it Vila-Matas who is dragging Calle into his auto-fictive universe? Or is Calle once again leading the ruse? Let’s ask the translator.