Read A Brief History of Portable Literature Online

Authors: Enrique Vila-Matas

Tags: #Fiction, #General

A Brief History of Portable Literature

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“The infinite, my dear friend, is no big deal—it’s a matter of writing—the universe exists only on paper.”

—Paul Valéry,
Monsieur Teste



Toward the end of the winter of 1924, on the enormous, towering rock where the concept of eternal recurrence first came to Nietzsche, the Russian writer Andrei Bely suffered a nervous breakdown as he experienced the irremediably ascending lavas of the superconscious. On the same day, at the same time, a short distance away, the musician Edgar Varèse fell from his horse when, parodying Apollinaire, he pretended to set off for war.

For me these two scenes seem to be the pillars on which the history of portable literature is built: a history European in its origins and as light as the “desk-case” Paul Morand carried with him on luxury trains as he traveled the whole of an illuminated, nocturnal Europe. This moveable desk was the inspiration for Marcel Duchamp’s
, indisputably the most brilliant bid to exalt portability in art. Duchamp’s box-in-a-suitcase—which contained miniature reproductions of each his works—soon became an “anagram” for portable literature and the symbol by which the first Shandies
would come to be recognized.

Months later and with a minor alteration to the
(a hairclip now serving as its clasp), this “anagram” would be
rearranged by Jacques Rigaut, who tried to represent, as he put it, the apotheosis of “featherweights” in the history of literature. His drawing was widely praised—perhaps for its markedly unorthodox character—and it prompted an extraordinary avalanche of new and daring corruptions of the Duchampian anagram, very clear evidence of the unremittingly transgressive impulse characterizing the first writers incorporated into the Shandy secret society.

Around the same time—and because of a widespread fear among those first Shandies that the box-in-a-suitcase might fall into the hands of any old charlatan—Walter Benjamin came up with a remarkably successful design for the joyous book-weighing machine that bears his name and allows us to judge, to this day, with unerring precision, which literary works are insupportable, and therefore—though they may try to disguise the fact—untransportable.

It’s no coincidence that much of the originality of what was written by the inventor of the Benjamin machine can be attributed to his microscopic attention to detail (along with his unflagging command of philosophical theories). “It was the small things that he was most drawn to,” his close friend Gershom Scholem wrote. Walter Benjamin had a fondness for old toys, postage stamps, photographic postcards, and those imitations of real winter landscapes contained within a glass globe where it snows when shaken.

Walter Benjamin’s own handwriting was almost microscopic. His never-achieved ambition was to fit a hundred lines onto a single sheet of paper. Scholem says that the first time he visited Benjamin in Paris, his friend dragged him along to the Musée de Cluny to show him, in an exhibition of ritual Jewish objects, two grains of wheat upon which some kindred spirit had written out the entirety of the
Shema Yisrael

Walter Benjamin and Marcel Duchamp were kindred spirits. Both were vagrants, always on the move, exiled from the world of art, and, at the same time, collectors weighed down by many things—that is, by passions. Both knew that to miniaturize is to make portable, and for a vagrant and an exile, that is the best way of owning things.

But to miniaturize is also to conceal. Duchamp, for example, always felt drawn to extremely small things that cried out to be deciphered: insignia, manuscripts, symbols. For him, to miniaturize also meant to make “useless”: “What is reduced finds itself in a sense liberated from meaning. Its smallness is, at one and the same time, a totality and a fragment. The love of small things is a childish emotion.”

As childish as the perspective of Kafka who, as is well known, engaged in a struggle to the death to enter into paternal society, but would only have done so on the condition he could carry on being the irresponsible child he was.

The portable writers always behaved like irresponsible children. From the outset, they established staying single as an essential requirement for entering into the Shandy secret society or, at least, acting as though one were. That is, functioning in the manner of a “bachelor machine” in the sense Marcel Duchamp intended soon after learning—through Edgar Varèse no less—of Andrei Bely’s nervous breakdown: “At that moment, I don’t know why, I ceased listening to Varèse and began to think one shouldn’t weigh life down excessively, with too many tasks, with what we call a wife, children, a house in the country, a car, etc. Happily, I came to understand this very early on. For a long time, I have lived as a bachelor much more easily than if I’d had to tackle all of life’s normal difficulties. When it comes down to it, this is key.”

That Duchamp should come to understand all of this just as Varèse was telling him of Bely’s nervous breakdown on the enormous, towering rock of eternal recurrence is still strange. One inevitably wonders what link there might be between Bely’s frayed nerves and the Duchampian resolve to remain single at all costs, daydreaming like all irresponsible children. It’s hard—practically impossible—to know. Most likely there isn’t any link at all, and the image of a celibate person (impossible, gratuitous, outrageous) simply occurred to Duchamp all of a sudden, unaccompanied by any explicable memory or conscious association. That’s to say, a portable artist, or what amounts to the same thing, someone easy to carry around, wherever one goes.

Whatever happened, the one clear thing is that Varèse’s fall, Bely’s breakdown, and the unexpected emergence of a celibate, gratuitous, outrageous artist in Duchamp’s field of vision were the pillars on which the Shandy secret society was based.

Two other essential requirements for being a member of this society (apart from the demand for high-grade madness) were established: along with the fact one’s work mustn’t weigh very much and should easily fit into a suitcase, the other essential condition was that of functioning in the manner of a “bachelor machine.”

Though not essential, certain other typically Shandy-esque characteristics were also advisable: an innovative bent, an extreme sexuality, a disinterest in grand statements, a tireless nomadism, a fraught coexistence with doppelgängers, a sympathy for negritude, and the cultivation of the art of insolence.

In insolence, there is a swiftness of action, a proud spontaneity that smashes the old mechanisms, triumphing speedily over a powerful but sluggish enemy. From the outset, the Shandies decided that what they really wanted was for the portable conspiracy to become the stunning celebration of what appears and disappears with the arrogant velocity of the lightning bolt of insolence. Therefore, the portable conspiracy—whose principle characteristic was that of conspiring for the sake of conspiring—should be short-lived. Three years after Varèse’s fall and Bely’s breakdown—on the day of the Góngora tribute in Seville in 1927 to be precise—the Satanist Aleister Crowley, with a deliberately histrionic flourish, dissolved the secret society.

Many years after Crowley set the Shandy eagle free, I find myself in a position to reveal that the portable society exists beyond the distant horizons of its members’ imagination. It was a nexus, a secret society altogether unprecedented in the history of art.

These pages will discuss those people who risked something—if not their lives, then at least their sanity—in order to create works in which the threat of the charging bull, horns lowered, was ever present. We will become acquainted with those people who paved the way for the debunking today of all those who, as Hermann Broch put it, “weren’t necessarily bad writers, but were criminals.”

We will meet those who paved the way for this novel about the most joyful, voluble, zany secret society that ever existed, a society of writers who seemed practically Turkish to judge by all the coffee and tobacco they got through, a society of gratuitous and outrageous heroes in the lost battle of life, lovers of writing when it becomes the most enjoyable experience possible, and also the most radical.

Shandy, in the dialect of certain ridings of Yorkshire (where Laurence Sterne, the author of
Tristram Shandy
, lived for much of his life), can mean joyful as well as voluble or zany.



I owe to a brief conversation with Marcel Duchamp and especially to Francis Picabia’s as-yet-unpublished book
Widows and Soldiers
the most valuable information regarding the key involvement of two femmes fatales in the foundation of the Shandy secret society in Port Actif.

Picabia says that toward the end of the winter of 1924, in the city of Zurich, across the street from 1 Spielgasse—that is, across the street from the Cabaret Voltaire, where
was celebrating the happy fifth anniversary of its disappearance from the cultural scene—there was a balcony in the shape of a pygmy flute made from papaya branches, and on this balcony, under a full moon one night, a trench coat rested, inside of which fidgeted a beautiful Spanish woman with a rather horrible name, Berta Bocado, who was somewhat furtively watching the comings and goings of the old Dadaists (who, incidentally, were never aware of the Spanish woman’s eyes spying on them).

That night, Berta Bocado was like a camera with an open aperture: a passive, meticulous, pensive camera. She had just received a letter from her former lover—Francis Picabia—in which, after bringing her up to date, he asked her to try to become friendly with a Russian writer named Andrei Bely to ascertain whether—aside from having nervous breakdowns on enormous, towering historic rocks—he possessed ingenuity and a sense of humor. “Marcel (Duchamp) and I,” the letter concluded, “are both interested to know if Bely is one of ours. The information we have suggests that he lives on the same street as you and plays chess with Tristan Tzara at sundown. He seems to function like a bachelor machine. In his best novel,
, the protagonist is a conspirator and, at the same time, a bachelor machine who, in a positively inspired moment, eats a bomb and feels its pleasurable tick-tock in his gut. This Bely is probably a high-grade madman. We’d like you to become acquainted with him and tell us if he has anything in common with his novel’s protagonist. We await word.”

It’s unclear whether it was due to her being a femme fatale or simply due to her absentmindedness that Berta Bocado mistook another Russian for Bely. This Russian also lived on the Spielgasse and, from time to time, played chess with Tzara, Arp, Schwitters, and company, but he stayed home at night and wanted nothing to do with the old Dadaists. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was his name and, along with a certain Krupskaya, he was biding his time in Zurich waiting for revolution to break out in his own country.

A few days later, Berta Bocado sent some totally erroneous information to Picabia, thereby creating the misunderstanding that contributed so much to the consolidation of the portable secret society: “This is certainly a strange Russian, who even when the weather is fine goes out wearing galoshes and a quilted winter coat and carrying an umbrella. He keeps the umbrella furled and his pocket watch inside a grey suede protective sleeve, and he also keeps the penknife that he uses as a pencil sharpener stowed in a case; he even seems to have his face sheathed, because he always hides it with the upturned collar of his coat. He wears dark glasses, a wool shirt, stuffs his ears with cotton wool, and when he gets in a car, he orders the driver to put the top up. In a word, this individual displays a constant tendency to create something akin to a casing that isolates him and protects him from all manner of prying eyes. I believe he even has a mania about keeping his ideas encased. . . . I attempted to seduce him and the best I could manage was to be allowed up to his apartment, but once inside he began to behave very oddly: he barely looked at me and only seemed interested in a number of folders that he transported convulsively from one place to another in his study. Some of these folders he moved around repeatedly, others he hid. I suppose they contained manuscripts of his novels. And I say
because all this time he insisted, over and over again, that he was not a novelist, and, horrified, I would say almost terrified, he denied ever having written anything about conspirators who swallow bombs and other such things. It was clear that he wanted me to leave as soon as possible, and this—you know me—made me angry. I called him rude, but he replied mysteriously that he wasn’t rude, but simply a fan of transporting everything that seemed portable . . .”

On receiving the letter, Picabia had the impression that behind the Russian’s strange conduct there might be a coded message he ought to decipher. He spent days trying to uncover a meaning to the frenetic moving around of files, until Duchamp, who didn’t yet know the content of the letter from Bocado, recounted a dream to him, supplying (without knowing it) the crucial clue he’d been trying so hard to find.

Duchamp said he’d dreamed four phrases, the first three constructed out of words subject to the realm of coincidence: phrases that reflected the language that might be expected of pickled chance—which, as is well known, was always his great specialty. The four phrases (except for the last) would be included years later in Andre Breton’s anthology of black humor:

Etrangler l’etranger.

Eglise, exil.

Rrose Selavy et moi esquivons les
ecchymoses des Esquimaux aux mots

C’est Bely le plus vieux du


This fourth and final phrase—the only one not constructed with words subject to the realm of coincidence—acquired a magical meaning for Picabia, who believed he saw in
Port Actif
(homonym for the French word
, meaning portable) a revelation, this word cryptically linking Duchamp’s dream with the Russian’s message and pointing him toward Port Actif, an African village situated at the mouth of the River Niger.

After not a little difficulty, Picabia managed to convince four of his friends—Duchamp, Ferenc Szalay, Paul Morand, and Jacques Rigaut—of the absolute necessity of setting sail for the coast of Nigeria. And on July 27, 1924, they boarded a ship at Marseille bound for the African shores and a future Shandy plot. (At the time, they didn’t know exactly what this plot would entail, but they had no doubt that clearly it ought to come to light, in the darkness of a continent darker than the still-opaque portable spirit.)

On arriving at Port Actif, Picabia says they felt, immediately, the alluring horror of the unknown world to which they’d traveled: “We felt transported to a new planet; I remember we disembarked at sundown, and a swarm of little black children overran the deck: they poked their shaved heads through our cabin windows, showing their beautiful eyes and bright glittering smiles; they reached out their slender hands, with palms like pink conch shells, to ask for money . . . and soon we were in Port Actif’s great square, four-sided and beautiful, replete with guest houses, bars, and shops. Marcel, Paul, Ferenc, and Jacques all laughed in unison when they saw there was a place called Café du Louvre. We sat there, sampling
, magnificent sugar-coated coffee beans from Harar. Two Negroes came over in hope of a sale and showed us agates from Ceylon, rock crystals from Tamojal, silver rings, gazelle antlers, ostrich feathers, and Nigerian shields. . . . But at nightfall, once the initial astonishment at that fascinating place had passed, we began to fear that nothing of any relevance was going to happen to us there . . .”

They grew bored over the course of three long days on the Café du Louvre’s terrace, and, in fact, none of them—not even Picabia, the one who had launched them on this escapade—was overly clear about what they were doing there. Duchamp, the most depressed of all, kept repeating, in his opinion five bachelor machines lost in an African port didn’t amount to anything more than a ridiculous group of hobbled contraptions. Picabia tried to be more optimistic and, though fully aware he was deluding himself, he constantly saw—besides his friends’ irritation—signs in the sky or in the square’s porticoes or in the impressive miniatures that the locals sold. But not until the afternoon of the third day did Picabia think he saw a sign of real interest: a one-legged man, no less, playing a flute made from his own tibia: someone identical to Lelgoualch, a fictional character in Raymond Roussel’s
Impressions of Africa

Darkness and magic. Picabia made the suggestion that this time, this really could be a highly revealing sign. But revealing what? Duchamp, Szalay, and company asked in unison, visibly annoyed, already very tired of Picabia’s questing after free associations that might plot a course through the chaos. Then, all of a sudden, they saw a gorgeous foreign woman go by (“tall, tanned, extremely sensual, a bona fide apparition”) who, crossing the square at high speed, disappeared down an alleyway and was followed by Lelgoualch and his musical tibia.

After a few moments of general stupor, Picabia reacted and, trying to work out if the others had seen the same thing he had, remarked that he’d just seen a beautiful
machine. Morand said to him that, yes, indeed, a comic variation on the orange blossom had just gone by. Szalay chimed in and, attempting to guess the foreign woman’s nationality, roundly confirmed that there were three sexes: men, women, and that French woman who had just furtively crossed the square. Rigaut abruptly got to his feet, beside himself, and “in love, even before meeting her, set out in pursuit of the femme fatale.”

This woman turned out to be Georgia O’Keeffe, the American painter and sculptor, who was traveling along the eastern coast of Africa in the company of the poet William Carlos Williams, a good friend of Duchamp’s. At the dinner following this happy encounter, she seemed enthusiastic about Picabia’s talk of bachelor machines, their fictions and their other future conspiracy. Lelgoualch provided continuous musical accompaniment to everything said over dinner, to the point that his enchanted tibia would respectfully respond to the group’s silence, O’Keeffe now operating as the femme fatale, already responding to the bachelor mechanism and expounding her theory as to what she understood by
extreme sexuality
: a concept intimately tied up with the functioning of the bachelor machines, which soon became one of the most characteristic Shandy traits.

Aware that the bachelor machines’ most distinctive characteristic was eminently sexual, Georgia O’Keeffe asserted that they were also composites, combinations of mechanical and organic components, tied to each other in close circles, by complex bonds of pleasure and terror, ecstasy and punishment, life and death.

“Therefore, love, like energy or libido,” Picabia tells us the femme fatal declared while filing her nails, “ought to be separated from its genetic purpose, which we understand as reproduction; one’s own satisfaction is the only thing that should be sought. In a word, copulate for pure pleasure, never thinking about progeny or other trifles. This is what I understand by extreme sexuality.”

After quoting O’Keeffe word for word, Picabia’s description of the foundational soiree in Port Actif comes to an abrupt close; an enigmatic and suggestive silence—a pact—arose between the stealthy conspirators: “If up to that point we’d dragged our pasts behind us like the vaporous trails of comets, knowing precious little about our future conspiracy, Georgia’s statement brought us together suddenly, in the perfect silence of stealthy conspirators, and that night there were no more words, because this struck us as the ideal tone that would allow us to slowly mold—in the most absolute and alluring of silences—the other characteristically portable traits. Everyone fell silent, understanding that there was really no need for any audible conversation, since we’d already been in conversation for a very long time (though not with expressed words). We spoke to each other silently, and our conversation was one of the most interesting imaginable; words pronounced to be heard could not have had the effect of this silence.”

I have no more information on this pact of stealthy conspirators that founded Shandyism than Picabia offers in his book, but I think the facts are reliable enough for one to conclude that, thanks to the definition of extreme sexuality by a femme fatale, the birth of the portables’ world became reality: a universe that was born of mistakes and coincidences. Of mistakes, such as Berta Bocado’s confusing one Russian for another. And of coincidences, such as the encounter with Georgia O’Keeffe, leading to the expulsion of maternity from the Shandy language.

All seems to indicate, then, that the influence of femmes fatales on the portable world brought about the birth of the secret society. But, as is well known, to be born is to begin to die. That the femmes fatales installed themselves in the Shandy bachelor machines did not exempt the latter from irreparable future breakdowns, since, at the very moment they became aware they were alive and portable, they embraced Death, which explains both the immediate appearance of the word suicide on their horizon and the fact that one of those who dined in Port Actif—specifically the one who had fallen in love with the femme fatale—took charge there and then of the fate of one of the portable “offices,”
the General Suicide Agency

Yes, femmes fatales, yes. It was clear from the outset that every “bachelor machine” should incorporate into its complex workings the occasional vamp, as only thus would he function with bogus efficiency and without fear of breaking down—although, paradoxically, to “break down” was, ultimately, the fatal destiny of these machines, so admirably unproductive were they.

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