Bernard Quiriny – A Guide to Famous Stabbings
To write a single book, then renounce literature: the idea began to take hold of him. He knew quite well he would never be rid of it.
I shall begin at the outset by declaring that Enrique Vila-Matas is one of my favourite authors and his book, Bartleby & Co., is, for me, a source of fascination and inspiration. Roughly put, the novel is a series of footnotes to an imaginary text, and is concerned with writers throughout (mostly twentieth century) history who, for one reason or another, gave up writing, pronounced a firm No to literature where too many authors, the narrator feels, say Yes. Bartleby & Co. offers an encyclopedia of such authors, from the justly famous (Rimbaud), to the obscure (Fernando Pessoa's heteronym, the Baron of Tieve), to those writers who are, in all probability, created purely for the text itself (Marcel Maniere, Derain). Vila-Matas uses these writers, both the real and the fabricated, to comment on the concept of giving up literature, and through that, literature itself. It's all very bracing.
And not just for me. Pierre Gould, the subject of Belgian writer Bernard Quiriny's A Guide to Famous Stabbings (trans. Edward Gauvin), finds himself similarly obsessed. Quiriny's story is written as an essay concerning Gould's life and work or, perhaps, a review. Either way, it is presented almost completely straight, as though Gould existed and had, in fact written a book.
After a few pages of acclimation (Gould liked to finish books, not start them; what he needed was that all-encompassing book, the dream of demiurges and philosophers that rendered all further reading pointless, since everything had already been written in it)—after a few pages, then, Gould was hooked by the Spanish writer’s game.
Gould's conceit is to take Vila-Matas' Bartleby a step further. In Bartleby & Co. there is an author, Derain, who is a) non-existent and b) wrote a book concerned with authors who had written a single book throughout their career. Gould...
...had always dreamed of a literary destiny but lacked the courage of his own ambitions; lazy and defeatist, he had resigned himself to stifling his pride with cynicism and taking solace, amidst ominous flashes of arrogance, in the idea that he had everything it took to be a writer except the patience to really write.
Patience is found by aping Derain's method, that is, Gould will write a single book, and within that book, will contain the renunciation of his literary career. Thus, Gould reasons, he would become the ultimate expression of Vila-Matas' created author Derain's single-book writer. The title he falls upon is A Guide to Famous Stabbings.
The Guide follows both Derain and Vila-Matas' technique of possessing an encyclopedic quality to it. Quiriny helpfully provides a number of examples from Gould's work, which seems to consist almost entirely as a catalogue of stabbings committed throughout the ages. Naturally these stabbings are either of or by famous people (for who hears of the stabbings of ordinary folk?), which leads Gould to wonder whether he should catagorise his list in a more exhaustive manner, or simply run them down the pages, one after the other. A sample:
14 – THE DUKE OF BERRY
French aristocrat, allegedly the last of the Bourbons.
On the night of February 13, 1820, the Duke of Berry was stabbed by a saddler upon leaving the Paris Opera.
He died a few hours later. Son of the Count of Artois and the nephew to King Louis XVIII,
he was considered the last of the Bourbons. His killer, who had sought to end the line,
was arrested and guillotined; to his misfortune, the duke’s wife was pregnant and gave birth
to the Duke of Bordeaux, the future Count of Chambord, who carried on the dynasty.
Literary projects have a habit of taking on a life of their own; like a person obsessed with a number or phrase, once it's in your mind, it seems that indications and references can be found everywhere. Gould obsesses over stabbings and thus, finds them everywhere. The book comes to recount 300 stabbings in total. Quiriny's examples do much to show that what Gould has created is not a literary work so much as a dry encyclopedia: where Vila-Matas used his catalogue as a springboard to comment on matters larger than their subject, Gould is content simply to list. One argument could be that Gould's exercise takes Vila-Matas' concept to its logical conclusion; the other is simply that Gould isn't a very good writer.
Nonetheless, Gould finishes his book with the 301st entry, which is of Pierre Gould himself and recounts his own death by stabbing a month following publication:
These were the last words he would ever write: his writing career was coming to an end, eclipse stretched out its arms to him. By arranging his physical demise, he’d insured his literary one as well; his vow of chastity would be kept till the end, his one book would never be followed by another.
Does the stabbing come? Perhaps. The story ends with an answer, and then ends even better with the 302nd entry. Quiriny's A Guide to Famous Stabbings is one of those pieces which revels in its literary games and techniques, but happily there is an interesting – and funny – story attached. The story is strengthened if you know, and enjoy, Vila-Matas' work, but I wouldn't say it is a requirement. The concept of a “Guide to Famous Stabbings” is itself clever and humurous, and the way in which the story ends is genius.
Quiriny's story borrows heavily from Vila-Matas, of course, but it also owes a heavy debt to Borges (like Vila-Matas himself). The risk with such a story is that playing games with another writer's games can lead to madness, confusion, and the uncomfortable sensation of a writer eating himself and disappearing into self-referential and meta-fictive oblivion, but happily none of those occur here. Quiriny understands that the concept of the Guide is itself a small one, and thus spends much of the story describing Gould's mean life and miserly ambitions, his failures as a writer and his fascination with “those who can”. It's also pleasing to note that Quiriny's story also provides a small addition to the corpus of criticism surrounding Vila-Matas – his analysis of Bartleby & Co., while hardly academic, is vigorous and interesting.
So, then, A Guide to Famous Stabbings is one of those rare stories which provides high concept literary technique while remaining anchored to the fundamental concepts of character, plot and narrative cohesion. The story was a pleasure to read, and had me turn almost immediately to my 8th reading of Bartleby & Co. (I counted) upon completion.
A Guide to Famous Stabbings by Bernard Quiriny is a short story from Subtropics - Issue 13.
Other stories translated by Edward Gauvin:
---Adamek, André-Marcel - The Ark
An interview with Quiriny (interviewed by Edward Gauvin)
Index of short stories under review