City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Book Festival: Maggie Gee and Enrique Vila-Matas: Novels about Novelists


By Vivien Devlin - Posted on 22 August 2014

Maggie Gee
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Maggie Gee, Enrique Vila-Matas, Stuart Kelly

The theme of this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival is summed up by the phrase ”Let’s Talk” illustrated with chirriping birds on the programme cover.

“Dialogue is a key feature of storytelling”, comments director Nick Barley, “a fundamental part of the way we construct novels”.

This session featured novels inspired respectively by Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway. Maggie Gee has re-imagined Woolf experiencing contemporary life and culture in New York, while Enrique Vila-Matas follows in the footsteps of Hemingway to create a fictional memoir.

A fascinating dialogue on these two imaginative “Novels about Novelists” was skilfully chaired by Stuart Kelly, writer, critic and judge on the Booker Prize. (Rosemary Burnett translated the questions and answers for the Spanish writer Vila-Matas.)

“Never Any End to Paris” is a phrase from "A Moveable Feast", Hemingway's nostalgic narrative based on his penniless years here. Vila-Matas read the book when he was 16 which instilled in him the desire to travel to Paris to emulate the writer’s life.

"I don't know how many years I spent drinking … believing that I was getting to look more and more like Hemingway, the idol of my youth".

Amidst 1970s Parisian café culture, he adopts a pretentious style, dresses in black and smokes a pipe like Sartre. He meets Marguerite Duras who offers him rent free accommodation in her flat, and giving advice on constructing a novel.

The novel is simultaneously an homage to Hemingway, a bittersweet remembrance of things past, a conference lecture on irony and a perspective on writing and writers.

In a similar manner, Maggie Gee first read Woolf aged around 17, enthralled with the raw language of Jacob’s Room and the passion of A Room of One’s Own. “ She was brilliant, brave and influential to all women writers who have come after.”

In “Virginia Woolf in Manhattan”, her heroine Angela Lamb, a novelist, has travelled to New York to read Woolf’s original texts in the Berg Collection. A mystical thunderstorm has brought Woolf back through space and time from her watery death in 1941, looking slightly bedraggled, to arrive in the New York library in 2014.

Gee gives a wonderful reading, imitating Virginia’s richly annunciated, upper class Bloosmbury accent. From amusing adventures around the city, they fly to Istanbul to a literary conference on “Virginia Woolf in the 21st century.” Gee makes clear this is not a satire, but a personal, affectionate tribute.

Kelly enquires which books they read in childhood still inspire them today. Enrique quickly replies, Lorca, but also adds he is an admirer of Scott’s Ivanhoe, and he is not saying this as he is in Scotland!

For Maggie it is the charming nursery poems of A.A. Milne, and also Anderson’s The Snow Queen. In fact Gerda is the name of Angela’s free-spirited daughter in “Virginia Woolf in Manhattan”!

It shows that the characters, stories and fairy tales at bedtime linger in the mind for ever.

“Virginia Woolf n Manhattan” by Maggie Gee is published by Telegram

“Never any End to Paris” by Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Anne McLean) is published by New Directions.