The sensation that has lingered from an artist’s talk Sophie Calle gave at the School of Visual Arts in New York years ago is the thrilling suspicion that she was quite effortlessly bluffing her way through much of it. And the closing line was good: “If you’re thinking about following me home, don’t—it’s been done.”
“Stop pulling my leg,” I said to Sophie. – Enrique Vila-Matas
Written in 2007 and appearing in English translation by Valerie Miles in 2015, Enrique Vila-Matas’ little book, Because She Never Asked, is comprised of three short stories tightly bound into a single narrative: “The Journey of Rita Malú,” “Don’t Mess with Me,” and “The Center of the Tangle.” The plot is knottily constructed and relentlessly confounding. Haunted by Borges, Vila-Matas is a notoriously mischievous and unreliable narrator. His first job involved conducting interviews for a Spanish newspaper. One among many notable subjects was Patricia Highsmith. Since he didn’t speak English and thought her a rather dull talker, he made the thing up. Maybe the first question to ask about his relationship to the artist Sophie Calle is whether or not he speaks French. He probably does. He began writing in Paris in the 1960s, up in Marguerite Duras’ attic.
It’s difficult to determine how many characters populate the novel. Maybe two or four. Five, if you count the writer Paul Auster. The first character Vila-Matas conjures up is Rita Malú. She, in various guises, appears in at least two of Vila-Matas’ other books. She moves among the Shandies in The History of Portable Writing, which asserts that the Dadaist Man Ray wrote a book called Travels with Rita Malú. Malú also makes an appearance in Bartleby & Co. as the author of a story titled “Travel and Don’t Write It Down.” Like the literary doppelgänger the author creates for himself, she wanders into fiction and back, from book to book.
In Because She Never Asked, Rita Malú is “the best Sophie Calle imitator” in the world. Sophie Calle exists here as fiction on the page. She is also the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle for whom life, in Barthes’ phrase, “must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel.” Malú emulates Calle by tailing her. Calle’s early work is all about following and being followed. Malú’s art pieces, like Calle’s, tell “wall stories” combining text and photographs. An uncanny physical resemblance connects the two characters, as well. They’d be dead ringers, but a mere difference in height of two inches separates them. One begins to wonder what the measure of difference between the ink-and-paper Calle and the “real” Calle might be – and the same goes for the writer himself. He is also a character in this novel, pursuing Calle like a cat after a mouse. When all is said and done, though, it might be useful to remember that Sophie Calle once had a cat named Souris (Mouse).
Without revealing too much (or anything at all), here are some of the possible ways that Because She Never Asked might be construed or misconstrued. Rita Malú [character] imitates Sophie Calle [character] based on Sophie Calle [artist]. Maybe Sophie Calle [character] asked Enrique Vila-Matas [character] to write a script for her to live out as art. “The Journey of Rita Malú” might be this story. Or Sophie Calle [artist] asked Vila-Matas [writer] to pen a script for her to perform. “The Journey of Rita Malú” might be this story and the rest of the book might be Vila-Matas’ [writer’s] documentation of their collaboration. Or maybe Sophie Calle [artist] never asked Enrique Vila-Matas [writer] for such a story. It is also possible that they are in close cahoots. But perhaps they’ve never even met. The book’s title seems to give up the game. But midway through the novel, an epigraph dubiously attributed to Stendhal warns: “Remember to distrust.”
Fictional characters cannot be pried apart from their flesh and blood counterparts. Writer Paul Auster lurks in these environs. His City of Glass begins when the main protagonist Quinn picks up a ringing phone. The caller asks for Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency. If for no other reason then to get the story underway, the character Quinn assumes the fictional persona whose name just happens to be Paul Auster.
Calle’s fictional imitator, Rita Malú, opens a detective agency out of ennui and goes off in pursuit a writer named Turner. In the late ‘seventies, Calle began filling her days trailing the paths of strangers. She became an artist more or less by chance, or so she says, when she started following people around because she was bored. (In her propensity for boredom, she is not unlike her mother, whose gravestone reads, “I’m getting bored already”). Calle documented these journeys in off-handed photographs with notations functioning as a kind evidence. She claims that she didn’t consider this pastime art until she was convinced to do so by friends. Her standard answer to why she became an artist is “to seduce my father.” Her father was an avid art collector. His collection included many cleverly captioned images by Duane Michals, combining narrative text and photographs, a formal strategy Calle takes up as her own.
This is another of the stories Calle tells, never quite straight. Once she began to exhibit this early work, she became aware of the American artist Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969). She went to New York and met Acconci to get his approval to show what was, conceptually, quite similar work. In Calle’s account, he immediately recognized that while his work was about “movement around the city,” her work involved “an emotional connection with the person being followed.” So he claims space. She’s motivated by sentiment. Calle makes no note that Acconci’s differentiation is likely informed by unquestioned assumptions about gender. In point of fact, Calle almost always remains aloof. But the much repeated argument that Calle’s voyeurism constitutes a feminist act of seizing the male gaze doesn’t seem quite convincing. A straightforward assertion of agency is not what drives her, but an approach more complicated and closer to the opposite.
Art historian Yves-Alain Bois gets it right, I think, when he refers to Calle as a “paper tigress.” In general usage the expression refers to something possessing a certain ferocity, but ultimately quite tame – and that seems true of Calle as feminist artist. Bois, however, gets at something subtler. He recalls that Calle once recommended to him Oliver Rolin’s novel about Paris in 1968, Le tigre en papier. Bois realized that it was not the political theme but the title of the book that intrigued her: “To become a paper tiger, the character of a novel or of an ‘autobiography’ (to insure that these two things amount to the same), that is what Calle has been working at, by proxy, for many years.” Vila-Matas, in Because She Never Asked, goes so far as to assert that “Sophie Calle stood as one of the great novelists of her time.” High praise, yet his use of the past tense belies his desire to keep her between the covers of his book.
Early on Calle followed a particular Henri B., just barely an acquaintance, to Venice. She wore a blonde wig so that he wouldn’t recognize her. This resulted in her artwork/book Suite vénitienne (1980). For some of the shots of Henri B. she used a Squintar, a lens attachment rigged with mirrors that enables a photographer shoot while avoiding looking directly at the subject. A bit of the text accompanying the photographs reads: “For a few moments, I take a different tack and absentmindedly follow a flower delivery boy — as if he might lead me to him.” This boy-bouquet lilts among the fairly banal photographs in the series. His delivery is so enormous that it guards him from view. Otherwise what is most noticeable in most of the photographs is the insistent, searching gaze, tugging Calle and us after her, along for the hunt. In one striking line Vila-Matas sums it up: “Her sentence came accompanied by an image of a road leading into a town called Faux.” Although the story goes that the cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard made it possible for Calle to get her diploma for work she did not complete, she learned his lesson well — in just ten of his words: “The secret of theory is that truth does not exist” (Cool Memories III).
The first time Paul Auster (left above) and Enrique Vila-Matas (right) met, they were wearing the same shoes and very similar clothes. Vila-Matas includes Paul Auster and his wife Siri Hustvedt (writer of The Blazing World) in one of his as yet untranslated novels. He also penned an essay/story called “I’m Not Auster.” He has a rather complicated relationship – both cordial and fraught – with his literary double. While we might trust that she never asked Enrique Vila-Matas, she did ask Paul Auster.
First Auster managed to seduce Calle with the novel Leviathan (1992), featuring a character named Maria Turner based on (the real conceptual artist) Sophie Calle. (If the name Turner rings a bell, it’s because a writer named Turner is the subject of Rita Malú’s detective work). A number of Calle’s existing pieces are attributed to Auster’s fictional artist. (Calle would later make the pieces Auster attributes to Maria Turner that didn’t yet exist in her body of work). Intrigued by Auster’s book, Sophie Calle asked him to write the script for one year of her life, with the promise that she would perform it. To her disappointment, Auster refused to take on such daunting responsibility. But because she asked, he did assign her a project, Gotham Handbook: Personal Instructions for S.C. on How to Improve Life in New York City (Because she asked…). It was a fairly open-ended assignment to make the city a better place. He, misguided as Acconci, saw in her work the potential for “emotional connection.” As a result Calle stood at the corner of Harrison and Greenwich Streets in New York near a cheerily decorated phone booth handing out ham and cheese sandwiches and cigarettes. Auster’s forcing of an opportunity for Calle to get “real” suggests that Vila-Matas better understands the rules of the games she plays. He one-ups Auster with an impressive move. To reiterate: Vila-Matas writes a story for Calle to inhabit for the period of a year that involves playing the role of the artist (Rita Malú) who is obsessed with becoming Calle. Calle’s task would be to take on the persona of her own imitator, to double her own double.
Grégoire Bouillier, yet another — if more sensitive — Bachelor to Calle’s Bride, was initially an unwitting collaborator in what was to become Calle’s installation, The Birthday Ritual (1998). In the The Mystery Guest: An Account (a fictionalized memoir from 2004), Bouillier is invited to one Sophie Calle’s birthday parties. At these parties, the number of guests equaled Calle’s age plus someone not already known by her – on this occasion, Bouillier. Each year Calle put all of the birthday gifts she received opened but otherwise untouched into a vitrine. The vitrine from 1993 contains two of Cindy Sherman’s “self-portraits.” Calle did this for thirteen years (stopping at the age of forty). Bouillier’s narrative recounts his encounter with Calle, but also his recovery from heartbreak, a subject coinciding with Calle’s contribution for the 2007 Venice Biennale. Take Care of Yourself is an elaborate, polyphonic response to a (real) break-up letter she received by email. Inevitably Calle and Bouillier became friends. His book is dedicated to her and its frontispiece is a photograph that Calle took of the extravagant bottle of 1964 Margaux that Bouillier brought to her party. He describes their conversations: “…this language consisted of everything we’d been through and overcome and turned into little stories with facets we could polish up to make ourselves feel alive.… if I understood correctly, fiction was being called up to the official aid and reinforcement and rescue of real life, as if real life weren’t always fiction in the first place.”
Before Vila-Matas, Calle may or may not have asked several other novelists to be her co-conspirators. They include Jean Echenoz, Ray Lorida, Olivier Rolin, and the elusive Maurice Forest-Meyer. In Because She Never Asked, Vila-Matas (character or writer or both?) turns an envious shade of green as he stands among the Bachelors grinding chocolate in frustrated pursuit of the unreachable Bride. In due time, Duchamp’s Large Glass makes an appearance: “I turned to glance in La Hune’s window and saw that the books of the writer I most despise in the world were on display. Luckily, they shared space with a magnificent, sizable reproduction of The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, the enigmatic double-glass piece by Marcel Duchamp that was painted in oil and divided horizontally into two equal parts with lead wire. At the top of the upper rectangle (‘the Bride’s Domain’), I could see the perfectly reproduced gray cloud that was painted by Duchamp. I’ve always heard it’s the Milky Way. The cloud envelopes three unpainted squares of glass, whose function (I’ve always heard) is to transmit to ‘the Bachelors’ located at the bottom half of the glass the Bride’s concerns, possibly her orders, her commands. I paid particularly attention to what most fascinated and captivated me about this Duchamp glass: those dots peppered around the far right section of the upper panel. Those dots have always been known as the bachelor’s [sic] gunshots. I had nearly reached a point of ecstasy while contemplating the dots, but my vision betrayed me, and the books by the insufferable writer came back into sight. I considered sending him a bachelor’s shot. Was I to entertain the likelihood that Sophie Calle had put those books there just to irritate me? It was highly improbable.”
The story of Suite vénitienne ends when Henri B. turns around and gestures to hold Calle, quite literally, at arm’s length and to hide his face from her camera. His splayed hand is dramatically foreshortened, a black, unfocused blot on the photograph. With his about-face, he wrests life from fiction. Vila-Matas makes a similar gesture, although his intent is to wrest fiction from life: “I told her I no longer wanted to abandon my writing to the whim of that sinister hole we call life.” In that moment, it seems as though he’s contrived this book in order to get the last word, because she never asked.
But…Rita Malú pulls a photo out of her luggage: “It was really another woman. Sophie Calle playing the bride at her false wedding, though it was hard to tell the difference.” Recently in San Francisco, on something of a whim, Calle married her friend artist Laurie Anderson.