The Funniest Secret Society in (Portable) Literary History


Every secret society has its founding myth, and the “Shandies” were no different. In the winter of 1924, or so the story goes, Russian symbolist Andrei Bely suffered a nervous breakdown on the selfsame “towering rock” where Nietzsche first discovered the concept of “the eternal recurrence of the same.” On that same day, composer Edgar Varèse fell from his horse while parodying French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The coincidence of these two seemingly unrelated events held great importance for the Shandies, who counted Marcel Duchamp, Varèse, Walter Benjamin, Aleister Crowley, Francis Picabia, the suicidal poet Jacques Rigaut, and many others, among their ranks.

What about these two events united the elusive “Shandies,” also known as the “society for portable literature”? “Most likely,” writes the speaker of Enrique Vila-Matas’ A Brief History of Portable Literature, “there isn’t any link at all.” The relation between them is light, like an empty suitcase, and “unaccompanied by any explicable memory or conscious association.”

Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise.

And that’s how the Shandies liked it: light and portable. They were “enthusiastic about miniature things.” Even their handwriting was microscopic. First it had to be this way: flung through air by history, like ping-pong balls, the Shandies took a liking to the weightlessness of perpetual exile. (Consider the entire adult life of Walter Benjamin.) Unsurprisingly, they loved to travel, as when they all relocated for a short time to Port Actif, an African village on the river Niger, because Picabia thought he’d read a code in one of Duchamp’s dreams. This portability, too, extended to personal and sexual relationships. Though stricken with manic sex drives, the Shandies, who called themselves “bachelor machines,” were nonetheless celibate. Or, to get a better idea, here is a wonderful description of the Shandy par excellence, the French dandy-writer Valery Larbaud:

Valery Larbaud stood out from the beginning as the heart and soul of the first world deaf conference held at Shakespeare and Company… His sexuality was extreme and he was vehemently opposed to any idea of suicide. Additionally, his fraught co-existence with doppelgangers was outstanding, as was his sympathy for negritude, his perfect functioning as a “bachelor machine,” his disinterest in grand statements, his cultivation of the art of insolence, and his passion for traveling with a small suitcase containing almost weightless versions of his work.

It’s no great shock to learn that the Shandies loved to play games and party. One such party, held in Vienna, was pursued and planned with great care by the above mentioned Larbaud. Its origins are somewhat complicated. After discovering an error in Karl Kraus’ famously perfect self-published and self-written review, Die Fackel, the Viennese writer Werner Littbarski (who hated Kraus for “pouring Champagne over [his] powers of reason”) decided to throw a party in his own honor — merely for finding the error. Larbaud, to make a long story short, was able to co-opt this party by way of a “suitcase swap,” transforming it into an international event for the Shandies. Picabia, who did not attend the party, wrote its most stirring account, which ends with the arrival of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, high on cocaine and wearing a monocle he’d stolen from Tristan Tzara, was shocked to even be in attendance:

Scott Fitzgerald lowered himself unhurriedly onto a sofa and when the neighbors and police showed up, he lit a Virginia cigar. Pretending to be playing chess with his host, among the broken glasses, he said in an extraordinarily elated tone: “I had actually been invited.”

“Yes,” you may be wondering, “but did the Shandies actually exist?” Certainly its members did, or most of them anyway. The more important thing is to have Vila-Matas’ brief yet indispensable history of their group, published for the first time in English this month by New Directions and translated by Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean.

Enrique Vila-Matas with Roberto Bolaño.

And, even if it is made-up, Vila-Matas’ story collection — after Borges’ own fictions — is a preferable form of unreality because it is funny. The book reminds me of Roberto Bolaño’s character Amalfitano, the mad professor from 2666, who draws diagrams grouping novelists, poets, critics, and philosophers from literary history. The diagrams, as the Shandies would have it, are arbitrary, light, absurd, even portable. But most of all they are funny. “There had to be something funny about it,” says the narrator, “but whatever it might be, he couldn’t put his finger on it, no matter how hard he tried.”