Dublinesque - Enrique Vila-Matas
(Translated by Rosalind Harvey & Anne McLean)
"'Dublin?' she asks, surprised. 'And what are you going to do there? Start drinking again.'"
When #SpanishLitMonth was brought to my attention it was Bloomsday so this was an obvious choice, concerning, as it does, a visit to Dublin for June 16th to hold a funeral for "the Gutenburg Galaxy" - the world of the printed book. I was also eager to read more from Vila-Matas as I had enjoyed Bartleby & Co so much. This was also sitting on my shelves in three-dimensional, ink on paper form...
The central character is Samuel Riba, retired publisher, sober alcoholic. He "has published many of the great writers of his time" but, we learn, is not great with figures and his company went under. Drink almost pulled him under with the company and threatened to bring his marriage to a painful end. With little to fill his time Riba has developed an unhealthily close relationship with his computer screen and feels that he is becoming like the "hikikiomori, young Japanese people who suffer from IT autism, and who in order to avoid outside pressure react by withdrawing completely from society." I felt a certain fellow feeling...
The book has a number of central themes but the overarching one is the world of publishing, which Riba reports to be changing in many ways, not least because he sees "publishers who still read and who have always been drawn to literature - gradually, surreptitiously dying out." However, this is placed within the human story of Riba, and is not as much of an essay in fictional form as Bartleby & Co.. When Riba decides to visit Dublin on Bloomsday and hold a funeral for the "Gutenburg galaxy" he also feels the more pressing need to escape from the doldrums he is becalmed in and take a 'leap', "'Be lighter, more fun. Become English. Or Irish. Take the leap, my friend.'" a theme highlighted on the cover of my copy.
Despite (or because of) his Spanishness Riba has been a fan of French literature and culture above all but is encouraged to take this "English leap" by his friend Javier: "Get out of the Frenchified muddle you've been in for so long. Be lighter, more fun. Become English. Or Irish. Take the leap, my friend." The conversation is framed by the songs on the radio, first a French one and then an English one:
As seems to be a hallmark of Vila-Matas' oeuvre, Dublinesque is full of references to writers and writing and film and art too. The title comes from a poem by Philip Larkin, the plot borrows from Joyce as well as using Bloomsday; Riba thinks of writers real and imagined that he has published, mostly in translation. In many ways Vila-Matas uses writers to suggest an autobiography of Riba. He is partly made of scraps of writers and books.
|Vilhelm Hammershøi's Montague Street in London. Riba is mildly obsessed with this series of London paintings.|
A is for Artaud; B is for Beckett ("my own way was impoverishment"); C is for Cronenberg ("one of cinemas last real directors"); D is for Dylan; E is for Echenoz; F is for Ford; G is for Godard ("he inserted quotations" "real or invented - into the action of his films."); H is for Hammershøi ("might be reproached for being obsessive"); I is for Infante; J is for Joyce; K is for Keegan ("I'm Irish. I write about dysfunctional families, miserable, loveless lives, illness, old age, winter, the grey weather, boredom and rain."); L is for Larkin ("said that, when he was alone in Ireland, since it wasn't his land, at least there he saw it was possible to be an outsider"); M is for McCann ("We don't usually talk publicly about ourselves, we prefer to read.") ; N is for Nabokov ("This ... is what Joyce managed to do in Ulysses: to set his face in a dark corner of the canvas."); O is for O'Brien; P is for Perec; Q is for Queneau; R is for Rimbaud ("probably his favourite writer"); S is for Sterne; T is for Truffaut; U remains unattached; V is for Vilariño; W is for Walser; X is unmarked; Y is for Yeats ("one of his favourite poets"); and Z just is.
The familiar are augmented by the unfamiliar, sometimes fictional. But fictional writers, such as the Boston poet Larry O'Sullivan (of whom Riba thinks "he's usually only interested in writers he's at least heard of; he always suspects the others are made up.") may then 'write' real poems, in this case Frank O'Hara's The Day Lady Died. Riba has a friend Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster who is preparing an installation for the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern in London. She "is trying to put together an apocalyptic culture of the literary quotation, a culture of the end of the line, and, as a matter of fact, of the end of the world." Her installation imagines a flood in the year 2058 and all the time incessant rain falls on Barcelona. The edges of what is and what isn't real are always blurring. I find myself thinking of César Aira's Ghosts. (We also get to 'see' the dead.)
Indeed, Riba comes up with a theory of literature some of which could be applied to Aira, particularly the final point: "These essential elements were: intertextuality; connection with serious poetry; awareness of a moral landscape in ruins; a slight favoring of style over plot; a view of writing that moves forward like time." Vila-Matas often seems to be reacting to the material he reads in an almost improvisational way, which gives the book a loose exploratory feel. Vila-Matas said in an interview that "Writing about a place or about a subject allows me to read about it and research it in tandem. Dublinesque, for example. While I was writing the novel, I did research on Irish culture and Dublin, about which I knew nothing at all." - http://bombmagazine.org/article/7097/enrique-vila-matas
Quotes from Brendan Behan suggest a looser, less serious way of viewing books: "I will have forgotten this book long before you have paid your money for it." "I am a drinker with a writing problem." In a world coming to its end, how can you take the whole thing seriously? Perhaps Ulysses really needs a funeral. Far from being radical and modern, it can now be seen as reactionary: Riba "reads that Claudio Magris believes Ulysses' circular journey as he returns triumphantly home - Joyce's traditional, classic, Oedipal and conservative journey - was replaced halfway through the twentieth century by a rectilinear journey: a sort of pilgrimage, a journey always moving forward, towards an impossible point in infinity, like a straight line advancing hesitantly into nothingness." Improvisation seems like one way of travelling the journey into the dark, each step unknown until taken.
Taking the concern of meaning from another angle, Vila-Matas calls on the assistance of Juan Carlos Onetti: "Onetti, who seemed enormously, joyously drunk, was saying that Catholics, Freudians, Marxists and patriots should all be lumped together. Anyone, he said, with faith, it didn't matter in what; anyone who spouted opinions, who believed they knew or acted according to repeated, learned or inherited thoughts."
But there is also the irony that the book is made up of slight returns. Although we need to step into a dark future it is necessary to wear shoes cobbled from what remains of the past. The most obvious source material for the characters in Dublinesque are the works of Joyce which are heavily referenced. Riba's wife has a lover who died for her, just like Gabriel's wife in The Dead (from Joyce's Dubliners). He is from Cork rather than Galway but he remains in Celia's heart and his name makes her smile. Riba questions his own place in her heart. Celia's conversion to Buddhism also makes Riba feel that he doesn't know her, or understand her, even if he does say he will pretend to. "He must seek a prompt reconciliation. Become a Buddhist, if necessary. He has no faith in people with faith - even if it's Buddhist faith - but he'll pretend to have one."
There is much else in the book. Riba sees recurring figures, first a man in a Nehru jacket in Barcelona and then a man who looks like the young Beckett in Dublin. He also see family ghosts and feels the presence of other ghosts too. He regularly feels twinges of regret that he never discovered a real genius and wonders if it was drink that allowed him to function socially and if it is his sobriety that has turned him down the path of a sort of autistic detachment from society. He has a dream that he will start drinking again in Dublin (what else would you go to Dublin for, cliche mongers?) and parts of the dream seem to be coming true. But he also seems to find an affinity with Irish culture that parallels the author's immersion in Irish culture in order that he could write the book. There is plenty of emotional and intellectual frisson in Dublinesque. Enough to let you know that the printed word isn't quite dead yet.
(The final song in John Huston's film of The Dead, which is referenced when Riba hears the song being performed in a pub.)
Though I'd include this passage for the delectation of fellow bloggers.
"He looks at lots of blogs to find out what they are saying about the books he published. And if he comes across someone who has written something even slightly unpleasant, he writes an anonymous post calling the author ignorant or an idiot.
Today he spends a long time on this activity and ends up insulting a guy from Barcelona who says on his blog that he took a Paul Auster book on holiday to Tokyo and feels disappointed. What a bastard this blogger is! Riba only published The Invention of Solitude by Auster and, although the book the tourist is putting down is The Brookly Follies, he feels just as affronted by this mistreatment of Auster, whom he considers a friend. When he finishes insulting the blogger, he feels more refreshed than ever."
And you thought blogging served no purpose!