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Morten Høi Jensen

Dublinesque, by Enrique Vila-Matas, (transl Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey), Harvill Secker, 320 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1846554896

The main character in Dublinesque is repeatedly accused of reading his life as if it were a literary text, and somewhere along the way Enrique Vila-Matas must have been similarly reproached: the four novels of his that have been published in English all take literature itself as their main subject. Bartleby & Co. is a collection of footnotes about writers who prefer not to write; the narrator of Montano is so obsessed with literature that he can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined; Never Any End to Paris is a kind of mock-lecture on literature delivered by a man who wants not only to look like Hemingway but to be Hemingway. They all suffer from a peculiar neurosis: literature sickness, or literatosis as Vila-Matas calls it.

Samuel Riba, our new hero, is a renowned but retired literary publisher who finds himself going through the sort of crises self-conscious male characters often go through in novels; a belated midlife crisis triggered by the failure of his publishing house, his wife’s sudden conversion to Buddhism and his own precarious sobriety. “He doesn’t find it funny when things happen to him that might seem appropriate for a novelist to put in his novel.” Riba prefers, even celebrates, the quotidian, the everyday. Much of Dublinesque concerns itself with Ulysses, James Joyce’s great novel, and Riba identifies strongly with Leopold Bloom—“a man without qualities” ‑ as he puts it, “the typical modern man”.

But Riba’s everyday life lacks the mundane heroism of Joyce’s everyman. Rather than drink himself to within a nanometre of kidney failure and liver collapse, as he used to, Riba now spends entire days in front of his computer Googling himself and his publishing house, getting into petty arguments in the comments sections of blogs and agonising over the tediousness of a life on the wagon. Basically he is stuck. Life without the company of writers and drink is a life without incident (“Writers are such great drinkers.”). Isolated and depressed, Riba succumbs to ennui and regret, tormented by his career-long failure to find and publish the work of a young genius, “at once anarchist and architect”.

When he’s not namedropping literary acquaintances ‑ Paul Auster, Claudio Magris, Hugo Claus, John Banville ‑ or thinking about alcohol and the mixed blessings of the sober life, Riba daydreams of New York (“this city has always held for him the exact magic of the myths some people need to live by”) and, more importantly, Dublin. During an especially awkward afternoon with his parents, whom he visits once a week out of filial duty, Riba avoids telling them about a bungled trip to Lyon in France, where he failed to show up for a lecture he’d been invited to deliver. (He spent several frenzied hours in his hotel room articulating a general theory of the novel only to reject it and then hold a funeral for it.) He tells them ‑ for no particular reason – that he’s been invited to deliver a lecture in Dublin on the transition from the Gutenberg era to the digital age of literature. (He regards Ulysses as “one of the pinnacles of the age of print, of the Gutenberg galaxy, the twilight of which he is having to live through”.) It’s a lie, of course ‑ one that only further confuses his already puzzled parents, who mistake Ulysses for the name of a family he’s going to Dublin to visit.

Riba does end up going, however. He and three writer friends agree to make the trip together, and on Bloomsday, no less. On June 16th, the day after they arrive in Ireland, the four men hold a funeral (Riba is big on funerals for inanimate objects) for the Gutenberg age at Glasnevin cemetery, where Paddy Dignam is buried in the sixth chapter of Ulysses. The ceremony doesn’t exactly go according to plan. Everyone seems to want to out-Joyce one another, and Riba just ends up getting annoyed with his friends:

They walk slowly down the main path in Glasnevin and come to a beautiful lilac tree, which Ricardo photographs after explaining to them all, with unnecessary solemnity, that he’s almost certain it appears in Ulysses toward the end of the cemetery scene. Nietzsky thinks the tree is the same color as the lilacs at the Rotunda, which he takes to represent Death, and talks ‑ without the others really understanding him ‑ about the beauty of the Rotunda’s lilacs, as if there had to be a logical and purely commonsensical relationship between the lilacs and Dublin’s maternity hospital. Riba comes to the conclusion that young Nietzky is talking for the sake of talking and has had a lot to drink, besides.

Because this is a Vila-Matas novel, a lot of literary shenanigans follow. Just as some Joyceniks maintain that Joyce himself appears in the shadows of the scene at the cemetery, so Riba, ominously, meets his maker, or at any rate communicates with him:

He imagines that the young novice has chosen him as a character; a guinea pig for his experiments, as the character of a novel about the real life, without any exaggeration ‑ of a poor old retired publisher who’s somewhat desperate. He imagines that young man observing him closely, studying him as if he were a guinea pig. For the novice it’s a question of finding out if devoting himself to good literature for forty years has been worth the trouble, and he tells the story of the daily life, without too many surprises, of the character he’s observing. At the same time as considering whether such literary passion is worth the effort; he tells how the retired publisher is still looking for the new, the revitalizing, the foreign. He comes as close to the character as he can ‑ and sometimes in the most physical sense ‑ and narrates the problems the man has with his wife’s Buddhism, while commenting on his movements ‑ having a funeral in Dublin, for example ‑ to fill the empty space.

So are we reading a novel conceived of by a fictional character in a passage from that very same novel? The individual reader is going to have to decide for herself how far and how seriously she wants to take these narrative bons mots ‑ I for one am never sure, reading Vila-Matas, whether to merely laugh or start asking some serious questions of my existence. But even as he bangs around with his novel’s artifice, or with detailed dispatches from the history of literature, he never compromises our narrative reverie. Edmund Wilson once criticised Ezra Pound’s poetry for being “sunk by the cargo of its erudition” ‑ this is certainly not the case with Vila-Matas, even though a page rarely goes by without a cameo from the likes of Beckett or Blanchot, Sebald or Salinger. This endearing synthesis of comedy and commentary, though not unprecedented, takes a new and unique shape in Vila-Matas. He is a genre all his own.

In Montano, the narrator talks about the “stimulating tendency of the contemporary novel, a tendency that opens new ground between essay, fiction, and autobiography”; and of wanting to “turn into the complete memory of the history of literature, for me to be literature, to embody it in my own modest person, so that I could to save it from extinction”.

This has the potential to sound somewhat heady, but Vila-Matas wields a comic touch. He is generously funny. Like Saul Bellow, he is more than happy to show us the ridiculous aspects of his neurotic characters, as in this wonderful exchange between two of Riba’s writer friends at the cemetery:

 “What can the Rotunda be?” Ricardo asks.
“The Rotunda corner? The corner of Death. At least that’s what it seems like, doesn’t it?”
“But also like Gothic Rotunda, that font invented in I don’t know which century. But it’s true, it would be normal for the Rotunda to be Death. About being normal. Didn’t you know I was?”
“What? Normal? Well, no.” Another brief silence. “I associate you with art and as far as I know, art is never normal. It’s labyrinthine, fantastically deceitful and complex, my friend. Look at Walter, for instance.”
“Is Walter an artist?”
“In his own way he is. He’s not normal, even when he’s taking out the garbage.”

True to Chekhov’s proverbial gun, and because you can’t seriously write a novel about a twenty-six-months-sober alcoholic and not have him fall off the wagon, Riba falls off the wagon. Actually, he doesn’t fall off the wagon so much as leap from it. Celia, his wife, joins him in Ireland for a vacation only to see him self-destruct, just as Riba had feared and dreamed he would. Here again, the tragicomedy of the too literate anti-hero is laid bare: whereas Riba sees himself as a physical incarnation of literary history (“it’s as if his biography of the past few weeks were running parallel to the story of literature”), Celia perceives otherwise: “You’re a disgusting drunk… you live without god and your life lacks meaning. You’ve turned into a poor little man.”

Vila-Matas has said that literature is the art of recalling with a memory not our own. In his strange and strangely moving fiction he seems to suggest that we have to embody that memory if we’re ever going to progress from it. In Dublinesque, literature is Riba: a poor little drunk, though one who refuses to give up his hunt for the new, the foreign. Vila-Matas’s wildly original novels are all investigations of whether or not originality in fiction is still possible; every nook and cranny of literary history is explored and interrogated, the margin of every great novel frantically scribbled in. These literature-addled novels ‑ hear them cough, hear them retch ‑ are not constrained by their sickness, by their hangovers. They’re just struggling to get on with it.

Morten Høi Jensen’s book reviews have appeared in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, the Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere.