After Bloomsday comes . . . Ribasday?
FICTION: Dublinesque By Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean Harvill Secker, 310pp. £16.99
ALL ROADS MAY NOT exactly lead to Dublin, but many literary ones do, particularly today, Bloomsday, the anniversary of the day on which the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), an urban epic with a life of its own and opinions to match, take place. The Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas has already made the fictionalised literary essay his personal kingdom in works such as Bartleby Co (2001, English translation 2004) and Montano (2002, 2007). Through both of those earlier books – two of the handful of his 16 books so far translated into English – famous writers, alive and dead, strolled with much ease. His passion for literature and love of references, cross-references and allusions are gracefully balanced by his lightness of touch and lack of pretension.
Dublinesque, with a nod to Philip Larkin and a legion of literary walk-on appearances, is hugely entertaining, and while the obvious theme is the inspirational resonance of Ulysses as a work of art that honours the ordinary, thus rendering it extraordinary, there is also a strong sense of contemporary Irish writing and Irish attitudes to it.
Literature dominates the narrative, yet it quickly develops into a lively and original picaresque focusing on the trials and many tribulations of Samuel Riba, a newly retired literary publisher who has “watched in despair the spectacle of the noble branch of his trade – publishers who still read and who have always been drawn to literature – gradually, surreptitiously dying out”. Riba had gloried in publishing Spanish editions of many great books (the author names fall fast and thick throughout, as do quotes) yet is now aware that, while commercial fiction has supplanted the literary, the true world power is the internet. He has other problems: he is an alcoholic, dry for 26 months but now on his last chance with his wife, who has become a Buddhist. As an only child approaching 60, he also has elderly parents who continue to expect to hear his accounts of his high-flying career. “At times, they even look like two exact replicas of Kubla Khan listening to Marco Polo’s stories.”
Riba emerges as a convincingly sympathetic variation of Leopold Bloom, and throughout Dublinesque, an engaging homage to Joyce, Vilas-Matas is witty and informed. Central to his lamentations about the death of literary publishing is Riba’s awareness of age – “turning 60 makes him feel as if he has a noose around his neck”. Then there is the memory of a strange dream he had during his hospitalisation; in it he had been drinking, and his wife appeared as he was leaving the pub. They both ended up crying, sitting on the kerb of a side street in Dublin, a city he had never visited.
The dream makes him decide to travel to Dublin on Bloomsday, on a pilgrimage devised to mark the death of literary publishing with “a requiem for the age of print”. This may sound extreme, but Riba persuades some friends to accompany him; the plan is consolidated by Riba’s recalling the sixth episode in Ulysses, when Bloom joins a group of mourners gathered to attend poor Paddy Dignam’s funeral. Increasingly, Riba, in common with Bloom, sees himself as an outsider.
Vila-Matas ensures that Riba, in his depression and doubt, is very much an Everyman. For all his literary observations, including meditations on Laurence Sterne’s notion of the sentimental traveller with a need to “regain the strangeness of things”, Riba is simply another lost human – lonely and uncertain, a victim of his own imagination and a growing anxiety. Above all he seems haunted by never having discovered a truly great writer, although he has known many. For him New York becomes a reality once he stays in the home of Paul Auster.
Vila-Matas, who was born in 1948 and spent some years in Paris, has a low-key, laconic style, conversational and reflective, almost philosophical in tone. He is an admirer of the French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982), whose playful influence often surfaces. It becomes easy to accept that Riba indeed stayed with Auster or that he greatly enjoyed his interview with John Banville – neither of which happened. But so what? This is a novel. Even if the facts are invented, the feelings and sensations, the fears, regrets and literary judgments are real and invariably valid.
Riba’s Barcelona seems unusually wet, and the characters respond to this. His Dublin also is an instantly recognisable place that is neither sentimentalised nor idealised. There is a wonderful sequence describing breakfast in a trying-to-be-sophisticated Dublin hotel, in which the grumpy guests attempt to eat in the semidarkness. A running gag about a young Beckett lookalike has fun with the famous mackintosh reference from Ulysses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Riba’s father was born on the day Joyce’s book was published.
For the first part of the novel, Riba is preoccupied with mental preparations; he is thinking about Irish writing and returns to Elizabeth Bowen. “It’s as if the Irish had the gift of literature,” he reflects. He remembers that four years ago he saw one of them at a book fair in Guanajuato, in Mexico, and discovered, among other things, that they didn’t have the Latin habit of talking about themselves. At a press conference Claire Keegan replied almost angrily to a journalist who wanted to know what topics she wrote about in her novels: “I’m Irish. I write about dysfunctional families, miserable, loveless lives, illness, old age, winter, the grey weather, boredom and rain.”
It seems a comprehensive reply. Whether or not she said it becomes irrelevant. Vila-Matas, unlike Riba, does know Ireland and Irish literature. He is an astute Joycean and a founder of the Order of Finnegans, dedicated to the celebration of James Joyce and his writings. Vila-Matas’s knowledge of and familiarity with Joyce’s work ensure that Dublinesque is a pleasure to read. We feel for poor Riba’s human dilemma: his ageing, isolation and weakness for the bottle; the end of his literary empire; the death of print in an internet age in which a Mac is no longer a raincoat but a computer – we smile at, and with, the author.
Bord Fáilte can take a holiday: this Spanish novel will do more for Dublin than any publicity campaign. Vila-Matas enjoyed himself writing Dublinesque, that is obvious, and the reader will also enjoy – and collaborate in – this delightful literary exercise that is clever without being knowing, lightly erudite but never pretentious.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent