Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas: a delicious Joycean picaresque

Founder of the Order of Finnegans, dedicated to the celebration of James Joyce, the Spanish author’s familiarity with Irish literature makes Dublinesque a pleasure to read


On this day of days, Bloomsday, all literary pilgrimage routes lead to Dublin, or rather Dublin in an earlier guise, that of the reimagined Edwardian pre-Great War city once traversed with some disquiet by the young and ambitious James Joyce, a tetchy, clever fellow plagued by multiple irritations; generalised rebellion, guilt – always a useful sensation – as well as a bothersome lack of cash, not forgetting an unfulfilled ego.

As did many an aspiring artist before him, he fled his homeland but he never forgot it, for it had twined itself ivy-like around his imagination, his memory, his heart, his very essence. Dublin was the map etched on his brain (the 1904 Thom’s Directory also provided significant assistance) and Joyce duly despatched his alter ego, Stephan Dedalus, to patrol the streets more or less until the end of time – or at least as long as novels continue to be read and revered. Literature students the world over know all about Ulysses, James Joyce’s modernist, urban anti-epic, a novel with a life of its own and opinions to match.

First serialised in parts in the American journal, The Little Press, from March 1918 until December 1920, when it was suspended following prosecution for obscenity, it won a tenacious champion in the person of Sylvia Beach. It was finally to appear in its complete form for the first time on February 2nd, 1922, Joyce’s 40th birthday, published in Paris by Shakespeare and Co, a tiny publisher which established the tradition of little houses championing great fiction – a practice which continues. Meanwhile Ulysses remains one of the landmark novels, a maker of readers which has also shaped many writers and continues to demonstrate the infinite possibilities of linguistic verve as well as the limitless emotive allure of lemon soap.

And just when it seems that nothing new could possibly be written about Ulysses, hark and consider Spanish man of letters and author of many books, Enrique Vila-Matas. He has already made the fictionalised literary essay his personal kingdom in works such as Bartleby & Co (2001; English translation 2004) and in Montano (2002: 2007). In Never Any End to Paris (2003; 2011), the narrator presents a three-day lecture course in Paris on the theme of irony, recalling his younger self and his obsession with Ernest Hemingway. He even admits to travelling to Key West in Florida to participate in the annual Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest. For this little aberration he should be forgiven because Vila-Matas has given us Dublinesque. What is Dublinesque?

Permit me to explain: allowing for his passion for literature and love of literary references, cross-references and allusions and his lightness of touch, Vila-Matas is the writer to ease us all through the personal engagement of a despondent literary publisher from Barcelona, with a novel in which everyone can have a share.

Dublinesque, translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean, is terrific fun. It includes Philip Larkin as but one of a legion of literary cameo appearances. 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. Be forewarned, Vila-Matas is a master of the fictionalised literary essay and he appears to have read everything worth reading.

Literature dominates the narrative yet it quickly develops into a lively and original picaresque focusing on the trials and many tribulations of one Samuel Riba, our newly retired, semi-melancholic 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.”

He had gloried in publishing Spanish editions of many great books and the author-names fall fast and thick throughout, as do quotes, yet Riba is now aware that while commercial fiction has supplanted the literary, the true world power is the internet. There are 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 the landmark age of 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 emerges as good fun but also informed. Central to his lamentations about the death of literary publishing is Riba’s awareness of age: “…turning sixty makes him feel as if he has a noose around his neck.” Then there is also the ultimately prophetic memory of a strange dream he had had during his hospitalisation; in it he had been drinking and his wife had appeared as he was leaving the pub. They both end 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”. It may sound extreme but he succeeds in persuading some friends to accompany him as 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.

In his depression and doubt Riba is very much a representative Everyman. For all the 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 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 has a low-key, laconic style, conversational and reflective, almost philosophical in tone. He is also an admirer of the French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982) whose whimsical influence often surfaces. It becomes easy to accept that no doubt indeed Riba did stay with Auster or that he did greatly enjoy his interview with John Banville – which in fact never happened. But so what? This is, after all, in spite of everything – clues, digressions, slabs of plausible information and so forth – a novel. James Joyce would understand. Even if Vilas-Matas has invented the facts, the feelings and sensations, the fears, regrets and literary judgements are real and invariably valid.

Riba’s Barcelona seems unusually wet and the characters respond to this. His Dublin also becomes 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 semi-darkness. The running gag concerning a young Beckett lookalike has fun with the famous mackintosh reference from Ulysses. Not surprisingly, Riba’s father was born on the day Joyce’s masterwork was published – it is the playfully intent detail that Vila-Matas cannot resist.

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, 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, and characteristically candid. Whether or not Keegan actually said it – and she may have – becomes irrelevant.

Vila-Matas, unlike Riba, does know Ireland and Irish literature. He is an astute Joycean and a co-founder of the Order of Finnegans dedicated to the celebration of James Joyce and his writings. His knowledge and familiarity with Joyce’s work ensures that Dublinesque is a pleasure to read. We feel for poor Riba’s human dilemma – his ageing, isolation, a 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 has become synonymous with computers. But we smile at, and with, the author.

Should the very idea of “grilled mutton kidneys” dutifully extruding “a fine tang of faintly scented urine” threaten to turn your stomach as it does mine, why not pass on what could be a gastric misadventure and instead on this, the 111th Bloomsday, enjoy a Spanish writer’s conversational perambulation through Joycean and Ulysses-related literary matters?

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent

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