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Enrique Vila-Matas: Dublinesca (Dublinesque)

Samuel Riba, but known to everyone as Riba, is a retired publisher. Apart from age, there have been two reasons for his retirement. The first is that he feels that the quality of both authors and readers has dropped. He is particularly critical of what he calls the gothic style, which leads to passive readers. The second and, perhaps, main reason for his retirement is his health. Like many a good publisher, he had been an alcoholic. This caused many rows with his long-suffering wife, Celia. It also lead to a serious breakdown two years before the action of hits novel starts and required hospitalisation. He now has to take it easy and he is (more or less) on the wagon. However, his life is not particularly fulfilling in retirement. He sees friends, though more often talks to them on the phone or by email. He spends a lot of time on the computer, browsing the Internet. Every Wednesday, he dutifully visits his parents who are not only both alive but in seemingly good health. They treat him like a child and he behaves as such with them.

As a publisher, he prided himself on publishing the best of contemporary literature and, indeed, tried to publish at least one book by all the authors he considered worthwhile: Julien Gracq, Philippe Sollers, Romain Gary and Julia Kristeva. These are, of course, the authors we know that Vila-Matas admires and are, of course, often French. He liked other authors, such as Claudio Magris and Vilém Vok. Vok is a Czech author and, as Vila-Matas has done in his other books, is a completely fictitious author. (There is a real Vilém Vok, the name sometimes used in Czech for the man we know as William of Rosenberg, who definitely was not a novelist. Vok is not the only fictitious novelist in this book. Riba had always dreamed of discovering a great author. He has discovered many good ones but no great ones. At one time he thought he had done so when he discovered Nietzky. Nietzky is a Spanish novelist with a Polish name who lives in New York and has written one novel – about the Irish in New York. He does not appear to have a first name and is referred to only as the young Nietzky.

Riba does still travel a bit but it is not the same. At the beginning of the novel has just returned from a conference in Lyon on the serious situation regarding literary publishing in Europe. He went (at the expense of the organisers), stayed in the hotel for twenty-four hours and then returned home without attending the conference or contacting the organisers. He spent some time thinking about a general theory of the novel, which comes to nothing. He was glad to still receive invitations to conferences but was upset that the organisers did not pay him the attention he thought he merited. Indeed, one of the reasons for going to these conferences was to show his parents how important he still was. So when his parents ask him about the conference, he has nothing to say and they treat him as a somewhat petulant child.

Riba has many theories. He considers his own life as though it were a literary text. As part of his general theory of the novel, he outlines the five factors he considers essential for the novel of the future: intertextuality; connections to high poetry; awareness of a moral landscape in ruins; a slight superiority of style over plot; writing seen as an advancing clock. It is not clear if Vila-Matas believes this himself or if, as I suspect, this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Of course, as this is Vila-Matas, Riba ruminates on many novels and novelists, most of them real, though, as we have seen, not all. The title indicates where his ruminations might lead and, of course, they do lead to Ulysses. However, though Riba spends a lot of time thinking about Ulysses, Joyce did not write a work called Dublinesque, but Philip Larkin did. The connection between Joyce and Ulysses on the one hand and Larkin’s poem on the other is not just the Dublin connection. Larkin’s poem is about a funeral as is Chapter 6 of Ulysses. It is these factors that lead Riba to his next idea.

He decides to plan an event in Dublin, a town he has visited only once before, which would be celebrated on Bloomsday, which also happens to be the day of his parents’ wedding anniversary. There would be a funeral held to mark the transition from the Gutenberg age to the digital age and obviously Ulysses would be an appropriate work to signify at least the start of this change. He spends a lot of time thinking about this, planning it, studying the various aspects on the Internet and choosing who to invite. He ends up inviting three friends: his old drinking companion, Javier, whom he does not see so much of since he gave up drinking, but talks to on the phone a lot; Ricardo, who is an expert on Irish literature, particularly the lesser-known (and entirely fictitious) Andrew Breen and Hobbs Derek, and the aforementioned Nietzky. One other factor that led him to Dublin is a dream that he has where he visits the Coxwold Pub, a pub that he later finds does not exist.

Riba had shied away from English-speaking countries before, as he does not speak English. He has visited London once and did not like it, a view, he is proud to say, he shares with Samuel Beckett (whose biography he published). He has always admired New York but has only visited it twice (and alway boasts about having visited Paul Auster when he was there). In ruminating about Irish writers which, of course, he does, he spends some time on Brendan Behan, a writer he regrets never having published. He particularly discusses Behan’s time in New York. Other Irish writers come up, including Claire Keegan who answers a journalist at a press conference, when asked what her themes are, replying I am Irish, I write about dysfunctional families, miserable lives without love, illness, old age, winter, the grey climate, boredom and rain.

As well as about the novel, novels and novelists, this book is about old age. Riba is getting on. As a result of his alcoholism, he is not in good health. He rambles. He is unsure of what his life is and where it is going and the Dublin trip is clearly an attempt to give it some meaning, an attempt that does not really succeed. He condemns new novelists as being too obsessed with social media and the Internet and maintains that there are no new good writers coming to the fore. He maintains that there there are no new publishers and then, when he has to admit to himself that there are, he condemns them in the same way that he condemns the younger novelists. In short, this is, to a great extent, an old man’s novel, about an old man who is adapting badly to old age and retirement.

While I certainly enjoyed this novel, as I enjoy all of Vila-Matas’ novels, I did feel that Riba’s ramblings were sometimes excessive and not as interesting. In his other books, the protagonist has also rambled but usually to a specific point. In this case, while Riba has some interesting thoughts about the novel (but not the general theory of the novel suggested at the beginning of the work), all too often his ramblings go all over the place. Nevertheless, it is a Vila-Matas novel and if you like a Vila-Matas novel, you will enjoy this one.

First published in 2010 by Seix Barral
First English translation by New Directions in 2012
Translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean