Even in a culture that frequently dwells on acts of navel-gazing and fictional worlds with multiple levels of reality, Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas stands out. Where other novelists stumble around their intricate plots and too-clever sleights of hand, Vila-Matas approaches his eccentrically structured novels with nimbleness and sharp irony. Bartleby & Co., his first novel to be translated into English, takes the form of a series of footnotes to a book never written, drafted by a failed writer who follows Melville’s Bartleby in preferring not to. Never Any End to Paris, which made Vila-Matas’s name in Spanish and appeared in English last year, is a mock-memoir about the author’s trip to Paris as a budding writer, in which he attempts to emulate Hemingway, fails utterly, and in the process finds himself, and his voice. These books are united by their cheery embrace of failure and ability to discover innovative ideas in it, as well as by Vilas-Matas’s tendency to dish out indignity and ridicule to his doppelganger narrators.
Vila-Matas’s latest work to appear in English—Dublinesque, translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean—doesn’t rise to the level of his previously translated novels, though it is still frequently stimulating. In the book, a Spanish publisher of great reputation named Riba (who bears a resemblance to legendary publisher Jorge Herralde, architect of Bolaņo, Vila-Matas, and so many others) has recently retired and is at loose ends. He just stopped drinking, his wife is turning into a Buddhist, and he’s obsessed with his failure to have published a single author of genius during his career. To free himself from this morass, he conceives of a plan to drag three of his writer friends to Dublin to hold a funeral for print culture—which he refers to as the “Gutenberg Galaxy”—on Bloomsday.
Dublinesque is a book obsessed with how literature can meld with, alter, and even overwhelm a writer’s identity. Vila-Matas’s protagonist frequently worries that his career has effaced the “real him.” As he tells a newspaper reporter, “I don’t know myself. The list of books I have published seems to have obscured forever the person behind the books. My biography is my catalogue. But the man who was there before I decided to become a publisher is missing.” Later in the book, Riba quotes the novelist-philosopher Maurice Blanchot to good effect on this matter: “Would writing be to become, in the book, legible for everyone, and indecipherable for oneself?” Riba also sees literary ghosts—notably one shadowy man he takes for Samuel Beckett—and comes to identify with Leopold Bloom; from these figures he borrows contradictory characteristics with no discernable knot tying them together. To his horror, Riba comes to half-believe that, like Bloom, he is a character in a book, one written by Beckett, judging from the prose of the final fifty pages.
Riba equates being in the center of the world—which he defines as New York City—with “a perfect moment,” yet he prefers to stay on the periphery, a decision that comes to define his character and his philosophy. In one of his many philosophical ruminations in the book, Riba pointedly contrasts Bloom’s circular, “classical” journey to a “rectilinear” one, in which the protagonist continually bears down on an ever-shifting, unattainable goal. That would seem to be what Vila-Matas puts Riba through, sending him on an existential quest for his own personal center, although ultimately he is the hero of a novel in which the center cannot hold. The causes of Riba’s malaise shift throughout the book. When the publisher and his friends look for a restaurant in Dublin:
Riba thinks about the theme of his own hunger—a special hunger, separate from the rest of the group’s—and remembers when he used to read manuscripts at the publishing house and noticed that in many of them, almost as if it were a set rule, certain trivial themes appeared on the surface of the story as if they also had the right to a certain rank. And he also remembers that, the further he got into these stories, the more noticeable it was that one important theme gradually shifted to another, preventing a stable center from existing for any length of time. And not just this, but on the surface of the stories only the shadows of certain elements remained . . . the hysterical need to find a restaurant, for instance . . .
Long a writer of the periphery, Vila-Matas demonstrates his talents when he foregrounds the evasiveness of an uncentered life.
The ideas in Dublinesque have a lot of potential. The problem is that Vila-Matas fails to develop them as forcefully and as elegantly as he has done in previous books. Again and again he returns to Riba’s failure to have published an author of genius, his dread that his public life has obscured his private identity, and his sense of having become a character in a novel, but these ideas never leave the starting blocks. Vila-Matas has examined notions like the anxiety of influence to stunning effect—Bartleby & Co. and Never Any End to Paris are brilliant riffs on the idea, and parts of Montano’s Malady deal with it admirably. By contrast, in Dublinesque, Vila-Matas’s ideas feel underdeveloped. It’s unfortunate, as this book is enjoyable for its madcap energy, and its ability to relish its own absurdity and make well-worn literary references feel new.
Scott Esposito is the author of The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement (with Lauren Elkin) forthcoming from Zero Books.