IN THE BEGINNING, everything was written, and it was bad. By Roman light Terence wrote, “Nothing is said that has not been said before.” Pascal mused, “Everything has been written, everything has been said, everything has been done.” Modernism diversified the sentiment, made it punchier: Kafka: “I write in order to affirm and reaffirm that I have absolutely nothing to say”; Borges: “The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms”; Beckett: “You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson[…]” The sentiment was carried up and over the millennium, with Sebald grasping the standard (“Everything our civilization has produced is entombed”) followed by Lars Iyer’s observation, “You click ‘new document’ and sit there, shaking, staring at your computer screen, and you wonder what in the world you can possibly write now.” Enrique Vila-Matas swept the catalogue up in a quartet of novels translated into English from 2004 to 2012, quoted them all for a cosmic index, and shrugged. “What I mean is the funeral, ever delayed, of literature as an endangered art. Although really the question should be: what danger? The thing that interests me most about this danger is its literary nuances.”
The project of Vila-Matas’s later work has been a sustained negation of the modernist heritage, a clearinghouse for clichés and the literary machinery that shelters them. If everything’s been written, we become conscious of saying even that again, conscious of our de facto scare quotes, these consciousnesses upon consciousnesses. Say there’s the Glasnevin Cemetery, empirically in the world since 1832. Those 120 acres become Hades in Joyce, followed by Larkin’s gloss in “Dublinesque,” and now Vila-Matas’s meta-gloss in Dublinesque (2010, translation 2012). Maybe Parnell’s grave is more vividly petrous in one or other representation, but none are totalities, none bear God’s eye, none can make us smell Bloom as he approaches. In this demanding light literature becomes an echo project of bad infinity that only adds more digits behind .999999999 and never reaches 1.
Vila-Matas’s problem throughout has become, with love: We need to hate literature more. Novels have been a problem — our problem if you’re reading this review — that hardly addresses the scarcity of its energies without an active Malthus at the rudder. The analogue to capitalism holds — what if literature must be brought to its inevitable dialectical crisis and collapse for our next, better form to arise? Now we should vote for the Romneys of fiction, to catcall the suicide, if Canetti’s question inspires hope: “Will God return when his creation is destroyed?”
The pattern by which Vila-Matas’s later work has been translated into English presents a cohesive lab report that works to resolve our crisis of exhaustion. Its hypothesis first appeared in Bartleby & Co. (2001; trans. 2005): “Only from the negative impulse, from the labyrinth of the No, can the writing of the future appear.” That essayistic novel surveyed the “Bartlebys of literature,” those writers (Rimbaud, Walser, Musil, a long list) who quit writing for either silence or action — a conceptual demonstration of how even the renunciation of writing is tired and cliché. Literature was diagnosed as a dissociative pathology in Montano’s Malady (2002, trans. 2007), in which a writer becomes “Literature incarnate,” stricken by the actual memories of Dickens, Musil, et al, with no productive reprieve or self-identity under the burden of everything that’s been written. Now honest about the “literatosis,” Vila-Matas then wrote Never Any End to Paris (2003, trans. 2011), a fictionalized memoir that sought to discern his problematic roots as a writer “ensnared in the error” of becoming a Writer, ahistorically protagonizing himself beyond his limited talent.
Through excessive quotation and personalized microessays, these three novels advanced a curious crushing feeling in which an overwhelming affection for literature — one that had initially prompted admiring quotation — becomes sickeningly tedious. Consistent plot explication ossified novels into skeletons on an infinite rack, hanging for a twenty-first century writer’s modish caprice. Vila-Matas first negated the tradition at large, then he negated the tradition as a writer-reader consumes it, and then finally, the tradition through the writer that tries to extend it. The palate has been cleared for the positive project built into the beginning — “the writing of the future.”
The prospect in the new novel Dublinesque is thus momentous. Accordingly, Vila-Matas wants to tread carefully between the affirmative, effervescent yes-I-said-yes-I-will-Yes and the contradictory, yet bound in forward time, I-can’t-go-on-I’ll go-on. Faced with a tabula rasa, he must reach back to the Irish ground zeros of Joyce and Beckett: “Overwhelmed by so many black suns of literature, I sought a moment ago to recover the balance between yes and no, to find a reason to write.” While the previous novels featured various “funerals” for different aspects of literary culture, Dublinesque tackles our contemporary Apocalypse — the passing of “the Gutenberg era,” the age of print. The confrontation requires an intertextual gloss of its zenith (Ulysses) and its nadir (Beckett’s Trilogy): “I don’t know if you’ve realized that Bloomsday sounds like Doomsday. And the long day Ulysses takes place on is nothing less than that.”
The novel opens with Samuel Riba, a reclusive, teetotaling publisher (of Joyce, Larkin, Sebald, Walser, Duras, and Perec) in decline, with a dilapidated marriage, a daily regimen of googling himself, and a painful fixation at a career failure of his: that he never found a writer “who was truly great.” He considers himself “the last publisher…at the end of an era, the end of the world,” and this obsolescence depresses him. Whereas Montano’s malady was a virile literature-sickness, here we have the effects of literature-withdrawal in a man who has “led his life through his catalogue” only to see it become irrelevant. One night he has a diaphanously vivid dream of Dublin, a city he has only read about in Ulysses, and he organizes a trip with three friends for Bloomsday in order to hold a “funeral for the age of print, for the golden age of Gutenberg.”
In Dublin, Riba and his friends take on both qualities and plot-markers of Leopold Bloom and the three characters of the funeral procession in the Hades episode. The four decide to create an honorific “Order of the Knights of Finnegans,” a kind of glorified book club that maintains the dying light of Joyce’s accomplishment. One friend asks Riba, “You haven’t made us come to Dublin so you can turn yourself into a metaphor, have you?” At Glasnevin Cemetery, the Hades episode repeats itself, complete with the ominous man in the mackintosh, who now resembles Beckett, creeping along the diegetic outskirts of the novel. Nabokov had advanced that the man in the mackintosh is Joyce’s self-portrait — the moment when Bloom sees his creator in the narrative. Echoing this, Vila-Matas’s introduction of Beckett — the type of “truly great” author Riba has been dogging after throughout his life — first enervates Riba, who then drinks alcohol at last, followed by the caving in of the entire novel as it descends into a pastiche of Malone Dies, with Riba bedridden, reflecting on his descent. In his delirium, the novel ends ambiguously, with a vision of Beckett’s own funeral — “The loss of the author. The great Western problem. Or not.” — only to be capped with pragmatic hope, as Riba “takes the reappearance of the author as an incredibly optimistic sign.”
Vila-Matas builds Dublinesque to juxtapose our apocalypse — the end of the Gutenberg era, the proliferation of a digital interface, the seeming death of the “truly great” author, the overwhelming pressures of a literature in exhaustion without dialectical friction — with Joyce’s formal apocalypse in Ulysses and Beckett’s reactionary, post-apocalyptic abstention from the Joycean carnivalesque. Riba thinks the great trajectory of modernism was “one that goes from the richness of one Irishman to the deliberate poverty of the other; from Gutenberg to Google; from the existence of the sacred (Joyce) to the disappearance of God (Beckett).” But by filing our apocalypse among many, Vila-Matas parodies apocalypticism in general: “The apocalyptic has always been there, in every era. We find it, for instance, in the Bible, in the Aeneid. It exists in every civilization.”
As a result, our transitory position at the beginning of this century becomes a privilege, a perch, from which we can distinguish the essential from the ephemeral. “He should intone a funeral song for the digital age too — which one day will disappear[…]” As we witness one age turning into another we should extend our speculation to recognize that not only will this digital age end, but the age that follows this one, and so on. The transition from print to digital is not our cynosure, but rather, it is the eternal “projection of our existential anxiety” — a condition shared from Terence to Vila-Matas.
Writing novels then becomes only a mere thing to do — Riba’s funeral for the Gutenberg age only “offers what he’s been most in need of recently: something to do in the future.” Vila-Matas said in an interview, “There is no radical division between the printed and the digital word, as they would have us perceive, only continuity.” What he’s getting at is the necessarily neglected motivation of all of us — (if you’re still reading this review) — that “how boring everything is, except thinking, thinking one is doing something.” We’re just passing time in a nice way, and to come to terms with that might make you a Bartleby against literature yourself. Our understanding of literature can only vacillate infinitely between ignorance and knowledge of its purposelessness. It follows that while we still have faulty or selective memories, those apocalyptic anxieties of formal exhaustion are Edenic tiffs that cannot end.
But for anyone who wants to write still — and we still do, we are that stubborn — Dublinesque demonstrates the precarity between yes and no, the ignorance and knowledge of formal exhaustion. Vila-Matas’s method executes the project proposed in David Shields’s Reality Hunger, of intertextuality and essayistic, nonfictional interpellations, but with crucial, redeeming differences. In all of his recent novels, Vila-Matas has relied on a transactive memory, an extended Google history, to excessively quote from the modernist canon in order to delineate his own idiosyncrasies: “Perhaps what I have done is to lean on others’ quotations in order to get to know my reduced territory, befitting a subaltern with a few vital sparks.” The crucial difference in Vila-Matas’s work is that he explicitly cites his quotations but still insists on a unique author at work — indeed, he celebrates the reappearance and importance of an individual authorial hand.
Paradoxically, the seeming outsourcing of his novel to other authors actually reflects back onto the author’s curatorial role — not under the fantasy of the artist as hip-hop DJ, obscuring his sources for a remix that is spuriously his new property, but rather, the romanticism of the Artist First, the old preeminence of a sensibility at work. “I should like now for the reader to know my life and personality much better, I should like not to hide behind my creative text. I am with W.G. Sebald when he says he has the sensation that it is necessary for whoever writes a fictional text to show his hand, to say something about himself, to allow an image of himself.” Because Dublinesque ends in optimism for an author, the accent of Vila-Matas’s project falls on an accomplished romanticism conscious of its historicity, an artist-worship taken to maturity that concurrently absents and introduces itself into the work at every moment. The writer can demonstrate herself through her own obfuscation. To quote Joyce is to write and not-write. She can have both yes and no.
One abnegation was Flaubert’s, of expunged objectivity, an artist both invisible and omnipotent, sensed everywhere but never seen. Another was the near ahistoricality of MFA programs, as Elif Batuman wrote, “The [MFA] program stands for everything that’s wonderful about America: the belief that every individual life can be independent from historical givens, that all the forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch.” But Flaubert didn’t exactly negate the author to speak in a more Tolstoyan earth-rhythm — that’s the comedy behind the greatest stylist of the nineteenth century, that author-zealot of supernatural craft. Similarly, Vila-Matas’s project has not been a naïve trashing of the modernist lineage, or a turn to an MFA vacuum — he is determined to remember Joyce’s pinnacle, to realize he writes in the shade of formal exhaustion. Vila-Matas’s intertextuality — in quotation, macro plot-borrowing, and personalized, nonfictional flourishes — realigns the positive project of reality hungry novelists like Chris Kraus, Sebald, Rivka Galchen, Sheila Heti, and the Wallace of Oblivion with a strong tradition that is remembered. Vila-Matas seems to have found a way to mind the canon without collapsing into the anxiety of formal exhaustion.
Yes, we are exhausted at the dead end of modernism, but no, this thing we do will still go on. In Dublinesque Vila-Matas has concluded the groundwork for a great, mature literature, the way-out-through-negation that began in his Bartleby & Co. Marco Roth wrote, “A contemporary novel that could dramatize the life of one heroic reading consciousness or even one reader’s struggle between heroic reading and the impulses tapped by consumerism might just be the sort of novel to save us from our own savage torpor.” The Vila-Matas quartet, from Bartleby & Co. to Dublinesque, is the very catalyst he imagines — the advance of heroic reading in a transitional period where market values slip from print to digital and underscore certain winners and losers, either publicists or dinosaur literary publishers. But for all his buildup in the previous three novels, Vila-Matas still has not written the “novel of the future” — this quartet is only a preliminary primer that points to something else, for someone else’s use. Shelley wrote, “Familiar acts are beautiful through love” — a line that reads cliché unless you invest in it endearingly after conceding it’s cliché. Vila-Matas shows us that, with everything familiar, our way out is a confrontation to the tradition, concurrently in love and hate, yes and no, when the apocalypse is never new and always now.