Just in case the book dies before I get back from New York

A rushed post, while the kids watch the Simpsons, and before I go upstairs to pack to fly to New York tomorrow. These last couple of days I’ve been trying to finish these two books, which arrived over the weekend, and which I’ve been reading in alternation, Dublinesque, the new novel by Enrique Vila-Matas, author of the wonderful Montano (here’s my Indy review, here’s Lars Iyer’s manifesto, which treats it at more length), and This is Not the End of the Book, a transcription of some characteristically wide-ranging and ebullient conversations between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière.

Quite apart from the resonance of the Vila-Matas to my first trip to New York, of which more below, the two books play off each other through their shared theme of the death, or otherwise, of the book, or literature. In fact, they are almost as much in dialogue with each other as are UE and J-CC in TINTEOTB (an abbreviation which brings to mind both Tintin and  Kinbote, the mad editor of Pale Fire).

The Eco/Carrière, as its title suggests, is a repudiation of the idea that the book is going to be killed by the digital revolution (in Eco’s words: “either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been, even before the invention of the printing press”), while the Vila-Matas is about a retired publisher who decides the whole game is up, and that the best he can do is travel to Dublin, on Bloomsday, to conduct “a requiem for the Guttenberg galaxy […] a funeral not just for the extinct world of literary publishing, but also for the world of genuine writers and talented readers, for everything that’s needed nowadays.” A funeral, in the end, for his long-held, never-fulfilled desire to find one undiscovered genius, just one, to publish.

A more considered response to the Matas, finished just now, will have to wait, but what I wanted to get down was the pleasures of switching between these books, speaking from a shared European sensibility but different individual positions regarding that shared theme, and above all the sense they both give of generosity, of pointing outwards, to other books, to the world.

I used to think, when I was little more than a child, that I what I wanted above all was to find one book that would serve me as the book, a vade mecum, a book that fulfilled all I needed from books in general, an entirely sufficient and self-sufficient guide through life.

Now, of course, I realise that these kinds of books, that don’t look outside themselves, are the worst kinds of books. They contain a world in miniature, like a snow dome, but all you can do is gaze into them. The great books situate themselves squarely in the world of history, society and literature, refer to other works past, present and future (even when the references aren’t explicit), and stabilise themselves by virtue of these connections. Snow dome books create an analogue for the world, but fight shy of mentioning reality itself, lest the illusion shatter. Reality-oriented novels, or books, insist on real names, real books. (Dublinesque is full of these, as was Montano; it’s one of their principlal joys.) They behave, in other words, like webpages.

But the difference between books and webpages, with their equally generous, equally outward-leading, though more immediate, even instantaneous links, is that the book holds your attention, even as it directs it onwards. It is centripetal and centrifugal at the same time. It pushes you out, and it holds you there. The primary impulse is to stay on the page. Online, the  impulse is to follow the link. The reward for doing so, after all, is instantaneous. Look! a whole new page, new work, new world, is conjured up in an instant, the old one replaced, forgotten. We’re like rats, repeatedly nudging the button for our hit of food, or drugs, or medial forebrain stimulation, or whatever. With a good book (a book like these books) you can’t follow the links immediately, but must save them for later, either marking them in the text, or jotting them down in a notebook. Even a link not followed helps build up a picture of the world.

The conversation between these two books is charming and intricate, and i havent got time now to start quoting the passages that speak to each other. Outwardly they are at odds, the one optimistic, the other pessimistic, but that is to look at them reductively.  The pessimism in Dublinesque is of that wonderful sly kind that art excels at. Art, in voicing despair, shapes and controls it, presenting it as a lament that is also a celebration of the very human possibility of giving voice to that lament. Every novel of despair and failure is also a novel despite failure, to spite despair, just as every blues song snubs its nose at the trauma it sings. (The true novel of despair is the one not written, not finished, not published.)

Here is Riba, the failed hero-publisher of Dublinesque, on the scene when he falls off the wagon and so dooms his marriage:

And yesterday, in real life, he again felt something similar. Within the disgrace, there was an enigmatic emotion in the embrace scene. An emotion that rose from the birth into death or from feeling alive for the first time in his life. Because it was a great moment despite the brutality of the tragedy. One moment, at last, at the centre of the world. As if the cities of Dublin and New York were united by a single current, and this was no other than the very current of life.

Ah, New York. That’s where I’m heading, with Teju Cole’s Open City in my carry-on bag, and Riba’s words in my head – for it’s a book as in love with New York as with Dublin: “With each day that passes, New York makes him feel more enthusiastic. Under the spell of this name, he feels capable of anything.”

And  a post-script: I read Open City on the flight over, finishing it in a cafe south of Washington Square, and feel duty bound to point out that what the books is in part about – or rather how it functions – is the failure of the kind of liberal enlightenment outlook that is epitomised by exactly this kind of outward-looking, engaged book. Open City is like Dublinesque and, of course, WG Sebald, in its constant reference to history, and to culture, but what the book shows is that this kind hide a blind spot (the word is central to an understanding of the novel’s workings) with regards to the self. If you know all this stuff about the world – about Mahler, about bird behaviour, about history local and far-reaching, but don’t know yourself, then your knowledge is useless. Empty vessels make the most noise: yes, even when the noise is music to our liberal ears.

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