Big Time Intertextuality

He belongs to an increasingly rare breed of sophisticated, literary bloggers – this is the thought which (somewhat ironically) crosses Tony’s mind as the sound of the car taking his wife and children away slowly fades, leaving him free to wander into the study and finally sit down to the computer whose siren call he has been avoiding for the past few hours.  He picks up the book he has just finished, noting the aptness of the cover – a man in the process of taking a giant, life-defining leap…

Reading Dublinesque, Enrique Vila-Matas’ stunning novel of a publisher’s trip to Dublin to bury the age of print literature and work out what to do with himself next, has been an exhilarating, absorbing journey through modern literary history, a novel so awash with references to other artists and their works that Tony has stayed up late into the night, stopping here to open his copy of Ulysses (forced into rereading Chapter Six by the obvious parallels with Vila-Matas’ book), pausing there to refresh his memory of Joyce’s short story The Dead (another work frequently referenced in Dublinesque).  Now, as the rest of the world goes about its business, Tony’s brain is still twisting and turning, his mind still searching for elusive threads of meaning.

He walks over to the window, looking for signs of good weather, anything to keep him away from the computer, but mid-winter Melbourne rain continues to flow down, concealing the further edges of the garden and gradually causing the study windows to steam up, leaving Tony isolated in his warm, dimly-lit room.  With a sigh, he sits down at his desk, clicking three times on the mouse with practiced ease and turning on some music to help him focus (Franz Ferdinand – how apt), before opening a Word document – which he proceeds to stare at for a while as the music washes over him…

He tries to concentrate on Samuel Riba, the central character, a former literary publisher whose sudden, irrational decision to fly to Dublin for Bloomsday with some friends shakes his life out of the rut it was in.  The way the writer blends elements from Ulysses, structuring parallels with Joyce’s famous novel, the way he draws on thoughts and images from an astonishingly wide variety of sources…  Tony turns to his copy of Dublinesque, pulls out the scrap of paper with the scribbled notes he has made, and begins Googling images – Hammershøi’s painting of The British Museum in fog, Edward Hopper’s Stairway (another song plays on the computer, The Police’s Wrapped Around your Finger) -, but he’s getting nowhere.  He sighs and continues thinking…

He decides that he needs to distract himself, and he eases himself, not without difficulty, out of the chair he feels so comfortable in, standing up, slowly looking around, as if expecting help to come from someone (even though there is nobody there), before walking out into the kitchen.  He does the washing up to clear his head and then makes a couple of pieces of raisin toast, pouring himself a mug of soya milk to go with his impromptu second breakfast.  Back in the study, he becomes tired of the music and puts on an old Powderfinger CD, and as the strains of Waiting for the Sun ring out, he sits back waiting for inspiration – in vain.  In fact, the only thing he can think of is the irony in the fact of the book about Riba (a publisher deeply disillusioned by the success of ‘gothic’ – i.e. vampire – fiction), being published in English by the same house that brought out Fifty Shades of Grey

Musing that if Riba was waiting for the return of the real reader, he was probably well out of the publishing game, Tony decides to browse online book shops for other works and writers mentioned in Dublinesque: Finnegan’s Wake (of course), Paul Auster, Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett…  Tony pauses, leaning back in his chair, feeling that he has come to the crucial point of his cerebral meanderings at last; for if the first part of Dublinesque has Riba’s life parallelling the events of Ulysses, the final section moves from the high of Joyce to the low of Beckett.  Tony sighs.  In that case, it’s a shame that he has never read anything by Beckett…  As he continues to stare blankly at the mockingly pristine document on the computer screen, the feeling of being watched grows ever stronger, compelling him to turn and look out of the window.  Nothing.  Just a man in a blue jacket, hurrying down the hill in the rain, head fixed straight ahead, in no way looking in Tony’s direction.

Rubbing his eyes, Tony manages to stand up again, now feeling the familiar dry feeling in his mouth from last night’s wine, wanting a glass of water to ease the headache he can sense beginning.  He starts to pace the study, walking around in circles while his thoughts go around in the opposite direction.  Dublinesque is a great book, a wonderful book, a seamless read, a credit to the writer and to his translators into English, Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean.  But – (Tony’s pacing slows as he struggles against the thoughts coming the other way) – what am I actually going to say about it?  How can I construct a coherent review describing its brilliance while including the feel of the novel?  Should I simply type out 600 words with a brief overview of the plot and a recommendation to just read the book?

Gradually the pacing slows eventually coming to a complete stop as gravity inertia weight of years and the force of the counterbalancing train of thought combine to bring him to a halt Tony looks up and for the first time we see him with a smile on his face as he realises that there is only one way to do justice to the book while concealing his inability to truly understand truly get to the heart of what it actually is Vila-Matas wants to say and he says to himself in the middle of that warm dark room he says that’s what I’ll do I’ll just write it as I think it should be written I’ll style it as if it were taken from Vila-Matas Joyce whoever intertextuality yes intertextuality and people can read into what they will what they want what they feel or is that too obvious perhaps no it’s a good idea better than the usual rubbish anyway will I won’t I and yes I said yes I will Yes.


21 thoughts on “Big Time Intertextuality

  1. I'm glad you didn't tie your naked self into your (non-rocking) chair with scarves, like Beckett's Murphy. 😀 It was an excellent read. I think he gave me hope that the great author isn't dead – yet. But, we could be seeing through that wrinkle in time any decade now. We must be on the lookout for that stranger in the mac. 😉


  2. Margit – Thanks 🙂 I do enjoy my occasional tangential posts. This is a book that invites this kind of approach – and it's well worth reading.

    Violet – No, I managed to keep myself largely sane 😉 But did you get all the allusions…


  3. Tremendous review Tony. Are literary bloggers a declining breed? Not that it matters.

    The problem is I've not read Ulysses yet, which makes this quite out of bounds. I wouldn't get the references. One for the future I fear.


  4. Max – It's actually (almost) the first line of the book 😉

    Thanks for stopping by – I'm sure there is someone out there who will pick up on all my in-jokes…

    …I rather suspect that it's me though 😦


  5. Brilliant, Tony!!

    I read Ulysses last year (and loved it) and was fortunate enough to go to Dublin on Bloomsday. So you would think a woman obsessed with Irish literature and Dublin would have rushed to read this book, but I was worried it would be too clever and “knowing” and that I would not get the references… but you've made it sound like something I'd really enjoy. Onto the wishlist it goes… or maybe I'll see if my library has it.


  6. Max – Not that Björk has anything to do with 'Dublinesque', I hasten to add 😉

    Gary – The musical ones are very important; no random listening for the Tony in the review…

    Kim – Thanks Kim 🙂 I don't think you need to know everything to enjoy this book, but having read 'Ulysses' makes things a little more familiar. The real beauty of 'Dublinesque' though is that it makes you want to leap up and read and look at everything mentioned in its pages. It's really a book for people who like literature and the arts in general, whether they've already tried Joyce and Beckett or not.

    Karenlee – I'm not sure I've picked up on every nuance myself – once the text is published, it takes on a life of its own 😉


  7. Rise – Wow! Even the cover is an intertextual reference 😉

    It would be better having read 'Ulysses', but you can read this first, then read 'Ulysses' at some point, then reread this in a few years having read 'Ulysses', and you'll be reading a *different book*.

    My head hurts now…


  8. Glad you had such a fun time with Dublinesque and your Dublinesque-esque post, Tony! I'd recommend you try Bartleby & Co. next should you be in the mood for another Vila-Matas work at some point both because it's my favorite of the two books I've read by him so far and because it made me feel much like you say this book made you feel. Cheers!


  9. Oh, you meant your allusions. I thought you were referring to the book. Yes, very well done, Tony, as ever, but is that Molly Bloom's soliloquy you're alluding to?


  10. Richard – I definitely want to read it, but I feel I may be a little underprepared (see comment on Rise's post for more details!).

    Violet – Yes, the last paragraph is alluding to that (the last half-a-dozen or so words *are* from 'Ulysses'). The first sentence, on the other hand, comes from 'Dublinesque' itself 😉


  11. I loved this and your post so much better than mine I to lament lack of Beckett reading but pleased I knew the Joyce well enough to get his part in the book ,all the best stu


  12. Stu – Thanks 🙂 It's a great book, and I'm hoping to read more of Vila-Matas' work.

    If you think my review is good though, you should see the effort Rise has put in on his 'Bartleby & Co.' post…


  13. Hi Tony, it seems like intertextuality is Vila-Matas's thing! I think I'm going to need another while until I can stomach more of his fare – but Dublinesque sounds like a strong contender for when I decide to pick im up again. I think I'll wait until I've read Ulysses though, which is also on my reading list and will be tackled at one point.

    PS. I'm also surprised I hadn't come across your blog before – I guess we have to thank Richard for the connection!


  14. Bettina – Having 'Ulysses' under your belt will definitely help with reading 'Dublinesque' – but if you waited to read everything mentioned in the book, you'd never actually get to it…

    It's doubly surprising as I do a lot of German literature reviews as well 😉 Did you take part in last November's German Literature Month?


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