Irishness is for other people

Terry Eagleton

Enrique Vila-Matas’s new novel centres on Bloomsday, the annual celebration in Dublin of the day on which Joyce’s Ulysses is set. Many nations celebrate mythical events, but Ireland commemorates a fictional one. It is as if Britain were to dedicate a feast day to Falstaff or to the Artful Dodger. For some in Ireland, Bloomsday is a useful alternative to memorialising the Easter Rising or the United Irish Insurrection: honouring uprisings against the British has been controversial ever since the shadow of the IRA hung over the country. Bloomsday is a secular rather than a sacred feast. It turns a non-existent character into a real-life event, rather as Leopold Bloom himself is a fictional figure who is solidly real. Illusion and reality converge: if Joyce himself crops up in the novel, as some critics maintain, Bloom even encounters his own creator, rather as religious believers are supposed to do when they die. The same may be true of the hero of Dublinesque, who spots a man who may be Vila-Matas.

Like many modernist texts, Ulysses ransacks mythology to provide a fractured modern world with some underlying order. The book, its author and one of its main characters have now been mythologised in their turn. Samuel Riba, the hero of Vila-Matas’s novel, knows very little about Ireland but a good deal about its literature. He first sees Dublin in a dream, as an imaginary city that is nevertheless intensely real. But Ireland itself has long been a kind of fiction. Few nations have been so much the stuff of legend. Its citizens were put on this earth for other people to feel romantic about. To mention that you live in Dublin can be enough to raise a smile, evoking fantasies of a genial, devil-may-care race of hard drinkers and racy raconteurs, from whose lips perfectly formed epigrams fall as effortlessly as booze flows in. Freud saw laughter as a momentary release from the superego, which is how the Irish figure in the global unconscious. They are feckless, indolent, wildly imaginative brawlers whom other people look down on but would secretly like to be, and as such they evoke a mixture of derision and admiration. From Oliver Goldsmith and Oscar Wilde to George Bernard Shaw, Brendan Behan and Graham Norton, John Bull’s other island has furnished the British with a series of talented court jesters, praised and patronised in equal measure. Ireland was burdened with the task of writing much of its rulers’ great literature for them. The Irish themselves are adept at turning other people’s dewy-eyed images of them to profitable use, as Bloomsday itself, a notable tourist attraction, proves. Irishness is for other people. Anyone found wearing an Aran sweater or singing ‘Danny Boy’ is unlikely to be a native. Quite a lot that appears indigenous to the country is not. Irish stew was concocted for Irish navvies in Britain. Irish coffee was invented by a chef at Foynes airport in the early days of air travel to defrost pilots arriving from across the Atlantic. Even Guinness is no longer locally owned.

As with most myths, there is a kernel of truth to the notion of Ireland as a breeder of fantasies. Culture – from Bono to Brian Friel, Heaney to Riverdance – is modern Ireland’s most remarkable export. There is a small but impressive film industry known as Paddywood. Artists in Ireland are exempt from income tax on their work, and this respect for the arts goes a long way back: medieval Irish bards were in some ways more powerful than chieftains, and could wither your loins with one well-aimed imprecation. Ireland now has a poet as president. The country’s political life has been dominated by nationalism, the most poetic of all political currents. It is hard to imagine Patrick Pearse chairing a finance committee. The former prime minister Garret FitzGerald, a writer and intellectual as well as a politician, is said to have remarked of a certain policy proposal: ‘That’s all right in practice, but will it work in theory?’

The Irish are an unsentimental bunch, and have much to be unsentimental about. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the country was a byword for squalor and destitution. Much of Dublin in the early 20th century was a stinking slum to rival Calcutta. No sooner did the nation become prosperous for the first time in its history twenty years ago than it squandered its unwonted affluence. Irish commentators entranced by a vision of modernisation in which pole dancers would finally outnumber poets saw the whole overblown project fall apart overnight. Ireland turned out to be dominated not by twinkly-eyed fiddlers and loquacious wits but by crooked property developers, bent politicians and financial cowboys who made Fred Goodwin look like Francis of Assisi. The nation had screwed up again.

Ireland is renowned for two industries: Guinness and Joyce. A good deal of the country’s labour over the years has been devoted to the task of generating fantasies and rendering the population legless. Drink, talk, humour and storytelling were all ways of escaping from the oppressiveness of life in a small, stagnant colony. Brendan Behan once described himself as a drinker with a writing problem. Much of the talk has taken the form of gossip, in the manner of small nations. Dublin was said by the Irish novelist George Moore to have marvellous acoustics. The more practical mode of escape from a barren existence was emigration, which could also involve its fair share of false consciousness. No custom has been more native to the country than getting out of it. There was certainly a lot to turn one’s back on. Along with priests and poverty, modern Irish literature is rife with a sense of the soul-killing monotony of everyday life. ‘I’m Irish,’ one writer in Dublinesque declares. ‘I write about dysfunctional families, miserable, loveless lives, illness, old age, winter, the grey weather, boredom and rain.’ Ulysses, the work of a man who once remarked that he had a mind like a grocer’s assistant, plucks great art from total tedium. It is a relentlessly trivial book, but by levelling everything down it manages to make everything seem significant. The hero of Dublinesque reflects that to ‘monotonise’ existence is to discover that each small incident has a wondrous quality. Vila-Matas’s novel is full of spectres, absences, near misses, huge stretches of emptiness prefiguring the end of the world. Like Beckett, it is apocalypse without the drama.

It is fitting, then, that every 16 June the Irish should commemorate a day on which nothing much happened. Like many modernist works, Ulysses revolves on a botched revelation or bungled epiphany, as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus finally meet to no momentous effect. Nothingness is a traditional topic of Irish writing, all the way from the negative theology of the great medieval schoolman John Scottus Eriugena to the vision of hell of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. It is true that nothing, like something, happens anywhere, but it tends to happen more in a down-at-heel colony (‘an afterthought of Europe’, Joyce scornfully called it) than it does on Wall Street or in Whitehall. Riba’s parental home strikes him as ‘more and more Irish’ precisely because nothing ever happens there. It is full of ghosts, as indeed Dublinesque is as a whole. Ireland, too, is haunted by a history which is dead but won’t lie down. Finnegans Wake takes its title from a Dublin ballad about a corpse that comes alive again at the smell of whisky.

The Irish sometimes found it hard to decide whether they were the opposite of the British or a mirror image of them. When Beckett was asked by a dimwitted journalist whether he was British, he replied ‘au contraire’, but to outsiders like Vila-Matas, the difference can be imperceptible. The book remarks of a Spanish character that he will probably enjoy visiting Bloomsday Dublin because he is an ardent Anglophile, not a sentiment likely to win its author many free drinks on O’Connell Street. The novel may be forgiven this solecism, however, since Bloomsday involves cavorting around in Edwardian blazers and boaters, for all the world like one of Britain’s recurrent bouts of national silliness. (The latest occasion is known as the Olympic Games.)

There are other ways in which the celebration seems un-Irish. The main characters of Ulysses – a Jew of immigrant stock and an alienated young intellectual – are hardly exemplary of the Irish people. They are, to be sure, typical of a land in which scholastic learning and everyday seediness coexist, an incongruous coupling that can be found everywhere from Swift and Sterne to Beckett and O’Brien. Far from being a feckless Irish fantasist, however, Bloom is a prim, buttoned-down figure who is not to be as unambiguously applauded as the Bloomsday groupies seem to imagine. He seems to approve of capital punishment, for example; it is the much maligned nationalistic Citizen who insists on British wrongdoing in Ireland, and Bloom who seeks in his circumspect way to qualify it. Both he and Stephen are internal exiles rather than run-of-the-mill Dubliners. Yet this, some might claim, is where they most resemble their fellow countrypeople, for a long time strangers in their own land.

Those who are unable to feel at home in their own country might as well be homeless in someone else’s. This was true of Joyce himself, a number of his modernist colleagues and the millions of his compatriots who were forced to emigrate after the Famine. Joyce was able to reinvent his native city so exuberantly in Ulysses partly because he was doing so from the safe distance of exile, a place from which he had not the least intention of returning. The other distancing device which allowed him to dip back into Dublin was style. The novel’s elaborately self-conscious language helps to fend off the place at the same time as it brings it closer. Joyce immerses himself in his home town, but only as it is mediated by his all-sovereign art. We are never allowed to forget that this is a city made of words.

Samuel Riba is an outsider too: a lost soul, failed publisher and reformed alcoholic whose sanity seems at times uncertain. Mysteriously, he confuses literature with Catherine Deneuve, and suspects that Marlon Brando died in his place. Unhinged from the workaday world in the manner of Stephen Dedalus, yet given to free association in the style of Leopold Bloom, he sets out from his native Barcelona on a trip to Ireland in search of his long-buried self. His plan is to mark Bloomsday by recreating Paddy Dignam’s funeral from Ulysses, though these particular obsequies will be for the passing of print and high literature in an age in which Gutenberg has given way to Google. Just as Bloom is a bit of a literary type (a dealer in advertisements) and a hero in his own humdrum way, so Riba is a minor literary figure who takes a heroic stand against the decline of belles lettres, a falling-off he associates with an apocalyptic crack-up of civilisation itself. Bloomsday, the novel glumly notes, rhymes with doomsday. Yet it is really his own mortality Riba is mourning. The drink has played havoc with his innards. The novel is about the death of the author in more senses than one. Funerals make a kind of art out of death, and so does Dublinesque.

Very little happens in the novel, but a lot less interestingly than in Ulysses. Whereas Joyce’s work installs us inside three very different heads in turn, Vila-Matas imprisons us within Riba’s desultory consciousness, and the effect can be claustrophobic. Confused, reclusive and with only a tenuous grip on reality, he spends much of his time glued to a computer, and appropriately enough for a publisher, regards his life as a kind of text. It is, however, an unreadable one, full of chance connections and random associations, difficult to scan as a whole. Riba doesn’t believe that things logically cohere, and sees art as an attempt to foist intelligibility on them; but if that is what Dublinesque itself is up to, it is hard to feel it succeeds. What unity the book has is a matter of literary allusions and cross-connections, as a reference to a novel leads to one to a film, which leads to one to another novel. It is a high-cultural version of Bloom’s associative mental habits, one rooted in art rather than in reality. Perhaps, as in Ulysses, there is a plot lurking beneath this fragmented existence. Perhaps some coincidences are meant, some stray encounters intended. There is a subdued hunger for some transcendent truth, one which vanishes as soon as you try to look it in the eye.

The book seems not to notice the irony of setting a lament for the death of the printed word in Ireland, a country in which an oral culture flourished alongside print longer and more vigorously than in many other European nations. ‘The greatest talkers since the Greeks’ was how Wilde described his compatriots, with himself well in mind. Bloomsday involves public readings from Ulysses, and the novel itself is a great cacophony of voices. Traditional Ireland was a logocentric culture, in which print proved something of an enigma. The Irish-born Sterne was intrigued by the way in which uniform, anonymous black marks on a page could incarnate the living word. He was aware of the way the linear nature of both print and narrative flatten out the simultaneity of experience. Joyce himself was struck by print’s meagreness, the way one could conjure an infinity of meanings out of a mere 26 letters. Out of paucity flows richness, which is as true of Swift, Synge, O’Casey and Beckett as it is of Ulysses.

So Bloomsday is an odd time to mourn the death of print and fine writing. As far as print culture goes, Joyce’s writing is cyclical, polyphonic and multi-levelled rather than linear and uniform. In some ways it’s closer to Google than to Gutenberg. Linearity suggests progress, which was never the most popular notion in backward colonial Ireland. Marshall McLuhan, who first drew the world’s attention to the difference between the linearity of print and the synchronicity of the modern media, wrote about Joyce in his doctoral thesis. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are synchronic worlds in McLuhan’s sense. They are intricate, self-enclosed networks of symbolic connections, rather as the Dublin they portray is a global village of coincidences and unexpected affinities. (This is partly because of its smallness. Even today, it is a place in which everyone seems to have been at school with everyone else.) So the contrast between Joyce and electronic media is a dubious one. Riba clings to Joyce’s work in defiance of a future in which authors will have disappeared and there will be a single universal book, an almost infinite flow of words through the internet. But a universal book with a well-nigh infinite flow of significations is a reasonable description of Finnegans Wake. As for fine writing, Riba disdainfully contrasts the high literature he himself used to publish with mass-market kitsch, but Ulysses is high and low, esoteric and commonplace, Dedalus and Bloom at the same time. Quite a few Irish people without much formal education have a stab at reading it, along with some Yeats and Heaney. Among an unsavoury crew of bleak-eyed, elitist modernists, Joyce stands out not only for his comic spirit but for his resolute ordinariness. Bloomsday is no more a suitable time to stage a requiem for high culture than it is to bewail the arrival of the internet.

Dublinesque is a postmodern meditation on a high modernist text, full of cryptic crossings between fiction and reality. As a publisher, Riba feels that he has no more than a literary identity, which since he is a character in a novel is clearly true. He seeks out his real self by re-creating an artwork (Paddy Dignam’s funeral) that is found in an artwork (Ulysses). Like Joyce’s novel, this one is full of compulsive connections and resemblances, a condition Freud associated with paranoia. Art is supposed to be an image of freedom, but no such good fortune attends the characters of a novel, who think of themselves as autonomous beings but whose destiny is rigorously determined by underlying myths and codes. The surface, day in Dublin text of Ulysses appears random and contingent, but it is shaped at every turn by a deeper Homeric text, one of which the characters are as necessarily unaware as the ego is of the unconscious. Perhaps to live is to be pre-scripted, and to accept this truth is to discover one’s real identity, as Riba does after a fashion at the end of the novel. What, however, if the very idea of the real self is a supreme fiction? Riba’s wife, who is a Buddhist, certainly believes so. So did Wilde.

The book has a bleak conclusion. Its hero falls off the wagon in Dublin and loses his wife as a consequence. The Irish capital is not the best place for reformed alcoholics, who might do better to settle in Bournemouth; Paddy Dignam died of drink. But Riba has had his vision, glimpsed an epiphany at the heart of a disenchanted world, and will now, perhaps, turn gradually into Bloom, perambulating the city streets in pointless, uneventful contentment.