Sensing that it won’t be long before her dear autistic husband goes and sits in front of the computer, she tells him that people who use Google gradually lose the ability to read literary works with any kind of depth, which serves to demonstrate how digital knowledge can be linked to the recent stupidity in the world.
Our protagonist here is Riba, a failed publisher, whose alcoholic past caused him to collapse and where he has a vivid dream that takes place in Dublin. As his life unravels he arranges for three writers to accompany him to Dublin, where on Bloomsday he plans a funeral for the Gutenberg era, in the same cemetery where Paddy Dignam was buried in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.
He belongs to an increasingly rare breed of sophisticated, literary publishers. And every day, since the beginning of this century, he has watched in despair the spectacle of the noble branch of his trade – publishers who still read and who have always been drawn to literature – gradually, surreptitiously dying out. He had financial trouble two years ago, but managed to shut the publishing house down without having to declare bankruptcy, toward which it had been heading with terrifying obstinacy, despite its prestige. In over thirty years as an independent he has seen it all, successes but also huge failures. He attributes the loss of direction in the end to his resistance to publishing the gothic vampire tales and other nonsense now in fashion, and so forgets part of the truth; he was never renowned for good financial management, and what’s more, his exaggerated fanaticism for literature was probably harmful.
This is the opening paragraph of this wonderful novel. One that I feel quite stressed about reviewing on a blog, how could you not be? I’m further contributing to the death of an era. Besides an absolute witty plot, numerous references to literature, the arts, other writers, poets and musicians this poignant tale contributes to a magnificent canon of novels that explore the pleasure of reading. But it is not simply a smart novel, there are numerous passages that explore the eternal existentialist questions:
An intimate relationship between two people is an instrument of torture between them, whether they’re people of opposite sexes or the same. Each human being carries within himself a certain amount of self-hatred, and this hatred, this not being able to stand oneself, is something that has to be transferred to another person, and the person you can best transfer it to is the person you love.
Paying homage to Joyce by adding minutiae and later to Samuel Beckett by stripping it all away, this is a reader’s book. Is the mysterious character who appears to be following our protagonist the author of the novel itself (apparently it has been argued that the mysterious mourner in the mackintosh in “Ulysses” Chapter Six is James Joyce himself) or is he Beckett, or is he simply Godot? No need for Riba to wait for him, he keeps appearing.
One of my favourite sections of this novel is where Riba is wondering if a writer was to tell his tale how would he describe the banality of it all? Of course we are actually reading what the writer is writing about Riba – quite a conundrum but extremely taut and relevant in a novel about reading and writing. As well as the eternal search for a genius and the great English “leap” to which our protagonist keeps referring (hence the cover photograph?).
Quite simply this is one of my favourite novels of all time, yes it’s up the top of my all time reading favourites, and of course to me it is the best book about reading that I have ever read. Although, at the risk of being branded a "book snob", I would suggest only serious readers attempt this novel as it is one that is in dialogue with you, that requires you to be a participant in the tale and one that knows a little about James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (although probably not a prerequisite to have read them extensively) and having a quick scroll through the star ratings on Goodreads (again I transgressed into the banal), this either gets two stars or five – there seems to be no middle ground. Readers of the world celebrate, a novel that has extended the life of the Gutenberg age?