Was he the last publisher?
by Kelvin Smith
Samuel Riba’s publishing company has gone bust, he has given up alcohol, he sits hunched over his computer all day – has become a hikikomori. He regrets the books he has published and the books he has not.
Riba used to go to meetings about the future of the book, the necessity and the futility of authors. Now he yearns for New York and plans a trip to Dublin, where “he wants to hold a requiem for the Gutenberg galaxy” which he anticipates won’t be “anything other than a great parody of the weeping of a few sensitive souls for the end of an era.” Still, it’s better than sitting alone in his room thinking about life.
“For year’s he’s led his life through his catalogue. And in fact he now finds it hard to know who he really is. And, above all, what’s even harder: to know who he really might’ve been. Who was the man who was there before he began publishing? […] no one invites him to anything, not one conference or publishers’ congress, nothing at all, they just pester him with trivial matters or ask him for favours. In a way, they’re forgetting about him without forgetting him”
In Dublin he meditates. “The world he once knew is ending, and he knows full well that the best novels he published were practically only about this, worlds that would never exist again, apocalyptic situations that were mainly projections of the authors’ existential angst and that nowadays would raise a smile, because the world has continued on its course despite meeting with an inexhaustible number of grand finales. If it doesn’t quickly fall into oblivion, it won’t be long before the tragedy of the decline of the print age (the decline of a great and brilliant period of human intelligence) will also raise a smile.”
Eventually, spending Bloomsday with a bunch of authors in literary Dublin proves too much and he falls off the wagon, his wife leaves and he is left to contemplate his life again, surrounded by thoughts of Beckett.
“A house lined with Beckett. He’d never heard of such a thing. In its day – in the days when the publishing house received so many manuscripts – it would have been a good title for one of those novels that some weak and indecisive authors used to submit with titles even feebler and more faltering.”
This is a book made to be read by ex-publishers of a certain age – and there are still a few around to whom so many of the references in this novel are still very real – who might all ask like Riba: “Was he the last publisher? It would be ideal, but no.”
Enrique Vila-Matas, Dublinesque, 2010