Category Archives: spanish

The last season of the avant-garde

The Last Season of the Avant-Garde is a (presumably fictional) work of the (real) Berlin artist Bastian Schneider, part of Documenta 13 as it is reimagined and reviewed by Enrique Vila-Matas in The Illogic of Kassel. As the author meanders round the diverse artworks he encounters Schneider’s work twice, which had “a small machine attached to it that looked like an old wall-mounted telephone, but was in fact a tiny, peculiar printing press“.

On the first occasion he reads a poem attached to the work and then sees that if “you pushed the button on the little machine beneath the word fröhlich, it would crank into motion and spit out a scrap of paper on which Schneider gave his opinion that the contemporary artist these days was in the same position as the traveling artist of the pre-Aufklärung (the period before the German Enlightenment), writing not for an established community, but rather in the hope of founding one.”

The second time he presses the button, “the text warned that at night, when there was no one there, the place was taken over by beings wearing Polynesian masks, singing songs from the future, songs that will be sung six centuries hence in a very different Germany, but one where Lichtenberg will still be read, even if it is only out of respect for that passage in which he expressed his conviction that, without his writing, such different things would be discussed ‘between six and seven on a certain German evening in the year 2773’.”

The theme of this Documenta is Collapse and Recovery and the little printing machine, with its comments on creating communities and the longevity of print, gives us a view on the collapse and recovery of publishing in the post-Enlightenment digital world.

Enrique Vila-Matas, The Illogic of Kassel, 2014

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Was he the last publisher?

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

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