Bartleby and Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas
There was a lot of talk last year on the blogs I read about the Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas; and in recent months particularly about his book “Bartleby and Co”. Vila-Matas is known for his meta-fiction, and “Bartleby” was his first work to be translated into English. As I was very taken with Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, the inspiration for this book, I was obviously keen to read Vila-Matas’s work; so when Jacqui (who’s reviewed the book here) very kindly gifted me a copy at the end of last year, it didn’t lie around too long before I picked it up! 🙂
The character of Bartleby is of course famous for his act of refusal; employed as a clerk or scrivener he will do his duties as far as they go, but anything else meets with the response from him of “I would prefer not to”. Vila-Matas’s book is narrator by Marcelo, a clerk in an office in Barcelona, who is fascinating by this act of refusal. He sets out to record all the Bartlebys in literature, whether author or character, in a book of his own; but this book is an odd one, as the text does not actually exist (perhaps it has refused to come into being?) Instead, Marcelo presents us with a sequence of numbered footnotes, annotations to a non-existent narrative, which in themselves are remarkably revealing.
In truth, the entries read more like a list or a series of diary entries, in which Marcelo gathers together the threads of information about all the Bartlebys, the authors who refuse to write, abandon literature or spend their whole life in expectation of producing a magnificent work of art but never actually get there. Stars of the tale include Kafka (who recurs throughout the book, with his “Hunger Artist” and his refusal to eat exemplifying the Bartlebian ethos); American poet Hart Crane, who disappeared whilst at sea; the mysterious B. Traven, who wrote famous stories but whose reclusiveness outdid Salinger; Salinger himself, with his decades of literary silence after producing his great works; Rimbaud, who again produced his works young and then never wrote again; and many, many others.
Some of these authors are obviously fictional, many are real, and because of the layers in the narrative the reader is never going to be sure quite which events happened and which are constructed (without spending hours trawling through Internet searches). But in many ways this is irrelevant, because the point Marcelo (and Vila-Matas) is making about the refusal to write and whether the act of writing is a valid one stands regardless of whether the examples given are real or fictional.
I am only a written voice, virtually without a private or public life, I am a voice that throws out words which fragment by fragment compose the long history of Bartleby’s shadow over contemporary literature.
In fact, the book is in itself something of a contradiction in terms: a text about the refusal to write which is in fact a piece of writing itself. And as Marcelo’s musings and footnotes continue, we realise that he has become a Bartleby himself; he withdraws from contact with the outside world, surrendering his job and keeping only sketchy relations with the occasional friend. He’s actually a very unreliable narrator, and although he describes himself as a hunchback and a recluse, an old school friend he idolised and then encounters many years later tells Marcelo that it was the hunchback who was the inspirational one, so that we end up wondering what is actually the truth.
Marcelo and his author are both obviously incredibly well-read, and as Tony mentioned in his excellent review here, one of the hardest parts of reading this book is resisting the temptation to put it down and Google every unfamiliar name you come across. However, as I read on I found this became easier and once I’d accepted that it didn’t in the end matter whether Vila-Matas had created them, I found I enjoyed the book even more. It’s remarkably thought-provoking – the author makes a riveting, if tongue-in-cheek case for *not* writing, while producing a text that’s quite unputdownable. And it has you ruminating on the power of words and the relevance of books for a long time after finishing it.
I’ve had a quick look at Vila-Matas’ books in the past, but “Bartleby and Co” was the first one I actually sat down and read, and it really was remarkable. The blurring of lines between fact and fiction has been in vogue in recent years, but as Vila-Matas points out, this tendency is nothing new:
Marcel Schwob’s book ‘Petronius’ is found in Imaginary Lives. To write this book, according to Borges, who imitated and improved on it, Schwob had invented a curious method whereby the protagonists are real, but the facts may be fabulous and quite often fantastic.
You only need to look at the modern culture of recycling, where real life people are written into fictions, or other people’s characters are taken and put into new books, to realise that there’s nothing new under the sun. And the point of “Bartleby and Co” is, I think, to make us really consider whether there is anything new to say, whether there is too much writing in the world (and you could argue that there is, when you see the piles of remaindered churned out mass market books in The Works and the like) and whether there is any point in writing at all. We could, after all, simply aim to be the perfect reader, as Marcelo suggests, quoting Derek Walcott’s apt lines:
One could abandon writing
for the slow-burning signals
of the great, to be, instead,
their ideal reader, ruminative,
voracious, making the love of masterpieces
superior to attempting
to repeat or outdo them,
and be the greatest reader in the world.
Hmmm. I’ve always quite fancied myself as the world’s best reader…. 🙂
For anyone interested in exploring the reality or otherwise of the writers in the book, there’s an interesting post from Obooki here which reveals more – I see that Jacqui and Tony have already been there too, and it’s obvious that Vila-Matas’s book warrants plenty of investigation!