Once again, this has been a big year for fiction in translation on Tony’s Reading List, to the extent that reviews of books which were originally written in English have hit an all-time low. That’s something I plan to redress next year (one a month should be possible, surely?), but with a few weeks of the year remaining, let’s see if I can start on that idea now. Here, then, is a review of a short, classic tale, one which will be familiar to different readers for different reasons – whatever their preference…
Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener takes us back to nineteenth-century New York, where an amiable lawyer makes a comfortable living in the bustling American metropolis. While his office is a step up from its Dickensian equivalents, it’s still rather dingy and devoid of sunlight, and our friend’s description of his work environment, and the two-and-a-half men who assist him, feels very familiar to those raised on all things V-Lit.
With an increase in work and, in pre-photocopier days, a need for another hand to write out fair copies of contracts, the lawyer decides to add to his merry crew, with help soon arriving:
In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.
Initially, the newcomer fits in well, his quiet industry actually making him preferable in many ways to the slightly flawed characters who share his work. Very soon, however, the lawyer discovers that his new employee is not all that he seems. Far from being a dutiful, pliable assistant, Bartleby is a man with an iron will – and he’s not exactly afraid to say no to tasks he doesn’t like the sound of…
Bartleby, the Scrivener is a short tale, but one that’s very cleverly constructed. The set up is almost Trollopian in its introduction of a comfortable backdrop to the story, one shattered by the entry, and mystery, of the new clerk. The book is, however, fairly controlled in scope, almost play-like at times, with most of the action taking place in the office (although action might not be the most appropriate word here…).
The beauty of the piece is in the way it develops. From a rather jovial, humdrum description of office life, the story suddenly takes a twist owing to Bartleby’s sudden refusal to do his master’s bidding:
In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly, stating what it was I wanted him to do – namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby, in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
Quietly spoken, this firm refusal has the effect of a bomb going off. The other clerks are disgusted at the newcomer’s cheek, and the lawyer, never having anticipated such a reaction, finds himself simply unable to cope with the situation.
Bartleby, then, is an enigma, an unfathomable new element in the office. While tempted to consider him a lazy rascal, his employer soon realises that he’s nothing of the sort – he’s simply unable and unwilling to accept tasks which, for whatever reason, he has no desire to undertake. Without raising his voice, or even an eyebrow, he spreads an atmosphere of passive resistance throughout the chambers, a force of nature which the poor lawyer is powerless to resist.
In many ways, though, the work is the tale of the employer, not the employee, with his inability to sort Bartleby out proving to be typical of his character. Passive, and desirous of a quiet life, he finds himself unable to confront his assistant, despite the fact that he’s in the right and that the tasks Bartleby refuses to do are precisely the things he was employed for. As the story develops, the extremes the lawyer goes to in order to solve his issues become ludicrous, eventually resulting in his literally running away from his problems…
The reader experiences all this first-hand as the story is told through the lawyer’s voice, the tale of a slightly pompous, but nervous, narrator. Added to this are the wonderfully cartoonish clerks, the gradual spread of Bartleby’s manner of speaking in the office (the word ‘prefer’ gradually pervades the staff’s speech, much as Bartleby himself comes to dominate the office) and a large amount of wry wit:
The great point was, not whether I has assumed that he would quit me, but whether he would prefer to do so. He was more a man of preferences than assumptions.
Melville’s novella is easy to read and a lot of fun – and yet, the reader is always aware of a sad undertone. Despite his unflappable appearance, in truth Bartleby is a man with no place in society, and the comedy gradually gives way to tragedy. By the end of the story, we see him literally wasting away…
Bartleby, the Scrivener is an excellent story and well worth a read, but why, with my passion for the exotic, would I read something so Anglophone and unrelated to my usual fare? There is, of course, a method in my madness, and I could let you in on the secret (there’s always an underlying thread to my reading choices). But, you see, dear reader, the truth is, for the moment, at least,…
…I would much prefer not to 😉