‘Bartleby & Co.’ by Enrique Vila-Matas (Review)

IMG_5368As I mentioned in my most recent post, I had my reasons (beyond the fact that it sounded interesting) for randomly reading Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener recently.  The truth is that it was a preparation of sorts for reading another book, one by a writer I’ve neglected for a long time.  Finally, however, I’ve managed to shake off my Bartlebian torpor, and today’s post sees me tackle an excellent work by one of the big names in current fiction in translation circles – luckily, one who doesn’t practice what he preaches…

While the official 2013 IFFP Panel had Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque (tr. Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey) making the shortlist, our Shadow Panel was happy to award it the main prize, and it was also one of my books of the year – which makes it rather surprising that I haven’t tried any of his work since.  That has now been rectified in the form of Bartleby & Co. (translated by Jonathan Dunne), an entertaining and bizarre little book which is linked to Melville’s work in more than name.

The novel, if that’s what it is, begins with an introductory note by a Spanish office worker, a humble soul:

I never had much luck with women.  I have a pitiful hump, which I am resigned to.  All my closest relatives are dead.  I am a poor recluse working in a ghastly office.  Apart from that, I am happy.  Today most of all because, on 8 July 1999, I have begun this diary that is also going to be a book of footnotes commenting on an invisible text, which I hope will prove my reliability as a tracker of Bartlebys.
p.1 (The Harvill Press, 2004)

Our friend appears to be obsessed not only with the story of Melville’s obstreperous creation, but also by a wider phenomenon.  His intention here is to examine the phenomenon of writers who stop writing, those who can, but instead say ‘I would prefer not to’…

What follows is a series of footnotes, short musings about various methods of avoiding the work of writing. Marcello, our narrator, digs up anecdotes about writers throughout history, real and (on occasion) imaginary, doggedly continuing his work of uncovering ‘the literature of the no’.  All the while, back in the real world, he’s actually emulating his hero – you see, thanks to a few medical certificates, he is able to follow Bartleby in his desire not to work…

Bartleby & Co. is a wonderful, clever book, and while a look at why writers can’t write might appear to be a rather dry subject, in Vila-Matas’ hands, it becomes eminently readable.  It appears that there are any number of causes for avoiding literary endeavour (Marcello doesn’t need to waste his time on simple matters such as writer’s block): one foreign-born writer claims English has complicated his thoughts; one of the narrator’s friends has her impulses stifled by the writing of Roland Barthes (who hasn’t?); some choose suicide (although that doesn’t hold our friend’s attention much).  Then, of course, there’s Socrates, who never actually wrote anything at all…

But…  As the story, as much as there is one, progresses, we begin to suspect that (as was the case in Melville’s work) this collection of footnotes says as much about the writer as his subjects.  Marcello is a fairly solitary soul, only having one real acquaintance, one with whom he has uneasy, sporadic meetings.  Our friend is also struggling to write, avoiding his real work to continue on his tale of the writers of the no.  However, whatever he tells us, it’s best to be on guard as he’s a very slippery customer:

66) I’ve worked well, I can be pleased with what I’ve done.  I put down the pen, because it’s evening.  Twilight imaginings.  My wife and kids are in the next room, full of life.  I have good health and enough money.  God, I’m unhappy!
But what am I saying?  I’m not unhappy, I haven’t put down the pen, I don’t have a wife and kids, or a next room, I don’t have enough money, it isn’t evening.

All of which makes taking him at his word a tricky endeavour…

This is certainly the case when it comes to the narrator’s subjects.  Some of the writers of the no are obviously real, others probably exist, but many are plainly inventions; the trick, of course, is telling which is which.  In my notes for this review, I chose eight of the names at random, determined to check them out after I’d finished the book.  Of those names, four were real and four were fake (incidentally, what helped me verify this was the Obooki post which came up whenever I searched for one of Vila-Matas’ phantom writers…).  Of course, I’d recommend that you leave the pleasure of seeing who the fakes are until after you’ve finished the novel 😉

As was the case with Dublinesque, one of the problems of reading Bartleby & Co. was stopping myself from jumping online every few pages.  With so many great writers and artists name-dropped, there was a huge temptation to stop, browse and procrastinate (and buy…).  Marcello manages to recruit an impressive array of writers to his cause: Musil, Beckett, Rimbaud, Pessoa, Borges, Gracq – all members of his club of literary Bartlebys 😉

If there were to be a president of this league of literary procrastinators, though, it would undoubtedly be Franz Kafka.  He has obvious links to the literature of the no, what with his many unfinished stories and novels and a desire for his work to be burned after his death, but there is another interesting connection here.  There are frequent mentions of his story ‘The Hunger Artist’, a piece about a man who starves to death in front of a crowd – anyone who has read about the original Bartleby will recognise the similarities immediately…

All in all, then, Bartleby & Co. makes for an excellent work, an enjoyable manifesto for not writing:

The act of rejecting is difficult and rare, though identical in each of us from the moment we have grasped it.  Why difficult?  Because you have to reject not only the worst, but also a reasonable appearance, an outcome that some would call happy. (p.108)

This is as true for reviewers as it is for writers, and in fact, at times, I’m convinced it would make more sense to leave some of these reviews, read more and write less.  Certainly, it would be likely to improve the quality of my scribblings…  So, why haven’t I made that step yet?

The truth is, I would prefer not to 😉

7 thoughts on “‘Bartleby & Co.’ by Enrique Vila-Matas (Review)

  1. This will likely be my first Vila-Matas. I recently ordered a copy from the UK because I could not find it here. I have since picked up a little novella new from New Directions called Because She Never Asked too so I may even start with that. But I do plan to pencil him in for the new year.


  2. Ah, all is clear now! And I have been very kindly gifted with a copy of this so it may well be my first Vila-Matas too! 🙂


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