Sunday, 22 July 2012

Bartleby & Co

Bartleby & Co - Enrique Vila-Matas

On the evidence of this book and Tony's review of Dublinesque
this is another writer to add to the expanding list of writers I need to explore in depth. Bartleby & Co is an essay thinly disguised as a novel, thinly disguised as a series of footnotes to the ongoing death of literature.

Firstly, my disappointment, just to get it out of the way. That is, a disappointment with regards to the book rather than with the inability of man to assign any kind of adhesive meaning to the ongoing story of our species.

When I realized what this book was about - writers who say NO to writing - I felt that I was sure to meet again the great American writer Joseph Mitchell who is mainly known for his last decades when he still continued to come to his office in the New Yorker but published nothing1. However he remains as elusive as his own copy became.

The book's fictional author, Marcelo, is a hunchback,  although there has been a twenty five year hiatus between his last book and this. He stopped writing when his father made him inscribe a copy of his novel with a dedication to his mother, against his wishes. His father felt that the book was "a record of offenses against his first wife." This explains his interest in Bartlebys and also tells us that this book is, in some ways an expression of this fictional author's paterphobia. Is literature now reduced to copying, accurately or inaccurately, the words of our fathers? "Literature was precisely - the same as happened to Kafka - the only means I had to try and become independent of my father."3  

For fathers you can substitute bosses - "Juan Rulfo and Augusto Monterroso"..."for years worked as clerks in a gloomy office where, as I understand, they behaved like pure Bartlebys, always afraid of their boss who was in the habit of shaking hands with his employees at the end of each days work. Rolfo and Monterroso, copyists in Mexico City, would frequently hide behind a pillar because they thought that what their boss wanted was to say goodbye to them for good."

But the fear of bosses who say goodbye is less relevant than the shadow of those who won't say goodbye. The greats, the masters of the form who still cast shadows and the secret of whose success can often seem destined to always remain thus, ineffable. "There are some mysterious men who can only be great. Why are they great? Even they do not know. Might he who has sent them know? They possess a terrible vision in their eyes that never abandons them."4  Are the great men now seeing a vision of silence. Is it now the only true response?

But Marcelo doesn't think that silence negates these books. They exist on some plane, "held in suspension in universal literature."5   It is as if they hang in some parallel reality. In fact there are writers who feel that they are merely copying their works out, the work dictated to them. They are but clerks in some great literary clearing house.

Having moved on to personal memories in the footnote belowI guess it's a good time to profess surprise at the number of Irish writers referenced by Vila-Matas, in fact more specifically Dublin, clearly the fascination which has led him to bring a fictional protagonist to Dublin in Dublinesque. Joyce, Beckett, Sterne and Wilde all receive mentions here. Is No the catchphrase of the Dublin literati. I thought it was Yes, oh Yes.

Sterne could be seen as a guiding spirit here, for the whole book is really a series of digressions. In a similar way to the protagonist in A Brief Life, Marcelo's life is falling apart, he is losing his job, alone and his answer is to lose himself in a series of quasi intellectual digressions. Is it all any more than a Hobby Horse?7

If your particular Hobby Horse is reading (note the seamless link!) you should enjoy this book. It is diverting and at times stimulating and it could form the basis of a very interesting reading challenge. The learning is worn lightly but is still impressive. The ideas are captivating games which also have a depth and for me, quite a resonance. Who who has thought of writing has not asked these questions - what is left to say? Can I say what has already been said better? If I start to put a shape to the chaos am I not lying? If I try to impress am I not lying?

Is there a truth. Is there a sentence that can change lives? Is there a book to be written that can save the world? Probably not, and if not, are we not better to make a pact with silence and live beyond the word?8 

 Of course, now that we are closer to knowing that the universe is simply made from the vibrations of strings is it not possible that the right vibration can cause it all to fall apart like one of those cases where a bridge shakes itself apart when it vibrates with a certain harmonic. And so every noise that we make could be the last noise made. That is my own argument for silence.

1 Mitchell's last book, Joe Gould's Secret, is one I would love to read Vila-Matas' précis of. Enrique, if you're reading this feel free to insert said footnote into the comments box below. It is also surprising that Harper Lee doesn't put in an appearance. But I guess these examples show that the 'condition' is widespread.

Literature is here clearly Notre Dame, the cathedral, which gets emptier each year as even the celebrants of it's ancient faith hang up their robes. Esmerelda, the truth to which it attains, will die in the end. And who will be left to ring the bells when these footnotes to its great history are done?

3 Shakespeare, a writer who hasn't written a word in almost 400 years, covers this in Hamlet. Even when they are dead, the words of the fathers will not let their sons be free.

4 Victor Hugo.

 This quote is from Marcel Benabou's Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books? It sounds a lot like Bartleby & Co..

This reminded me of a quote that was often repeated in our house. One night during a discussion of the tax breaks for writers, the clerk from a local hardware store entered the fray with "Sure, I'm a writer." After reading this I wonder did he, in fact, have a head full of masterpieces he preferred not to write down.

 7 Hobby Horses, or useless obsessions, play a large part in Sterne's classic Tristram Shandy.

8 In an attempt to curry favor Vila-Matas quotes that "art may be a vapour and may evaporate in the process of turning the outer inwards", a potential byline for Vapour Trails.

9 See footnote 10

10 Richard is gathering Bartleblogery at http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.ie/2012/07/bartlebymania-2012.html


  1. He obviously is a writer who provokes strong reactions in readers :) The Irish theme is (obviously) very apparent in 'Dublinesque', but there's also a very strong yearning for all literary things American; in fact, Riba's dream is to live in New York like Paul Auster...

    I do love the footnotes too, a much under-rated device. One writer who uses them to good comic effect is Terry Pratchett :)

    Oh, and thanks for the plug!

  2. Footnotes within footnotes! I like how you picked up on "fathers" and "bosses" figures in the book. And the Quasimodo aspect. And how you ended philosophically with superstring theory!

    1. Thanks for your kind comments Rise, I considered creating a 'loop' by using footnotes within footnotes, creating a never-ending blog post.

  3. I like your idea of a "Bartleby & Co. reading challenge" - it would certainly be quite a long list you'd have to work through!

    1. Of course the difficulty would be reading all those 'books in suspension'.