Bartleby & Co.

by JDP

An awe-inspiring work of casual erudition, this fantastic exploration of “the literature of No” (that is, of authors who refuse to write) is well-written, entertaining, insightful, and requisite. I recommend it highly for anyone who is fundamentally interested in world literature.

Enrique Vila-Matas / Spain / 2000 / 178 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Donne

Bartleby & Co. is one of the truly rare instances of what I might refer to as an “encyclopedic novel.” There are not many of these novels in existence (at least, not in my experience) and many of the ones that do exist are somewhat problematic. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño is, for example, an encyclopedic novel with a great premise: a fictional catalogue of various poets and novelists who espoused truly horrific political leanings. In execution, however, the book fails to ring with Bolaño’s characteristic dread and cleverness and, by the end, it drags considerably. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi is an excellent book, but only loosely falls into the “encyclopedic” category: ostensibly a catalogue of chemical elements, the novel’s content is really much more literary and far-ranging than one would initially expect (the downside being the bait-and-switch, not the fact that the book is actually incredible). The same might be said for Invisible Cities by Calvino (a catalogue of fictional metropolises) or The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (a catalogue of short philosophical musings). These latter books become untethered from the concrete world almost at their outset and their vague, circular logics make for (overly) impressionistic and (occasionally) unrewarding reading.

But Bartleby & Co. hits the nail on the head in magnificent fashion. The novel is a catalogue of authors of the “literature of No” meaning, more specifically, authors that fall into one of the following categories: (1) authors who wrote great books at one point, but then decided to stop writing altogether, (2) potential authors who could have written great books, but chose never to do so, (3) authors who began books magnificently, but never finished them, (4) authors who were famously reclusive and refused to let their personal presence add anything to their literary efforts, (5) etc. The thesis advanced throughout the encyclopedia is that, while critics and bibliophiles expend copious time and effort studying the productive output of authors, very little time is spent dwelling on the process of writing and the failure to write. Vila-Matas argues that the process and the lack of product are, in themselves, artistic statements worth examining in detail.

I can conceive of no finer purveyor of world literature than Enrique Vila-Matas. In the course of working his way through Bartleby, he manages to not only name-drop, but also spin a few yarns about: Laurence Sterne, J. D. Salinger, Fernando Pessoa, Thomas Pynchon, B. Traven, Balzac, Felisberto Hernández, Herman Melville, Robert Walser, Wiltold Gombrowicz, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Knut Hamsun, Henry Roth, Dylan Thomas, Goethe, Stendhal, Franz Kafka, André Gide, Juan Rulfo, and Guy de Maupassant (and these are only the highlights). Despite its scant 178 pages, then, Bartleby shakes out an embarrassment of riches: there are enough works and authors mentioned in these pages to structure years of one’s reading efforts. Even beyond this, though, is the awe one experiences at discovering how well-acquainted Vila-Matas is with the biographical background of each of these authors. His knowledge is not only broad, but deep. Additionally, he dispenses with his knowledge in pleasant, offhanded fashion — more like Clive James than Harold Bloom. His erudition is casual and friendly.

And yet the book still somehow manages to fall under a truly literary — that is, fictional — heading. Much of the work is factual in nature, but Vila-Matas crams in several anecdotes that must be short fictional stories and the book itself is written in lovely, lyrical prose. The narrator is a fictional manifestation and one has the sense that several authors’ biographical information has been elaborated in the telling (like, for example, Vila-Matas relates thought processes and internal monologues that would elude even the most invasive of biographers). Even more, the novel has no text to speak of! Rather, it is drafted in a long string of footnotes that are attached to a nonexistent text, making Bartleby a contribution to the literature of No in its own right. Presumably, the narrator hints, the real text of Bartleby exists somewhere, but has been suppressed.

What confronts the reader, then, is a strangely moving argument for literature as artistic process instead of literature as artistic output. Whether you are amenable to the argument is almost beside the point because, I think, everyone can grant the underlying assumption: authors really do refuse to write for principled, interesting, and unique reasons. While perhaps not as enthralling as reading another of Salinger’s novels, an exploration into the reasons why Salinger refuses to write might cast his extant work in a new light. Trying to figure out why Felisberto Hernández always pulled up short in his stories turns our attention to the role of negative space in literature. Thinking about a number of authorial “could have beens” forces us to confront the idea of counterfactual novels that never were. In exploring the literature of No, we gain (or, perhaps, regain) a love of the literature that actually exists in finished form. Bartleby & Co. functions on two levels: the first as a superbly-written work, and the second as a meta-reminder of all the other great works we have and have yet to tackle.

Rating: 9 / 10

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