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Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas

Bartleby & Co. (edition 2007)

by Enrique Vila-Matas, Jonathan Dunne (Translator)

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Title:Bartleby & Co.
Authors:Enrique Vila-Matas
Other authors:Jonathan Dunne (Translator)
Info:New Directions (2007), Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Your library, Read in 2011
Tags:Fiction, Metafiction, Books About Books, Bartleby, Homage, Literature, Writers, Writing, Writers Block, Vignettes, Footnotes, Structure, LT Inspired, per eairo, Translated, a2009, 2011, Unfinished

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Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas



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English (8)  French (1)  Spanish (1)  Catalan (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (12)
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
These phantom books, invisible texts, are the ones that knock at our door one day and, when we go to receive them, for what is often a trivial reason, they disappear; we open the door and they are no longer there, they have gone. It was undoubtedly a great book, the great book that was inside us, the one we were really destined to write, our book, the very book we shall never be able to write or read now. But that book, let is be clear, exists, it is held in suspension in the history of the art of the No.We tend to hold aloft those works of literature that are, to put it crudely, too heavy to actually hold aloft. For some reason, literary genius, in our view, denotes extensive creative output: literary genius is Proust writing his seven-volume masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu by lamplight in his cork-lined bedroom; it is Woolf suffering a nervous breakdown after the symphonic jetties of The Waves have sapped every word from her, every ounce of creativity; it is Musil’s The Man without Qualities for its examination of artistry, morality, and the social structures that oppress individuals and their relations with others. Hell, literary genius is even Freud’s 24-volume complete psychological works, a monumental achievement of groundbreaking thought that continues to influence many disciplines to this day.

But what about the smaller masterpieces? In one of the many vignettes collected in Vila-Matas’s literary-critical-cum-novelistic meditation Bartleby & Co., the humpbacked narrator recalls a childhood friend, Pineda, who scoffed literary production, preferring instead to write only the first lines of poems; on occasion, too, he would write a whole verse on cigarette paper, after which he would then smoke his poem literally to ashes. What about the writers who write one novel, and then never produce another work—whether because they have dried up all creative energy in the initial endeavor, whether because they have lost their muse (in whatever form that might take), or just because they have been forced into relative obscurity? As Marguerite Duras observes: “To write ... is also not to speak. It is to keep silent. It is to howl noiselessly... To write is to attempt to know what we would write were we to write.”

While Vila-Matas names these lesser-known and more marginal writers as Bartlebys, after Melville’s fictional scrivener who famously “prefers not to” do anything, he is also quick to point to larger socioeconomic and literary trends that often silence writers of immense promise. (The example of Proust above is one that fits here quite relevantly, as, despite the initial rejection of his work, his social status allowed him to continue carving away at the Recherche, even publishing the first volume himself.) As far as Melville, a writer who has become virtually synonymous with literature-with-a-capital-L, Vila-Matas rightly points out that he suffered obscurity in his own lifetime, eventually forced to take on the same job as his fictional creation to make ends meet: a mere scrivener, a copyist of other people’s words.

Because I mentioned Freud and Woolf above, I’m also interested in the ways in which Vila-Matas’s project echoes theirs. Before Freud conceptualized the uncanny, the field of aesthetics was largely concerned only with what was beautiful; while Burke and Romantic philosophy began to change this, it’s only with Freud and the advent of modernity that we see more artists turning to the grotesque, the horrors, and the ugly aspects that inform our lives and our experiences just as much as do the pleasurable aspects. Similarly, Woolf’s call for literature to not ignore the very real topic of illness is one that is very much in line with Vila-Matas’s thoughts here: while he does mention illness several times (and, to be clear, by writers who have abandoned writing—or even those who are “writers” but have never written a word—he does not mean those whose lives are cut short by suicide, although he does make three exceptions to this rule), it is less how illness can cut short a writer’s productive years than how illness can feature in the works we come to think of as canonical, again aligning his thesis with this trend après Freud.

While Bartleby & Co. is a difficult book to review, it is a project that is so very important, one that makes readers rethink what literary production is, entails, and what it might mean to be “a writer.” Do we need thousands of pages to have been produced in order to name someone “a writer,” or is the person who never sets down his or her thoughts—or else abandons a writing career after one or two successful (or not) texts—as much “a writer” by right?Poetry unwritten, but lived in the mind: a beautiful ending for someone who ceases to write.What constitutes the writing life: the output or the intellectual framework and thought patterns that often inform, and sometimes do not inform, this output? As Jaime Gil de Biedma writes: “I believed that I wanted to be a poet, but deep down I wanted to be a poem.”

In making his case for “a literature of the No,” Vila-Matas is concerned both with Bartlebyan writers who would “prefer not to” writer, for whatever reason, and also with the intersecting matrices within and by which literature is inspired, produced, and eventually disseminated. A personal yet philosophical inquiry into the underbelly of literature, and one that questions canonical assumptions and often flips them on their categorical heads, Bartleby & Co. is a text that all writers should read, but also all readers: not only will Vila-Matas cause you to jot down names of unfamiliar writers on nearly every page of his text (although not all, as most do not exist except “in suspension in the history of the art of the No”), but he will also cause you to question rigorously just what “literature” is in the first place, and what we mean when we call someone “a writer.” In fact, in quoting from Peruvian writer Julio Ramón Riberyo’s The Temptation of Failure, Vila-Matas seems to agree that we all are:We all have a book, possibly a great book, but in the tumult of our inner lives it rarely emerges or is so fleeting that we don’t have time to pin it down. ( )
  proustitute | Jul 17, 2014 |
Engaging short novel in the form of a set of footnotes to an invisible text, discussing the distinguished history of the "literature of No" — a book, in other words, about the art of not writing. Vila-Matas is conscious of the paradoxical nature of the subject, and even acknowledges briefly at one point that "not writing" is not the exclusive province of a small and elusive literary élite, but is in fact practised by 99.9% of the population. He doesn't really develop the point, what he's really about is poking a bit of fun at some of the received ideas about literary greatness. Along the way, we get a good supply of entertaining anecdotes about celebrated (non-)writers.

Jonathan Dunne's English translation seems pretty good on the whole, but there were a few things that undermined my confidence in him - for instance when he talks about "verses" of poetry when the context makes it almost certain that "lines" are meant ("versos" in Spanish could mean either). I should make more effort to improve my Spanish so that I don't have to keep reading translations... ( )
  thorold | Nov 30, 2013 |
Raises questions about why people write, the purpose of literature, whether it's better to never write. I wrote down a ton of author names... hopefully I'll actually read some of them. ( )
  kgib | Mar 31, 2013 |
I spoke of this book in a review I had written for a different Vila-Matas title. My review can be found here:
http://mewlhouse.hubpages.com/hub/Never-Any-End-To-Paris-Enrique-Vila-Matas ( )
  MSarki | Mar 31, 2013 |
What with the incessant name dropping this reminded me a lot of The Savage Detectives; though that's about where the similarities end. Bartleby & Co. is a pleasant book to read: Vila-Matas has a nice style of writing and the book isn't overly long. Yet for all its playfulness I couldn't help but think this book a little pointless. Perhaps it's just a post-modern novel and that shouldn't bother me but I would have enjoyed learning a bit more about the narrator. The snippets we're allowed to see of his life are interesting and primed me for more. I was frustrated that was all Vila-Matas provided in the way of detail.

That's really all there is to this novel though. If you don't mind a post-modern book with no plot, just a lot of digressions on authors real or not, then this will be a fun distraction. If, like me, you expect a bit more character depth or plot then you'll probably enjoy the pleasant prose and the neat idea but that won't leave you feeling satisfied at the novel's end. ( )
  DRFP | Sep 15, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
This slender, beautiful and honest work is about invisible writers and their phantom books.
added by Flit | editThe Hindu, Pradeep Sebastian (Dec 7, 2008)
Vila-Matas has produced a postmodern paradox, something out of nothing, a positive out of a negative. His non-novel is highly original, both lucid and ludic.
added by Flit | editThe Guardian, Mark Sanderson (Aug 14, 2004)

» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Enrique Vila-Matasprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hazaiová, LadaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Strien, PetraÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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De roem of de verdienste van sommige mensen bestaat erin dat ze goed kunnen schrijven; die van andere dat ze niet schrijven.
Jean de la Bruyère
The glory or the merit of certain men consists in writing well; that of others consists in not writing

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Voor Paula van Parma
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Ik heb nooit veel succes gehad bij de vrouwen.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0811216985, Paperback)

A marvelous novel by one of Spain's most important contemporary authors, in which a clerk in a Barcelona office takes us on a romping tour of world literature.

In Bartleby & Co., an enormously enjoyable novel, Enrique Vila-Matas tackles the theme of silence in literature: the writers and non-writers who, like the scrivener Bartleby of the Herman Melville story, in answer to any question or demand, replies: "I would prefer not to." Addressing such "artists of refusal" as Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Duchamp, Herman Melville, and J. D. Salinger, Bartleby & Co. could be described as a meditation: a walking tour through the annals of literature. Written as a series of footnotes (a non-work itself), Bartleby embarks on such questions as why do we write, why do we exist? The answer lies in the novel itself: told from the point of view of a hermetic hunchback who has no luck with women, and is himself unable to write, Bartleby is utterly engaging, a work of profound and philosophical beauty.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:30:28 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"Marcelo, a clerk in a Barcelona office who might himself have emerged from a novel by Kafka, inhabits a world peopled by characters from literature. He once wrote a novel about the impossibility of love, but since then he has been able to write nothing, and a nervous breakdown has meant that he has not even been able to put pen to paper. He has, in short, become a "Bartleby", so named after the scrivener in Herman Melville's short story who, when asked to do anything, always replied, "I would prefer not to."" "One day Marcelo sets out to make a search through literature for all those other possible Bartlebys who, for whatever reason, have had the urge to say "No," and with this in mind he has the engaging notion of keeping a diary and writing footnotes to an invisible text."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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