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Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas
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Bartleby & Co. (edition 2007)

by Enrique Vila-Matas, Jonathan Dunne (Translator)

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English (9)  French (1)  Spanish (1)  Catalan (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (13)
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
If this were a musical composition, it would be a theme and variations. The theme is this: a published author stops writing and disappears from the literary scene. The variations have to do with the whys and wherefores of individual cases and mention is made of one or two who have the opposite problem: they write so prolifically they cannot stop and cannot finish.

The author announces in his opening paragraph what the reader has to look forward to:

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 this day 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.

Who are these Bartlebys?

We all know the Bartlebys, they are beings inhabited by a profound denial of the world. They are named after the scrivener Bartleby, a clerk in a story by Herman Melville . . .

Why is it a work of fiction? Primarily because that is the way it is couched by the author. To be sure, it is unconventional, but that is the very nature of postmodernism. The point of departure is Melville's short story. Bartleby was merely a copyist, a scrivener in nineteenth century terms. He was not a writer per se. Enrique Vila-Matas has made a bit of a leap to conflate Bartleby's cessation of scrivening with published authors who have stopped writing. They are not really the same thing. But Vila-Matas has chosen to ignore this small discrepancy and has built his entire novella around a fictional Bartleby's syndrome.

Examples of Bartleby's syndrome in literature Vila-Matas calls alternatively "the literature of the No," which turns out to be a labyrinth with gradually enlarging dimensions and lacking a center, for he eventually realizes "there are as many writers as ways of abandoning literature." In his search for the writers of No, he

. . . sails very well among fragments, chance finds, the sudden recollection of books, lives, texts or simply individual sentences that gradually enlarge the dimensions of the labyrinth without a center.

This book is fun right from the beginning. The prospect of reading 86 footnotes to an "invisible text" produces an inner smile and prepares the reader to be amused. There are a couple of laugh-out-loud points where absurdity goes too far, in particular the reports of a fanciful correspondence with Derain, but mostly it reads like a fairly serious yet fascinating collection of critical essays.

Among the writers we meet are Arthur Rimbaud, J.D. Salinger, Herman Melville of course, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Franz Kafka, Thomas Pynchon and many, many others more or less connected to the literature of No, including recent acquaintances Felisberto Hernandez and Bruno Schulz

Vila-Matas is as much a philosopher as a novelist and this book is full of quotable quotes and thought-provoking passages:

• The writer has nothing to expect from others. Believe me. He only writes for himself.

• . . . a text, if it wishes to be valid, must open up new paths and try to say what has not yet been said.

• We all of us wish to rescue, via memory, each fragment of life that suddenly comes back to us, however unworthy, however painful it may be. And the only way to do this is to set it down in writing.


Most of all we want to look up the works of many of the writers discussed. Taken altogether, I loved this book. It goes directly onto the stack of books to be reread. ( )
5 vote Poquette | Aug 26, 2014 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (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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Epigraph
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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