Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co.

After spending most of November with the resolute voice of Brigid Brophy, my inclination was for something more wavering. Enrique Vila-Matas’s Barleby & Co., eighty-six footnotes commenting on an invisible text, satisfied this urge despite a sense that it doesn’t quite succeed as a novel.

Has everything been written? Can language and fiction capture life in any meaningful way? The works of writers like Beckett, Kafka, Musil, Celan, Walser, Duras circle around these questions. In Bartleby & Co.,¬†Vila-Matas’s narrator asks “What is writing and where is it?”

For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the native impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write; either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good.

Had this introduction been to a work of literary criticism by a particularly perceptive critic, I can imagine few more exciting themes for scrutiny. As a work of fiction and limited to some extent by choosing to structure the novel as a series of footnotes, generally marked by brevity and concision, the investigation of Bartleby’s syndrome is comprised of a superficial recounting, mostly anecdotal, of what Vilas-Matas calls ‘writers of the No’.

For the most part this is quite satisfying to someone absorbed by stories of writers and their milieu but by the time the footnotes hit the high sixties I was craving more depth. Of course, Vilas-Matas is sufficiently astute to recognise the potential fatigue.

. . . I am going to have to fall sooner or later, like it or not, since it would be naive of me to ignore the fact that these footnotes are beginning to look more and more like Mondrian’s surfaces, full of squares which give the viewer the impression that they extend beyond the canvas and see – of course! – to encapsulate infinity, and, if this is the way I am heading, as I think I am, I shall be forced into the paradox of eclipsing myself by a single gesture.

This of course is a novel and not to be judged as a work of literary criticism. The difficulty is that the shadow of the narrator is so muted that it is all to easy to forget it is a fictional treatment. It has precisely the wavering quality I hungered for after so much Brigid Brophy but like Never Any End to Paris the overall impression is of something slight. In the end I shall treat it more like a work of non-fiction and follow some of the very many literary trails that Vila-Matas lays down in pursuit of his Bartlebys.

4 thoughts on “Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co.

  1. Well, not exactly a rousing response, but I will give this book a go in the new year. Right now I am carefully threading my way through Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreaity which has captivated me as both a reader and a writer. I don’t know if you have read it but suspect you might find it very interesting.

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    • Not rousing perhaps but enjoyable enough for the most part if the theme is of sufficient interest (as it is for me). Blecher’s book looks interesting – I look forward to reading your thoughts. I’m tackling Peter Weiss’s formidable The Aesthetics of Resistance next. I feel the need of something chewy and difficult.

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  2. “Had this introduction been to a work of literary criticism by a particularly perceptive critic, I can imagine few more exciting themes for scrutiny.”

    That work of literary criticism on this theme by a particularly perceptive critic has already been written. I was surprised, in reading the Vila-Matas novel, to find that he appeared to evince no awareness even of its existence, but Tillie Olsen’s Silences does a rich job with this topic that hones in largely (but by no means exclusively) on an aspect Vila-Matas all but ignores: the literary “silences” of women writers. For this reason – among others – Vila-Matas’ novel, while I liked it, seemed indeed “something slight.” I’m also not convinced Bartleby is the best model for this theme – a clever one, since it’s rewarding to read his story as concerning an impeded writer – but his refusal is but one type of silence.

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