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.

Contemplative Silence As Bodily Practice.

Self-portrait at an early age (between 1628 and 1700) - After Rembrandt (1606–1669)

Self-portrait at an early age (between 1628 and 1700) – After Rembrandt (1606–1669)

These notes on contemplative silence and hermitism aspired to something more, but failed. Insomnia gives me solitude and reading time, but the longer it persists the more fragmentary my thoughts become.

Gustav Mensching offers a typology of silences: preparatory silence, contemplative silence, worshipful silence, expectant silence and monastic-ascetic silence.

I wonder what lies behind my longing for a hermitic existence, to enact a modern-day Anthony of the Desert (sans sainthood).

“Why write about solitude in the first place? Certainly not in order to preach it, to exhort people to become solitary. What could be more absurd? Those who are to become solitary are, as a rule, solitary already … all men are solitary. Only most of them are so averse to being alone, or to feeling alone, that they do everything they can to forget their solitude.” (Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions)

I return to the desert eager to welcome the dawn, but what I’m seeking is an outer silence to complete my inner silence, my voicelessness. Desert silence is before time, beyond life, a place we have come from and to which we will return.

The word hermit-and, of course, eremite, derives from the Greek eremites, with its roots in eremos, a desert or wilderness.

The Japanese have a term hikikomori, literally pulling inward, reclusiveness as a manifestation of a social illness. Samuel Riba, the protagonist of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque self-diagnoses hikiomori tendencies.

Cixous (Rootprints) writes that “Our dialogues are often mute. / This doesn’t prevent them from taking place,” understanding that keeping silent is a form of communication. Cixous’ writing is filled with silence. It is a silence that runs up against the thresholds of language.

Anna Akhmatova’s poetry resides in that realm between silence and speech, between muteness and articulation. “Silence herself speaks.” (Poem Without a Hero)

“The person who dares to be alone can come to see that the ’emptiness’ and ‘uselessness’ which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth. It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen to be illusory.” (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable)

Egyptian-born St Anthony spent fifteen years living in a cave, communicating with others through a tiny crevice carved into the cave wall. He died in the year 356 at the age of 105.

Brodsky (Conversations) said, “As the body grows older it fills up with silence-with organs and functions which are no longer relevant to its life.”

Neurologists profess that the brain’s cortical mantle evolved primarily from a need to communicate. We are wired to be sociable and live in communities.

“Every human being is alone in the core of the mind. When we are born we cry; and that cry is the cry of loneliness. Thus it is with children. Thus it is with growing youth. And the older we grow the lonelier we grow.” (John Cowper Powys, A Philosophy of Solitude)

Enrique Vila-Matas – Never Any End to Paris

In 2009 Seán Hemingway published a “restored” edition of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. In this version the last line “This is how Paris was when we were very poor and very happy” was removed and the “There Is Never Any End to Paris” chapter was excised. If your introduction to A Moveable Feast is via Enrique Vila Matas’s Never Any End to Paris, you’ll undoubtedly be slightly confused. Vila-Matas’s narrator, whom we assume to be himself as a novice writer in Paris, is poor but also very unhappy. He also labours, a little too often for my taste, but under the guise of irony, the titular phrase, as in, “Because, isn’t it true, ladies and gentlemen, that there is never any end to Paris?” But as the narrator asks, “So, am I a lecture or a novel?” This fictional memoir is styled as a set of lecture notes, exorcising a writer’s baptism as a writer in 1970’s Paris.

I was predisposed to enjoy Never Any End to Paris, which I did though less than I expected, because (a) I love la Ville Lumière (b) I’ve a tenderness for literary rite of passage stories (c) how can you fail if your novel features a cast that includes Marguerite Duras, Ernest Hemingway, Julien Gracq, Georges Perec, Guy Debord and Kafka’s odradek and (d) several  readers I respect consider this Vila-Matas’s finest (translated) book so far. David Winters, for instance, wrote:

The book, or lecture, tells of the ‘farcical garret life’ of a writer ensnared in the error of becoming a writer. Becoming, perhaps, Vila-Matas, or else his nameless namesake, the lecturer, an old man immersed in the ‘irony’ of his ‘not having been aware of irony as a young man’. In a Borgesian take on the problem of types and tokens, the place where these identities overlap is the very place they diverge. The protagonist labours absurdly over his first novel, The Lettered Assassin, a project whose preposterous aim is ‘to kill its readers’. In reality, Le asesina ilustrada (1977) was the second of Vila-Matas’ novels. Do the two books coincide? Such questions are raised but never resolved, which is why Never Any End to Paris resembles an edge or an opening, not onto anything outside itself, but onto literature, a leap from a sheer drop, located within the book’s written limits. In this sense, the text may best be read as its own invention, with no prior knowledge of the life of its author. The true world the book opens onto is one where a writer called ‘Enrique Vila-Matas’ never existed. Let alone Hemingway. Let alone Paris.

You can read other reviews at the comprehensive Enrique Vila-Matas site.

Not Understanding

I always feel very happy when I don’t understand something and it works the other way around: when I read something that I understand perfectly, I put it aside in disappointment. I don’t like stories with understandable plot lines. Because understanding can be a sentence. And not understanding, a door swinging open.

Enrique Vila-Matas
Never Any End to Paris