Bartleby & Co.by Enrique Vila-Matas
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
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.
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Bartleby & Co.
By Enrique Vila-Matas
A New Directions BookCopyright © 2000 Enrique Vila-Matas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI 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.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was very young, I published a short novel on the impossibility of love. Since then, on account of a trauma that I shall go into later, I had not written again, I stopped altogether, I became a Bartleby, and that is why I have been interested in them for some time.
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, who has never been seen reading, not even a newspaper; who for long periods stands looking out at a pale window behind a folding screen, upon a brick wall in Wall Street; who never drinks beer, or tea and coffee, like other men; who has never been anywhere, living as he does in the office, spending even his Sundays there; who has never said who he is, or where he comes from, or whether he has anyrelatives in this world; who, when he is asked where he was born or given a job to do or asked to reveal something about himself, responds always by saying,
"I would prefer not to."
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 negative 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.
The idea of investigating the literature of the No, that of Bartleby & Co., came about last Tuesday in the office when I thought I heard my boss's secretary say to somebody on the phone,
"Mr Bartleby is in a meeting."
I chuckled softly to myself. It is difficult to imagine Bartleby in a meeting with somebody, immersed, for example, in the heavy atmosphere of an assembly of directors. But it is not so difficult - it is what I propose to do in this diary or book of footnotes - to assemble a good number of Bartlebys, that is to say a good number of writers affected by the disease, the negative impulse.
Of course I heard "Bartleby" where I should have heard my boss's surname, which is very similar. But undoubtedly this mistake could not have been more propitious, since it made me strike out and decide, after twenty-five years of silence, finally to start writing again, writing about the last secrets of some of the most conspicuous cases of creators who gave up writing.
It is my intention, therefore, to make my way through the labyrinth of the No, down the roads of the most disquieting and attractive tendency of contemporary literature: a tendency in which is to be found the only path still open to genuine literary creation; a tendency that asks the question, "What is writing and where is it?" and that prowls around the impossibility of the same and tells the truth about the grave, but highly stimulating, prognosis of literature at the end of the millennium.
Only from the negative impulse, from the labyrinth of the No, can the writing of the future appear. But what will this literature be like? Not long ago a work colleague, somewhat maliciously, put this question to me.
"I don't know," I said. "If I knew, I'd write it myself."
I wonder if I can do this. I am convinced that only by tracking down the labyrinth of the No can the paths still open to the writing of the future appear. I wonder if I can evoke them. I shall write footnotes commenting on a text that is invisible, which does not mean it does not exist, since this phantom text could very well end up held in suspension in the literature of the next millennium.
1) Robert Walser knew that writing that one cannot write is also writing. Among the many minor positions that he held - bookshop assistant, lawyer's clerk, bank employee, worker in a factory that made sewing machines, and finally major-domo of a castle in Silesia - Robert Walser would from time to time retire to Zurich, to the "Chamber of Writing for Unoccupied Persons" (the name could not be more Walserian, but it is genuine), and there, seated on an old stool, in the evening, in the pale light of an oil lamp, he would make use of his graceful handwriting to work as a copyist, to work as a "Bartleby".
Both his occupation as a copyist and Walser's whole existence remind us of the character in Melville's story, the scrivener who spent twenty-four hours a day in the office. Roberto Calasso, referring to Walser and Bartleby, has remarked that in such beings who have the appearance of ordinary and discreet men there is, however, to be found an alarming tendency to negate the world. All the more radical the less it is observed, the blast of destruction is frequently ignored by people who consider the Bartlebys to be grey, good-natured beings. "For many, Walser, the author of Jakob von Gunten," writes Calasso, "is still a familiar figure and it is possible to read even that his nihilism is middle class and good-natured like the Swiss. And yet he is a remote character, a parallel path of nature, an almost indiscernible knife-edge. Walser's obedience, like Bartleby's disobedience, presupposes a total break [...]. They copy, they transcribe texts that pass through them like a transparent sheet. They make no special pronouncements, no attempt to modify. 'I do not develop,' says Jakob von Gunten in Jakob von Gunten. 'I would prefer not to make any change,' says Bartleby. Their affinity reveals the similarity between silence and a certain decorative use of language."
Of the writers of the No, what we might call the scriveners' section is one of the strangest and the one that perhaps affects me the most. This is because, twenty-five years ago, I personally experienced the sensation of knowing what it is to be a copyist. And I suffered terribly. I was very young at the time and felt very proud to have published a book on the impossibility of love. I gave my father a copy without foreseeing the troublesome consequences that this would have for me. A few days later, my father, annoyed at what he perceived in my book to be a record of offences against his first wife, obliged me to write a dedication to her in the copy that I had given him, which he himself dictated. I resisted such an idea as best I could. Literature was precisely - the same was true for Kafka - the only means I had to try to become independent of my father. I fought like a madman not to have to copy what he wanted to dictate to me. But finally I gave in, it was dreadful to feel that I was a copyist under the orders of a dictator of dedications.
This incident had such a negative impact on me that I did not write anything for twenty-five years. Not long ago, a few days before hearing that Mr Bartleby was in a meeting, I read a book that helped reconcile me to my condition as a copyist. I believe that the laughter and enjoyment I derived from reading Institute Pierre Menard helped pave the way for my decision to be rid of the old trauma and go back to writing.
Institute Pierre Menard, a novel by Roberto Moretti, is set in a secondary school whose pupils are taught to say "no" to over a thousand proposals, ranging from the most ludicrous to the most attractive and difficult to turn down. The novel is written in a jocular vein and is a very clever parody of Robert Walser's Jakob von Gunten. In fact Walser himself and the scrivener Bartleby are among the school's pupils. Nothing much happens in the novel, except that, by the time they have completed their studies, all the pupils have been transformed into consummate and cheerful copyists.
I laughed a lot while reading this novel, I am still laughing. Right now, for example, I laugh while I write because it occurs to me that I am a scrivener. To fix the image better in my mind, I take one of Robert Walser's books and pick a sentence at random, which I copy down: "Over the now darkened landscape treks a solitary figure." I copy this sentence down and proceed to read it aloud with a Mexican accent, and chuckle softly to myself. And this reminds me of a story of copyists in Mexico: that of Juan Rulfo and Augusto Monterroso; for years they worked as clerks in a gloomy office where, as I understand, they behaved like pure Bartlebys, always afraid of their boss who was in the habit of shaking hands with his employees at the end of each day's work. Rulfo and Monterroso, copyists in Mexico City, would frequently hide behind a pillar because they thought that what their boss wanted was to say goodbye to them for good.
This fear of a handshake now brings to mind the story of the composition of Pedro Paramo, which its author, Juan Rulfo, explained in the following terms, revealing his human condition as a copyist: "In May 1954 I bought a school exercise book and jotted down the first chapter of a novel which for years had been taking shape inside my head [...]. I still do not know where the intuitions that gave rise to Pedro Paramo came from. It was as if someone dictated it to me. Suddenly, in the middle of the street, an idea would occur to me and I would note it down on scraps of green and blue paper."
After the success of the novel that he wrote as if he were a copyist, Rulfo wrote nothing else in thirty years. His case has often been compared to that of Rimbaud, who, having published his second book at the age of nineteen, abandoned everything and went off in search of adventure, until his death two decades later.
For a time, the panic he felt that his boss's handshake might mean the sack coexisted with the fear of people coming up to him to tell him that he had to publish again. When they asked him why he no longer wrote, Rulfo would say,
"Well, my Uncle Celerino died and it was he who told me the stories."
His Uncle Celerino was no fabrication. He existed in real life. He was a drunk who made a living confirming children. Rulfo frequently accompanied him and listened to the fabulous stories he related about his life, most of which were invented. The stories of El llano en llamas almost had the title Los cuentos del tío Celerino (Tales of Uncle Celerino). Rulfo stopped writing shortly before his uncle's death. The excuse of his Uncle Celerino is one of the most original I know among all those concocted by the writers of the No to justify their abandonment of literature.
"You ask why I do not write?" Juan Rulfo was heard to remark in Caracas in 1974. "It is because my Uncle Celerino died and it was he who told me the stories. He was always chatting to me. But he was full of lies. Everything he told me was pure lies and so, naturally, what I wrote was pure lies. Some of the things he chatted to me about had to do with the misery in which he had lived. But Uncle Celerino was not so poor. Given that he was a respectable man, in the opinion of his local archbishop, he was appointed to tour the different towns confirming children. These were dangerous lands and the priests were afraid of them. I frequently accompanied Uncle Celerino. Each place we arrived in, he had to confirm a child and then he charged for the confirmation. I have yet to write all of this down, perhaps I'll eventually get round to doing it. It's interesting how we moved from town to town confirming children, bestowing God's blessing on them and so on, don't you think? Especially considering he was an atheist."
But Juan Rulfo did not only have the story of his Uncle Celerino to justify his not writing. Sometimes he would resort to smokers of pot.
"Now," he would comment, "even smokers of pot publish books. There've been a lot of very strange books recently, don't you think? I have preferred to keep silent."
Concerning Juan Rulfo's mythical silence, Monterroso, his good friend in the office of Mexican copyists, has written an ingenious fable, "The Wisest Fox". In it, there is a certain Fox, who produced two successful books and with good reason was prepared to stop there, and the years went by and he did not publish any more. The others started to gossip and to wonder out loud what had happened to the Fox and when they met him at a cocktail party they would go up to him and tell him that he had to publish again. "But I've already published two books," the Fox would say wearily. "And they're very good," they would answer, "which is why you should publish another." The Fox would not say so, but he thought that what people really wanted was for him to publish a bad book. But, because he was the Fox, he refused.
Transcribing Monterroso's fable has finally reconciled me to the good fortune of being a copyist. Farewell, trauma brought about by my father. There is nothing horrible about being a copyist. When one copies something, one belongs to the line of Bouvard and Pécuchet (Flaubert's characters) or of Simon Tanner (with his creator Walser in the shadows) or of Kafka's anonymous court officials.
To be a copyist is also to have the honour of belonging to the constellation of Bartleby. Filled with joy, I lowered my head a few moments ago and became lost in other thoughts. I was at home, but I fell half asleep and was transported to an office of copyists in Mexico City. Desks, tables, chairs, armchairs. In the background, a large window through which, rather than being seen, fell a fragment of the Comala landscape. And further back, the exit door with my boss extending his hand. Was it my boss in Mexico or my real boss? Brief confusion. I was sharpening pencils, and I realized that it would take me no time at all to hide behind a pillar. The pillar reminded me of the folding screen behind which Bartleby continued to hide after the Wall Street office in which he lived had already been dismantled.
I said to myself suddenly that, if someone were to discover me behind the pillar and want to find out what I was doing there, I would cheerfully tell them that I was the copyist who worked with Monterroso, who in turn worked for the Fox.
"Is Monterroso, like Rulfo, a writer of the No as well?"
I thought I could be asked this question at any time and so I was ready with the answer:
"No. Monterroso writes essays, cows, fables and flies. He doesn't write much, but he writes."
Having said this, I woke up. I was then overcome by a huge desire to record my dream in this book of footnotes. A copyist's happiness.
Excerpted from Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas Copyright © 2000 by Enrique Vila-Matas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Enrique Vila-Matas was born in Barcelona in 1948. His novels have been translated into eleven languages and honored by many prestigious literary awards including the Prix Médicis Etranger. Author of Bartleby & Co., Montano’s Malady, and Never Any End to Paris, he has received Europe’s most prestigious awards and been translated into twenty-seven languages.
Jonathan Dunne was born in Kingston-upon-Thames, England, in 1968 and studied Classics at Oxford University. He is director of the publishing house Small Stations Press. He translates from Bulgarian, Catalan, Galician and Spanish into English.
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