Bartleby & Co – Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Johnathan Dunne)

As regular visitors to this blog would know, I’ve recently developed a bit of an Enrique Vila-Matas fetish, although I’d read and enjoyed the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlisted “Dublinesque” (translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean),  my “obsession” came about with the recent reading of “The Illogic Of Kassel” (translated by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom). This experience of being physically involved with a book led to a flurry of reading of shorter pieces (his introduction to Sergio Pitol’s “The Art Of Flight” – I’ll review this book art some later stage – his introduction to the Dalkey Archive collection “Best European Fiction 2015, his contribution to their 2011 edition, and the selection of his work included in “A Thousand Forests in One Acorn” anthology of Spanish literature published by Open Letter Books). There was method in this madness, I was awaiting the missing English translations of his longer works from my collection and I was awaiting their arrival by post. First cab off the rank was the 2005 novel “Bartleby & Co.”
It is 1999 and our first person narrator is writing a book of footnotes commenting on an invisible text. Yes the world of Enrique Vila-Matas can be a strange world to enter.
Literature, as much as we delight in denying it, allows us to recall from oblivion all that which the contemporary eye, more immoral every day, endeavours to pass over with absolute indifference.
Bartleby’s are “beings inhabited by a profound denial of the world”, named after a clerk in the story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story Of Wall-street”” by Herman Melville.
So the modern spectacle of all these people paralysed before the absolute dimensions required by all creation has a long history. But, paradoxically, those who shun the pen constitute literature as well. As Marcel Bénabou writes in Why I Have Not Written Any Of My Books, “Above all, dear reader, do not believe that the books I have not written are pure nothingness. On the contrary (let it be clear once and for all), they are held in suspension in universal literature.”
Our story is an exploration for and the noting of writers who have given up their craft, they are Bartleby’s, they constitute the “literature of the No”. With a plethora of writers referenced, quotes for innumerable books, the search from Walser to Tolstoy via Beckett and Salinger (throw in another few hundred names and you’d not even touch the tip of the iceberg), you know that our author is a very well read man.  A work that by searching for the deconstruction of literature is actually contributing to it, as per a number of Vila-Matas works, the conundrum is always there.
What I most admire about him is that he was a first-rate trickster.
It may be a quote from this book, but it captures what I also admire about Vila-Matas, the tricks, the way that he makes you, the reader, complicit in his ramblings, the literal involvement that you have whilst reading makes his books not just a novel, not just fiction, but more a work of art. The questioning of what labyrinth you are now trapped in is palpable. With this novel I had some misguided belief that taking notes of the various writers mentioned would allow me to see into the crystal ball, after 15 pages I gave up, I was distracting myself having to stop every paragraph and take notes, I’ve committed to a re-read with a notebook, plenty of ink and silence erequired.
To comment on this work using a linear narrative description is just about impossible, I could speak of our scribbler and his search for nothing, his journeys, his seclusion but it wouldn’t amount to a lot and would give you zero understanding of the book. Our hunchback writer, Marcelo, has suffered writer’s block for the last twenty-five years, since having his story on the impossibility of love being published. Marcelo takes extended leave from his employment at a publishing house to commence his book of footnotes on the “labyrinth of the No”.
We then have eighty-six footnotes of writers who have stopped writing, some for more obvious reasons (suicide is mentioned but dismissed as an avenue to stop writing) through to some very strange ones indeed. A work which could be seen as part essay, part research, part fiction it is a delight to be involved in the revelation that is Vila-Matas:
These footnotes cannot have an essence, neither can literature, because the essence of any text consists precisely in evading any essential classification, any assertion that establishes or claims it.

Where do I go after that?

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