Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Bartleby & Co

This work of fiction is surely one of the most outstanding I have read this year and stands on its own, as a work of footnotes and not necessarily as a novel. I heard very recently about Enrique-Vila Matas, and decided to read this book, along with Montano's malady, which I haven't touched yet.

Vila-Matas has been hailed as the best writer in Spanish at present though I am not sure where this claim is coming from, outside or inside Spain ( that is a political question). That notwithstanding, Vila Matas has written an outstanding book, an exercise in collating or writing a footnote or an essay about those writers who decided that writing was a useless exercise and served no purpose. The central premise of this work is actually an anecdotal history of those writers and poets who having written one or two books then gave up, having either finished or having found nothing more to stimulate them. Most of the writers Matas mentions are those who did not write of their own volition, having decided about the further futility of doing so, not because the wells of inspiration had dried.

The title Bartleby, as Vila-Matas explains, is named after the story about Bartleby by Herman Melville, who never reads, never drinks, never goes anywhere, who is always alone, aloof, a mystery, never revealing who he is, preferring not to. This book aims to investigate the examples of Bartleby's syndrome in literature, which Vila-Matas thinks is endemic, about those writers who never write or stop altogether after having written, becoming paralysed for good.

Our narrator, who I think is middle aged, starts by saying this.........I never had luck with women. I have a pitiful hump, which I am resigned to. All my close relatives are dead. I am a poor recluse working in a ghastly office. I have begun this diary which 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 I will go into later, I had not written again, I became a Bartleby, and that is why I have been interested in them for some time.

This work reads like a who is who of Bartlebys syndrome, giving an insight into certain interior aspects of the writers lives. I am not really sure how true each incident is for perhaps Vila-Matas might have actually invented a few himself. Most writers mentioned are well known, mostly from the Spanish speaking world, and there is wealth of reading material here, for one can actually catalogue all these writers, make a personal note and then begin to read these works of previous bartlebys.

The style of this book is not poetic nor is it meant to be. The prose is well written, measured, humorous, ironic, self aware, reservedly self sufficient and then quite morbidly reflective, honest and very candid. There are times when one laughs in earnest and at times when Marcelo, the narrator makes you wince for his hidden misfortune, his pain, his Bartlebys disease. For his is the world made up of these characters from literature, he lives with these writers and their characters in a world that negates the reality of the supposedly real world outside. Negation, Kafkaesque silence, a lack of desire, morbid melancholia, disquiet inside and outside are some internal themes that constantly well up inside Marcelo, and his clerkish quietish existence is very like Kafka himself, like Pessoa, like the heteronyms of Pessoa, somebody like the narrator of All the Names by Saramago.

However, our man is not ill or deluded for he is carrying out a research into a real phenomena, that of Barlebys disease and in doing so, builds up a profile of the writers, their personal experiences, perhaps their real reasons in giving up this heartache of fiction or poetry. Vila-Matas' narration thus is fundamentally an archive of melancholy and I could feel echoes of Sebald though the writing styles are quite different. Vila-Matas avoids melancholy and ends up in it which makes it more melancholic.

The writers that are mentioned are both great and famous. He starts with Walser, quoting him that writing that one cannot write is also writing. Walser's entire work is considered as a commentary on the vanity of life and writing. Going to Rulfo and his famous silence after Pedro Paramo, for thirty years, He calls Rulfo the writer of the No. After this there are stories about Rimbaud, Socrates who never wrote anything, and Robert Musil who mythologised the idea of an unproductive author in The man without qualities. Flaubert never completed Le Garcon, we are reminded.

From writers who fell into madness after one book to those who lived near each other and did not know each other, from opium as a substitute for not writing as in De Quincey's case to those who committed suicide, this book is filled with incidents and anecdotes. Mention is made of Felisberto Hernandez and his short story collection Incomplete narratives, Salinger, Pepin bello, Borges, Pessoa and him saying famously that the only metaphysics in the world were chocolates. Hofmannsthal, Keats and his negative capability, Mallarme, Tabucchi all get a mention. However, Melville and Hawthorne, who created Bartleby and Wakefield, two almost similar characters are considered in greater detail as the founders of the dark arts of the no.

Marcelo also writes about characters from his own past and the most poignant story is of a friend called Luis Felipe Pineda which is searing in sadness, a poet who only writes the first line of a poem and then forgets about them all together. There are so many other stories and writers mentioned in this book that it is not possible to mention everyone though I might post some extracts in the future. (A link to Sebald and Matas here, and here, another good link .)

I think this book is simply delightful, a treasure and a wonder, an enquiry into the subtle art of writing and the art of the No, for as even lesser writers know, writing something, even a small little poem is an affirmation, a record of the soul's fever chart, the answer to nights, fog, sunlight and mist. However, I have always believed what Hofmannsthal wrote in Lord chandos' crisis that words were a law unto themselves and could not explain life. Beckett would say that words abandon us and that is all there is to it. That is how Bartleby & Co ends and that is the fate of this post too.


Alok said...

I read a few pages of Montano's Malady. He is dealing with the same subject and I think the same set of authors in this book. I think I will pick up Bartleby & Co first.

Ganirivi said...

I haven't read it unfortunately, but your post is really beautiful.
I love the Letter to Lord Chandos, it explains so much of 20th century literature!

Kubla Khan said...

Alok....yes, right choice. i am going to read Montano's malady now.


Objectif said...

Another author whose work I'll have to check out.
While reading a New Criterion review of Paul Valery's Notebooks a little while ago, it struck me how similar his rejection of "literature" and his immersion in that doomed-never-to-be-completed mental project of his was to the unfulfilled intellectual ambitions harbored by Ulrich, the protagonist of Musil's The Man Without Qualities.