The Labyrinth of No: Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby and Co.
Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby & Co. is a metafiction about the very nature of literature itself. Bartleby, of course, is the character from Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, the tale of a bland office worker who is “inhabited by a profound denial of the world” (Vila-Matas) and responds to every query or demand by saying “I would prefer not to.” Nothing less, nothing more. Hence, for Vila-Matas, Bartleby becomes the emblem for any writer who can’t – or won’t – write any more.
Like some of the works of W.G. Sebald, especially Vertigo, Bartleby & Co. reads like the work of a literature professor who has burst free of all academic constraints to write about literature in an entirely new way. The book is simultaneously very personal and yet deeply concerned with history. Bartleby & Co. is written in the form of a diary that covers much of 1999, although the only real events mentioned are personal events in the narrator’s life. What we know about the narrator we learn in the opening sentences:
I 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.
I suppose that is meant to explain why the narrator has largely abandoned real life in favor of a life within literature. His eighty-six diary entries – or footnotes to literature, as he calls them – reflect his musings on writers who at one time or another entered the “labyrinth of No.” There is no plot to Bartleby & Co. and no grand conclusion, just a succession of short essay-like jottings on books, writers, and literary characters. Some are well-known, like Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pyncheon, Robert Walser, Robert Musil, and J.D. Salinger. Others are completely new to me, like Luis Felipe Pineda and Klara Whoryzek (if they are even real).
Vila-Matas’ project is to try to understand where literature is and where it can go in the future, and his jumping-off point – writers who engage in “non-writing” – has a brilliant, if perverse, logic. Bartleby’s “company” includes those writers who can no longer continue to write (through fear, inability, writer’s block, and so on), those writers who declare an end to their writing career, and those who stop writing through the ultimate statement of suicide. He also throws in a few literary characters and some novels that don’t exist, all in service of trying to understand this calling that obsesses him.
Can the act of not writing be considered a form of writing? Is it a legitimate literary statement to deliberately put down the pen? It’s actually a fairly straightforward Duchampian proposal. Since Marcel Duchamp’s first “readymade”, an artist has been able to declare anything a work of art, whether that be a urinal, a Campbell’s soup can, or a seven-day walk across England. The artistic license declared by Duchamp allowed John Cage to “compose” 4 minutes and 33 second of silence as music and paved the way for conceptual art of many forms spanning much of the twentieth century. So it stands to reason that a writer can say that the act of not writing has a distinct meaning. And, as Vila-Matas suggests, every act of non-writing needs to be understood within its own context. No two negations are the same.
As you can read here and here, I am not a big fan of Vila-Matas’ more recent book Montano (written in 2002, but not translated into English until 2007). In Montano, the overly-unreliable narrator simply ennervated me by turning the tables so many times that I finally realized that I didn’t care any more. But Bartleby & Co. is a much stronger, more open-ended work. (It’s no wonder that one of the books Vila-Matas appears to admire is Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. It, too, opens up more avenues than it closes off, leaving the reader dazzled with new possibilities.) Vila-Matas has written something on the order of eight or nine works that precede both of these books, but unfortunately none of them have been translated as yet, so it is really hard to get the full sense of Vila-Matas’ big project.
Bartleby & Co. was first published in Barcelona in 2000 and translated into English in 2004.