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Chris Scott: Bartleby

A rambunctious 60s novel straight out of Tristram Shandy (Laurence Sterne, like Scott, was a Yorkshireman.) But the influences don’t stop there. Throw in Tom Jones, Rabelais and Smollett and that’s just the older novelists. Scott also makes numerous references to contemporary novelists, even bringing in characters from other writers’ novels. The list is too long but let’s just mention some of the main ones – Mailer, Beckett, Purdy, Barth – indeed, some of the fun in reading this novel is spotting the references.

Scott has written a 1960s picaresque novel. It is full of linguistic, literary and other games. You will soon lose clear track of what is going on but that, indeed, is the point. It starts with the birth of Bartleby. He is the son of a Duchess and a philosophy student, neither of whom want anything to do with him. He is left with “Aunt” Alice (she is not, of course, his real aunt). And it is she that brings him up. Or rather she does initially, though the upbringing seems to consist mainly of extremely precocious sexual activity, starting with his suckling of her ample breasts and then moving on down. However, when he is five, the State moves him to an orphanage where his sexual education continues, even having his way with the stern and virginal matron. But eventually he decides he must leave and sets off to find Aunt Alice and her welcoming breasts.

While the rest of the novel is seemingly Bartleby’s adventures in search of Alice, the novel soon gets off track. Firstly, there is the role and identity of the author. This is a novel where the author is very much involved in the action. Indeed, very soon several of the characters are laying claim to be the author – Wordkyn the Poet and Wordkyn the Novelist (who may or may not be the same person), the hermit De’Ath, the dwarf Me, God and others. Some of them may be the same as the others. Some of them, however, may have multiple variations. The narrator also gets embroiled in this mess. Add to the fact that this author, whoever he may be, starts messing about with the chapter order, causing all sorts of problems for the characters, and you can see that this novel is fun. Add in literary games, language games, formatting games and the plot soon gets lost in all of this. Does Bartleby find Aunt Alice and her welcoming breasts? The answer is possibly but not before he has problems with the inhabitants of Throckton and their Machine, the hermit, the author (s), the narrator, various characters from others writers’ works, Damon Gottesgabe and other German-named persons, Bercilak de Belamoris and God knows who else. It’s all wonderful fun, wonderfully Sixties, wonderfully post-modern and a great read. Pity it’s out of print.

Publishing history

First published 1971 by House of Anansi, Toronto
Availability: Out of print