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Enrique Vila-Matas: Bartleby y compañía (Bartleby & Co.)

I don’t think this book should really be called a novel, more like literary criticism, but with two provisos. Firstly, the literary criticism that we are given throughout the book is not by Vilas-Matas (by which I mean not by Vila-Matas, speaking with the authorial voice) but by a fictitious author whose name (Marcelo) is mentioned only once in the book. Secondly, the literary criticism cites many books and authors, many of which are totally obscure (I had not heard of a great number of them) but some of these books/authors I had not heard of were, in fact, themselves fictitious. In other words, we get literary criticism of fictitious work/authors. Marcelo had written a book twenty-five years ago on the impossibility of love. He had criticised his father’s first wife in the book. His father was so upset that he made Marcelo write a strong letter of apology to his first wife. Marcelo resisted but finally succumbed, copying his father’s words. This so upset him that he has not written anything since.

Marcelo has a job though it is not clear what it is that he does. We know that he works in an office and, in order to write the work he is now undertaking, he is taking time off sick, even though he is not sick at all. This will come back to haunt him. Given that he has written one book and, since then, not written anything since, he is, in his own terms, a bartleby. The term, of course, comes, from Herman Melville’s story Bartleby the Scrivener. The story is narrated by a lawyer who hires Bartleby as a copyist, assuming his calm nature will help control the somewhat irascible nature of the other two copyists in his employ. Initially, it works well but then, when asked to proof-read a document, Bartleby says that he would rather not. Gradually, this becomes the norm and Bartleby does less and less work. Soon, the narrator finds that Bartleby is sleeping in the office. He has not got the heart to sack him and moves out, leaving Bartleby there. Eventually Bartleby goes to prison where he dies of starvation as he would rather not eat. Marcelo sees Bartleby as a model for those writers who have not written a book or who have written one or two and then abandoned writing. Clearly he sees himself as a bartleby. As a result, he decides to write a book about other bartlebys. Indeed, he is prompted by hearing his boss’s secretary answering the phone and saying Mr. Bartleby is in a meeting. She did not actually say that; it is just that his boss has a name similar to Bartleby (we only learn much later that his name is Bartoli.) For Marcelo, the idea of Bartleby being in a meeting is ludicrous. This book is both the book on bartlebys and his general comments on the writing of the book and his rather sad life. He does, however, have one friend, Juan, who makes occasional appearances.

The fascinating thing about this book is the huge amount of authors he unearths who are bartlebys or, as he also calls them, writers who have said No. Some of them are fairly obvious, such as Rimbaud and Salinger. Others, while perhaps not too obvious, will be known to those who read literature in translation. They include Robert Walser, Juan Rulfo and Felipe Alfau, who became a bartleby because he moved to the United States and felt that he could no longer write in Spanish as English had complicated his life too much. He ended up in an asylum, having not written for fifty years. (He compares him to Beckett, who also ended up in a asylum and whose life was also complicated by living in another culture though, of course, Beckett adapted to French.) He points out that he himself uses depression as an excuse for his long sick leave. Other writers he refers to are totally obscure, at least to me and, I imagine, to most other readers, from Louis-Françisque Lélut to Roberto Bazlen, writer of footnotes. Others are entirely fictitious from Roberto Moretti who wrote Institute Pierre Menard, a not very subtle homage to both Robert Walser (who wrote Institute Benjamenta) and Borges, to Clément Cadou. Cadou had always wanted to be a writer. He met Witold Gombrowicz when he was fifteen, as a guest in his parents’ house. However, he was so overawed by Witold Gombrowicz that he barely spoke and felt like a piece of furniture. He immediately gave up his aspiration to be a writer and became a painter, painting only furniture. There are several other fictitious authors though part of the problem and part of the enjoyment of reading this book, is wondering which are real and which are fictitious and looking them up to find out the truth.

Juan has his opinion as well. For him, there has been nothing worth reading since Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities), though he will later qualify that by adding the stories of Felibserto Hernández. Marcelo, meanwhile, thinks he is Watt and starts calling himself Quasi-Watt. He sees Salinger on a bus but is too shy to talk to him. In fact, he imagines approaching Salinger and asking him why he has stopped writing but, in the end, does not do so. He also imagines approaching Shirley Lester, heroine of Salinger’s story The Heart of a Broken Story but, of course, does not. Salinger is not the only author we meet. He tells the story (second-hand) about the very real Professor Peter Messent who apparently met Thomas Pynchon on two separate occasions. However, the man he met on the first occasion was not the man he met on the second occasion. When he challenged the second Pynchon, Pynchon replied that he, Messent, would have to decide which one was the real one. (I have since confirmed with Professor Messent whether this is a true story. It is not. He says It was a story told to me about someone else (whose name I was never given) and somehow it became attached to me.) There are other such stories about real people which make me wonder whether they are true. There is a story about Guy de Maupassant who, apparently, to prove his immortality, fired a bullet into his head and survived. His servant, hearing the noise, came to his room and de Maupassant did it again and again survived. It seems that the real story is that the servant put blanks into the gun, fearing that de Maupassant might try and kill himself. Even the final words of the book – a quote from Beckett that even words abandon us – seems dubious, as I can find no evidence of it.

It may seem that this book is nothing more than a list of writers of No, of writers who wrote nothing or wrote little and then abandoned writing. While there is a certain truth to this allegation, each story is slightly different and that is what makes it interesting. Indeed, I would go further and say what adds to the interest is that there are many writers that even the keenest literary aficionado will not have heard of and many others of which we might have heard but know little about. In addition, as I have mentioned some of the stories he tells of them are clearly at best exaggerations and often outright fabrications. Is there really a writer called Paranoid Perez who comes up with an idea for a book, only to find Saramago publishing a book on the same theme before Paranoid gets round to writing his? No, of course there isn’t. Unless, of course, there is. Marcelo, quoting Félix de Azúa, is adamant that this approach to literature – a negative outlook – is not simply the best way for literature to move forward but the only way. I do not think that I agree with him but I see his point.

Publishing history

First published in 2001 by Anagrama
First English translation by New Directions in 2004
Translated by Jonathan Dunne