Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas
In 1992 Javier Marias, Spain's most internationally-renowned contemporary novelist, published Vidas Escritas, or Written Lives, a series of affectionate and above all literary portraits of some of that author’s own favorite authors. In this eccentric little book that only someone of his stature and influence could have had the gall and the cache to write and publish, Marias cherry-picks episodes and details from the published biographies and autobiographies of such luminaries as William Faulkner, Djuna Barnes, and his beloved Laurence Sterne, reconstructing them into bits of text, no more than 10 or 12 pages long, that pay homage to the work of those writers in perhaps the only way they could: by inscribing each author as a character in a small work of new literature, a short, almost parabolic story that each of Marias’s chosen authors did not write, but instead, he lives.
Marias’s Written Lives is a book with something very clear to say about the connection between an author's life and his work: the former cannot explain the latter, it seems to insist; and yet insofar as literature is precisely that which opens the way for more literature, an author’s work does have the potential to create a sort of echo chamber within which the story of his own life might sound.
At first glance, the so-called “footnotes” out of which the hunchbacked narrator of Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co., on medical leave from his office job as a result of a feigned case of melancholy, constructs his so-called novel seem to have a lot to do with the chapters of Marias’s Written Lives. Each offers a literary portrait, somewhere between narrative and meditation, of some writer, or some network of writers, that fascinate or interest the narrator. But there is one key difference between the writers chosen by Matas’s fictional narrator and those chosen by the very real Marias: the writers depicted in the 86 footnotes of Bartleby & Co. are writers who worked, as the title suggests, in the company of Bartleby, or under his sign; like Melville’s mythic scrivener who, when given a task by his boss would only reply, “I would prefer not to,” the writers lovingly cast by the narrator of Bartleby & Co. are writers who, when faced with the possibility of writing, preferred not to. They are “writers,” Matas writes, “of the No.”
Some never published at all. Others published briefly, or perhaps only on a single occasion, perhaps something brilliant and of seemingly infinite promise, and then descended -- or, the novel would have us believe -- ascended into an interminable silence. A few killed themselves, so as to never be able to write again, but Matas’s narrator finds suicide to be, aside from a few exceptional cases, the least convincing way in which a writer can prefer not to. And just as the various chapters of Marias’s Written Lives seem to take form within a literary space made possible by the work of the authors they depict -- the literary space, perhaps, within which Marias himself works -- the stories of the lives of Matas’s “writers of the No” reverberate in the literary non-space opened not by the work they did but, more to the point, by the work they did not do: in footnotes, as I have suggested already, to a text that does not exist, a text that has not, or has not yet, been written.
Bartleby & Co., the book that has perhaps been written in its place, is in part a meditation on story; at the turn of the 21st Century, when Matas’s novel was written, perhaps story can only appear, as it does here, tangentially or even unintentionally, a residue or byproduct of that which is written about story. When he cites Camus, who answers the question “what is a rebel?” with “a man who says no,” and describes his “writers of the No” as an “army,” Matas echoes Slavoj Zizek’s contention, in his recent The Parallax View, that there is an intimate if irreconcilable connection between “withdrawal… and… social action” -- and in part an answer to the age-old question, “Why do we write?” (out of vanity, Matas coolly replies). Most of all, though, it is an eloquent homage to an invisible history of “writers of the No,” a quiet celebration of those who forsook vanity, who loved literature so much more than they loved themselves that they were willing to sacrifice wealth and fame and glory in order to leave what they might have written, or even “very nearly wrote,” as Matas writes, in eternal “suspension,” rather than defile it by declining it, literally, into an instantiated writing that could never equal the splendor of its unfulfilled potential.
But for as well as it performs these various functions, Bartleby & Co. also opens a paradox that it is itself powerless to resolve; for at bottom, the greatest virtue of this book of unwritten lives is, of course, that it has been written.
One goes back again to the beginning.
Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Jonathan Dunne