Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Jonathan Dunne)

Taking advantage of the extension of Spanish Lit Month into August, I turned to Bartleby & Co., a clever and engaging piece of metafiction from esteemed Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas. First published in Spanish in 2000, with an English translation following in 2004, Bartleby & Co. is a celebration of ‘the writers of the No’. Or, to put it another way, those authors who succumb to Bartleby’s syndrome by entering an extended, often permanent, period of literary silence. The name of this condition references Bartleby, the clerk in Herman Melville’s novella, Bartleby, the Scrivener, who when asked to do something or to reveal anything about himself, responds by saying “I would prefer not to.”

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Bartleby & Co. is narrated by Marcelo, a solitary office worker and stalled writer who is struggling to write a follow-up to his first book published some twenty-five years earlier, a novel on the impossibility of love. (The narrator appears to be a thinly-veiled version of Vila-Matas himself. In his 2003 novel, Never Any End to Paris, the author refers to his quest to complete one of his first books, The Lettered Assassin, a story featuring a novel that will kill the reader seconds after he or she finishes reading it.)

Pretending to be suffering from depression, Marcelo, the narrator of Bartleby & Co, takes extended sick leave with the intention of working his way through ‘the labyrinth of the No’. By doing so, Marcelo believes he can find a way forward by opening up a path to authentic literary creation.

Only from the negative impulse, from the labyrinth of the No, can the writing of the future appear. (pg. 3)

Marcelo sets about compiling a set of footnotes to a text that does not exist. Each footnote contains details about one of many literary Bartlebys, their reasons for silence and snippets about their lives. Here’s an excerpt from the footnote on Mexican writer, Juan Ruflo; when asked why he no longer wrote, Ruflo would say:

“Well, my Uncle Celerino died and it was he who told me the stories.”

His Uncle Celerino was no fabrication. He existed in real life. He was a drunk who made a living confirming children. Ruflo frequently accompanied him and listened to the fabricated stories he related about his life, most of which were invented. The stories of El llano en llamas almost had the title Los cuentos del tío Celerino (Tales of Uncle Celerino). Ruflo stopped writing shortly before his uncle’s death. The excuse of his Uncle Celerino is one of the most original I know among all those concocted by the writers of the No to justify their abandonment of literature. (pg. 7)

The footnotes present a wide variety of reasons for not writing. These range from the commonplace and understandable (illness; writer’s block; drug addiction) to the downright bizarre – one writer remains convinced that José Saramago has stolen all his ideas by way of some strange telepathic powers.

Lack of inspiration is a familiar reason for not writing anything, even the great French writer Stendhal experienced it as he notes in his autobiography:

“Had I mentioned to someone around 1795 that I planned to write, anyone with any sense would have told me to write for two hours every day, with or without inspiration. Their advice would have enabled me to benefit from the ten years of my life I totally wasted waiting for inspiration.” (pg. 31)

Thinking about Stendhal’s situation reminds the narrator of another case, that of the ‘strange and disturbing’ poet, Pedro Garfias, friend of the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Here was a man who spent many months not writing a single line simply because he couldn’t find the right adjective. Whenever Buñuel met the poet, he would ask him:

“Have you found that adjective yet?”

“No, I’m still searching,” Pedro Garfias would reply before moving off pensively. (pg 32)

There are references to several famous writers through the ages: Guy de Maupassant, Rimbaud, Andre Gidé, Robert Walser, John Keats, and Julien Gracq, to name but a few. Other cultural figures also feature: Marcel Duchamp, the great artist who shunned painting for over fifty years because he chose to play chess instead; and Michelangelo Antonioni, who wanted to make a film, L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) about a couple’s feelings drying up, in effect they become eclipsed as their relationship dissolves.

In presenting these literary vignettes, Vila-Matas adopts an ironic tone. There is a dry, self-deprecating humour running through Bartleby & Co., a tone not unlike the one he uses in Never Any End to Paris. Perhaps the best example of this wit is encapsulated in the footnote on the notoriously reclusive author J.D Salinger, a hilarious anecdote in which the narrator is convinced he has spotted Salinger on a New York bus. It’s too long to cover here, but its inclusion alone makes Bartleby & Co. worth reading.

Overcome by the plethora of literary eclipses he has discovered, Marcelo takes a moment to reflect on the tension between yes and no, to focus the mind on a reason to write. He ends up seeking solace in the first thing that comes to mind, a snippet from the Argentinian writer, Fogwill:

“I write so as not to be written. For many years I was written in my life. I acted out a story. I suppose I write in order to write others, to operate on the imagination, the revelation, the knowledge of others. Possibly on the literary behaviour of others.” (pg. 98)

By assembling this series of footnotes on writers of the No, there is a sense that Marcelo (a stalled author himself) is holding on to Fogwill’s words. In effect, the narrator is commenting on the literary silences of others ‘so as to be able to write and not be written’.

And does Marcelo achieve his aim of finding the centre of this labyrinth of the No, the source of all the negative impulses that prompt so many talented writers to abandon literature? I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself should you decide to read this book. Either way, by collecting these vignettes, the author has in fact written his next novel, one that is fresh, inventive and very enjoyable indeed.

I’ll finish with one final example, that of the esteemed Catalan poet J.V. Foix, whom Marcelo used to see standing behind the counter of his patisserie in Barcelona. A long-time admirer of Foix’s lyrical poetry, the narrator is curious to learn what prompted the poet to declare that his work was finished. It saddens him to think that Foix may have decided to wait for death. The answer comes by way of an article by the Spanish poet and novelist, Pere Gimferrer – writing on the cessation of Foix’s work, Gimferrer comments:

“But the same glint sparkles in his eyes, more serenely; a visionary glow, now secret in its hidden lava […] In the distance is heard the dull murmur of oceans and abysses: Foix continues to dream poems at night, even though he does not write them down.”

Poetry unwritten, but lived in the mind: a beautiful ending for someone who ceases to write. (pg 110)

For other reviews of Bartleby & Co, click here for posts by Richard and Seamus.

Bartleby & Co. is published in the UK by Vintage. Source: personal copy. Book 8/20, #TBR20 round 2.

62 thoughts on “Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Jonathan Dunne)

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui – Vila-Matas seems to specialise in metafictional narratives, and when I have the right turn of mind I really must read something by him!

    Reply
  2. susanosborne55

    Tiptop review, as ever, Jacqui! I have a weakness for metafiction – I know lots of readers think it’s too clever for its own good and it doesn’t always work but if done well it can be both thought provoking and entertaining.This one sounds great.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. I found it quite difficult to write about this book, partly because it’s so unconventional! That said, it’s very engaging – a delight for lovers of literature.

      Reply
  3. gertloveday

    I love this writer and the confusion I feel when I read his books. I’m never quite sure if some of the artists and writers he mentions are creations of his own mind or real. have you checked on Fogwill? Sounds improbable

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s great, isn’t he? I think I know what you mean about the experience of reading one of his books, it’s like slipping into some kind of strange alternative reality.

      As Tom says, Fogwill is genuine. In fact, I think Richard (of the Caravana de recuerdos blog) has written about him. I wondered about Foix and his patisserie, but there’s a reference to the family bakery in his wiki entry so I guess it’s sound.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I usually enjoy creative and out of the box type books. I also tend to like fiction that has a lot of literary references. This really does sound different and something that I would enjoy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would definitely recommend you give him a try, Brian. Bartleby & Co. would be a good starting point – it’s very inventive and a lot of fun. Alternatively, given your love of James Joyce, you could try Dublinesque, which references Ulysses (along with several other writers).

      Reply
  5. winstonsdad

    I love the way he interlink writers and his writing so well I am awaiting his latest from library which I am.really looking forward too as it is set in Kassel a city that I have spent time in

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, so do I…and it never feels pretentious, does it?

      Oh, I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on The Illogic of Kassel. It’ll be interesting to see if you recognise his portrait of the city. It sounds as though he gets out and roams the streets of Kassel.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Seamus. Glad to hear my post revived a few memories for you. I loved Never Any End to Paris – in fact, I think I preferred it to Bartleby when all’s said and done! Hope you enjoy.

      Reply
  6. Maureen Murphy

    Such an intriguing article, one more block to be added to what Mr. Simon Lavery so aptly calls “the TBR list.” I enjoy the added depths of the translation from its original Spanish as well.

    The attached link is to my own Bartleby-fueled Yowl into the void of negation, and was originally inspired when I learned that @NeinQuarterly, the Twitter Emperor of Negation, once Twitter-Blocked Joyce Carol Oates! The concept of blocking such a prolific writer tickled me to the point of bursting into laughter one morning on the elevated steps of Washington DC’s Dupont Circle Metro Station. Needless to say, I could not resist forwarding my little story to @NeinQuarterly who promptly blocked me, an exile which I bear with grudging acceptance until this day. :) Link follows:

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Intriguing is a good way of describing Vila-Matas’ work as I think he’s one of the most inventive and original writers of our time. Thanks for sharing your story, I couldn’t help but smile at the whole episode! Right, I’m off to follow you on twitter now…

      Reply
      1. Maureen Murphy

        Thank you so much. I am a bit in “wound licking” mode over there right now, as I am often very satirical (per above), but I sent some rather “premature” very “sincere” ideas to someone who had inspired me and got a “WHAT are you talking about” type of response that, to add to the fun, someone “favorited.” Yikes. Apparently, the way I “present” on Twitter makes people wonder if my ideas are in “good faith” (gist of a rather perplexing comment). I have since rescued my yet-embryonic ideas off Twitter and have taken them home to germinate Lesson learned!

        But you are most WELCOME to Follow me, if you can tolerate my sometimes silly enthusiasms and my thoroughly silly fictional character (K.F. Tutwiller, IV (1823-1913) who resides with me there.

        Best, M. A. Murphy

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Not at all, thank you for taking the time to comment on my post! Twitter can be a strange place at times, and it isn’t always easy to tell if someone is being ironic or not. Looking forward to following you on Twitter – I must admit I’m rather intrigued by your fictional character!

          Reply
          1. Maureen Murphy

            Thank you! I am very much enjoying the exercise of ‘creating” a character who can interact with the world at large on-line. Was a very natural, organic process for me, almost a strange sort of “world creating.” The ongoing conceit is that Tutwiller will eventually demand of me (his long-suffering Surly Biographer) a four-volume set of his “Lost Memoirs” which will spring from the tweets. Given his huge ego, he demands at least four volumes, since LBJ got three!

            Tutwiller can best be described as the personification of some of the more bumptious, silly, positive, but somehow indomitable sides of the American character. He stays well out of the shadows (which is why I purposely have him sent to England, which, of course, he assumes is part of The Continent) during the Civil War. Then, he sadly perishes in a freak filibustering accident in 1913, so he misses both World Wars. He then surfaces mysteriously on Twitter in 2014. I am toying with the ultimate e-book material having an Annex on the Shadow Side, which includes references to some of the darker material, one being an incredible new book called “Jacksonland.”

            Cheers! Maureen M.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Sounds as though you’ve got plenty of ideas there – wishing you all the best with it! On a slightly related note, I’ve seen a couple of writers using Twitter as a medium for developing or releasing short stories in the form of tweets. It’s interesting to see how these things progress over time.

              Reply
    1. gertloveday

      I stand convicted of intellectual laziness. There certainly was a Rodolfo Fogwill. His obituary is in The Guardian and there are some intriguing photos of him online. I must thank you for the link to obooki, who was not known to me. I can see where the rest of the afternoon is going.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I can only encourage you to give him a try! Bartleby & Co. would make a good starting point, and it won’t take you long to get a feel for Vila-Matas’ style. Never Any End to Paris is my fave of the three I’ve read so far, but I really enjoyed Dublinesque, too.

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    Great review – I love this book, and the idea behind it. I couldn’t help think of the Scottish writers who only authored one book, of which, sadly, there are many.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. It’s a great premise for a book, highly indicative of Vila-Matas’ style. As for your thought on the multitude of Scottish writers who only authored one book, that’s a neat idea for a post. You should write about them one day!

      Reply
  8. Bettina @ Books, Bikes, and Food

    Fab review! I read this for Spanish Lit Month three years ago and remember feeling quite paralysed by the amount of writers I’d never heard of that were subjects of Bartleby & Co. Luckily I realised at one point that some of them were fictional! I enjoyed the book nevertheless, even though I felt hugely unqualified to talk much about it. These days, I’m much too disorganised in my reading to participate in anything – so things appear to have gone downhill since 2012 ;-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Yes, several of these writers were completely new to me, especially the Spanish ones. And I did wonder if Vila-Matas was adding to the fun by throwing a few fictional writers into the mix!

      It’s hard to keep abreast of all these blogging events, but I’ve enjoyed this year’s Spanish Lit Month. It’s quite relaxed, and at least you get to choose your own books. :)

      Reply
  9. Annabel Gaskell (@gaskella)

    One of these days I must read the original Bartleby the Scrivener. Like Moby Dick, American lit seems to be riddled with references to it (or do I only need to know the ‘I prefer not to know’ punchline?).

    This novel sounds fun though, and I shall look out for it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The punchline is a crucial part of Bartleby the Scrivener, but it’s definitely worth reading the whole story to see how his situation escalates. Also, it’s very short, so you’d be able to knock it off in less than an hour!

      I really enjoyed the Vila-Matas. In the hands of another writer, this could have been quite a dry subject, but there’s a lot of humour here.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not sure if you’d like it either, Guy – it’s hard to call. Shame it’s not available as an e-book otherwise I’d suggest you try a sample. I think you’d be able to tell fairly quickly if it’s for you.

      Reply
  10. Richard

    I haven’t read your beloved Never Any End to Paris yet, Jacqui, but Bartleby remains my favorite Vila-Matas of all the ones I’ve read. Just a tremendously fun read! One of the interesting Vila-Matas tidbits I’ve learned in the last year or two as it relates to the “is it real or is it fiction?” debate higher up in the comments is that he isn’t above taking a real quote from a real human and distorting it for his own agenda (i.e. changing a few words here and there): he is a very slippery fellow! Thanks for the link and for your very enjoyable post.

    Reply
    1. obooki

      Yes, that Stendhal quote above is certainly true, but on the other hand at the time he wrote it he was knocking out 30 pages a day without any problem.

      I must admit, I don’t like books about writers having difficulty writing. (It always seems somewhat oxymoronic). Another book which I was trying to read as part of Spanish Literature Month was Josefina Vicens’ The Empty Book, which – as the title may suggest – is on a similar theme; but I’m still after two months on about page 15 and in all probability won’t go any further.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Yes, I know what you mean about it feeling somewhat oxymoronic! I can forgive Vila-Matas though as he pulls it off with such style, and there’s enough humour to keep it engaging. Shame about The Empty Book as the premise has potential…oh, well.

        Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Richard. I’ve really enjoyed seeing all the Spanish Lit reviews flying around the web this summer – thanks for hosting everything.

      As for Vila-Matas and his bag of tricks, I’m learning more by the minute! Hope you enjoy Never Any End to Paris when you get to it.

      Reply
  11. Violet

    I loved Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque and keep meaning to read more of his books. I just bought The Illogic of Kassel, which was published this year. Your review makes me want to pull Bartleby & Co. and Never Any End to Paris off the shelf and read them right now. It’s clear that you enjoyed yourself and were intrigued. :)

    I love what he does with words, and he’s just so amazingly clever and knowledgeable about literature and the literary world. I do wish I’d stop getting side-tracked by all the ‘other’ books and just read the ones on my shelves, the ones I bought because they’re the ones I really want to read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I think you’ll really enjoy this one, Violet. You know, it’s funny…Bartleby & Co. had been languishing on my own shelves for the past twelve months as I’m fairly sure I bought it off the back of last year’s Spanish Lit Month. Luckily this year’s fest provided the perfect opportunity to pick it up!

      I just love what Vila-Matas does with language too. And he never seems to take himself too seriously, I think that’s why his books are so engaging. Looking forward to hearing more about The Illogic of Kassel – I hope you’ll write about it at some point. :)

      Reply
  12. Scott W.

    Outstanding. Somehow I’ve managed to read a number of reviews of Vila-Matas – and one of his novels – and yet until now had gained no idea of the subject of Bartleby & Co.. The conceit sounds terrific – what sounds like a far more humorous take on Tillie Olsen’s Silences (a great book in its own way). Between your post on Bartleby and Seamus’ recent post on Dublinesque I’m having to move Vila-Matas way up higher in the to-be-read stack – this one first, most likely. I always saw Bartleby as something of a frustrated writer stuck in a bad day-job.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Scott – I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but I’d be surprised if you didn’t enjoy this one. The premise is, as you say, terrific, and Vila-Matas executes it so well – you’ll have a ball following up all the literary references here!

      I’ve heard of the Tillie Olsen but haven’t read it (I’m wondering if you may have referenced it in one of your posts?). That said, I suspect you’re right when you say Bartleby & Co. is a more humorous take on the theme of literary silences. Vila-Matas’ book is hugely enjoyable on more than one level – I laughed a lot as I was reading it. Oh, and Dublinesque is another delight. At this rate, your Spanish Lit Month might be tipping into September…

      Reply
  13. Emma

    Thanks for this great review, very informative and according to the commenters who have read this book, it gives it back very well.
    This is why I now know this one is so not for me. :-)
    I’ll read the Melville, one of these days. (there’s a great review of Bartleby on Max’s blog)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Well, at least I haven’t added another book to your virtual TBR – that’s probably the last thing you need right now! :-)

      I really enjoyed this book, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Vila-Matas has a very distinctive style, and I think Bartleby is the epitome of his approach. Melville’s Bartleby, on the other hand, is absolutely worth reading, and I think you’d like it. Thanks for letting me know about Max’s review – I’ll check it out.

      Reply
      1. Maureen Murphy

        Oh my, what a wonderful conversation here. Thank you, Jacqui, for your generous responses to we your readers. Just love the different shades of reaction to this book. Wonder if the topic is more naturally appealing to someone with a personal interest in “process” and “production.” Perhaps if one just wants tor relax into a beautiful novel, poem, painting, or movie (which can be a wonderful release when times are hard in your life), a topic like this is like a visit to the sausage factory when you are really just in the mood for a tasty grilled frankfurter with onion, mustard and relish! : )

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It’s nice to hear that you’re enjoying the conversation – thanks! I’m trying to decide whether Vila-Matas is a more of a writer’s writer than a reader’s writer. I think he appeals to both, but that’s not to say his style will suit everyone – Bartleby & Co. will almost certainly divide opinion. Thar said, I suspect you’re right in thinking it’s a topic that holds particular appeal for readers with an interest in the writing process…form, structure, the use of language. All those things.

          Reply
  14. Lisa Hill

    Oooh, I want this! I loved Dublinesque when I read it on IFFP Stu’s shadow jury, but I’ve never seen anything about this one. I’ve put it on my goodreads wishlist.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! Well, if you loved Dublinesque, there’s a very good chance you’ll enjoy this one as well. He’s such a playful writer, isn’t he? I really want to read more of his work in the future – great to see the new translations coming through.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Indeed! Another couple of his books have appeared in English this year: A Brief History of Portable Literature and The Illogic of Kassel. Several others are yet to be translated…

          Reply
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  16. litlove

    Oh now this is excellent news, as I have a copy of this on my shelves that I had entirely forgotten about. And it sounds wonderful! Thank you for reminding me of this one, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! Do you know, I have a feeling you’re going to enjoy this one a great deal. I think it’s a book that will hold a particular appeal for readers with an interest in the process of writing. Let me know what you think whenever you have a chance to get to it. I’d love to know!

      Reply
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