Bartleby & Co., by Enrique Vila-Matas

One of the things I found myself thinking, reading Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby & Co. is, does Vila-Matas mean all this seriously – or is it meant as satire – or is it something else entirely?

Bartleby & Co. was originally recommended to me by the revered critic and literary blogger Stephen Mitchelmore (although it’s true, I had actually bought it and had it on my shelf a while before that), so you may imagine the kind of things it contains:

  • Does it talk endlessly about the “impossibility of writing”? – Yes, it does!
  • Does it reference Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke and Maurice Blanchot? – Yes, it does!
  • Does it keep mentioning Franz Kafka? – Yes, it does!
  • Is it entirely serious about any of these things? – No, I don’t think so!

Scott Esposito, a further revered critic and literary blogger, wrote a long article about Bartleby & Co. here, which I am going to take as a convenient Aunt Sally. Here is something he said:

Essentially there are no characters worth mentioning in Bartleby and Co., there are no scenes to be set, and there is no real plot—rather than evolve forward in terms of drama, this book evolves forward as an essay might, by increasing elaboration of a central idea. The book is so devoid of the kinds of things typically found in fiction that it all but provokes us to wonder why it is fiction. Beyond a preference for mystery (as opposed to explanation), the only other reason I can imagine for writing this as fiction is the narrator’s tone, which would a require a brave, perhaps depressed author were it to be used in a work of nonfiction. It’s not hard to see why Vila-Matas would want to be distanced from this narrator who is a lonesome, friendless person, a civil servant who occasionally makes deprecating references to the hump on his back and is eventually fired for cutting out on his job to write. At one point he writes about a headache he has just had:

Having recovered from it, I think about my past pain and tell myself that it is a very pleasant sensation when the ache goes away, since then one re-experiences the day when, for the first time, we felt alive, we were conscious of being human, born to die, but at that instant alive.

Being human then is to ache productively. So is to write: “Elizondo proposes that the pain [of a headache] transforms our mind into a theatre and suggests that what seems a catastrophe is in fact a dance . . . a mystery that can only be solved with the help of the dictionary of sensations.” In a similar way the narrator evokes literature as a burden that he could never be separate from and that at times offers him transcendent moments, “a dance out of which new constructions of sensibility may already be arising.”

Viewing literature as a monumental headache might be the best answer for a book that asks why writers give up writing, and perhaps Vila-Matas would have had a difficult time making such a point without the help of a narrator. Nonetheless, all the research and creativity that has been brought to bear in making this book probably could have gone into a fine, book-length essay investigating the writers of No. I do believe, however, that even if Vila-Matas himself had written an essay in place of this fiction, he could scarcely have written something more well-built and delightful than this carefully enigmatic work.

Obooki feels some scepticism about all this and would like to contend:

  • That the book does have characters
  • That the book does have a plot (of sorts)
  • That the narrator’s views are not to be equated with those of Vila-Matas
  • That the narrator and all the views he expresses are to be taken as fictional and fundamentally unreliable
  • That in fact the narrator’s entire argument about the “impossibility of writing” etc is to be understood as a reflection of his character, as explained in the novel


The following characters appeared in this novel (all, of course, filtered through the first-person narrator):

  • The narrator
  • The narrator’s father
  • Various incidental friends and work-colleagues of the narrator (whom I shall treat as unimportant)
  • María Lima Mendes, with whom the narrator falls in love
  • Robert Derain, a literary critic and author of Eclipses littéraires, with whom the narrator corresponds
  • Luis Felipe Pineda, a schoolfriend of the narrator and “poet”
  • Various writers mentioned in the text who may not in fact be as factual as portrayed
  • But mostly, the narrator

The Plot

Hmm, I suppose I’m using “plot” in the widest sense here. The narrator claims it is “a book of footnotes commenting on an invisible text, which I hope will prove my reliability as a tracker of Bartlebys”, and I’m inclined to think perhaps an unspoken text in all this is the mind of the narrator: everything in this work, each essay, is a reflection of our narrator – a man who once wrote a book 25 years ago but has been unable to write anything since, so has developed this obsession with other writers whose lives had followed a similar course. He is dealing with / justifying his own life in all this. And perhaps it all goes to prove that no, he’s not an entirely “reliable” tracker of Bartlebys.

The Other Things

The narrator has been unable to write anything for 25 years and seeks other writers who suffer from this impossibility of writing. on the other hand Vila-Matas has, since 2000 (according to his Spanish Wikipedia page), written 15 novels and various books of essays, as well as contributing to various periodicals. So he doesn’t strike me as a man who finds writing all that difficult.

There are also indications in the text that perhaps Vila-Matas isn’t after all wholly pushing this work as upholding the idea of the impossibility of writing; at the very least he is at times toying with it (like a good postmodernist).

Chapter 15, in which the narrator tells of the woman he loves, who strives to be a writer, but becomes increasingly blocked through her reading of fashionable French literary theory, I find hard to take as an endorsement of the idea of “the impossibility of writing”:

And, to make matters wrose, when she did from time to time understand what these texts were saying, she felt even more paralysed when it came to starting to write because what they were saying, after all, was that there was nothing else to write and there was nowhere even to begin saying that it was impossible to write.

Surely the whole chapter is an elaborate joke?

And what are we to make of chapter 64, about literary prankster Marcel Maniere (“it is laughable to think that people still do not know who Marcel Maniere is”), who “parodies the literature of the No, posing as a radical debunker of the myth of writing”. He claims he doesn’t know where to begin, and yet begins; spends his novel praising literary silence; then, in the final chapter, breaks down and admits the truth is he just doesn’t have any talent.

And then there is Robert Derain, whose book, Eclipses littéraires, is “a magnificent anthology of short stories belonging to authors who have all written a single book in their lives and then renounced literature. All of the authors in this book of eclipses are inventions, just as the stories attributed to these Bartlebys were in fact written by Derain himself”. That is to say, the book is precisely the same as the narrator’s book, except that it is all fiction. – Why does Vila-Matas have Derain write a letter (his second – that is, not counting the letter the narrator invents himself) in which he rebukes the narrator’s whole idea and the literature of the No in general:

Don’t think I want to discourage you completely … Had I wanted to crush all your research … I’d have sent you a much more explicit statement by Kafka, a statement that would certainly have undermined your work for good. What’s that? You’d like to know what that statement is? All right, I shall include it for you: A writer who does not write is a monster who invites madness … Secondly, I’m sending you news about Julien Gracq’s angry reaction to the ridiculous mythologisation of Rimbaud’s silence, news intended simply to warn you about the serious problem I sense in all these notes without a text you’re writing, a very serious problem affecting their heart. You see, I am in no doubt that your notes mythologise the theme of silence in writing, a theme that is totally overrated … I’m also sending you some passages by Schopenhauer, but I do not wish to tell you why I’m sending them to you and why it is I relate them to the vanity … of your notes. I wonder if you are capable … of finding out why Schopenhauer and why these passages in particular.

And what are the passages?

1. Talents of the first order will never be specialists. They view existence in its entirety as a problem to be solved, and humanity in one form or another will offer each of them new horizons. Only he who takes what is great, essential and general, as the subject of his study can claim the title of genius, and not he who spends his life clarifying the particular relationship of one thing to another. 2. Bad books are an intellectual poison that destroys the spirit. And since most people, instead of reading the best to have come out of different periods, limit themselves to reading the latest novelties, writers limit themselves to the narrow circle of ideas in circulation, and the public sink ever deeper into their own mire.

How, we are asking, do these relate to a man who wishes to write a book about writers who are unable to write and the impossibility of writing? (Are we reminded perhaps of the story above, in which the woman couldn’t write any longer because she’d been overcome by too many fashionable ideas about not writing?).

Vila-Matas’ next novel, Montano’s Malady, begins:

At the end of the 20th century, the young Montano, who had just published his dangerous novel about the curious case of writers who give up writing, got caught in the net of his own fiction and, despite his compulsive tendency towards writing, suffered a complete block, paralysis, a tragic inability to write.


Next week: Are there actually any examples of Bartlebys in Bartleby & Co.?


6 thoughts on “Bartleby & Co., by Enrique Vila-Matas

  1. If I remember correctly, it was my increasing suspicion about the answer to your last question – the fact that none of the examples worked the way the narrator was arguing – that led me to many of your other conclusions, e.g., “No – I don’t think so!”

  2. It’s funny, reading this one might almost come away with the view that the revered duo you cite have critical hobby horses which they use to frame every book they read, regardless of the relevance or usefulness of said critical beasts.

    Aside from the questions you’ve discussed, is the book worth reading in its own right? I keep seeing it recommended, and it sounds like it should be interesting, but I’m just not sure.

  3. Hmm, I looked up what Mitchelmore has written about Bartleby & Co., because what I wrote above was mere hypothesis, and discovered only this:

    I’d recommend Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co [sic – well, he always likes to correct the punctuation in Finnegan’s Wake], a charming collection of notes about writers who stop writing. It has the same lightness as David Markson’s This is Not a Novel and reiterates Blanchot’s fragment: Not to write: what a long way there is to go before arriving at that point!

    He’s so predictably. (Incidentally, I read Diderot’s This Is Not A Novel over the Christmas period, and there was a vague memory that Markson had written a book of the same name – I wonder if there’s a connection there).

    I think the problem for Esposito comes from reading it as a serious essay (as per Mitchelmore’s description too), which leaves one with the awkward question, which Esposito seems to address so badly, of why Vila-Matas has bothered to stick in all these fictional elements. – Indeed, taking it as an essay disinclines you from questioning whether some of the essay aspects aren’t fictional too (a question I will be discussing in my third post).

    You’ll have to wait till my fourth post for the answer to the question, is the book actually worth reading – suffice it to say, you may be right to be not sure.

  4. In fact, if I’m not much mistaken, that quotation from Blanchot comes in the story mentioned above about the woman who can’t write because she keeps reading critics who go on about the impossibility of writing.

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