Bartleby & Co. – A Verdict

Interviewer: What was it you liked most about Bartleby & Co.?
Obooki: Looking up the writers on the internet to see if they existed or not.
Interviewer: Not reading it then?
Obooki: No.

This was actually my second attempt to read Bartleby & Co.. The first attempt I made about three years ago, I reckon, and I got about 70 pages into it. Fifty of those pages I read in one sitting and felt I was enjoying it quite a lot, but then each time after that I came back to it, I found it almost impossible to go on. So I gave up, vaguely feeling that at some point I’d come back to it. – Then, three years later, I did. I read about 70 pages again, and felt I was enjoying it quite a lot, but then each time after that I came back to it, I found it almost impossible to go on. But this time I persevered and got to the end. I must have been building up my moral stamina in the intervening years.

There are two main problems with Bartleby & Co., in my opinion. Firstly, it becomes after a while endlessly repetitive. Each chapter is merely: here is an author, he wrote some things, then gave up writing. It’s not easy to take in large doses (perhaps it’s best read on the toilet). But that’s nothing compared to the second problem: which is, what’s with all these tedious fictional bits.

I’ve noted already how critics (by which I mean bloggers) have wondered on occasion why it is that Vila-Matas didn’t just write a collection of essays on people who’d given up writing. As I’ve tried to answer: I don’t believe this was his purpose. But what I feel maybe what these critics are getting at is: would to God it had been? Because (in small doses) the essays are perfectly acceptable, enjoyable; but my heart would drop each time I got to one of the fictional bits, these bits about the narrator’s life – and these are always, always the longer sections.

Something better to write about then, than to read: which of course suits critics well, and literary magazines, and discussion groups, and academics, and a writer’s standing in the literary world, and of course we can’t forget bloggers, who get the chance to write all kinds of posts about them, about why this and whether that and did he mean this and was he influenced by that and has he ever read the other – but not, on the other hand, readers.

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2 thoughts on “Bartleby & Co. – A Verdict

  1. Your discussion of aspects of the book and ultimate verdict (not a surprise, so apologies for insisting you spell it out) makes me wonder what those who enthusiastically recommended it (in the Gruan Book pages, I think) were on about.

    It sounds like if you knew (or were told) a little about the book, but hadn’t yourself read it, then someone who had read it and liked it might appear a very clever chap.

  2. Certain people, I suppose, like a certain kind of book very much; and then there are other people, like me, who don’t. People like books which says the things they want books to say. And I really don’t like books about books. (I picked up Josefina Vicens’ The Empty Book shortly after finishing this, but just had to give up after ten or so pages and read something different, something where the narrator isn’t always going on about their process of narration. What could be more tedious?).

    The avant-garde I am very fond of really – Petersburg was my favourite book of last year, and things don’t get more avant-garde than that. But the avant-garde can also lead to great failure and disinterest for the reader: I just don’t think Bartleby & Co. works as a novel. On the other hand, I hear Vila-Matas’ later works (those perhaps not yet in English) display quite a change of direction, and that kind of interests me. Why and what kind of change it is, and what sort of work it’s led to.

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