Bartleby y Montano


After posting my review of Borges’ newly published volume of prophecies Selected Visions, I was emailed by a reader who calls himself, cryptically, “Rejoycer”.  He brought to my attention that the review of the future books (see excerpt from Selected Visions below) written by Borges is surely that of the novels Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady by Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas.  Rejoycer alerted me to the recent English translations of these novels and, with scant hesitation, I purchased them, read them, and offer for you here my thoughts on their contents.

There is a security in taxonomy that can be explained by the well-known psychological maxim, “People fear what they don’t know.”  The implications here are clear: to name something is to know it.  To identify something as belonging to a particular class or group of things is to deny its individuality and in many cases largely misrepresent it, or at best say nothing about it.  William James explained that the mind naturally groups things: first we perceive the world around us through our senses and then we form concepts and generalize.  As Jacques Barzun puts it in his book A Stroll with William James,

In a world where nothing stays put, where form and substance alter with time and perspective, sameness is clearly no passive registration of what is.  Rather, we may call it the mind’s act of self-defense against universal drift and decay.

Concepts and abstract generalities are the basis of all communication. Like primates we brachiate from one to another, swinging above the entangling undergrowth of individual perspective to share in an aggregate meaning.  Taxonomy is not simply the tool of the naturalist, however.  Critics, too, love to wield it.  With a recklessness born of impunity they bludgeon the artwork into a shape that vaguely resembles others, excising – taxonomy is wonderfully versatile – bits that don’t fit the mould, until they can pin an “ism” to it and affix its place on the pinata of literature.  But let not the charge of hypocrite be leveled against me.  I am well aware that I am generalising: not all critics are guilty of this.  The responsible  critic takes the work on its own merit, weighing it against itself and the author’s oeuvre.  If she brings out the “ism” stick at all it is to measure the distance from other works, rather than proximity to them.  Enrique Vila-Matas’ novels Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady demand such a reader and deserve such a critic.

Bartleby & Co. is an odd book.  Narrated by an office clerk, Marcelo, the book is essentially an encyclopaedia of writers who have, for whatever reason, forsaken their vocation.  Marcelo, himself a writer who has not written anything for 25 years, uses the writers as a platform to explore what he terms the “Literature of the No.”  It is a book of “footnotes  commenting on a text that is invisible,” the text that hasn’t been written by either Marcelo or the writers of the No that he presents. The plot of Bartleby is minimal: after decades of silence Marcelo begins to keep a diary detailing writers who have given up writing and their reasons for doing so.  He feigns depression and takes time off work to write his diary.  He travels to New York where he sees a man who may or may not be J D Salinger (and, in overhearing his conversation, gives the reader of his diary “nothing less than a short unpublished text by Salinger”), is fired from his job, and continues to calmly chronicle the writers of the No. Much of the enjoyment of reading Bartleby & Co. comes from encountering the eccentricities of the writers it contains and their reasons for their self-imposed silence: Stendhal waits ten years for inspiration, others because of the incapacity of language to adequately describe the world, and Clement Cadou because he “[feels] like a piece of furniture, and pieces of furniture, to the best of my knowledge, don’t write.”  Each entry in this dictionary of the literature of the No allows for Marcelo to range in digressive association, picking up and dropping artists sometimes in mid-entry, inserting his own dreams and memories and thoughts, all of which are every bit as bizarre as those he writes about. In the introduction to the text, Marcelo defines his intention in writing his diary as

[making] my way through the labyrinth of the No, down the roads of the most disquieting and attractive tendency of contemporary literature: a tendency in which is to be found the only path still open to genuine literary creation; a tendency that asks the question, “What is writing and where is it?” and that prowls around the impossibility of the same and tells the truth about the grave, but highly stimulating, prognosis of literature at the end of the millennium.”

He goes on to say,

I shall write footnotes commenting on a text that is invisible, which does not mean it does not exist, since this phantom text could very well end up held in suspension in the literature of the next millennium.

This uncertainty about the approach of the new millennium is not just for technocrats and astrologers and religious fundamentalists, it seems.  It is an apprehension that inhabits a central place in another of Vila-Matas’ novels, his next after Bartleby & Co., Montano’s Malady.  Like Bartleby, Montano‘s Malady is also a narrative written in diary form.  It opens with the story of Montano who, after writing his book about writers that don’t write, is once again suffering from writer’s block.  The narrator of the Malady is Montano’s father – or so we are led to believe for the first 70 pages of the novel, after which he comes clean and admits that Montano doesn’t exist and that it was he himself who published a book on writers that don’t write.  The first part of the novel is fiction inspired by the narrator’s, Girondo, diary, which was taking on more of a narrative quality with each passing day. Girondo is literature-sick.  The colour of his thoughts run to the literary: all that he sees and hears is seen in the light of literature, expressed by quotes from authors, likened to the plots and characters of novels.  Girondo’s diary forms the bulk of the Malady and, a la Bartleby, it talks about the work of other famous diarists.  Later, Girondo is invited to Budapest to give a lecture on the “diary as narrative form,” where he reads from the same diary, not what has come before, but what is happening at just that moment.  A description of writing from earlier in the novel is apt here:

…anyone writing with a sense of risk walks a tightrope and, as well as walking it, has to weave his own rope under his feet.

A word about Vila-Matas’ structural technique.  As a writer writing about writers, there is inevitably going to arise the question of how much is autobiographical, and how much fictional.  To that very question Vila-Matas responds:

The broad passageway that joins fiction and reality is cool and well ventilated, and the air within blows about with the same natural ease with which I mix biography and invention.

This is more evident in the Malady than in Bartleby, and most evident when both are read in succession, with Bartleby first.

At the end of the twentieth 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.

A fiction works to assure us of its “internal” reality.  Thus from the first sentence of the Malady, in its evocation of the encyclopedic Bartleby, we feel as though we are inhabiting the “ground level” of the fiction, the basis of the characters within the fiction.  When we learn early in the second part that the first was a fiction, this not only disorients us in relation to the Malady, but also in regards to Bartleby, because we were made to believe that they occupied the same reality, the same ground level.  Further to this trans-textual deception, we read the rest of the Malady waiting for the camera to pull back again and reveal a picture within a picture, nested fictions; we are on our guard and we read cautiously.

At the start of the twenty-first century, as if I were walking to the rhythm of literature’s most recent history, I was alone and without direction on some byroad , in the evening, heading inexorably for melancholy.  A slow, enveloping, increasingly deep nostalgia for all that literature had once been merged with the mist at dusk.  I considered myself a very deceived man.  In life.  And in art.  In art, I saw hateful lies, falsifications, masquerades, frauds all around me.  And I also felt very lonely.  And when I looked at what was in front of my eyes, I always saw the same: literature at the start of the twenty-first century, in agony.

In his Varieties of Religious Experience, William James says, “The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else.  But any object that is infinitely important to us  and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique.  Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it.”  Montano’s Malady is a book that writhes and slips free of any classification.  It switches genres and deceives from the first sentence; the ground is unsteady from the first step.  And in its diary form, it is a book at all times conscious of itself.  But why?  What game is Vila-Matas playing?  The answer is given in Bartleby & Co.:

…literature [cannot have an essence] because the essence of any text consists precisely in evading any essential classification, any assertion that establishes or claims it.  As Blanchot says, the essence of literature is never here any more, it is always to be found or invented anew.  So I have been working on these footnotes, searching and inventing, doing without any rules of the game that exist in literature.

Ah, the rules of literature, genre tropes stiff with rigor mortis, congealed conventions.  This denial is at the heart of the Malady:

Allow me to explain that real, true literature has always evolved serenely until reaching the point where it can be classed as lasting.  That of [the enemies of the literary], on the other hand, is mere appearance, practiced by animals who claim to be writers and whose literature gallops with the noise and shouts of its practitioners, and every year launches thousands of books on to the market, although, as the years go by, one ends up asking where they are and what became of their brief and noisy renown; it is, therefore, a transient literature, unlike real literature, which is permanent, although, at times like this, real literature has to make an increasingly greater effort to withstand the assaults of [the enemies of the literary].

Launching thousands of books every year, an armada of empty words. Vila-Matas is not an author with a highly lyrical prose style, nor (particularly in Bartleby) are his characters portraits of psychological realism exhaustively painted.  His fiction is not a “portrait of the times.”  Rather, the joy of reading Vila-Matas comes from the playfulness of his composition, from the frequent allusions to and encounters with writers and their peculiar ways, and the confidence with which he breaks the “rules of the game,” making no apologies for creating something entirely his own. If, as Walter Benjamin famously said, every great work of art dissolves a genre or creates a new one, then to identify a work of art as belonging to a school, to categorize it, is to point to its flaws.  It is one of the great strengths of the Malady that it belongs wholly to no one genre, and only in part to a few: narrative, encyclopaedia, diary.

The soul while traveling is constantly being exercised as it observes unknown and new things; and I know of no better school for the formation of life than consistently bringing before it the diversity of so many other lives. – Montaigne

Enrique Vila-Matas, with the writers of the No in Bartleby and the diarists in the Malady, each a story unto themselves, recalls to mind Italo Calvino, and his book Invisible Cities.  Further, his anecdotes and allusions in their plentiful details, also recalls Calvino’s essay “Multiplicity” from the undelivered Charles Eliot Norton lectures of 1986, Six Memos for the Next Millennium.  Calvino concludes his essay with the Jamesian question,

Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined?  Each life is an encyclopaedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.

Vila-Matas’ work is a resounding celebration of this “encyclopedic life.”  It is a protest against the enemies of the literary, those “haughty illiterates, managing directors that give shape to the black bottom of Nothingness,” those authors and publishers who mint novels and stamp them with the conventions of their genre, the malignant market forces that make of literature a commodity, a thing dead and pale. In the esoteric pursuits of alchemy, the transmutation of base metals into gold – the search for the philosopher’s stone – was the most desperately sought.  Less well known is the search for an alkahest, a universal solvent.  One of the theoretical problems posed by the discovery of an alkahest is its storage – if it can dissolve anything, what vessel could possibly contain it?  To return to literature, it would not only be self-defeating to this essay but a paradox to define a new literary genre, one that dissolves all genres and allows the free play of prose unrestricted by the “rules”.  This is, however, what the literature of Enrique Vila-Matas does.  His work is not dissolved in a genre, but acts as a solvent, and he stands as one among many – Bolano, Borges, Calvino & Co.  His work allows him to say, along with James’ incensed crab, “I am myself, myself alone.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: