BARTELBY & CO.
By Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated by Jonathan Dunne
New Directions, $21.95, 160 pp
Reviewed by PHILIP HERTER
In the spirit of Spanish author Vila-Matas' hilarious "antinovel" I almost didn't write this review, tempted as I was to join what he calls the "writers of the No" _ those who serve literature best by not writing at all. But deadlines loom, and any writer should think twice before rushing to join Vila-Matas' curious company.
Conceived as a series of footnotes written by a hunchback who has no luck with women, Bartleby & Co. celebrates the lives and talents of those writers who renounce the writing life, who "would rather think than write," who have exhausted their themes, or whose ideas are as elusive as bubbles in a champagne glass _ those who, like Melville's famous character, "would prefer not to."
While pondering their reasons for putting down their pens, Vila-Matas discusses a wide range of refuseniks, from such famous nonwriters as Arthur Rimbaud and J.D. Salinger (our narrator is sure he spotted the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye on a New York City bus), who rejected literary fame they'd achieved; to notorious cases, like that of Spanish-American Felipe Alfau, who took a 50-year hiatus from the public eye; to tragic cases like Hart Crane's, whose suicide was the grand finale to his life's work.
Did these writers really crave obscurity, Vila-Matas wonders, or did they think they were taking a shortcut to immortality? Were they out of ideas or out of their minds?
The seriousness of Vila-Matas' purpose, and the engaging manner in which he recounts these anecdotes of rejection, help shed light on literature _ the undervalued and frustrating art which, judging by the number of writer's workshops, MFA programs, poetry contests and write-a-novel-in-a-month Web sites, is gaining more recruits than ever.
In this era of blogs, propaganda and the "reality- based community" once called journalism, Bartleby & Co. poses a simple question: What makes some people so determined to scratch a few words onto the running sands of time?
In other words, why bother?
Vila-Matas takes pity on the misfits of literature, exiles from ambition for whom the term "writer's block" is way too mild. By showing what happens when writers give up, he sheds light on the reasons that writing is such a satisfying, even compulsive, way of being. Deeply ironic but with a serious purpose, Bartleby & Co. is a novel for the writer, and the ex-writer in all of us, a narrative that explores a dark corner of literature and in so doing, informs as much as it entertains.
Philip Herter lives in New York where he refuses to stop writing.