20 July 2012

Bartleby has company

Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Jonathan Dunne (The Harvill Press, 2004)

(Note: The following is not a review but a transcription. While flipping through my copy of the Vila-Matas novel, three sheets of folded paper with writing on one side suddenly fell from between the pages. There appears to be consecutive numbers in superscript in the text. I reproduce the text below. It is signed "V" on the last page.

Bartleby & Co. is the Week 3 selection of Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog and Richard of Caravana de recuerdos.)


Writing is terrifying. The mind is occupied by what heart and soul dictates. Doubts accompany every pronouncement and sentence. The structure of the prose makes impossible demands. Stumbling blocks arise from every awkward-sounding phrase. Writerly confidence evaporates. The tongue-tied draft discourages the careful patience of the craft. Literature is seasonally abolished. If I keep silent, who will hear me from among the invisible hierarchies of invisible cities?

This book, if it is a book, if it amounts to a book, is my stream of semi-consciousness. He, the other character, will introduce himself in the footnotes. Bottom-dweller, he will crawl the floor of the pages, searching out his company of terrified writers. He shuffles to fill out the forms. I have faith in his capacity as protagonist and agonist.

Robert Walser1, writer of infinitesimal codes, is not mere clerk of court. I laugh. Can miniature ideas be grand? I pour out these empty words. I pour this thought into the invisible ink. Uncle Celerino rests in peace. But the ghost of his nephew, Juan Rulfo, is wanted for a lie detector test.

When a thirteenth foreign language is understood, does it not rattle the tongue? Does it not colonize thought, adulterate the native mind? Go ask Felipe Alfau2. If words are nothing but hallucinations, then a poet's refusal to record hallucinations3 must be heroic. I can't keep silent on this point, dear Socrates.

This long history4 of non-writing complex, or Block syndrome, is a beautiful subject to write about. To dig more about it is to imagine an empty mental hospital room being occupied, by someone mad5 or lacking in vanity. Someone with incontrovertible introversion6. (Between reading and writing, I'll take the first. Between rereading and rewriting, I'll definitely take the first. But I hope the narrator in the footnotes keep up. I hope he opens up new grounds7 I lay before him. I can't withstand the formulaic.)

One specifically writes to not forget the atrocities8 of history. Nunca mas!

And then there was the case of Cadou9, starstruck with an idolized author. At a glance from Gombrowicz, he transformed himself into a piece of furniture. Some writers are not born to write, and some mercifully receive the No letters10. My annotator has been nursing his literary eclipse11 for some time. Next time we meet I must ask him if it was the solar or lunar kind.

What if writers draw inspiration12 from their disappearance? As if they write firsthand account of their vanished souls? Here's your cue, close reader. Put the soul in the footnotes.

Not writing13 is still writing. Once ink is set beside paper, the writer unleashed his desire to be the paper. Desire is enough to retain the purity of a blank sheet. The imaginary contents of a universal library14 are enough to bring the unwritten to attention. The best thing is there's no fine to overdue imaginary books.

"I don't know" is a good place to begin15 a speech.

Poets are vultures. This includes my understudy who seeks an appointment with a vulture16 in order to supply the missing dead meat.

I look in the mirror17 and see someone else. A voice, writing after me, below me, marching and trailing one after another. One, two, three, ...

If the mirror has eyes, what do they see in a mirror?

In between the thinking thought and the written word is digression18. Ergo, to not write anything is to digress, which is a form of writing.

One does not write, not because they prefer not to do so, but because one doesn't know how to. If one knows how to write, then during the time he can not write, he simply doesn't know the way. One rebels either from knowledge of ignorance or ignorance of knowledge.

I must exercise to cheat death and to write19 some more.

For lack of ideas, you may conjure20 up a letter. Or would you rather play chess?

I'm breaking my silence. I'm smashing the chains of self-censorship. I speak to you, character, creation. You are privileged to speak in the notes of this book. To structure its structure, carry on the imposture, trickery, charlatanry21. Only death22, not its impersonation, releases the manifold silences of a sonnet.

Imagination23 is plenty, but its use is scarce. Yeah sure, invent characters24 to characterize whatever it is you want to symbolize.

I think I know which of the two of us is fictitious, and which the original. Unlike Borges, at least I know which of the two of us is writing this page. Must you overcome25 the challenge before you. Know what is dangerous to your health. For one, the dramatic practice26 of silence without wit.

Writing the novel of denial27 is impossible. Useful tip to a young novelist of denial: preach what you do not practice.

Dear footnote-taker, I assure you, you have not the past life28 of a beast. Please make sure they didn't find out in the office that you fake your own depression. Else you're toast29. Do not prolong the story of J.D.30 anymore. Get to it31.


The literary genius, having known the limits of his literary imagination (i.e., none), opts to spurn literature32 for one reason. He can afford to do so. Only the non-genius tries and tries to type his mustard-piece but it always falls and falls short of the aim. Even heteronyms33 know their boundaries. Literary expression is insufficient, says Hoffmannsthal's "Letter of Lord Chandos"34, to embody human experience. Wars, for example, devalue language. Turn it into linguistic trauma. Mere stuttering35.

I shall lead you to relevant materials, dear Marcelo, pro bono36.

For example: Writing is inversely proportional to thinking37 (see Valéry's Monsieur Teste). If one does not think, where is the spark when I say I would write no more (after Keats38)? And Rimbaud's39 "Adios, letras!" And Broch's dying Virgil assailed by loud, individuated voices40 of ... silence. And Perec beginning his rap in the manner of Proust (maybe41): "Yes, it could begin this way, right here, just like that, in a rather slow and ponderous way, in this neutral place that belongs to all and to none, where people write almost without seeing each other, where the life of the building regularly and distantly resounds." Be resourceful. Literature does not participate42.

I found my objective: to produce a text that makes the invisible43 visible. By writing about not writing, I pay tribute to the literature of the No. At the same time, I enact the literature of the Yes. There's no middle ground. No literature of Perhaps.

For this invisible book made visible, I have these as working titles44:

Non-writers Anonymous
Unlimited Unwriting
Club of No
Blocked Heads

In freely quoting writers, in commenting about their literary (mis)behaviors, the annotator has my imprimatur. A gaze45 is enough to read one's fortunes: publish or kapeesh, choose your own adventure. To live46 in what one has finally written. Ultimately the story is not owned by anyone. The copyright belongs to the elements47.

That Melville ended up a Bartleby48, an office clerk, is beyond the scope of the literature of negation. We hew exclusively to the text (or non-text). To silent conversations between writers49. To declarations, final, that the work of the poet50, though endless, is over.

"Not writing for pleasure" can be one of the best gifts51 of freedom. You ask, Who will answer when the knock52 of the book-that-begs-to-be-written comes at the door? Why, the writer-in-you of course. Take the case of the octogenarian Henry Roth53 who mercifully bided his time. He wrote from bondage – the bounty of existence – before calling it sleep.

The poet Juan Ramón Jiménez54, who won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Literature, could not bring himself to celebrate. The love of his life expired three days after the prize announcement. Stricken by grief, he could not bring himself to attend the awarding ceremony in December of that year. He relayed a message to the Academy through a friend whom he asked to read his speech: "My wife Zenobia is the true winner of this Prize. Her companionship, her help, her inspiration made, for forty years, my work possible. Today, without her, I am desolate and helpless." Ramón Jiménez suffered two more years of despair not even close to literary in this world.

Quite the opposite of Kafka who had the dogged belief55 that marriage is a condemnation not to write!

I once saw a film56 by Antonioni – who also adapted Cortázar's story "Las babas del diablo" – where feelings dry up like sweat during an eclipse. Feelings like the inspiration to write.

My character delicately asked me, Can a short story57 be inserted in a footnote? I think a novel can be made from footnotes, provided there's ample space and the ideas never run out of prose.

Another question from M: Are all writers practitioners of the theater of the No since, when it comes to it, all writers die58 and their pens and papers with them?

I roll my eyes. So are readers and their failing eyes doomed in that sense.

Borges's tiger59 lies in the realm of fiction. Thus, it's a non-tiger, but no less fearsome. I, the text, am the tiger (the idea of silent literature). The footnotes, parasites, feed on the non-carcass of the non-tiger stitching a non-novel out of its non-stripes.


Prolificacy60 is a really rather unstoppable quality. After winning the Nobel Prize at age 76, Saramago was still writing for a living. He was unstoppable. A writer built to last. To think that he once declared, "It was becoming quite clear to me that I had nothing worthwhile to say." This after he abandoned his second novel, Skylight, after being ignored by the publisher he sent it to. "I had nothing to say, so I said nothing." It's that simple. After writing his first novel The Land of Sin in 1946, it would be close to twenty years before he would re-enter the Portuguese literary scene again, and some thirty years before another novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, was to appear.

My disabled double has to produce some lasting impressions61 on his own. I worry for him (he's not sociable and is easily affected by normal human activities62) as an author of an absent book63 which is based on an absent one and based on the idea of absence.

"They say the first sentence64 in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me, anyway." Wisława Szymborska's Nobel lecture, "The Poet and the World", was touched by the utmost humility. She continued, "But I have a feeling that the sentences to come – the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line – will be just as hard, since I'm supposed to talk about poetry."

The totalitarian modus operandi of invasion of privacy is the most effective way to break a person's resolve. The Cuban Piñera65 showed a way to dramatize the resistance. Writing on it was almost as good a way to resist.

I feel like this invisible-text-made-visible appears more and more like fictional footnotes materializing out of some primordial soup of chance. Random referents originating 100% from the ether. But I must see this text through if only because I have gone on long enough. Delusions66 are free for the taking.

In the guise of a discouraging letter67, more notes to supply the subconscious. The void68 is the goal; Kafka shows the way.

Dearest A, my last request: Everything I leave behind me in the way of blank notebooks, bits of paper, news clippings (my own and others'), Post-its, anything unwritten, etc., to be burned in your mind. That they are blank is a telling evidence.... Yours, Enrique Martín

To mythologize or expose69, it doesn't matter so long as you set out to disprove my claims. I await rebuttals of unsound claims perpetuated like bad books70 on bestseller shelves. Readers are free tourists forever stranded71 by words traveling from page to page. Hypothetically, a novel is endless72 though it has to end somehow. With a period or a question mark or what eats, shoots, and leaves you have. With a hanging word or the symbol ∞.

Anti-readers can abandon their reading any time they choose. A clear exception is the Chilean poet who called himself the ideal reader73 in one of his poems. Ideal because he read everything he can lay his hands on. For him every word is sacred. He ended his poem with a heartrending lament: "... I'm asking you [members of the jury] to give me / the Nobel Prize for Reading / as soon as impossible".

Insert a Kafkaesque nightmare74 here.

"Become the night", says Emilio Adolfo Westphalen75.

Look at the white face and black body of the Night until you stop perceiving the difference between whiteness and blackness.
Since you will only know Night if you lose yourself and disappear in the Night – if you become Night.

I do not lack essence76 even if you will not acknowledge these pages. No, you will dream of them and think of them. You will enter an underground cave with words painted on its wall: "The last writer was here."

Then you will talk to your solitude in a soliloquy77. Contemplate hunger strike78. Wonder if a blocked writer descends from another. Wonder when will the real Thomas Pynchon stand up79, where did Simenon80 acquire the indefatigable energy to prefer to.

I'm not a key or master list. I just navigate the stream of a transparent liquid without oars. Mental or spiritual blockages are seldom forerunners of creativity, though they could spur one to think81. Of things like immortality82, thereby shielding the writer-thinker from trivial writing-thinking. The feeling83 for poetry comes and goes. But poetry abides.

Consider the many masks of B. Traven84. His reclusive life was built on multiple personalities. He took new names like wearing a shirt. He shed them just as easily from his naked self.

This is the penultimate statement85 for footnoting: To end here would be awesome. But no, Marcelo my friend. I don't need to convince you.

"It is a minor question of style, and of consideration for the reader," writes F. L. Lucas in Style, "whether (apart from mere references) a writer should allow himself to use footnotes." He listed two issues against this device: (1) they are distracting; and (2) if the author took more trouble, he could weave them into his text. But Lucas eventually concluded, "But these arguments do not strike me as very convincing."

The last sentence in a work is probably just as hard as the first. So I will end with nary a metaphor or word86.


  1. I must congratulate this "V" person, persona, or heteronym, Rise, and thank him and/or androgynous her for such a fine three pages of anti-prose. Thank you as well for your Don Quixote-like transcription! [Naturally, I mean the original Arabic-to-Castilian DQ and not that Frenchman's 20th century word-for-word update.] It is to be lamented, of course, that those 86 "numbers in superscript" and/or footnotes didn't fall out of the novel at the same time as the rest of the text you shared with us, but perhaps the un(der)employed Paranoico Pérez can be called in to assist with a "premptive reconstruction" of same. Cheers!

    1. Richard, I'm just the messenger. I'm not sure how I can relay your message to V. LOL. I'll take the credit for transcription as I had a hard time deciphering the unruly handwriting. I sure could use Paranoid Pérez's insight into the provenance of this text. It must be plagiarized somewhere.

  2. Rise, what a stroke of good fortune. I love when stuff falls out of books. There I was, feeling cheated that Vila-Matas had only taken half the trouble Nabokov had taken in Pale Fire but now I have the text and footnotes. Now I'll have to reread the 'complete' book before completing my own post..

    1. That happened to me when I was reviewing '1Q84' - something by Trollope, funnily enough...

      ...it's amazing that this only happens to us bloggers...

    2. Séamus, it's strange really. I received the hardcover from someone in Australia 3 years ago and only discovered the "papers" when I started reading it for the Spanish month. Though it reeks of something spurious, like Avellaneda's Don Q.

      Tony, yeah. Bloggers are quite attentive to stuff falling out of books.

  3. I have a feeling (not having read the book) that all of this went sailing way over my head, but it's given me enough of a taste to want to try it... although perhaps I'll first need to reread Kafka, read Samarago, Borges...

    ...Vila-Matas, like Kafka, is obviously a writer who has this effect on literary bloggers, rendering them unable to review the book without being pulled into an inter-textual vortex of scrambled ideas...

    ...like my review of 'Dublinesque' - but read the book first, or 'Ulysses' then 'Dublinesque', or 'Ulysses' then 'Murphy' then 'Dublinesque' - or perhaps some Paul Auster first, then...

    ...at any rate, the art of non-writing has found a new proponent (or should that be 'lost'? - this is writing...)

    1. Tony, scores of writers named in the book made a clean exit through me too. I think the only reader completely prepared to recognize all the references in B & Co. is the narrator Marcelo himself. The irony of writing about non-writing through footnotes to an invisible text is quite charming. But more than the content, many of them obscure to me, I appreciate the intelligent design of the whole thing.

      I'm still thinking of a strategy on how to approach (i.e., cheating) reading Dublinesque without the burden of reading the mammoth U-monster. Some alternatives I'm considering: Wikipedia, SparkNotes, or the self-help How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read (although I can probably cheat by reviewing book reviews of the latter!).

  4. That was very enjoyable, thank you Rise!
    As I said in my own post, I also had the problem of a lot of things going straight over my head with this book. But then again, feeling as if we need to read more is one of the things that fuel us, right?

    1. Bettina, I'm sure V. is glad you liked his "book". :D

      It's amazing how a book about writer's block can enable reading books (perhaps even by fake writers!).

  5. I am only surprised that this text was not written in invisible ink.

    1. Jeremy, I went to check if it was written in disappearing ink. Alas, the papers are mysteriously gone.

  6. (a friend points out that a good answer to "If I keep silent, who will hear me from among the invisible hierarchies of invisible cities?" might be "Horton.")