Tuesday, 18 March 2008

bartleby & co [w. enrique vila-matas]

Bartleby & Co feels like a book that is probably not designed to be read. It is not designed to be read because it is written about the act of non-writing, and therefor non-reading. The book enumerates, in 86 brief episodes, a history of writers who have ceased to write. Whose writing, ultimately, aspires towards the one thing it can never achieve, which is invisibility. Along the way the author references Beckett, Pynchon, Kafka, Duchamps, Melville, Hawthorne, and a host of others who may or may not be real.

The only real problem with Vila-Matas' anti-text is that, besides being provocative, it is also resolutely entertaining. Both of these things force the reader to continue reading, albeit against their better judgement, and in spite of the gauntlet laid down by the author to desist. At times the novel flirts with the idea of a narrative - there are occasional references to the author's job, his solitude, his Bartlebian aimlessness, but the narrative instinct is held in check. The novel operates as a succession of nuggets, each one a story in itself, a potential book which has not been written.

What is this? Is it post modernity? Is there such a thing? Is it the book written beyond the grave of the prophesied author's death? (The notion of which is belittled in one section of the book dealing with a former love of the author who ends up living in Montevideo.) If anything it reads like writing as that rarest of things - pleasure. Vila-Matas loves his stories, he has too many to tell, they annihilate any possibility of creating the kind of novel they used to (and still do) write. So instead his pen flickers over the surface of the paper, a succession of jottings, notes, thoughts, married to the thesis of the annihilation of literature, a thesis which can only be conceived by one who loves it so much.

I didn't expect to enjoy this book. After ten pages I feared it would be no more than an idea spun into a novel. This it either refused or failed to do. It never became a novel. It remained an idea. It should be consumed in small bursts. As though these might be the last original words left to be written or read, and should be savoured as the rare, precious, disposable things that they are.

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