As he implies in the opening sentence—“I never had much luck with women”—the protagonist/narrator of Vila-Matas’s first book to be translated into English is a loner. Twenty-five years ago he was a writer, having written a book about the possibility of love, but at the start of this novel, he’s working in an office leading a rather dismal existence. His time in the office doesn’t last too long though, as he takes a vacation (which becomes permanent when he’s fired) to obsess about his book chronicling the “writers of the No.” His book—the same as the one you’re reading—is constructed from a series of footnotes detailing the Bartlebys of literature. The writers who decided to quit writing (like Felipe Alfau), those who quit because they went mad (Robert Walser), and those who incorporated the Bartleby ideal into their writing (Robert Musil). As the narrator catalogs these instances of Bartleby-ness in an obsessive, all-consuming fashion, telling their stories, relating entertaining, funny anecdotes, his story starts to creep in. A “writer of the No” himself, the narrator’s story fits right in among the encyclopedia he creates about other “No” writers. Suddenly, emerging from the entertaining and interesting catalog of writers and their stories, the reader gets a sense of the narrator’s overwhelming isolation. He only has one friend, one who claims that literature ended with Robert Musil, then Felisberto Hernandez. But he also has his book and the characters that inhabit it. It’s often said that literature is a solitary enterprise (both reading and writing it), but immersed in literature, one is surrounded by compatriots.
Bartleby & Co.
by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne
192 pp., $14.95 (pb)
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To have watched from one of your patios
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from the bank of shadow to have watched
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my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
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