Monsieur Teste was not a philosopher or anything like it. He was not even a man of letters. For this reason, he thought a lot. The more one writes, the less one thinks.I’ve just finished reading Bartleby & Co. by the Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas. This remarkable little book, part novel, part literary essay (or parody thereof) charts the narrator’s ‘futile search for the centre of the labyrinth of the No’. Marcelo, a onetime novelist whose only publication is a ‘short novel on the impossibility of love’ has himself abandoned literature, preferring to devote his time to writing about the impossibility of writing. His self-imposed task is to ‘track down literature’s slackers’, as one reviewer put it, to seek out the great authors of world literature who, for one reason or another, refused to write. Of course, the only text that can do justice to such an undertaking is an invisible one, and so Marcelo’s own text is nothing other than a morass of footnotes, footnotes to…what? An unwritten and never-to-be-written history of the No?
-- Paul Valéry
Marcelo, even as he strives to avoid doing so, comes to identify himself with Melville’s Bartleby, who ‘would prefer not to’, M. Teste, the alter-ego of Valéry, who himself wished to be free ‘at no matter what cost, from those falsehoods: literature and sentiment’, and Beckett’s Watt (he is AlmostWatt). He has no friends (bar one, whom he despises); he has no success with women, or with life; he has no literary ambition: he does not want to be a writer. He rails against the accusation, made by Derain, his – perhaps imaginary – arch and overbearing academic correspondent, that he considers himself a ‘specialist’. But he protests too much: his own writing, his inventions, are proof of that. Literature is a way of rescuing our thoughts from oblivion, from a life otherwise distinguished only by failure and loneliness.
The literature of the No wears many countenances. Great authors who ‘declined to write’ (Pepin Bello, Joubert), authors who wrote little and then refused to write again (Salinger, Rimbaud), reclusive authors vanished from public life (Pynchon, Julien Gracq, B. Traven). Reasons not to write are myriad: the anxiety of influence, that lingering fear that everything that can be said has been said; the death of inspiration (Juan Rulfo’s ‘Uncle Celerino’); the drugs (De Quincey, and possibly Socrates (!)); a lack of talent; an overabundance of talent (Rimbaud, Enrique Banchs); a belief in the aesthetic value of laziness (Wilde); the fashions and fads of literary culture (fallout of the scam pulled off by Robbe-Grillet et al., who fooled everyone into believing they were being serious); or an utter contempt for le grand public (Chamfort).This is merely a sketch of the material contained within this short book, a survey that takes in everyone from Cervantes to Marcel Duchamp, from Joubert (who was one of the first truly modern authors, because he never wrote a book) to Sterne (who mastered the art of digression, an art that slows the onward march of time and death) to Simenon (an extraordinarily bulimic author, and one who ought to have no place in a study such as this).
The anecdotes Marcelo recounts make the novel worth reading in themselves: Guy de Maupassant stabbing himself in the neck to prove himself immortal; the author ‘meeting’ Salinger on a Fifth Avenue bus (and reproducing a ‘short unpublished text’ by him); the story of an encounter with not one but two Thomas Pynchons.
Blanchot, Borges and Kafka are never far from the margins of this text. Blanchot asserts himself here: ‘These footnotes cannot have an essence, neither can literature, because the essence of any text consists precisely in evading any essential classification, any assertion that establishes it or claims it…Whoever affirms literature in itself affirms nothing’.
And Marcelo has a profound distrust of words that comes through in his reading of Borges' tiger poem: the ‘other tiger’ is ‘the one I also search for sometimes in vain, beyond words: a way to ward off the danger, the danger without which, however, these footnotes would amount to nothing’.
As for Kafka: ‘[Kafka’s] words seem to be about what is happening to me in this diary through which I drift, sailing across the seas of the wretched confusion of Bartleby’s syndrome: labyrinthine theme which lacks a centre, for there are as many writers as ways of abandoning literature, and there is no overall unity, it is not even simple to hit on a sentence that could create the illusion that I have reached the bottom of the truth hiding behind the endemic disease, the negative impulse paralysing the best minds. I only know that to express this drama I sail very well among fragments, chance finds, the sudden recollection of books, lives, texts or simply individual sentences that gradually enlarge the dimensions of the labyrinth without a centre.’
Nevertheless, if he knows where to look, the attentive reader will happen upon signs marked ‘Exit’, or at least hints at sketches mapping the problem from a different perspective, such as these lines by Derek Walcott:
One could abandon writingOr better, from a sham author if ever there was one, Marcel Maniere, member of OuLiPo, whose name is not Marcel Maniere, and who never belonged to OuLiPo:
for the slow-burning signals
of the great, to be, instead,
their ideal reader, ruminative,
voracious, making the love of masterpieces
superior to attempting
to repeat or outdo them,
and be the greatest reader in the world.
‘We know, we feel, that everything has been said, that there is nothing left to say. But what we feel less is that this evidence gives language a strange, one might even say unsettling, statute which redeems it. Words have been saved in the end, because they have ceased to live.’