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Enrique Vila-Matas: Bartleby y compañía (2000)


I read Bartleby y compañía for Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Lit Month. As always, so many smart things have been said already that I almost want to become a Bartleby myself and just shut up about the book. You can find Richard’s round-up of posts on Bartleby y compañía here. I’d particularly like to distinguish Obooki’s series of four posts, they express a lot of what I felt but do it so much more eloquently than I could.

Bartleby y compañía is fiction, but it’s not a novel. It consists of a series of footnotes to a non-existant text. The footnotes deal with writers who, for some reason, have given up writing, thus becoming artistas del No (artists of the No). According to the collector of these footnotes, a miserly civil servant who eventually gets fired for skiving off work to search for more “Bartlebys”, these writers suffer from “Bartleby syndrome”. This “illness” is named after Bartleby, the protagonist of Melville’s novel of the same name, a copyist who gives up all his tasks slowly but surely.  I may have to confess to a major omittance at this point – I’ve not actually read Bartleby (Thankfully, Obooki has).

As a book about authors and their unwritten texts (is it safe to call this meta-fiction?), I found the format of “footnotes” to an unwritten text quite fitting. Perhaps this is why Vila-Matas didn’t publish it as a series of separate essays, as Richard suggested he might have done.

Apart from not having read the original Bartleby, there are also a lot of authors mentioned in Bartleby y compañía that I haven’t read don’t even know. The book is one huge exercise in intertextuality and, as such, almost made my head explode. Thankfully, I realised at some point that some of the authors are – or may be – made up (Obooki, again, has compiled a useful list of these potentially fictional Bartlebys, although they’re hard to track down since their principal trait is the fact that they did not leave a trail of works behind). This made me feel slightly less badly read.

At this rate, I thought several times throughout, I’m next in line for applying for the job of Clément Cadou, precisely one of these maybe-or-maybe-not made-up artists of the no. Wanting to be a writer, he once met Witold Gombrowicz, an event which left him so stupefied that he felt like a piece of dining-room furniture. Cadou ended up not writing anything because he didn’t feel up to it after the strong impression Gombrowicz made on him. Bartleby y compañía is my Gombrowicz: it made me feel so poorly read that I don’t really feel up to writing much about it.

However, I do think that the fact that some of the authors are (probably) fictional is probably one of Vila Mata’s tools of irony. I suspect the guy knew full well that a lot of his writing in Bartleby y compañía would go straight over readers’ heads because they haven’t read or don’t even know the Bartlebys he’s talking about. So he included some made-up ones for good measure. He’s probably chuckling to himself somewhere about his little prank.

I enjoyed its subtle and sometimes less subtly irony – indeed, the whole book is probably ironic, since Vila-Matas himself is quite the prolific writer. But luckily, Bartleby y compañía is relatively short, as I don’t think I would’ve gotten through it otherwise. Presenting one author who has given up writing after the other gets a little old after a while, and sometimes I found it hard to focus on so much intertextuality. The most positive thing I can say about the book, I guess, is that it made me want to read (more of) some of these authors’ works.

English title: Bartleby & Co. 
German title:
 Bartleby und Co.


Author: bettinathenomad

Nomad. International Relations geek. Reader. Feminist. Swimmer. Boulderer. Runner. Hiker. Not necessarily in that order.

10 thoughts on “Enrique Vila-Matas: Bartleby y compañía (2000)

  1. I think this is a common response to Vila-Matas – after reading ‘Dublinesque’, I immediately wanted to read more of his work but was a little unsure as to whether I was qualified to do so 😉 And I’m sure he invented a few names there too…

  2. I enjoyed the entries on the various writers so much, Bettina, that it didn’t really matter to me whether they were real, fake, or imagined. Who cares about a little detail like that? 😀

    • Thinking about it, for the point of the book it really doesn’t matter much whether the characters are real or imagined and, as Rise points out below, even the real ones are used fictitiously. The whole game with people’s uncertainty about the book’s intertextuality adds another dimension though, and it totally works (many of the posts mention the issue of not having read/knowing all the Bartlebys).

  3. P.S. Considering the company you keep (judging by your blog-roll anyway), I’m amazed that this is the first time I’ve heard of your blog 🙂

  4. I just considered as fictional characters those authors I’m not familiar with. In fact all writers’ names in the book are used fictitiously and so are made-up characters. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely literary. 🙂

    I love the prank! But what a serious prank. Irony is probably his favorite trope. His Never Any End to Paris is a entire novel presented as a lecture on irony.

  5. I always try to read through my lack of understanding and trust my instinct. You don’t have to be able to build a bicycle to ride one. Ulysses is similar – it can be read as a book or as an institution. I find that the more times I’ve read it the more it is a story of people, rather than style, references or anything else that has been thrown at it. Nothing to be scared of.

  6. Pingback: Italo Calvino: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) | Books, Bikes, and Food

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