Monday, July 23, 2007

Enrique Vila-Matas - Bartleby & Co. and Montano's Malady.

Roberto Ontiveros reviews Enrique Vila-Matas' Bartleby & Co. and Montano's Malady.
Enrique Vila-Matas writes novels about those who can't write, those who can write but choose not to and those who wrote until they woke up one day and discovered they no longer could. His book "Bartleby & Co." is a respectful devotion to all who engage in the grand "No" of literature, who spurn the static word for politics, ennui or maybe even a chance at actual living. Because writing, which demands solitude and often leads to misanthropy, stands outside of life.

In the guise of an assemblage of footnotes to a study of an invisible text, our narrator — a disgruntled desk clerk with a humpback who has no luck with women — explores his fascination with writers such as Rimbaud, Becket and Kafka, who, like Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, prefer not to further engage in the pingpong of literature. Our hero sacrifices his mind and employment for this project. He takes a trip to New York on a phony sick leave and is torn between his desire to run up to a man he is sure is J.D. Salinger and his desire to proposition the young woman standing near him. Upon realizing that the two are an item, he balks at the unfairness of the world and decides to listen in so he can stay apprised of the reclusive author's newest work.

This book is no labyrinthine joke but rather a genuine puzzle: Can a reader not at least marginally enthralled with these authors find entertainment in a book about what they haven't written?

"Bartleby & Co.," which was published in Spain in 2001 and translated into English in 2004 (the New Directions edition is a recent paperback reissue), is Vila-Matas' first book to appear here. It falls into a line of honorable literary experiments: During the cold war the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem put together an entire book composed of reviews of nonexistent books. More recently, the late writer Roberto Bolaño created "Nazi Literature in the Americas," an encyclopedia of fake fascist writing. But everything here is genuine — genuine hearsay about the proto-surrealist Marcel Duchamp, grounded criticism of Guy Debord's Situationist movement and real debate over the very reasons for writing.

Even the made-up material rings with authenticity. There is a touching and perplexing moment when our scholar of absence asks the proprietor of a bookstore why he doesn't write.
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