Thursday, 23 September 2010
Bartleby & Co and The Literature of No
In ‘Bartleby & Co’ Enrique Vila-Matas discusses Marcel Maniere’s same opening sentence for his book, ‘Perfumed Hell’ which, as far as I know, is a fictitious creation (both author and book). He describes the opening paragraph in which Maniere names the literary group he belongs to, as well as giving his name, as a sham. You get the joke. ‘Bartleby and Co’ is a reflection not just on the literature of the No, but the truth and falsehood of both writing and writers.
When I began to think seriously about how to start my next post I soon realised that I would do so by saying I did not know how to. It seemed logical because it was the truth. I had no intention of writing about a particular subject, least of all the subject of what I should write about.
As Maniere says, the second sentence is less compromising than the first and so, as it is with writers sometimes, a sense of relief sets in once the first is written. Problems occur, however, if once re-examined the first sentence proves unsatisfactory - the curse of the writer who falters, or the natural way of the would-be perfectionist, if you like. I realised long ago that to seek perfection in what I write is pure folly. And yet imperfection still bothers me sometimes when I become foolish enough to think that I could have written something perfectly.
The trouble with the classic opening sentence I’ve used is that it can only be used once by an author. Only once does it have a ring of truth, even if it’s a lie. I have told you that mine is a kind of lie, or an untruth dressed as fact. But looking at it another way, it is still true to say that I had no idea how to start what was not a fully-formed subject. How could I?
Vila-Matas’s footnotes to an invisible book make perfect sense to this writer who, over what feels like many years, has written texts that will remain invisible for all time. All writers have never-to-be-seen texts, whether they are successful or not. The unfortunate, famous ones have their draws raided once they are dead, and their intended invisible work shown to the world. After all, dedicated fans do want to read what the writer considered a failure. I take some comfort in knowing that this will never happen to me.
Vila-Matas includes famous writers such as Kafka and Rimbaud in his book, along with the imaginary; and the secretive, such as Pynchon and Salinger. The reader’s knowledge of a writer’s life is hardly important since Vila-Matas plays with notions of fact and fiction. His 1st person voice is fictitious to begin with, and so the deceptions multiply.
To say No without having written a word is an interesting concept, but akin to breaking rules which you are unfamiliar with, perhaps. Do you know why you are saying No to unleashing words upon the world? Or are you merely refusing to do it for fear of ‘failure’? It is so easy, after all, to claim to have a great book in your head.
They say everyone has a book in them and that, probably, is where it should stay, sealed within the impregnable fortress of the mind as a perfect entity which transference into the written will weaken considerably, or totally destroy.
‘Bartleby & Co’ is subtle exploration of what he calls ‘the literature of No’, that mysterious world of literary refuseniks, both real and imagined, who turned their backs on publishing and publicity. It does so not in laborious detail, but as a ‘story’ of one man’s pursuit of the idea.
Lawrence Block said in ‘Writing The Novel’ that the best cure for wanting to write fiction is to ‘take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass’ – before going on through nearly 200 pages to tell the reader how to write that novel. As he also says, any fool can write a poem but it takes a special kind of fool to write a novel. I would add that an even more special fool continues to write ones that will never be published.
Well, I salute every fool on the planet who writes against the odds. Blogging was made for them if they wish to use it for fiction. After all, this is so much digital paper which, let’s face it, cannot even be used to wrap fish and chips in the following day. It’s permanence in one sense does, however, make the medium a great conduit for millions of ‘invisible’ texts. It’s tailor-made for those of us who might otherwise beg for ‘proper’ publication but actually, in true Bartleby fashion, prefer not to.