Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Unwriting

We all know the Bartleybys, they are the beings inhabited by a profound denial of the world. They are named after the scrivener Bartleby, a clerk in a story by Herman Melville, who has never been seen reading, not even a newspaper; who for long periods stands looking out at a pale window behind a folding screen, upon a brick wall in Wall Street; who has never been anywhere, living as he does in the office, spending even his Sundays there; who has never said who he is, or where he comes from, or whether he has any relatives in this world; who, when he is asked where he was born or given a job to do or asked to reveal himself, responds always by saying,

"I would prefer not to."

I read "Bartleby the Scrivener" myself back in college, and maybe before that as well. It's stuck with me, because Bartlby just is. His malady, if you want to call it that, has no real explanation, be it physical, mental, or social. And for a lot of cases that feels true-to-life.

The above quote is actually from Enrique Vila-Matas' Bartleyby & Co. It's a novel that's also an essay on what the narrator calls "the authors of the No." Those who for whatever reason stopped writing or never started. (Arguably David Bowie has been in this club for almost a decade now.) As a character, the narrator is somewhat interesting in himself, obviously feeling some kinship with his subjects. He's also more than a little off, psychologically speaking, although this builds subtly. It's a more low-key version of what Nabokov did with Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire

A lot of the essays are worth reading on their own, certainly. A lot of the Bartlebys are interesting people, in a way that productive authors rarely are. One particular instance is Swiss writer Robert Walser. Walser did sidle his way into publishing fiction, and there are a couple of volumes of his short stories, as well as the novel Jakob von Gunten. Eventually, though, he had himself committed at his sister's urging. Thereafter he only wrote incomprehensible and microscopic lettering. This is the man Kafka wanted to emulate, and in some sense did.

3 comments:

susan said...

I think it was Mark Twain who used to say something to the effect of the hardest part about writing being the difficulty of overcoming his resistance to getting his backside into the chair every day. Being Mark Twain, he said it better than I just did. I also suspect he was compelled to write.

Books have been written about why successful authors like Harper Lee, E.M. Forster, J.D. Salinger, and Dashiel Hammett quit writing. I'd never heard of Robert Walser previously but he sounds to have been an exquisitely sensitive man. I can't help but wonder if he found the happiness he imagined in the passage quoted in the article about being rich:

If I were rich, I wouldn’t travel around the world. To be sure, that would not be so bad. But I can see nothing wildly exciting about getting a fugitive acquaintance with foreign places. In general I would decline to educate myself, as they say, any further. I would be attracted by deep things and by the soul, rather than by distances and things far off. . . . And I wouldn’t buy anything either. I would make no acquisitions. . . . I would walk about on foot, just as usual, with the consciously secret intention of not letting people notice very much how regally rich I am. . . . It would never occur to me to take a cab. Only people who are in a hurry or want to put on noble airs do that. But I wouldn’t want to put on noble airs, and I would be in no hurry whatever.

While he was unable to achieve success in the world he did find a safe harbor where he apparently did continue to write. Those were gentler times.


Happy Birthday ♡

Ben said...

I can believe that there was Mark Twain did have to fight some resistance on his own part. He was much more complex, I think, than most people realize.

That's a formidable list of authors. Salinger is mentioned in the book I was talking about. (The narrator makes a dubious claim about seeing him in New York.) Hammett definitely drank too much, and may not have been prepared for the literary fame that happened to him.

"But I wouldn’t want to put on noble airs, and I would be in no hurry whatever." That is a lovely quote. It sounds like Walser had some dog in him. :)

And thank you deeply for the birthday wishes. Wouldn't have made it this far without you.

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