Authors who don’t write: a reassuringly illustrious group

For Scotland on Sunday, John Burnside reviews Bartleby and Co, the first novel from acclaimed Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas to be translated into English. The Bartleby of the title is a Herman Melville character after my own heart who “when he is asked where he was born or given a job to do, or asked to reveal anything about himself, responds always by saying,‘I would prefer not to.'”

According to Marcelo, the narrator of Bartleby and Co – a hunchbacked clerk who once published “a short novel on the impossibility of love” but never followed up with the famously difficult second book – this refusal is symptomatic of a syndrome that has afflicted writers throughout the ages; men and women who either chose not to write at all, or gave up after a tantalising show of initial promise never to be heard from again.

In order to investigate this syndrome, Marcelo builds a catalogue of such writers, some of them familiar, such as Rimbaud or Salinger, others less so, and a few of them fictional to make matters interesting. What he discovers in the process is that refusal is an art in itself: “I remembered Albert Camus: ‘What is a rebel? A man who says no.’” And not only an art, but a moral choice. As Che Guevara said: “Silence is argument carried on by other means.”

Marcelo’s book about “writers of the No” is ingeniously composed of “footnotes commenting on a text that is invisible, which does not mean it does not exist, since this phantom text could very well end up held in suspension in the literature of the next millennium”. In so doing, of course, he completes his second book, and in the process comes to a difficult and beautiful conclusion.


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