Footnotes to an Invisible Text: A Study in Literary Paralysis

That I found Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby and Co. among the many books in the under a hundred pesos rack is one of the many fortunate things that occurred in the course of last week.

In the book, Marcelo – a Barcelona office clerk – begins writing a diary that is also, of all things, a book of footnotes to an imaginary text. Bartleby is a Herman Melville short story character who when asked to do something, always replied, “I would prefer not to” and Marcelo’s footnotes investigates “the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature… the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the negative impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps because of this), never manage to write: either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralyzed for good.”

One author mentioned excused himself saying, “As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences everything gets distorted, language is just no damn good – I use it because I have to, but I don’t put any trust in it. We never understand each other.”

Another writes in a book titled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, “Above all, dear reader, do not believe that the books I have not written are pure nothingness. On the contrary (let it be clear once and for all), they are held in suspension in universal literature.”

Even Juan Rulfo, an author who stopped writing for the remaining thirty years of his life after the publication of one of my favorite books – Pedro Paramo, is quoted saying, “You ask why I do not write? It is because my Uncle Celerino died and it was he who told me the stories.”

Suffice to say, it is probably the most hilarious read I had in recent days. The only problem is my not having read enough in my past twenty-one years of existence to distinguish which of the snippets, literary works, less known authors Vila-Matas references are real or invented! ■


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