In my most recent “Pulled off my shelves” column I discussed poems and novels written without the use of any letters or words; those novels which consist entirely of punctuation. The writers eschew letters believing that they could be as convincing with only the skeleton of communication Are you a writer if you refuse words and letters?
In my second “Pulled off the shelves” entry I discussed the issue of “progress” and the expectation of an arc of growth or evolution over an author’s oeuvre. As readers we look for our authors to grow and change, to reflect our own personal growth over our lifetime’s arc. Are you a writer if you’re not changing?
And in my initial “Pulled off my shelves” entry I discussed the “rippling fear” of what came before, and the worry of “anticipatory plagiarism.” Previous books haunt, inform and challenge how—and what—we compose. The gall to call oneself a writer (and especially a poet)—with all the inherent cultural baggage—causes even more pause during those times when one isn’t writing: when life has other plans; when one is between projects; or, that most-frightening period of “writer’s block.” What do we do with the moments when we aren’t writing? Are you a writer if you’re not writing at all?
Enrique Vila-Mata’s novel Bartleby & Co. takes the form of an essay by a frustrated novelist. The piteous, hump-backed, balding narrator last published a novel about impossible love twenty-five years before and since that time hasn’t written a single word. He “became a Bartleby.”
Bartleby, of course, is the eponymous character from Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby the Scrivener who in the face of capitalist expectation and responsibility states that he simply “would prefer not to” have any active role in his own life other than that of refusal. Vila-Mata’s unnamed narrator, in the face of a 25-year freeze, decides to explore the “writers of the No,” those writers who have decided, for various reasons, to never write again. The book takes the form of footnotes for an imaginary essay. They build an imagined history of writers, both real and imagined, who have decided that they were better served by not publishing (typified by J.D. Salinger who did not publish a word after 1963’s Seymour: an Introduction). Can not writing at all be a literary act? Can we consider that an author is adding to her oeuvre by ceasing to write?
Vila-Matas uses a combination of real and imaginary books in order to explore the “no”—the real books seem too good to be true (and often are), and the imaginary seem just real enough (and often aren’t)—the line between the written and the unwritten blurs both in the argument and its support.
By juxtaposing fictional authors with factual ones, Vila-Matas undermines the reality of all authors. Every author he cites, and by extension every writer there is, is merely a figment of his imagination and every text written (or refused) equally ethereal.
Once again Borges’ library architecturally looms—only this time the books are empty; we are entombed in the walls noting silent authors within the din of potentialities.
Author of five books of poetry (most recently the visual poem suite silence), three volumes of conceptual fiction (most recently the short fiction collection How to Write) and over 150 chapbooks, derek beaulieu’s work is consistently praised as some of the most radical and challenging contemporary Canadian writing. A collection of his critical writing entitled "Seen of the Crime" is forthcoming from Snare Books. He is online here.