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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Bartleby & Co.

Enrique Vila-Matas

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To purchase Bartleby & Co.

Title: Bartleby & Co.
Author: Enrique Vila-Matas
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 178 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Bartleby & Co. - US
Bartleby & Co. - UK
Bartleby & Co. - Canada
Bartleby & Co. - India
Bartleby et compagnie - France
Bartleby & Co. - Deutschland
Bartleby e compagnia - Italia
Bartleby y compañía - España
  • Spanish title: Bartleby y Compania
  • Translated by Jonathan Dunne

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Our Assessment:

B+ : clever, if not entirely successful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 15/7/2004 .
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . 6/11/2001 Paul Ingendaay
The Guardian . 14/8/2004 Mark Sanderson
The LA Times . 19/12/2004 Thomas McGonigle
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 14/3/2002 Ute Stempel
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/6/2005 Anderson Tepper
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2005 Chad W. Post
Scotland on Sunday A 20/6/2004 John Burnside
The Spectator . 28/8/2004 Kevin Jackson
The Village Voice . 27/12/2004 Ben Ehrenreich
World Literature Today . Fall/2000 Will H. Corral
Die Zeit . 13/12/2001 Hermann Wallmann

  Review Consensus:

  Not really a novel, but clever and entertaining

  From the Reviews:
  • "It has a distinctly continental feel about it -- in that it is not a conventional novel at all but a learned essay, which playfully mixes fact and fiction to explore some of the reasons why so many writers fail to write. (...) Pathological ditherers and nerdish spotters of allusions will love this clever, slightly precious book. There is something here for everyone who enjoys fiction and has thought a little about the creative process." - The Economist

  • "Als "Roman" ist das Buch Bartleby & Co. des spanischen Schriftstellers Enrique Vila-Matas, geboren 1948 in Barcelona, nur eine bescheidene Übung, die so wenige wahrhaft romaneske Seiten füllt, daß sich die Bezeichnung fast verbietet. Interesse dagegen verdient das Buch als literarischer und literaturkritischer Essay (der neunzig Prozent des Gesamttextes ausmacht), als Gang durch eine Galerie künstlerischer Sonderlinge." - Paul Ingendaay, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Vila-Matas has produced a postmodern paradox, something out of nothing, a positive out of a negative. His non-novel is highly original, both lucid and ludic." - Mark Sanderson, The Guardian

  • "Abandonment and renunciation are the themes of Vila-Matas's whimsical novel" - Anderson Tepper, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Suddenly, emerging from the entertaining and interesting catalog of writers and their stories, the reader gets a sense of the narrator’s overwhelming isolation." - Chad W. Post, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "What emerges from Vila-Matas’s meditation on presence and absence, on the why of writing and the metaphysics of refusal, is that silence is not a simple choice, refusal not an easy option. The quality of the silence, the nature of the refusal, is at least as important as the truth of the written word. (...) The best opposition to bad writing is a good book -- and Bartleby and Co is an excellent book, well-served by Jonathan Dunne’s fine translation. It is a work of honesty and profound beauty to set against the "latest novelties" that erode the spirit of readers everywhere." - John Burnside, Scotland on Sunday

  • "What it lacks in originality Bartleby & Co. more than makes up for by its bracing erudition. (...) And if it does little to illuminate the more obscure reaches of its topic, it does retell the old, old story with considerable elegance and admirable lack of melodrama." - Kevin Jackson, The Spectator

  • "Its tensions derive not from the slender extra-textual narrative -- Marcelo is anguished and alone, and grows more so -- but from the very fact that it is written, that the narrator saw fit to break his lengthy silence, to write about not writing." - Ben Ehrenreich, The Village Voice

  • "Vila-Matas's assumed task, then, is to show the inevitability of establishing a dialogue among these writers. By guiding us in how one can study or read them -- with tense eyelids, with a fine-tooth comb, so as to plagiarize and trip one another with the same sincerity and vehemence with which one finds oneself in the Other and can venerate one another without knowing it -- he also shows that these writers belong to the breed of otherworldly authors who are not fashionable, generally by choice." - Will H. Corral, World Literature Today

  • "Wäre Vila-Matas Bartleby außerliterarisch "gefolgt", hätte er gegen den Geist Bartlebys verstoßen. Fröhlich ist bei seiner Wissenschaft nicht das Motiv, wohl aber die Methode." - Hermann Wallmann, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Bartleby & Co. is narrated by a humpbacked man, stuck in a bad job, with practically no friends or family. A quarter of a century earlier he wrote a novel (on the impossibility of love), but since then has been silenced, becoming a Bartleby-figure (as in Melville's novella). Now he sets out to become a "tracker of Bartlebys", and begins this text: a diary in the form of footnotes to an invisible text, commentary and explication of what isn't there.
       It's not quite as clever as it sounds: the absent text doesn't figure strongly enough, making the footnotes appear little more than chapters, rather than actually adding to or responding to something (even -- or especially -- something that isn't there). Still, Vila-Matas offers a good survey of authors who abandon writing or are unable to continue, as well as some that take other approaches (such as the voluminous illegible scribblings of Robert Walser).
       Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Letter of Lord Chandos, that "emblematic text in the art of refusal" is one of the main examples, but the book is filled with variations on the theme, as all aspects and all sorts of examples are offered. And, despite being in the form of footnotes, a narrative coalesces as well: the narrator's efforts are not formed in a vacuum or in total isolation, and past and present (and the imaginary and the real) do propel the narrative forward, the narrator's undertaking -- writing (even about not writing) -- making for at least some form of accomplishment.
       The narrator may overstate it, but he's basically right when it occurs to him that:

in fact more than ninety-nine per cent of humanity prefer, in the most unadulterated style of Bartleby, not to, prefer not to write.
       The many who believe they have a book in them, or are haunted by the feeling that there is something they want to set down in words suggests that maybe more than one per cent of humanity isn't of the purest Bartleby-sort, but since most don't actually manage to make much of their vague dreams it does indeed seem to be a Bartleby-peopled planet.
       Anyone interested in literature and writers will enjoy Bartleby & Co. for the examples and anecdotes alone, though there's more to it than that. But it is very much a literary novel, concerned primarily with literature and the artistic impulse, not plot or action. Good fun, but not for everyone.

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Bartleby & Co.: Reviews: The Letter of Lord Chandos by Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Enrique Vila-Matas: Other books by Enrique Vila-Matas under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas was born in 1948. He has won numerous literary prizes.

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© 2004-2021 the complete review

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