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By Enrique Vila-Matas

In Bartleby & Co., an tremendously relaxing novel, Enrique Vila-Matas tackles the topic of silence in literature: the writers and non-writers who, just like the scrivener Bartleby of the Herman Melville tale, in resolution to any query or call for, replies: "I would favor now not to." Addressing such "artists of refusal" as Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Duchamp, Herman Melville, and J. D. Salinger, Bartleby & Co. will be defined as a meditation: a jogging travel throughout the annals of literature. Written as a chain of footnotes (a non-work itself), Bartleby embarks on such questions as why can we write, why can we exist? the reply lies within the novel itself: advised from the viewpoint of a airtight hunchback who has no success with ladies, and is himself not able to write down, Bartleby is completely enticing, a piece of profound and philosophical good looks.

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Sample text

The arrival of the three men finds Herland quietly prosperous, well organised and abundantly fruitful, with the women ‘tall, strong, healthy and beautiful’. 66 In response to questioning, the women reveal that their land was originally populated by both sexes and was much larger, extending from the plateau where they now dwell to the sea. But a series of wars had greatly reduced the male population, to the extent that, when a volcanic eruption effectively blocked the pass from the mountains, the only inhabitants of the plateau had been women and slaves, while the fighting force, comprising all the remaining young men, had been left stranded on the other side of the pass.

Furthermore, although Howarth does not explore the point, I would suggest that Newbolt Man’s ‘fear and self-distrust’ arises from precisely the same rejection of socialisation. If Newbolt Man is the archetypal hero, trammelled by conventions and social taboos, then the American hero is his counterpart in the wilderness, struggling to forge his identity and produce a similarly triumphant narrative. In proposing a country of only women, Gilman suggests the promise of the wilderness: the deeply romantic one that in this new land, untrammeled by history and social accident, a person will be able to achieve complete self-definition.

This, and the absence of cultural artefacts associated with courtship, places the men at a disadvantage from which Jennings is forced to re-evaluate his views on the status of women and the status of the men as potential suitors: You see, if a man loves a girl who is in the first place young and inexperienced; who in the second place is educated with a background of caveman tradition, a middle-ground of poetry and romance, and a foreground of unspoken hope and interest all centering upon the one Event; and who has, furthermore, absolutely no other hope or interest worthy of the name – why, it is a comparatively easy matter to sweep her off her feet with a dashing attack.

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