Saturday, 21 September 2013

Week Thirty-Five - Jeanette

Bartleby The Scrivener: A Story Of Wall Street by Herman Melville (1853)
Recommended by Dave

I’m an ignoramus when it comes to Great American Literature.

Twain? Pynchon? Steinbeck? Fitzgerald? Whitman? Carver? Hemingway? Besides Of Mice And Men and The Great Gatsby (and they hardly merit a brag, length- or difficulty-wise) I’ve read not a one. Those hours spent watching The Wire, re-watching The Wire, re-watching The Wire, watching The Wire commentaries, and re-watching The Wire commentaries have to come from somewhere, and I’m not subtracting them from reading Middlemarch (or re-reading Middlemarch). Starting something like Gravity’s Rainbow seems like an overwhelming chore: I would prefer not to.

Moby Dick is my one flimsy defense against being a total Eurocentric literary fascist. I read it during a university Easter holiday (and, crucially, I didn’t have to, it wasn’t part of a course) and loved it. The atmosphere of the Pequod, and its crew under the obsessive Ahab was magnificently drawn. I’m sure I missed much about American culture and history in my reading, yet I still feel I ‘got’ the book overall. Melville didn’t purposefully over-complicate an already Byzantine work; he urged understanding and care with his meticulous words, and I always appreciate that in an author.

A motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.

Bartleby is employed in a Wall Street law office. During the course of the story, he steadily refuses to undertake more and more of his allocated tasks and, when faced with the sack, refuses that too. The plot itself has an absurdist and fantastical bent, nicely captured in this scene from the 2001 movie staring the brilliant Crispin Glover. The full trailer is below, and it looks like it might be a worthwhile adaptation.

The narrator (and Bartleby’s boss), an elderly lawyer who holds the venerated office of Master in Chancery, struggles with the unexpected passive resistance of Bartleby. He swings between indulgence and annoyance. His mania to understand Bartleby’s behaviour becomes every bit as compulsive as Captain Ahab’s search for the Whale.

Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine, touching the scrivener, had been all predestined from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise providence.

Bartleby’s wraithlike presence could encapsulate a dozen, a hundred, meanings. His thousand-yard stare, penetrating nothing yet everything – is this modern urban blankness? His denial of work – is this a comment on the farce of bureaucracy? His squatting in the offices of his former employer – does this relate to the futile wish to rid ourselves of psychological baggage?

Or is it a relatively straightforward tale of a man with chronic depression?

Our narrator takes his sweet time to get to anything. We get intricate detail about each of the copyists in his employ (not just Bartleby), and these descriptions are all in woolgathering prose.

In the morning, one might say, his face was of a fine florid hue, but after twelve o’clock, meridian – his dinner hour – it blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals; and continued blazing – but as it were, with a gradual wane – till six o’clock, PM, or thereabouts; after which I saw no more of the proprietor of the face, which, gaining its meridian with the sun, seemed to set with it, to rise, culminate, and decline the following day, with the like regularity and undiminished glory.

This might be expected in a book the girth of Moby Dick but Bartleby, The Scrivener doesn’t even scrape novella status. I rarely read short stories because basically I’m prejudiced: I believe they will never satisfy me in the same manner as a longer work, reasoning that the word limitation just does not allow for sufficient richness. Simply a matter of physics. But Melville proves me wrong. Wrong with bells jangling. Bartleby The Scrivener rivals even Moby Dick in its vision and accomplishment, and it does so in thirty-six pages.

Dave’s first choice of book to me was something I read only last year: À Rebours. I’ve already bleated about this unique work in relation to Teju Cole’s fantastic Open City; like Bartleby The Scrivener, À Rebours is another, albeit very different, portrait of an eccentric at repose with his own thoughts.

Dave certainly has his fair share of unconventional characteristics. When I first met him he had a quiff and the type of outré glasses you wouldn’t see on anyone outside of a Top Man advertising hoarding. I remember there was once a fancy dress party and the theme was dressing as Dave. I also remember there was another fancy dress party where the theme was dressing as a pop star; Dave came as this Morrissey!

(I came as this Betty Boo.)

Now the quiff has gone, or rather it’s migrated south to form a rather impressive beard. Dave looks like what he is: a musician. His current band is The Drink. I’m almost annoyed that The Drink are my friends, because it makes people think I’ve a vested interest in celebrating them. Not at fucking all. Listen to ‘Microsleep’ and tell me this isn’t the greatest Deerhoof-meets-Essential-Logic-yet-still-utterly-unique song going.

You may have noticed that over these past few weeks I’ve been in a reverie myself; like Bartleby, my default state has been staring into the open plains of the mind. Perhaps with the occasional microsleep.

Come out of it? I would prefer not to.