Lost River, 5th of May
“That’s an intestine with no asshole,” said Chris when I asked him why he didn’t write more Bartlebies. There were already thirty-three billion little boys named Bartleby (one with red socks), equivalent to the microbiome count in the average gut which explains why we swallow literary excess with such ease. I try to sympathize.
In order to cluster-bomb the literary landscape, however, it makes sense to concentrate a lot of authors, characters and plots in one place; under the stage in a town square or a churchyard cemetery or, more conveniently, in a desk drawer. Whether this author be young or hopelessly narcissistic, a prerequisite one might think, the brutal consequences of such an act would be too gruesome to premeditate. Otherwise, it would take some monstrous courage to sustain, and that with great gobs of good humour. Fortunately, in his twenties, Chis Scott wrote his Bartleby with both courage and wit to spare.
Now I’m thinking that every few hundred years, an English or Spanish novelist must inevitably, or should, reproduce a Tristram Shandy or Quixote. With the republication of Bartleby, Verbivoracious has brought the best English example from the twentieth century into the twenty-first. Not a random choice. I too think that Bartleby is a rare work that both respects the tradition and exploits it’s power to explode the literary pretensions of the present, a sordid business, a continuous necessity. Here are several more questions I posed to Chris.
In my room in Toronto, I had a small writing desk and used to bang my knees on the drawer. I could hear things rattling round in there. (In those days we had fountain pens and ink bottles in desks.) I’d done a bibliography course at Manchester and came across the term “ffoule papers,” which described a writer’s discarded drafts. Every time I hit my knees on that drawer, I’d wonder what my ffoule papers were getting up to.
Whence the impulse to flood pages with sprawling literary reference (British, American) and linguistic excess, hardly toilet-trained?
I’ve always disliked social realism and/or writing that proclaims a social, political or ideological agenda — or any agenda, religious or metaphysical, that neglects form and tradition. Bartleby lampooned writers who wore their agendas, ah, inguinally. That was the sixties that was, to paraphrase David Frost. It was very brave of Margaret Lawrence to write such a glowing review of the book in Canada.
Why the Scrivener? What of the Melville passages quoted? “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
Loved Melville as a writer and often wondered if Kafka read him (he read Dickens). Even the early novels Omoo and Typee had a symbolic freight. (How stupid of Brigid Brophy to list Moby Dick as one the most overrated books of all time. (In Bartleby it got her got her transmogrified to Frigid Trophy — sophomoric maybe, but. . . .) I admired Bartleby’s “I’d prefer not to.” (The original dropout!) A scrivener was a clerk, and the word clerisy was around at the time — and, speaking of political agendas and the nationalism of the day, I thought of Julien Benda’s La trahison des clercs, about intellectuals on the eve of World War I. I preferred not to write social realism at a time when everybody and their pet iguana was doing it.
In your subsequent work you not only reign in the exuberance of Sterne-inspired structural demolition, but switch entirely to other narrative conventions. Is that partly true? If so, why?
There was no future in Bartleby, only many pasts. (Rabelais, Chaucer, Langland, the Quixote, and, of course, Tristram Shandy, were some of the “authorities” against which I measured the fiction of the day.) In Antichthon, my novel about the life, trial and execution of Giordano Bruno, everyone has a story to tell — and they’re all liars. It was a story of many voices about one man. (Watergate was unfolding as I wrote the book, so I guess there may be some truth to the old saw that historical novels are really about the present.) In Jack, my novel about the life and crimes of Jack the Ripper, the central character is what Northrop Frye, in an interview given shortly before his death, described as “a disintegrating phantasmagoria” — he was referring to the twentieth century. A multiple personality, my Jack does not know who he is, which seems to me a modern disorder. The two spy books were conventional narratives, though To Catch A Spy was conceived as a parody of Le Carré. (It must have succeeded because one reviewer complained I was an epigone of Le Carré.)
Open-endedness. Infused with grotesque death as it is, the Bartleverse is matched corpse by corpse with equally foul resuscitations. Why does nothing die, disappear or end? The book itself, for instance.
The “Bartleverse,” as you call it, is a closed system, subject to increasing textual entropy. De’Ath knows this, but the Narrator — who is from outside the cosmic book (or drawer) injects new energy of sorts into the old, with comico-catastrophic results. The book falls into a black hole, so to speak — as do we all, I think.
Why the severed hands and arms, and the prosthetic typewriter?
I was taking Sterne’s blank and black pages and my longitudinally split pages to their logical or illogical conclusion. “Literature” may be the ultimate reality prosthesis.