What to say, how to begin, on a piece of writing which, says Patrick McGrath in the introduction to the Hesperus Press edition of ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, “one of the great achievements of world literature”? In fact he doesn’t quite say that: he simply says that this high praise is “the judgement of many readers”. Get off the fence, Patrick: it is.
‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ was published in 1853 but it forges a path ahead, and is such a keystone of modern literature that to admit not having read it before is akin to proclaiming ignorance of ‘Metamorphosis’ or Waiting for Godot. (Rest easy: I have.) But it is one of those works whose reputation precedes it so handily, and which seems summable in such straightforward terms, that it almost feels unnecessary to read it. Do I need to read it? With all the other books pressing on my time, I would prefer not to. So confident was I that I already knew it, that I even read a novel inspired by it – Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co – without having read the source material. In the end, like all classics, ‘Bartleby’ defies expectations, and expands before your eyes.
A mere 40 pages in the above edition (or 80 in the handsome Melville House one below, for those who like good value: though the Hesperus edition also includes the story ‘Benito Cereno’), this is a story which unpacks several times its bodyweight. The essence is simple to summarise. A lawyer on Wall Street, “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best,” employs a new copyist, Bartleby: “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!” All goes well until one day, when asked to read over a document, Bartleby responds: “I would prefer not to.” Soon it becomes his answer to everything. You can see where this is heading.
This mild statement, through repetition, becomes sinister and frightening. “I would prefer not to.” Why not? Bartleby never explains. His story is twofold: of Bartleby himself, and of his effect on others. It unnerves his employer, forcing him to move offices (“I would prefer not to quit you,” is his reply when the lawyer asks him to go). His response is inhuman – uncooperative, alien – but normal in its civility and its intention: all humans must struggle against the desire to stop, to step off the treadmill. Bartleby is frightening because he dares to.
He clashes with his employer also because he – like all lawyers – likes the definite and concrete, where Bartleby is “more a man of preferences than assumptions.” But his preference is not a statement in favour, but a statement against, a denial: not what we think of as a ‘preference’ at all. His choice is to decide not to choose; to take his fate out of his own hands by stoutly insisting on his desire “not to”. “I like to be stationary,” says Bartleby late in the story. “But I am not particular.” Meanwhile his employer decides that Bartleby is his fate.
‘Bartleby’ – like Bartleby – is endlessly open to interpretation. Patrick McGrath outlines them in his introduction to the Hesperus edition. Bartleby is a Christ figure. He is the narrator’s alter ego; he is Melville’s alter ego (trying to recover from the commercial failure of Moby-Dick and Pierre). Or, more satisfyingly, it is about power and submission, where here the potent employer becomes entirely submissive to the decisions Bartleby makes – or refuses to make. It is the endless unfoldings offered by a book which is so short, on the surface so simple, which is one of the marks of its greatness. That it laid the foundation, and led the way, for much essential 20th century literature, is another.