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Life among the Ledgers

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I am rather fond of the crowd that Dante meets at the very start of his journey into Hell with Virgil. They are all rushing around moaning and shrieking on the edge of the River Acheron, hoping that Charon the ferryman will carry them across. He refuses. When Dante asks who they are Virgil tells him that they are the ‘Futile’, the people who have done nothing in particular with their lives. They are not well-known for anything. They have achieved nothing spectacular either good or bad. They are not allowed into Heaven in case their dullness dims the radiant light of Paradise, and Hell won’t have them either because such an insipid bunch would downgrade the very notion of sinfulness. So they are not allowed passage across the river. They are seen hurrying to assemble under one flag and then fleeing in the opposite direction to assemble under another. They sound like most of us. Anyway, I number myself among them.

That early canto in Dante’s Inferno set me thinking. I began to wonder what place the futile, the piddling and the paltry occupied in literature. Where were they? Did they ever come into their own? Could they rise to the heights of tragedy? Were they ever major protagonists in a story, being neither dastardly nor heroic, but just mooching along. The dastardly, in their dazzling darkness of evil, are well represented: Captain Ahab (more of Melville later), Shakespeare’s Iago, Stavrogin in The Devils, child-killer Medea and indeed Satan himself in Paradise Lost. And it is only too easy to find swashbuckling heroes and feisty heroines from Odysseus and Beowulf to Shaw’s St Joan, Atticus Finch, Elizabeth Bennet, Anna Karenina, James Bond or Toni Morrison’s Sethe. The list is endless.

But what about those who did not swash any buckles, those who just pottered along? Are they represented? Well, yes they are. Gradually, it dawned on me that the person I was seeking was that little-recognized creature who nonethe

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I am rather fond of the crowd that Dante meets at the very start of his journey into Hell with Virgil. They are all rushing around moaning and shrieking on the edge of the River Acheron, hoping that Charon the ferryman will carry them across. He refuses. When Dante asks who they are Virgil tells him that they are the ‘Futile’, the people who have done nothing in particular with their lives. They are not well-known for anything. They have achieved nothing spectacular either good or bad. They are not allowed into Heaven in case their dullness dims the radiant light of Paradise, and Hell won’t have them either because such an insipid bunch would downgrade the very notion of sinfulness. So they are not allowed passage across the river. They are seen hurrying to assemble under one flag and then fleeing in the opposite direction to assemble under another. They sound like most of us. Anyway, I number myself among them.

That early canto in Dante’s Inferno set me thinking. I began to wonder what place the futile, the piddling and the paltry occupied in literature. Where were they? Did they ever come into their own? Could they rise to the heights of tragedy? Were they ever major protagonists in a story, being neither dastardly nor heroic, but just mooching along. The dastardly, in their dazzling darkness of evil, are well represented: Captain Ahab (more of Melville later), Shakespeare’s Iago, Stavrogin in The Devils, child-killer Medea and indeed Satan himself in Paradise Lost. And it is only too easy to find swashbuckling heroes and feisty heroines from Odysseus and Beowulf to Shaw’s St Joan, Atticus Finch, Elizabeth Bennet, Anna Karenina, James Bond or Toni Morrison’s Sethe. The list is endless. But what about those who did not swash any buckles, those who just pottered along? Are they represented? Well, yes they are. Gradually, it dawned on me that the person I was seeking was that little-recognized creature who nonetheless inhabits some of the greatest works of literature. I give you the figure of the humble clerk. The first of them who springs to mind is Bartleby, one of the most famous of the species, described as ‘pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn’ but who was destined for literary greatness. Now that I look further I find that there are many of these figures scurrying about the pages of iconic works of fiction. I am not so interested here in those who have lesser, supporting roles, like the timid clerk Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol or the obsequious, insincere clerk Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. I am seeking those clerks who are the heroes of their own stories. Some of the most inspirational are to be found in Russian literature. There is Pushkin’s clerk in ‘The Bronze Horseman’, who reaches the heights of tragedy as his life is swept away by the floods on the River Neva. Then we have Chekhov’s ‘Death of a Government Clerk’. Here the clerk’s upsetting downfall and death are brought about by a mistimed sneeze at the opera. The government clerk in Dostoyevsky’s The Double is driven mad by a lookalike who takes over his life. And how powerful these stories can be. Recently I picked up ‘The Overcoat’ by Gogol, having read it many years ago. It concerns yet another low-ranking government clerk whose coat is threadbare. By the time I was halfway through, and even though I knew how the story ends, I was so upset I could not bear to continue and had to put the book down until I felt strong enough to finish it the following day. But surely the paragon, the nonpareil of clerkdom and life among the ledgers is Herman Melville’s Bartleby the scrivener. (It is a complication for any writer to have the same surname as another more illustrious writer. I am often asked if I am related to Herman Melville. I am not. Although out of respect for my eminent namesake I have always refrained from writing a story about a big fish.) Interestingly, whereas most of the clerks in Russian literature are state employees, Bartleby in the United States is employed in the private sector, in the Wall Street office of an elderly lawyer who has a ‘snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds’. In fact, ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ is subtitled ‘A Story of Wall Street’. It seems, without being overstated, that in his subtle and peculiar way, Bartleby had set his face against capitalism, which means, in America, against life itself. The elderly lawyer is the narrator of the story. In answer to an advertisement for another scrivener to copy documents, ‘a motionless young man’ stands on the threshold of his office. It is Bartleby. He is placed behind a screen and does a prodigious amount of copying work in the first few days. But when he is asked to come out and examine a document with the lawyer he replies mildly from behind the screen: ‘I would prefer not to.’ There is an exquisite delicacy in his refusal. He uses the conditional tense as if there were other possibilities. But there are no other possibilities. From then on he gives the same answer to every request, however small or reasonable, whether it is to assist in checking documents, copying a contract or running an errand. He always replies, ‘I would prefer not to.’ After a while he prefers not to copy any documents at all or accede to any other demand or entreaty. He is motionless in his passive resistance though unfailingly mild and polite. On being fired and asked to leave the office, he says: ‘I would prefer not to.’ It turns out he is living there. Often he is to be found standing motionless opposite a brick wall. Faced with this genteel obduracy, it is Bartleby’s employer who is finally obliged to move. Bartleby’s behaviour is astonishing, infuriating, hilarious and profoundly shocking. The mildness of his manner contradicts the sheer effrontery of his inaction. Bartleby’s pallid hopelessness becomes an emblem of tremendous power. His is the greatest of refusals. Now civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal of a citizen to obey certain orders, wishes or commands of a government or some other authority. It has to be non-violent. It’s possible to spot the first signs of such a tendency when a toddler in his high chair turns his face away from the spoonful of food offered by a desperate parent. Perhaps that is an early understanding of the power of refusal. Bartleby is, in his minor way, the forerunner of Gandhi. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether Gandhi did not have a copy of ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ tucked into his dhoti. Herman Melville was born just over 200 years ago. Bartleby was one of the last pieces of published prose that he wrote. In an odd way the story seems to foreshadow the ensuing trajectory of Melville’s own life. Bad reviews, poor sales, hostile critics – even for his earlier masterpiece Moby-Dick – meant that Melville gave up writing prose entirely and consigned himself to work as a customs officer for the remaining decades of his life. One of the greatest of all American writers preferred not to write any more fiction. But the influence of Bartleby remains. Some years ago I was in Guyana on the northern border of Brazil visiting relatives. One evening we were at home under a palm-thatched roof from which the occasional lizard dropped to the floor. The community is Amerindian. People lay in their hammocks. Children sprawled on the floor. At the appointed time my cousin switched on the radio – only for a quarter of an hour in order to save the batteries – and we listened to ‘Lillibullero’ and the BBC World Service. That evening there was a poem by Andrew Motion about ice cream which left everyone stone cold. This was followed by William Blake’s ‘Tyger, tyger burning bright’ which was listened to with huge pleasure, intensity and appreciation by those who were, indeed, more likely to come across a jaguar in their daily lives than an ice cream. For some reason, when the programme had finished, I decided to tell the story of Bartleby as far as I could remember it. It was the children who first spotted the possibilities. For a brief period the household descended into chaos as everybody ‘preferred not to’. Later I heard that the idea had spread to a neighbouring village. None of it lasted, of course, but an idea has been planted that might one day have its uses. For this reason alone I think Bartleby should be given permission to cross the River Acheron. His was surely an act of such glorious defiance that it deserves a place in either Heaven or Hell. Of course there would be others from the community of clerks who would be pushing and shoving to gain a place on the ferryman’s boat. Mr Pooter the north London clerk would be among them, convinced that his Diary of a Nobody had turned him into a Somebody. Perhaps Chaucer’s clerk, taciturn and thin as a rake (these literary clerks are rarely fat), would think of himself as a celebrity, given that he is still studied more than five centuries on. There would be a whole set of literary figures among the whirling throng of nondescripts trying to secure a place on that imaginary boat. But Bartleby the scrivener’s unswerving refusal to co-operate, his courage and persistence in disrupting daily life, make him a figure of incommensurable power who would surely be eligible for the journey. I see it now: Charon the Ferryman batting away the hordes of nonentities as they scramble to climb on board and then spotting Bartleby, relenting and offering him a place on the boat. And Bartleby’s response? In Herman Melville’s words:
‘I prefer not to,’ Bartleby respectfully and slowly said and mildly disappeared.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 66 © Pauline Melville 2020


About the contributor

Pauline Melville has dual Guyanese and British nationality. Her awards include the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Guyana Prize for Literature and the Guardian Fiction Prize, among others.

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