Nescio is slotted with his contemporaries Robert Walser and Franz Kafka as an example of “clerk literature” by Joseph O’Neill. That’s my term; O’Neill goes on for a while longer. Stories in which the main characters are bureaucrats, whether private or government. Clerk characters are ubiquitous in 19th century Russian literature, but strangely rare elsewhere, with the glorious exception of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” a story that could not possibly have been known to Nescio, even though Melville feels like a direct influence. The profession of clerk is literarily rich exactly because it is so dull: what meaning can be found in a life spent as a poorly paid, over-educated human photocopier?
“And it goes on for years. Then your old man sticks you in an office. And you realize that the reason you learned all those things was so that you could wet slips of paper with a little brush.” (“The Freeloader,” 23)
Working conditions and pay have improved, but the existential problem remains.
O’Neill missed a crucial example: Fernando Pessoa, who made his living as a clerk in a shipping company, much like the “author” of The Book of Disquiet. Pessoa displace his search for meaning onto his heteronyms, particularly the shepherd poet Alberto Caeiro who writes as if he has found a solution:
I believe in the world as in a daisy,
Because I see it. But I don’t think about it,
Because to think s to not understand.
The world wasn’t made for us to think about it
(To think is to have eyes that aren’t well)
But to look at it and to be in agreement. (tr. Richard Zenith, from Fernando Pessoa & Co, 48)
The title character of “The Freeloader, Japi, is a pest and a sponger, but in his strongest moments he possesses a Caeiro-like clarity:
“No,” Japi said, “I am nothing and I do nothing. Actually I do much too much. I’m busy overcoming the body. The best thing is to just sit still; going places and thinking are only for stupid people. I don’t think either. It’s too bad I have to eat and sleep. I’d rather spend all day and all night just sitting.” (5)
There is a painter in “The Freeloader” who struggles and strains for his art, but does produce paintings (Caeiro: “And there are poets who are artists \ And work on their poems \ Like a carpenter on his planks!”). He befriends Japi who produces nothing, even less than Caeiro, but is adept at seeing, or sensing, or perhaps I mean existing, “[s]omeone who thought it was fine just to let the wind blow through his hair, let the cold, wet wind soak his clothes and his body, who ran his tongue over his lips because the taste of the ocean was so ‘goddamn delicious,’ who sniffed his hands at night to smell the sea” (10).
As adept as Japi is at mooching food and cigars from his bohemian friends, he cannot live this way forever – he is the one speaking up above about his father’s office. Japi becomes a clerk after all, just like Bernado Soares, but if he has his own Book of Disquiet, he burns it.
The World War II story, “Insula Dei” (“Island of God”), touches on the same themes, but with a horrible new context: how can one find meaning in a world where everything has been ruined? What happens to a Caeiro- or Japi-like life of the senses when everything you see has been corrupted? Is it ethical to be an island in the face of evil? Or is any other choice ethical? I think I will not pursue this idea. Someone else might. Perhaps I will pick up the trail somewhere else.