While I’ve read a number of Gilbert Adair’s recent books, the older titles from his back catalogue are out of print. One of these titles, The Death Of The Author(1992), has thankfully been given a second lease of life in the United States, thanks to Melville House Publishing’s new Contemporary Art of the Novella series, a companion to its Art of the Novella, a series showcasing the likes of Joyce, Flaubert, Proust, andTolstoy.
But the Contemporary range is no stranger to lesser known names itself - The Pathseeker, by Nobel laureate, Imre Kertész was the flagship title So, good company indeed. And, when my copy of The Death Of The Author dropped through the door, so impressed was I by the production values (glossy cover with flaps, bold colour, and nicely tactile pages) that I made the snap decision to purchase all the others within the series, with the intention of subscribing to future releases too.
But to the book. Adair’s work - his fiction, anyway - tends to fall one of two ways: the light entertainment, like his Evadne Mount trilogy; or the heavier entertainment, erudite, but still light. All come with an element of postmodernism. And The Death Of The Author, falling on the erudite side, is a postmodern book about postmodernism.
Although my reading of the book went without knowledge of the events that inform it, I daresay it’s not necessary in enjoying the novella. The reference point is Paul de Man, the Belgian literary theorist whose work had a different light shed upon it when it was discovered he had written collaborationist articles during World War II, including one of an anti-Semitic nature. De Man’s life story, of living during wartime and teaching in the States, is given here to our narrator, Léopold Sfax.
Sfax is a celebrity in the world of literary criticism, having published two books, the first a study of Yeats:
That book, whose appearance produced quite a commotion, I may even say a scandal, in the advanced academic circles of the day, wasEither/Either - I realized I had “arrived” when the Partisan Reviewreviewer wrote of it as having been wildly overrated, for to be described as overrated by one critic meant after all that I had been highly rated by several.
In it, Sfax argues that literary meanings are not intentions of their authors, no matter what they say - that it’s the reader and their interpretation, be it this or that, that makes the meanings. Following on from this book is the one that makes his career, The Vicious Spiral, the book whose arguments, not given a name, become simply known as ‘the Theory’.
The more closely a text is studied the more insidiously is it drained of sense or legibility, just as the more fixedly a word is stared at on the page the more too is it drained of legibility or sense, striking the increasingly bewildered eye as a mere weird disconnected sequence of squiggles. Words are far older and fickler and more experienced than the writers who suffer under the delusion that they are “using” them. Wordshave been around. No one owns them, no one can proscribe how they ought to be read, and most certainly not their author.
If de Man is the template for Sfax’s life, Roland Barthes is the inspiration for the Theory, being an echo of his essay Death Of The Author. And it’s the popularity of this book that brings us to the opening scene as Sfax talks with a female student of his who would like to write his biograph. Of course, rather than have someone else tell his story, The Death Of The Author becomes his autobiography, and he meanders off on events in his life, coming each time to the moment that spurred him to sit down and write in the first place.
With any Adair book, being vigilant is part and parcel of reading him, for his texts are not without their games, and there’s always that delight on realising, one again, that he is one, sometimes two, steps ahead. In The Death Of The Author he more than delivers, his games bringing together a beautiful spoof of literary criticism and memoir that, toward the end, adds a murder mystery that fulfils the promise of its title. And, when this cauldron of fun comes to the boil, Adair adds a stinging twist that had me screaming, “you bastard!” To read The Death Of The Author is not unlike what it must be like to have subscribed to Sfax’s Theory:
The world had been turned upside-down - what had always been true was false, what had been important was marginal, what had been meaningful was meaningless - and it made sense, it made sense!