The Reality Effect

This appeared in FT Weekend on 13 May 2017:

The Reality Effect

The premise of Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language is a stroke of genius. Roland Barthes did not die following an accident in 1980; he was murdered. Jacques Bayard, a superintendent for the intelligence service — sworn enemy of “work-shy lefties” — is immediately put on the case.

Completely clueless (“Episteme, my arse”), Bayard recruits Simon Herzog, a young academic who teaches semiology, to act as his Virgil through the arcane world of Theory. It soon transpires that the great 20th-century linguist Roman Jakobson, famous for defining the six functions of language, had in fact discovered a seventh one. Barthes was in possession of a document revealing its potent secret: how to unleash language’s magical powers of persuasion. Such knowledge could turn anyone into the “master of the world”, which is why everyone — from Bulgarian spies toting poisoned umbrellas to President Giscard d’Estaing — is after it. The piece of paper has, bien sûr, vanished into thin air. In whose hands will it end up?

Binet’s bestselling debut, HHhH, about the assassination of Nazi security chief Reinhard Heydrich, was awarded the Prix Goncourt du premier roman. His new novel, also inspired by real figures, is a sort of post-structuralist whodunnit casting the semiotician in the role of detective. The first part of the book, set in Paris and featuring a roll call of intellectual luminaries, is pitch-perfect in its evocation of early-1980s French society — and contains hilarious, often polyphonic, set pieces. The scene where novelist Philippe Sollers pontificates about his work-in-progress while his spouse, philosopher Julia Kristeva, has a nauseous existential moment induced by the skin of milk floating atop his café crème, is a bravura performance. The picaresque plot begins to flag, however, when the two protagonists hook up with Umberto Eco in Bologna and at Cornell University, where Jacques Derrida is torn asunder by dogs and Sollers castrated.

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes contends that lang­uage, ceasing to be merely instrument­al, “loses its origin” when it enters the fictive realm. A thinly veiled reference to this theory recurs throughout Binet’s novel. The reader’s quest for the narrator’s identity gradually forms a phantom plot that shadows (and even overshadows) the overt whodunnit, sending us on a wild-goose chase. A description of Bayard sitting in a café is interrupted by a parenthetical aside: “Which café? The little details are important for reconstructing the atmosphere, don’t you think?” Pleading ignorance, he (or indeed she) enjoins us, à la Tristram Shandy, to picture the superintendent wherever we so please.

Here, Binet reprises a theme tackled in HHhH, where the author’s stand-in frets over the minutiae of historical reconstitution: the colour of the Nazi security chief’s Mercedes, for instance. Such “little details” are important in fiction as well as history books: they produce what Barthes called the “reality effect”. Highlighting their contingency — why this Latin Quarter café rather than another? — is a ruse by which the narrative voice enhances the reality effect while seemingly undermining it. After all, a fallible storyteller is far more credible than an omniscient one (with the added convenience of allowing Binet to paper over a few gaps in his research).

The strands of the plot are skilfully interwoven through a dual process of fictionalisation of the real and realisation of the fictional. At one stage the narrator observes that it is difficult “to imagine what Julia Kristeva is thinking in 1980”, as though this were not the case with any real-life person at any given moment. A similar statement is later made about one of the fictitious protagonists, about whom anything could be imagined: “We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?”

Or are we? As the plot thickens, Simon feels increasingly “trapped in a novel”: “How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction? How do you know that you’re real?” This growing ontological crisis — doubtless stemming from Barthes having read the world like a text — sends us back to the opening sentences: “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so”.

One begins to wonder if Simon has not done a Proust: stepped out of the story at the end in order to write it with the benefit of hindsight. This would partly account for the choice of an anonymous present-day narrator piecing together past events. It could also explain some of the anachronisms — goths, yuppies, purple Dr Martens, crack cocaine — which may have been planted by the author as signs of an unreliable memory. The retrospective view provides a rich seam of dramatic irony as the characters’ forecasts prove invariably wrong. This is obviously its main raison d’être, but the time gap also signals a more fundamental distance, as though the ideas of Barthes or Foucault could only be integrated at the level of subject matter, no longer seriously engaged with. Or perhaps the narrative voice is language itself and Simon’s paranoia a manifestation of the novel’s growing self-consciousness. This particular enigma remains unresolved, which is as it should be if literature is understood as the invention of a voice “to which we cannot assign a specific origin”.

Although highly entertaining at times, The 7th Function of Language fails to live up to its title. Everything, including the most obvious allusions (like the ubiquitous Citroën DS that Barthes compared to a Gothic cathedral) is spelt out. After all, what is the point of a roman à clef if the author provides us with all the keys?

Phantom Plot

My review of Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language will appear in the FT tomorrow. It was posted on their website today. Here is an extract:

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes contends that lang­uage, ceasing to be merely instrument­al, “loses its origin” when it enters the fictive realm. A thinly veiled reference to this theory recurs throughout Binet’s novel. The reader’s quest for the narrator’s identity gradually forms a phantom plot that shadows (and even overshadows) the overt whodunnit, sending us on a wild-goose chase. A description of Bayard sitting in a café is interrupted by a parenthetical aside: “Which café? The little details are important for reconstructing the atmosphere, don’t you think?” Pleading ignorance, he (or indeed she) enjoins us, à la Tristram Shandy, to picture the superintendent wherever we so please.

Here, Binet reprises a theme tackled in HHhH, where the author’s stand-in frets over the minutiae of historical reconstitution: the colour of the Nazi security chief’s Mercedes, for instance. Such “little details” are important in fiction as well as history books: they produce what Barthes called the “reality effect”. Highlighting their contingency — why this Latin Quarter café rather than another? — is a ruse by which the narrative voice enhances the reality effect while seemingly undermining it. After all, a fallible storyteller is far more credible than an omniscient one (with the added convenience of allowing Binet to paper over a few gaps in his research).

The strands of the plot are skilfully interwoven through a dual process of fictionalisation of the real and realisation of the fictional. At one stage the narrator observes that it is difficult “to imagine what Julia Kristeva is thinking in 1980”, as though this were not the case with any real-life person at any given moment. A similar statement is later made about one of the fictitious protagonists, about whom anything could be imagined: “We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?”

Or are we? As the plot thickens, Simon feels increasingly “trapped in a novel”: “How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction? How do you know that you’re real?” This growing ontological crisis — doubtless stemming from Barthes having read the world like a text — sends us back to the opening sentences: “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so”.

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

This appeared in Guardian Books on 9 October 2012:

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

The French books world’s demented annual commercial knockout context shows little sign of going away

[Eternal return… Parisian book buyers. Photograph: Alamy]

Much ink was expended, earlier this year, on the subject of parenting in France. For better or worse — usually the former — it was deemed far less “child-centric” than across the Channel. There is, however, at least one area where French kids set the agenda: the agenda (French for “diary”) itself.

Although nominally in December, the end of the year really occurs in early summer, when schools break up for a two-month hiatus. By August, Paris feels eerily empty, in a way that London, for instance, never does. At times, it almost looks like the local population has been wiped out by a neutron bomb, leaving hordes of tourists roaming around a ghost town. Most of those who cannot afford to go away are relegated — out of sight, out of mind and out of work — to the infamous banlieues, which, owing to some strange optical illusion, only become visible when they disappear in flames.

By the same token, it is September, and not January, which marks the true beginning of the year; a beginning that spells eternal recurrence rather than renaissance. “La rentrée” — the back-to-school season extended to the entire populace — never fails to remind me of Joey Kowalski, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, who, despite being 30 years old, is marched off to school as though he had been caught playing truant. “La rentrée” is the bell that signals the end of playtime; the restoration that follows revolution. In an annual re-enactment of the “retour à la normale” after the carnival of May 1968, everybody returns to the old “train-train quotidien”: the daily grind of “métro, boulot, dodo” (commute, work, bed — an expression derived from a poem by Pierre Béarn). A vague sense that real life is elsewhere (as Rimbaud never quite put it) lingers a while, before fading like suntans and memories of holiday romances.

The start of the new school year (“la rentrée scolaire”) coincides, give or take a few weeks, with the opening of the publishing season (“la rentrée littéraire”). In fact, both rentrées go together like cheese and wine, Alsace and Lorraine, or Deleuze and Guattari. This is not purely coincidental, since publishers are largely dependent upon education for the grooming of future generations of book buyers. The “rentrée littéraire” is the equivalent of cramming for your finals — a tome-intensive blitzkrieg geared towards the autumn literary prizes and subsequent Christmas sales. The season kicks off mid-August, really kicks in mid-October, and climaxes in November, when most book prizes are awarded: the illustrious Prix Goncourt (hot on the heels of the Grand Prix de l’Académie française in October) but also the Prix Décembre, Femina, Flore, Interallié, Médicis, Renaudot, and a few others besides. The major publishing houses tend to carpet bomb, chucking as many titles at these awards as they can, while the indies have no other choice but to go for surgical hits, on a wing and a press release.

So far, this year’s vintage has been pretty much business as usual, apart from the growing popularity of ebooks. At season’s close, 646 novels will have been released (compared with 654 in 2011 and 701 in 2010). If French fiction is down a little, the number of foreign titles remains constant (220 against 219 last year). As a result of the uncertain economic climate, there are fewer debuts (69 against 74) and more mass-market print runs (including Fifty Shades of Grey and the new JK Rowling). Pursuing a trend observed over the past few years, many of the heavyweights (Jean Echenoz, Patrick Modiano, Philippe Sollers et al.) have been held over until mid-October in order to heighten anticipation and maximize impact upon November’s book prizes.

Some of this season’s most hotly touted titles have a distinct whiff of déjà vu. There’s the new Houellebecq (Aurélien Bellenger, whose first book was an essay on the old Houellebecq). There’s the presidential campaign, which is fast becoming a sub-genre, with no less than seven books devoted to the latest instalment (including a non-fiction novelisation by HHhH author Laurent Binet). And then there’s the obligatory scandal which, this year, comes courtesy of Richard Millet (“l’affaire Millet”!) and his “literary praise” of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

The best take on the “rentrée littéraire” appears in Ecclesiastes: “of making many books there is no end”. In no other country is so much fiction published in such a short period of time. With hundreds of novels competing for a dozen prizes or so, most are destined to sink without trace — unsold and unread. Industry observers claim that if a debut novel has not caused a buzz by mid-September, it’s (French) toast. The result is a book glut comparable to Europe’s wine lakes and butter mountains.

David Meulemans, who heads indie press Aux Forges de Vulcain, made a few waves recently by announcing that he would not be taking part in this year’s rentrée. He described the publishing season as “mass commercial suicide”: a launch pad for prizes virtually no one stands a chance of ever winning. Sylvain Bourmeau — who praises the extraordinary diversity of publications on offer (belying, in his view, the French literati’s reputation for navel-gazing) — acknowledges, in Libération, that the rentrée is indeed a “weird national lottery”. For the past decade, Pierre Astier has been one of its most vocal critics. This former indie publisher, who went on to launch one of France’s first literary agencies, highlights the hypocrisy of a system — controlled by an old boys’ network — that fosters cut-throat competition without establishing a level playing field. Conflicts of interest abound; nepotism is rife. Being life members, the Goncourt judges are endowed with godly powers. Four of them even have books in the running for this year’s awards, which are usually carved up among the major publishing houses anyway. Astier also criticises the lack of openness to francophone writers, which he interprets as a sign that decolonisation has not gone far enough.

Although its quaint customs are often parodied (as in Patrick Besson’s Ma rentrée littéraire), the publishing season, is still widely seen as an instance of France’s cultural exceptionalism; its “droit à la différence” — or even différance.