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”.

Peter Rabbit is to be Found in Everything

Interview with Andrew Gallix, “The Brief: 3:AM Magazine,” Silent Frame 1 April 2017:

3:AM Magazine is a literary webzine that comprises reviews, critical essays, prose fiction, poetry, and interviews with prominent writers and philosophers. The interview responses below are given by the site’s Editor-in-Chief, Andrew Gallix. Alongside editing 3:AM, Gallix works as a freelance journalist, translator, and lecturer at the Sorbonne in Paris. He has written for various publications, including the Financial Times, The Guardian, and the Times Literary Supplement. With Richard Cabut, he co-edited and contributed to Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night (Zero Books, October 2017).

Which book would you recommend to our readers?
Remainder by Tom McCarthy. The best French novel ever written in English. It has a special place in 3:AM Magazine’s history, as we were the very first to champion it. This is where twenty-first-century literature began.

Which film would you recommend to our readers?
Berberian Sound Studio, directed by Peter Strickland, which revolves around a particularly gruesome giallo, evoked only through sound effects and snatches of overdubbed dialogue and howls — because films should be heard and not seen.

Which architectural work would you recommend to our readers?
The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Kensington Gardens, where Peter Pan poetically dwells — a new pavilion is built from scratch each year.

Which television episode would you recommend to our readers?

‘Episode 8’ from Series 1 of Life on Mars, directed by John Alexander — the episode where time-travelling protagonist Sam Tyler comes face to face with his young parents, and even catches a glimpse of himself as a child.

Which Mexican artwork would you recommend to our readers?
Under the Volcano, a novel by Malcolm Lowry. What I most admire about this most admirable novel is the line, ‘Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit’.

[NB: Though an English author, Lowry briefly lived in Mexico, where Under the Volcano is also set.]

Which Serbian artwork would you recommend to our readers?
Complete Poems by Danilo Kupus, some of which were inspired by Beatrix Potter — because Peter Rabbit is to be found in everything.

Can art erase history?
No, but history can erase art. If art is a de Kooning drawing, history is Robert Rauschenberg’s rubber.

Can children make art?
Yes, but can adults?

Could art end civilisation?
No, but I suspect all great art aspires to do just that.

Is the alphabet a system of oppression?
Absolutely. Language, as Roland Barthes once remarked, is ‘fascist’. It speaks us; compels us to see things in a certain way.

Why discover?
Because the temptation to peek underneath is too great?

What question would you like to ask other Silent Frame interviewees?
What question would you fail to answer?

More to discover: You can read 3:AM Magazine here, visit Andrew Gallix’s website here, view his contributions to The Guardian here, and follow them on Twitter @3ammagazine and @andrewgallix.

Click on any of the following links to find out more about today’s recommended artists and artworks: Remainder (excerpt), Berberian Sound Studio (trailer), The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion (information), Life on Mars (trailer), Under the Volcano (excerpt).

The Innocent Novel is Now Impossible

Roland Barthes, “Pre-Novels,” Essays and Interviews Volume 3

Every time someone ventures the idea that there is a crisis of the novel, a critic with the good health of our Literature at heart can be found to reply that the novel has never been in such fine fettle, since an enormous number of them are being published. But this is to conceive the crisis in excessively quantitative terms; it is a phenomenon that in no way precludes proliferation. . . .

. . . This is, perhaps, what is happening today with the novel, if you will concede that most of the creditable and original works currently being published are problematical novels in which the fiction is accompanied by a questioning of the basic categories of novelistic creation, as though, since the ideal novel — the innocent novel — is now impossible, literature had principally to say how it is running from itself and killing itself — in short, how it is rejecting itself.

In France this began with Proust. Throughout his enormous oeuvre, Proust is always about to write. He has the traditional literary act in his sights, but he constantly puts it off and it is at the end of this period of expectation, an expectation he never meets, that the work has been constructed in spite of itself. It was the waiting itself that formed the substance of a work whose suspended nature was enough to set the writer speaking.

The most conscious forms of novel-writing today are all part of this Proustian movement by which the writer sets his novel going before our eyes and then consigns it to silence at a point when, a hundred years earlier, he would have barely begun to speak.

[See Witold Gombrowicz.]

Expenditure for Nothing

Roland Barthes, “An Interview with Jacques Chancel (Radioscopie),” Essays and Interviews Volume 5

I was alluding to the fact that writing today is an expenditure for nothing, an ‘unconditional expenditure’, as Georges Bataille would say … It’s a sort of perverse activity which, in a sense, has no purpose, cannot enter into any knind of accounting and always goes beyond the practical tasks we may ask of it..

No doubt writing’s part of social exchange. When you write books and have them published, it’s all part of a publishing market and belongs to a particular economy. But, in writing, there’s always something additional which goes beyond questions of economic return and it is the pour rien, the ‘for nothing’ that defines the ‘bliss of writing’ and is, therefore, a perversion.

Cultural Osmosis

Roland Barthes, “An Interview with Jacques Chancel (Radioscopie),” Essays and Interviews Volume 5

I said that you can say this because we live in a cultural world where there’s a ‘superego’ — a pressure that makes us feel obliged to read certain books, so that we’d feel guilty if we hadn’t. I simply wanted to push back against that pressure and explain that we very often know books without having read them — there’s a sort of cultural osmosis that happens.

[See Umberto Eco.]