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?

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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”.

Ink So Dense It’s Mute, Or the Purest Form of Literature

Erik Anderson, “The Sum of Two Cubes (And the Uses of Literature), Los Angeles Review of Books 23 September 2012

A light touch does not negate reality, nor, I might add, are all silences complicit. Anne Carson, in her moving elegy for her brother, talks about a muteness or opacity “which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.” And near the very end of Schizophrene, Bhanu Kapil gives us a page that has been totally blacked out. It’s an opaque square of ink and it defies you to see through it, or to place words on the page. There is some truth here, or perhaps some horror, that is inaccessible to us — something we are not allowed to see but are allowed to see hiding. The page has a famous precedent: in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a black page appears after the death of one of the characters. And as in Sterne’s famous book, the effect of the page is not, paradoxically, a sense of heaviness. Or at least, not a sense of heaviness alone: some weight has been lifted and this one page, of all the pages in the book, is allowed to levitate, to unhinge the book from its subject. It accomplishes this through a lightness so dark it’s opaque, through ink so dense it’s mute.

One could say it’s the most useless page in the book.

[…] Strangely enough, those black pages in Schizophrene and Tristram Shandy might be the purest form of literature there is, even though I’ll grant you it’s an impossible and undesirable ideal.

(Wo)men Without Qualities

Tim Parks, “The Chattering Mind,” The New York Review of Books (NYRblog), 29 June 2012.

“Who is the most memorable character in the novels of the twentieth century?”

[…] I can’t be bothered to think of a name myself. […] But now suddenly it occurs to me that by far the main protagonist of twentieth century literature must be the chattering mind, which usually means the mind that can’t make up its mind, the mind postponing action in indecision and, if we’re lucky, poetry.

There were plenty of forewarnings. Hamlet is the most notable. To take action would be to confirm his identity as his father’s son, his father’s avenger, but Hamlet thinks too precisely on the event, he’s too smart, and so fails to become anyone at all, either his father’s son or Ophelia’s husband. He suffers for that failure and spins out unhappy procrastination in fine poetry. In a comic vein, Tristram Shandy is another forerunner, too aware of his narrative performance to narrate anything coherent, let alone act. Both Hamlet and Tristram are characters who didn’t reach the height of their popularity until the twentieth century. We had become like them.

Prone to qualification, self-contradiction, interminable complication, this new kind of character finds his most sinister early manifestation in the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. “I am a wicked man,” this nameless individual introduces himself, then reflects “but as a matter of fact, I was never able to become wicked. I never managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect.”

Again, the reason for this indeterminacy is an excess of intellectual activity; so the cause for failure is also a source of self-esteem: “An intelligent man of the nineteenth century,” Doestoevsky’s narrator tells us, with a mixture of complacency and despair, “must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure — primarily a limited being.”

Seeing the pros and cons of every possible move, this modern man is paralysed, half-envying those less intelligent than himself who throw themselves instinctively into the fray: “[The man of action] is stupid, I won’t argue with you about that, but perhaps a normal man ought to be stupid.” And the voice is actually pleased with this formulation. It’s great to feel superior to those happier than oneself.

In the twentieth century this monstrously heightened consciousness meshes with the swelling background noise of modern life and we have the full-blown performing mind of modernist literature. It starts perhaps in that room where the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Soon Leopold Bloom is diffusing his anxiety about Molly’s betrayal in the shop signs and newspaper advertisements of Dublin. In Mrs Dalloway’s London people muddle thoughts of their private lives with airborne advertisements for toffee, striking clocks, sandwich men, omnibuses, chauffeur-driven celebrities.

Looking back, what surprises how enthusiastically the literary world welcomed this new hero. Prufrock’s mind might be trapped, inept and miserable, but it is wonderfully poetic. I’ll never forget how my high school teacher gushed. Bloom may be incapable of imposing any direction on his marriage, drifting between fantasy and frustration as his wife prepares to betray, and Stephen Dedalus may be marooned in an impossible relationship with his father and jobs that give him no satisfaction, yet Ulysses is a celebration of the inexhaustible fertility of their minds as they move through the commercial flotsam and jetsam of Dublin against the vast backdrop of world literature and myth. It’s all quite reassuring, even self-congratulatory. What wonderful minds we have, even though they don’t seem to get us anywhere, or make us happy.

Virginia Woolf sounds darker notes, warning us that the mind risks being submerged by the urgent blather of modern life, yet in the end even the crazy, shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith gives us paragraph after paragraph of poetic prose before he throws himself to his death from a high window, something that Clarissa Dalloway will think of as an act of impulsive generosity. It’s as if the stream of consciousness had been invented to allow the pain of a mind whose chatter is out of control to be transformed into a strange new beauty, which then encompasses the one action available to the stalled self: suicide.

The way this aesthetic consolation is constructed shifts constantly through the century. Faulkner has no time for the easy lyricism of the mind adrift on the ebb and flow of urban trivia. Now the unending voice revolves obsessively around the traumas that block any positive forward movement: past wrongs, sexual violence and betrayal, incest, the disgrace of institutionalized discrimination. Still, there is grandeur in the sheer scale and awfulness of the mind’s shipwreck, individual and collective. Slowly you get the feeling that only mental suffering and impasse confer dignity and nobility. Our twentieth century author is simply not interested in a mind that does not suffer, usually in extended syntax, and not interested in dramatizing the traumatic event itself, only the blocked and suffering consciousness that broods on it afterwards.

Beckett resists and confirms the formula. He understands its perversity: pleasure taken in the performance of unhappiness: “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” he has the aptly named Hamm remark in the first moments of Endgame. Beckett exposes the spiral whereby the more the mind circles around its impasse, taking pride in its resources of observation, so the deeper the impasse becomes, the sharper the pain, the greater the need to find a shred of self-respect in the ability at least to describe one’s downfall. And so on. But understanding the trap, and the perversity of the consolation that confirms the trap, doesn’t mean you’ve found a way out of it; to have seen through literary consolation is just another source of consolation: at least I’ve understood and brilliantly dramatized the futility of my brilliant exploration of my utter impotence.

Butor, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Bernhard, Phillip Roth, Updike, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, Alison Kennedy, Will Self, Sandro Veronesi, and scores upon scores of others all find new ways of exasperating and savouring this mental chatter: minds crawling through mud in the dark, minds trapped in lattices of light and shade, minds dividing into many voices, minds talking to themselves in second person, minds enthralled in sexual obsession, minds inflaming themselves with every kind of intoxicant, minds searching for oblivion, but not finding it, fearing they may not find it even in death.

[…] I suspect our destiny is to pursue our literary sickness for years to come. It is hard not to congratulate oneself on the quality of one’s unhappiness. “Every word,” Beckett told us “is an unnecessary stain on silence”…

Marc-Edouard Nabe: The ‘Unacceptable’ Face of French Controversy

This appeared in Guardian Books on 23 March 2011:

Marc-Edouard Nabe: The ‘Unacceptable’ Face of French Controversy

An incendiary commentator on modern-day French society, the writer has chronicled the strange death of France’s joie de vivre


[Me, myself and I … Marc-Édouard Nabe. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features]

Marc-Édouard Nabe has always relished playing with fire, but never more so than when he burned what would have been the fifth volume of his journal. His main motivation was to avoid being trapped in a Shandyesque race with time, ending up pigeonholed as a diarist. Nevertheless, he went on to describe this event in Alain Zannini, his 2002 novel, which was so blatantly autobiographical that it even bore his real name as its title (Nabe, short for “nabot” — midget — is a nom de plume). The implication was clear: having lived his life in order to narrate it, Zannini had gradually become Nabe’s creation. What, then, would happen if the writer were to stop writing?

This ontological question is raised in L’Homme qui Arrêta d’Écrire (The Man who Stopped Writing, 2010), which begins with the author-narrator’s paradoxical assertion — given the length of the tome, let alone its very existence — that he has forsaken literature after being dropped by his publisher. “A publisher paying me to write books nobody reads,” he deadpans, “I thought this would go on for ever.”

For the best part of two decades, the real-life Nabe had received a monthly wage from Les Éditions du Rocher. When this stipend was suddenly withdrawn, following a takeover in 2005, the author decided to take legal action. Throughout the lengthy lawsuit, he expressed himself by means of posters, which his hardcore supporters pasted all over the walls of France’s major cities. He also maintained the fiction that his authorial days were over, so as to remain in character while writing his novel about writing no more.

The appearance of L’Homme qui Arrêta d’Écrire thus came as quite a surprise, not least because Nabe chose to go down the self-publishing, or rather “anti-publishing,” route. The minimalist jet-black cover has a whiff of piracy about it: no barcode, no ISBN, no publisher’s name or logo; the spine remains bare. On the front, the author’s name is reduced to “Nabe” as if it had become a brand, and on the back you only find a number, indicating that it is the writer’s 28th published work (and seventh novel). The book is exclusively available through an official website and a handful of highly unlikely retailers (a butcher’s, a florist’s, a hairdresser’s and two restaurants at the last count). By cutting out the middleman, Nabe claims to be able to make 70% profit, instead of the usual 10%, on each copy sold. The initial print run — funded by the sale of his paintings (Nabe is also an artist and jazz guitarist) — sold out within a month. The novel was even shortlisted for the prestigious Renaudot prize, a first for a self-published volume in France.

This declaration of war on the publishing industry is in keeping with Nabe’s image as a latter-day écrivain maudit. Initially accused of being a neo-fascist (partly because of his predilection for Céline and Lucien Rebatet), Nabe is now frequently depicted as a pro-Palestinian leftist. His first television appearance, in 1985, proved so incendiary that he was beaten up by a leading anti-racist campaigner. Looking every inch the provocative young fogey, complete with centre parting, bow tie and retro spectacles, he declared that every day he shoots up with a Montblanc pen full of “utter hatred of humanity”. A great admirer of Jacques Mesrine, Nabe famously befriended the flamboyant bankrobber Albert Spaggiari as well as Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Following 9/11, he produced a pamphlet entitled A Glimmer of Hope and, since then, has repeatedly argued that Osama bin Laden is only acting in self-defence. In 2003, he even travelled to Baghdad, where he protested against the invasion of Iraq in typically Gallic fashion: by writing a novel. These antics may have earned him a large cult following, but Mazarine Pingeot summed up the views of many when she declared that Nabe was “unfortunately” a great writer.

Great or not, Marc-Édouard Nabe is an important figure on the French literary scene. Along with Michel Houellebecq, he is one of the only authors to have chronicled the strange death of France’s joie de vivre. With its rogues’ gallery of modern Tartuffes, L’Homme qui Arrêta d’Écrire is a roman à clef that lampoons every aspect of contemporary Parisian life, particularly its incestuous literary milieu peopled with floppy-haired Beigbeder clones. This, alas, is one of the reasons why the novel probably won’t be translated: most references would be lost on a foreign readership. The names of all the famous people who appear have been slightly doctored (Depardieu, for instance, becomes Depardieux), signalling that they have stepped through the looking-glass of fiction. As one of the characters remarks, a mere typo can plunge you into another universe.

This grey area between fact and fiction has been the stomping ground of many a French author since the late 70s, when Serge Doubrovsky coined the word “autofiction“. In recent months alone, both Régis Jauffret and Christine Angot have been sued for fictionalising real-life events and individuals. Zannini/Nabe, whose entire oeuvre is haunted by the figure of the double, once said that his novel Alain Zannini — in which Zannini and Nabe meet — was told in the “double person singular”. Sometimes, however, I really is another, rather than just the other half of a divided self.

Although no oil painting, Houellebecq is Dorian Gray to Nabe’s picture — the acceptable face of controversy. Or at least this is Nabe’s spin on events. In the early 90s, both men lived at the same address (103 Rue de la Convention in the 15th arrondissement) facing each other, like bookends, across a cobbled courtyard. Both belong to the same generation, come from similar lower middle-class backgrounds, had domineering Corsican mothers they rebelled against and established their reputations by courting controversy. Nabe was the senior partner in this relationship, up until the success of Atomised in 1998.