November is a month bursting with challenges, and as I said in my October round-up post, I hope to take part at least in Novellas in November and German Lit Month and maybe even Margaret Atwood Reading Month. But we shall see – I know bad I am about sticking with plans. However, let’s start off the month in a positive way with a novella! “The Death of the Author” by Gilbert Adair is 135 pages in my edition, so the perfect candidate – and it’s a most unusual and thought provoking read. I picked the book up earlier in the year, and as usual can’t recall what prompted me to do so (my memory seems to get more sieve-like by the day…) However, I’ve seen the book described as a satirical look at literary cults, and it’s apparently based on a real person, so I felt inclined to explore…

My second hand copy of the book with an interesting ‘inclusion’ – would love to know the history behind this!

The book is narrated by Leopold Sfax, a critic, theorist and philospher. As the book opens, he’s approached by a woman who plans to write his biography and this throws up a number of problems. Sfax is a emigre Frenchman with an aristocratic background and a hidden history of collaboration in Paris during WW2. Having escaped his country post-War, he’s made a new life in the USA and managed to keep his past buried, while carving out fame as an academic for his “Theory”. A pompous and self-important man, his narrative style and use of language certainly remind this reader a little of Nabokov…

Sfax is reluctant to reveal much of his past, but then doubles back and repeats himself and then expands. Gradually his story is exposed, and the risk is that the facts will become widely known. However, shocking murders occur which shake his academic setting – are these deaths connected with Sfax, and will a solution be found?

Words are far older and fickler and more experienced than the writers who suffer under the delusion that they are ‘using’ them. Words have been around. No one owns them, no one can prescribe how they ought to be read, and most certainly not their author.

That little summary makes the book sound a lot more straightforward than it actually is, because there’s so much going on beneath the surface here. The ‘death of the author’ is of course a concept explored by Roland Barthes in a 1967 essay, where he in effect says that the text must be considered as completely separate from whoever wrote it to avoid limitation of the text. It’s an influential idea which has been discussed, explored, accepted and rejected over the decades, and when I finally get round to reading it I’ll let you know what I think…

Anyway, Adair, takes things a step further with what is perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator; this text is apparently written by Sfax, existing on his computer, but as we are faced with potentially the literal death of the author, who is writing the text? Is it pure fantasy? Will his secrets ever be publicly known? Did Sfax ever really exist? And so on! It’s a fascinating concept which makes really interesting reading, even if it does boggle your head a bit at times!

As I mentioned earlier, the character of Sfax is apparently based on a real person, the Belgian critic, Paul de Man, who died before knowledge of his past escaped. This adds another layer to the reading of this text, as the fictional Sfax (a Nabakovian name if ever I heard one) and the real de Man could well be considered one and the same. As for the actual ‘death’ of the author, or even his existence, that’s left unresolved at the end of the book and the conclusion may well have you nipping back to the start of the book to reconsider what you’ve read! Whatever else it may be – literary spoof, Nabakovian satire, ripost to Barthes – “The Death of the Author” is a clever and memorable book about which I’m still thinking – and about which I may never be able to draw any concrete conclusions!