The Death of the Author, by Gilbert Adair


adairGilbert Adair’s The Death of the Author has been sitting in a special corner of the bookshelf for a few months — a novella that I was almost certain I would like and one that deserved to be saved for when I hit one of those inevitable runs of not-very-satisfying books. I recently hit one of those runs, pulled Adair off the shelf and The Death of the Author did not disappoint.

The novella consists of the autobiographical/confessional thoughts of Leopold Sfax, French-born and raised, now an Ivy League English professor who acquired a certain amount of fame with a work on Yeats (Either/Either) which he later expanded into a more popular book, The Vicious Spiral, in which he articulated The Theory, his version of post-modernism. The latter is also a work in self-delusion, but almost all readers missed that aspect. The first work attracted academic disciples who supported its premise with an energy verging on fanaticism:

It was, you will recall, the very heyday of the death of the Author and the correlative rise of the Reader as the text’s interpreter, its sole and lonely arbiter. These ideas had come to us from Paris, as so many had before, and they had until then been merely spooned out, in a wary and parsimonious trickle, to the academic community of my adopted homeland. So that the central premise of my book — to wit Who cares what Yeats meant? His poems mean — my insistence, just as my fellow critics were straining to isolate the interpretation, that literary meanings were generated not by their nominal author but from an accumulation of linguistic conventions and codes, and my categorical refusal to regard documented authorial intentions as a privileged source of information on the work under study were all still capable of roiling the placid, stagnant pools in the groves of academe.

The Theory declares that the Author has been shown as “well and truly dead” — “an absence, a void.” Adair develops this part of his take on post-modernism in a way that extends well beyond my personal knowledge (for an informed discussion here is a link to Stewart’s excellent review at booklit). I would say that despite my limited knowledge, Adair’s development of that part of his story is not hard to understand.

But there are other intriguing elements to Adair’s novella. Sfax was a young man in Paris during World War II, eager to be published, who collaborated with others supporting the German occupiers, motivated by personal desire and ego, not ideology. And now that he has acquired a level of fame decades later, something that he has feared since arriving in America seems to be coming to pass — his history will be investigated and exposed. A recent graduate, and a devotee of The Theory, proposes to write a biography of Sfax, with or without his co-operation. In its own post-modernist way, The Death of the Author is the competing version of that biography.

So, just as his Theory states that authors don’t really mean what they say they mean, Sfax begins to construct a personal history that says his real history actually wasn’t real — the ultimate test of a Theory that he doesn’t really believe in, but a lot of other people do.

Another crucial element is added to this mix, but it is a spoiler to say what it is. Suffice to say that the multi-layered story that Adair constructs is not so complex that the Reader feels lost — indeed, one of the attractions of the book is the apparently logical progression from one illogical idea or event to the next equally implausible one.

And so, whatever the Author may have meant with this book, I was fully enrolled in the spirit of the enterprise. For this Reader, The Death of the Author produced:

— an interesting argument about schools of literary criticism, much of it (but not all) developed with tongue firmly in cheek.
— some fun observations about the politics and power of high-level academic life.
— thoughtful development of what happens when artists make compromises and have to live with them for the rest of their lives.
— the tantalizing mystery that I can’t talk about.

All of this in the tightly-written 136 pages of the Melville House “The Contemporary Art of the Novella” version that I read. I only wish I had a few more books like this tucked away in the corner of the shelf.


15 Responses to “The Death of the Author, by Gilbert Adair”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I only wish I had a few more books like this tucked away in the corner of the shelf.

    Good news then, Kevin: Melville House is expanding this series!


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the link, Trevor. A couple of the forthcoming titles do look interesting. I’m a bit hesitant because the novella is not my favorite form (and then authors such as Echenoz and Adair remind me that I should watch that bias). And I liked the Adair well enough that I may try his Evadne Mount trilogy. There is a playfulness to his writing that is quite attractive.


  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Nice link Trevor, I just bought the Rasselas in the Penguin edition oddly enough, Guy Savage rates it very highly indeed.

    I’m a huge fan of novellas, as you’ll have seen from my recent blog entries, Pushkin publish a lot of them and at their best they can be tremendously rewarding (and the Pushkin ones are novellas at their best).

    I’ll have to watch out for this range, and possibly for this Adair too.


  4. Trevor Says:

    I’m getting more and more into novellas, too. Pushkin, Archipelago, and Melville House produce such beautiful lines of novellas, and they are usually so fine and controlled, it’s sometimes hard to stop to read a longer novel. (Plus, lately I just haven’t had much time for a longer project, what with the bar and Moby-Dick). I still love reading the novels, but any problems I had with the novella (and I did have some) are gone.

    I’ve never read Adair, though this book keeps coming up. I think it will be my first.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    In an attempt to be a better novella reader, I’ve order Edith Wharton’s The Touchstone and Henry James The Lesson of the Master — figured I would start with two authors whom I like quite a bit. (Ended up with Hesperus Press versions as the MH show up as unavailable.) And will be introducing myself to Pushkin Press with Wharton’s Glimpses of the Moon. If I like that format as much as you two do, there are some intriguing titles on their list.


  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I went looking for that precise Hesperus pairing this evening funnily enough Kevin, though I found neither (I’ll pick them up on another occasion). By complete contrast, I ended up coming home with Irvine Welsh’s Filth instead, about as far from James and Wharton as it’s possible to get in the literary fiction world…

    Once you’re into the Pushkin’s, Fraulein Else and Jarmila are both worth looking into (you’ll have seen how highly I rated both), I’m betting once you’ve got one Pushkin you’ll want to get more. I’ve bought a lot of them recently, that said, I keep wanting to revisit The Aspern Papers, so that may be my next on the novella front.


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I have those two marked down from your reviews, Max and will get to them

    I should admit that I bought another Pushkin Press book for Mrs. KFC. I had made a note of Paul Morand’s Hecate and Her Dogs (which does not get released here until Aug. 1) when I discovered he was also the author of The Allure of Chanel — he’d spent time with her right after WWII in St. Moritz, interviewing her for her memoirs and published the notes after her death. Mrs. KFC has a fashion book library — most volumes being at least 18 inches high and 14 inches wide and weighing in at about 10 pounds. I could not resist adding a Pushkin Press 4.5″ x 6.5″ book to the collection. it will look great on the shelf.


  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It will indeed, we have some fashion books too and they do tend to be outsized. Hardy Amies’ rather fun The Englishman’s Suit being an honourable exception.

    Can Mrs KFC be tempted to comment on Hecate and Her Dogs when it arrives? I’m quite curious to hear more.


  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’ll see if I can talk her into reading it.


  10. John Self Says:

    I think this is Adair’s best book: I’ve read them all with the possible exception of his debut The Holy Innocents, which I don’t think I finished. (Adair himself ‘finished’ it by rewriting it as The Dreamers, to coincide with Bertolucci’s film adaptation of the book.)

    Of the Evadne Mount trilogy, there is no doubt in my mind that the third volume, And Then There Was No One, is the best, simply because it gives us what Adair does best – self-referential textual trickery. It may be advisable, though not I think essential, to read the first two volumes beforehand.

    Otherwise I’ve found all his novels worth reading, if only to produce the response, “Well, that was a clever little trifle which didn’t take long to read.” (See in particular The Key of the Tower for an Adair book which is not much more than it appears to be; or A Closed Book where the conceit – here, a novel told entirely in dialogue – is pretty much all there is.) I have a particular unexplained affection for Buenas Noches, Buenos Aires though I know of others who didn’t share that view. I also enjoyed his sly take on Death in Venice, Love and Death on Long Island, which was made into a half-reasonable film starring John Hurt and Jason Priestly (the hunk du jour – remember him?).


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think I’ll probably read the Evadne Mount trilogy next — from your review of the third volume it seems to me that Adair plays some intriguing games as he works his way along. And despite his postmodernism, he isn’t hard to read.


  12. Stewart Says:

    Have to agree with John that The Death Of The Author is Adair’s best. And agree about the Evadne Mount trilogy too. Would recommend reading the first two volumes, as you’ll be doing anyway, if only because the third refers back to them regularly, and it gives a clearer picture of what’s going on.

    I’ve read most of Adair, but still have Love And Death On Long Island to give a spin, and A Closed Book to give a respin, so that I can get a blog article on it.


  13. Randy Says:


    I have until now only noted this book’s title and shrugged.

    Looks like it’s going in the basket. About 3 decades ago I was studying heavily in Lit Crit and weened on the Formalists, esp Frye and Trilling etc. The Post Structuralist started to come to the forefront and of course I was compelled to read a selection from the ‘majors’… The gist of it is that the their collective cry of “The Death of the Author’ and its subsequent (some times uninformed influence) about killed off the enjoyment of reading literature for me…*shudders*

    I’m happy to see coming back to reading lit, that the author’s all managed a resurrection ( several of them I have a soda with daily)

    I look forward to reading this..



  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Randy: I have a very similar aversion for almost exactly the same reasons — forced reading of this kind of work kept me away from it for some decades. And if it wasn’t for Stewart and John’s enthusiasm, I don’t think I would have tried Adair. And I am very glad I did — in some ways this book was as enjoyable as Echenoz’s Ravel, which I raved about a few months ago (although it is hardly post structuralist — just fun to read). I don’t know a lot about your taste, but from what I do I think you will enjoy it.

    Following up on the soda reference…I use to pass through Sandpoint every summer on my way to Spokane from Calgary and always stopped for a beer at a very nice brew pub that is about three quarters of the way around your downtown horseshoe, as I think of it. Is it still there (even if you restrict yourself to soda)? For those of us who like near desert, you certainly live in a beautiful part of the world. Stay tuned for my next post on Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook — it is set a few hundred miles northwest of you, but is pretty much in a continuation of the same type of extended mountain range valley, albeit a half century ago.


  15. Randy Says:

    I should have guessed you have been through Sandpoint, I think the brew pub moved and is now a local winery. I of course have been to your neck of the woods to a couple of Flames games… I will look for the book you mentioned. The only literary thing we here will probably have claim to is as Fingerbone of Robinson’s Housekeeping. Where she came up with that name I would like to know…. I read Piano. I must look into Ravel. Just read Mulisch The Procedure and was impressed. So many great novels, so little time to read them..Not reading literature for 3 decades can put one behind.


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