Gilbert 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.