The Death of the Author by Gilbert Adair

In the mid-twentieth century the author died.  At least as far as many university English departments were concerned. After critic/scholar Roland Barthes published his essay “The Death of the Author,”  whatever the author intended ceased to be of interest to a critical establishment determined to study the text and how it worked devoid of any reference to the author who created it.

I’m oversimplifying an idea I largely support here.  I am interested in the lives of authors, painters, poets and other artists, but at the end of the day, I believe, their work must stand or fall on its own.  Once the book has been published, the author no longer has exclusive rights to how it should be read.  The author may have wanted me to interpret a work a certain way, but after publication, that is no longer important.  As readers we are in charge interpretation.

This idea is attacked in Gilbert Adair’s take-no-prisoners satire, The Death of the Author.  In his novella Léopold Sfax,  literary critic, writes a book about “The Theory” which holds that the life of the author is unrelated to the author’s text.  Sfax’s theory takes the post-war academe by storm, sweeping through university English departments worldwide.  What the world doesn’t know is that Sfax created this theory in part to hide his own dubious history.  While living in occupied France as a young man, Sfax wanted so desperately to become a writer that he was willing to work for the Nazi forces writing propaganda pieces  under an assumed name.  It’s fear of exposure that leads him to invent “The Theory” as a means of securing his post war work’s reputation even if he cannot protect his personal one.

Later in the novella, Sfax comes up with the idea of denying the existence not only of the author but of the text itself.  In a brilliant bit of satire on Mr. Adair’s part, this new theory holds that the only agent truly acting is the reader, that the text itself is meaningless, too amorphous to be pinned down and commented on with authority.   Through this essay, entitled Either/Either (pronounce Eyether/Eether – this is important), Sfax hopes to make it possible for his followers to continue their devotion to him once his own biography and his early propaganda become known.  By denying both authorial and textual intent he can establish that his writing cannot be pro-Nazi, only readers can be pro-Nazi since the reader is the only true agent in the production and consumption of art.

If you keep the title in mind as you read, you’ll know what’s going to happen to Leopold Sfax.  But knowing this won’t spoil the fun of The Death of the Author.  Mr. Adair has enough tricks up his sleeve to delight his readers right up to the book’s final sentence. 

I expect The Death of the Author is a book I will re-read on a regular basis. 


I first ran this review on my old blog back in August of 2011.  I confess, in the years since, I have not re-read The Death of the Author though I often thing of doing so.  Maybe one day.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

91cr7sy43slSometimes it’s very hard to pin down why you love a book.

Denis Johnson’s very short novella, I found it on a list of brilliant books you can read in a day, tells the story of an abbreviated life.  Robert Grainier is a day laborer in the American West circa 1910.  He never amounts to much.  There isn’t much to tell about his life.  He works very hard, he marries a woman he loves and has a daughter only to lose both in a wildfire.  Afterwards, he retreats into a smaller and smaller world becoming, by the end of his life, the hermit in the woods.

Through his life he is haunted. He is haunted by the memory of the Chinese man whose near murder he participated in, though he was just passing by at the time.  Why he so willingly joined in with the mob of men who were attempting to throw the Chinese laborer off of a bridge and what became of the young man who managed to escape with his life become obsessions that bother Grainier even during the short time he is a happily married father.

After the fire destroys his life, Grainer returns to the site of his cabin searching for the remains of his family.  Though the fire destroyed the area completely, he decides to stay on his small piece of land where he builds a shelter though never anything as nice as the cabin he lost.  A stray dog appears and keeps him company until another dog takes over a few years later but he has very little human company.

It’s a very simple story, really.  The focus is entirely on the character of Robert Grainier who is not a complex man.  While he is haunted by memories of his past, he basically lives by living without much time for self-reflection.

Should this make for a moving read?  Is there enough there to make the reader feel for Robert Grainer? I think the honest answer to both questions is no, but I was moved, I felt for Robert Grainer.

Just past the halfway mark, Grainer goes to a county fair where he takes a ride in an early bi-plane.  Almost no one else at the fair has the nerve to go for a ride in this contraption, but Grainer takes it in stride, with little thought for any dangers involved.  The plane climbs higher than Grainer has ever been before then begins

 to plummet like a hawk, steeper and steeper, its engine almost silent, and Grainier’s organs pushed back against his spine. He saw the moment with his wife and child as they drank Hood’s Sarsaparilla in their cabin on a summer’s night, then another cabin he’d never remembered before, the places of his hidden childhood, a vast golden wheat field, heat shimmering above a road, arms encircling him, and a woman’s voice crooning, and all the mysteries of this life were answered.

This plane ride is the most momentous thing that has happened to Grainer in many years and the most momentous thing that will happen to him in the years he has left.  The memories it summons for him are simple moments, still moments recalled through stupendous movement: sitting quietly sharing a soda with his small family; hearing his mother’s voice comforting him as she holds him in her arms.

I think that sums up why I loved this little book. Most people would have expected that first plane ride to be the big event, but it was ultimately that soda on a hot evening that haunted Robert Grainier’s memories.

So, I’m looking forward to the next book on my list of brilliant books you can read in a day and I’m going to be looking for more by Denis Johnson.

The Devil’s Disciple by Shiro Hamao

Two very entertaining thriller/mysteries by an author you’ve probably never heard of translated here by J. Keith Vincent.

Both stories, “The Devil’s Disciple” and the novella length “Did He Kill Them” are really psychological studies as much as noir detective thrillers. In both, the “killer” has already been caught so there’s not that much of investigating to be done.  However, in each the confession is highly suspect. There is much more going on than first meets the eye.

They are each interesting as mystery/thrillers and for the portrait they present of 1930’s Japan when they were written. They are not a happy, fantasy, Japan; there is murder in both stories so we are entering dark territory not suitable for tourists, but the look inside the Japanese justice system of the day and the glimpse of Japanese society’s more sensationalist side made for interesting reading.

I enjoyed both stories, in fact I hope to find more of Shiro Hamao’s 17 novellas and three novels translated into English.

Of Flesh and Fur by Duncan Barlow

file_001-1It’s not easy to find these books.  Small, very small, independent press books each of them clearly a labor of love at every step of the way.

I found The Cupboard Press at a writer’s and writing conference in Los Angeles last year, two young people sitting at a table in the vast exhibition hall.  I liked their little books, each small enough to fit into the palm of my hand, just about, the length of a novella whether it really is a novella or a small collection of stories or a slightly experimental long form poem.

My subscription gets me four books a year, one per quarter.  Duncan Barlow’s novella Of Flesh and Fur is the third one I’ve received.

I liked it quite a bit.

What happens after a pack of coyotes has been spotted near a Southern California suburb? A man, recently divorced decides he wants to have a child.  There are women who want his sperm, but none who want him to be involved with the resulting baby.  He turns to cloning. Soon he has a baby boy.

Though he loves his son, clones frequently do not turn out the way their “parents” had hoped for.  This child is fine for a while, kind of wonderful really, until the coyotes appear. Then the boy begins incessantly crying. Day and night, non-stop. Finally his “father” is forced to take drastic action.

I thought it was terrific.  An entertaining story that had me thinking.

I look forward to the arrival of the next edition.

You can order a copy of Of Flesh and Fur or subscribe here.


The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan and The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

file_000-2It’s just happenstance.  Pure random phenomena that led me to read Karan Mahajan’s highly praised novel The Association of Small Bombs right after reading Rudyard Kipling’s classic novella The Man Who Would Be King.  I didn’t mean to do it.  I didn’t even know Mr. Mahajan’s novel took place in India.

I did know about Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King from the very entertaining John Huston film starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine.  You cannot go wrong with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, both in the same movie.  I haven’t seen it since its first run back when I was a wee lad, but I have always remembered its story.

Two men, low ranked ne’er-do-wells in British India, set out into the mountains to take over a kingdom or start one of their own.  They pull it off, too.  Set themselves up as rulers in the wilds of Afghanistan where they are worshipped as gods in spite of their best intentions.  It all comes crashing down in the end, of course.  They have over reached and must be put back in their places.

It’s a wonderful tale, a true boy’s adventure in the old style. But it comes with all the baggage such tales of the Raj came with, all the white man’s burden sort of stuff in full bloom.

While it’s not exactly easy to defend Kipling these days, he does get the character of the everyday soldier, the “Tommy in the Trenches” right like no one else has. He knows what they were like and he knows how the talked. For example, there’s this little bit of throw-away description where the narrator describes the music the natives are playing before an attack begins “The drum were drumming and the horns were horning” that I intend to work into conversation as often as I can.

I bought Kafile_001ran Mahajan’s novel based on the intriguing title and its National Book Award nomination.  I had no idea it was set in contemporary India. To be honest, it never occured to me that a book getting America’s National Book Award could be thoroughly non-American.  Though the two share a similar geography Mahajan’s novel couldn’t be farther from Kipling’s. At first glance anyway.

Mr. Mahajan’s story concerns the people involved in a minor act of terrorism, a bomb explosion at a Delhi marketplace that kills only a few people.  In the larger scope of events, it won’t be remembered for long, not when attacks with much higher body counts occur so frequently.  The book addresses this issue, among many others–what is it like to lose someone in a terrible tragedy that’s so small most people forget it happened in less than a year’s time?

The narrative moves from character to character over the course of many years as we follow the story of one survivor, the parents of two victims and a handful of would be terrorists.  None of them are very important people, though they might like to see themselves that way.  It’s a fascinating book, one that will touch and disturb many readers.

What does it have to do with Kipling beyond being about South Asia?

Many people have written about the connection between the current situation in India and Pakistan as a long-term consequence of British colonization, so there’s that.  Someone who knows more about this subject than I do could better explain this connection. I do see a link between Kipling’ heroes (anti-heroes) and the terrorists in Mr. Mahajan’s novel.  Both are convinced that they can bring about their larger goals successfully, both are unconcerned with whether or not they are right or whether they may bring harm to others.  In the end, they all come to a bad end brought about at least in part by their own hubris.

What makes Mr. Mahajan’s story the stronger work is the pathos he brings to his characters. As much as I enjoyed The Man Who Would Be King it never really leaves the realm of boy’s adventure, literary as it may be. The Association of Small Bombs has a more expansive heart.  While we never really sympathize with the bombers, not in the way we do with the survivors and the families of the victims, we do come to see them as part of a larger problem. I can bring this down to numbers. Mr. Kipling really has only two characters in The Man Who Would Be King.  Two full characters and a large number of bit players. Ms. Mahajan has seven full characters and an equal number of supporting players.  I’d argue that this is because Kipling is not as interested in understanding  the “other side” as Mahajan is.

On the other hand, if I were teaching a course on literature about South Asia, while I would certainly include something by Rudyard Kipling, probably Kim, I’m not sure I would include Karan Mahajan.  He would be in the running, but I don’t know if He would make the final syllabus.


Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Long into the night Marco Polo sits in Kublai Kahn’s palace telling him about all the cities he has visited, cities the Kahn will never get the chance to see.

This is the premise for Italo Calvino’s wonderful novella Invisible Cities translated from the Italian by William Weaver.

Each of the short chapters describes one city.  After a few chapters, the dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublia Kahn intterupts for a page or two.

It shouldn’t work so well.  It ought to become tiresome after a while.  It certainly shouldn’t begin to be something of a page-turner.  But it did, it didn’t and it was.

I loved it.

I kind of want to read it again right now though I just finished reading it.

I was reminded of Alan Lightman’s wonderful book Einstein’s Dreams which is just a series of possible ways time might work in other realities.  Turns out Mr. Lightman’s book is inspired by Invisible Cities, at least structurally.

I enjoyed both the descriptions of the cities and the scenes of dialogue in Invisible Cities.  I found the cities to be wonderful, worthy of Kublia Kahn’s stately pleasure dome.  While I was reading an imagined encyclopedia, I found I always wanted more.  Each one struck my fancy one way or another.  The dialogue worked in creating two characters, giving them a life outside of the encyclopedia while managing to comment on the cities described.

There were many bits that I loved, like this one:

The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isadora in his old age.  In the square there is the wall where the old me sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.

There is so much about language in Invisible Cities that I began to wonder if I should read the book as theory.  Is. Mr. Calvino giving us his theory of aesthetics in his descriptions of these imagined cities?  Is he presenting a philosophy? He may very well be doing just that, but the reader need not worry.  There is plenty on the surface to enjoy in Invisible Cities without digging for meaning.

Invisible Cities comes with my highest recommendation.

The Square by Marguerite Duras

All Paris parks are the Luxembourg Gardens as far as I’m concerned.

C.J. and I arrived early for the matinee.  (Everything David Sedaris says about going to the movies in Paris is true.) Time to kill and no money to spend, the Luxembourg Gardens just up the street. Thirty minutes later and both of us are tempted to skip the movie in exchange for an afternoon in chairs in the Luxembourg Gardens, as if Paris wasn’t wonderful enough to begin with.  Now, whenever the words “Paris” and “park” are mentioned together, I think of the Luxembourg Gardens.  Just can’t help it.

Marguerite Duras novella, The Square, takes place in an un-named Paris park.  It’s probably one of the many small parks we found in every part of the city we walked through from Place d’Italie to St. Denis.  But it can be the Luxembourg Gardens if I choose.

In The Square a young woman and  an older man share a bench in the park one afternoon.  A maid for a wealthy family, she watches the child she is in charge of and dreams of the marriage she hopes Saturday evenings at the local dance hall will someday lead to. A travelling salesman,  he has never been more than an observer, immersed in his newspapers and watching the people who pass by.  He  does not make enough money to settle down or support a wife.

The two discuss their lives, share the views, in what should produce an adolescent piece of writing full of forced attempts at the profound.  Instead, I found two lonely people sharing an afternoon.  People I believed in and who had something to say about life.

See what I mean.

Here’s the young woman talking about happiness:

“I don’t know if it is that people are not good at happiness or if they don’t understand what it is. Perhaps they don’t really know what it is they want or how to make use of it when they have it. They may even get tired of trying to keep it.  I really don’t know. What I do know is that the word exists and that it was not invented for nothing.  And just because I know that women, even those who appear to be happy, often start wondering towards evening why they are leading the lives they do, I am not going to start wondering if the word is meaningless. That is all I can say on the subject.”

I hope the stilted nature of this dialogue is the result of mediocre translation, not of mediocre writing.  If the dialogue in the original sounds stilted, is a translator honor bound to preserve this quality?