Short Story September – Week Three – Novella One

It’s time to break a taboo or two. Firstly,  I’m counting novellas as part of my Short Story September reading.  Secondly, at the start of this review, I’m going to give away the ending!

As I have discovered to my disappointment, death is merely the displaced name for a linguistic predicament, and I rather feel like asking for my money back – as perhaps you do too, Reader, on closing this mendacious and mischievous and meaningless book.

So speaks the author – would that be Gilbert Adair, the real one, or Léopold Sfax, the fictitious author?  While I may have been confused by the games that have been played in this “mendacious and mischievous and meaningless book“, I have no intention of asking for a refund.  I haven’t had as much fun in ages.

The story begins when Professor Sfax is approached by a former college student and asked to cooperate with her writing his biography.  There is obviously some trepidation on her part – she is obviously expecting a refusal.  But Professor Sfax approves.

How could I tell her that I had already made up my mind, possibly as late as the very second she disclosed her project to me but already, nevertheless, to forge ahead on my own?

Indeed, no sooner is she out of the door, than the Professor sits down at his computer and begins to type his own account of his life.

This 4-page opening scene becomes a refrain in the course of the 124 novella.  Repeated 3 times, it is the vortex around which everything revolves and also a supreme irony.  Professor Sfax is an eminent literary critic.  World-famous, in fact, for a literary hypothesis, advanced in his book, The Vicious Spiral, that published words are no longer owned by their authors.  Readers give them their only legitimate meaning. Hence the author’s history or intended meaning has no relevance whatsoever.  The idea is an echo from Roland Barthes famous essay from which Adair has lifted the title of his novella. In the fictional world, however, this idea becomes so famous that it is simply known as The Theory and the ultimate irony – irrelevance almost – is that a confirmed follower of The Theory wishes to write the biography of its author.

Except it isn’t irrelevant because Professor Sfax has a shameful secret.   He knows that it will not remain hidden so he wishes to preempt his biographer by revealing it on his own terms – in an autobiography vigourously defended by Theorist argument, one which will prove that the words he wrote in a former life were not the words he meant.  It transpires that he invented The Theory in the first place as a precautionary measure for this need ever arising.

If this sounds dry, it isn’t.  Sfax’s voice is erudite, precise, yet duplicitous and poisonous.  Of his arch academic rival, the hapless Professor Gillingwater, he writes:

He was a kind of Peter Pan in reverse, never known to have been young …Yet, lost cause as he was, hopeless anachronism as he struck the purest practitioners of the Theory, he was an individual beloved, the very nicest man, it was said, on the campus.   Wholly without ambition, he was no less without enemies.  It  was as hard to dislike him as it was to admire his “mind”.

Born and raised in France, Sfax would like to be the most unreliable of narrators.  “Reader, I tell a lie.  English, indeed, has always been a language to lie in, the language in which I have sought to dissolve or destroy the past – the past which not even God, as they say, can alter”.  I shall disclose no details of that past but it becomes clear that Sfax’s ruthlessness does not stop with the poison of his pen and the denouement in the final third with its surprising climax as entertaining as any traditional crime novel.

The work is full of intertextual reference. Some I spotted. Others, no doubt to be uncovered on subsequent readings. (Or yes, this is one to which I will return.)  The title of the novella itself. The title of Professor Sfax’s first fictional work Either/Either (cf Kierkengaard). The Theory. And Sfax’s preoccupation with Professor Gillingwater’s death is a major clue.

Was his brain, in its ultimate instant of cognition, its last gasp of conscious sensation, still capable of registering that someone, a friend no doubt, an acquaintance at the least, was about to smash it into pulp?  The notion of that moment – quite Dostoevskian, I thought, in its existential terror ….

Such cleverness.  A postmodern take on postmodern literary theory.  Aptly summarised by Sfax, with perhaps the only words we can believe.  Mendacious, yes.  Mischievious, yes.  Meaningless, possibly.   Let me propose an adjective of my own. Marvellous.  Absolutely!