The Death of the Author: Gilbert Adair

“Reader, I tell a lie.”

Gilbert Adair’s Love and Death on Long Island  features a reclusive author who fell in love with an American heart-throb, and after enjoying this dark tale of obsession, I turned to Adair’s The Death of the Author. This book also features another middle-aged, bachelor author, but this time it’s Leopold Sfax, a man whose egomania exceeds even that of Giles De’Ath in Love and Death on Long Island. Giles De’Ath looks positively humble and congenial next to the malignant Leopold Sfax, a smug, celebrity professor who is enthroned at New Harbor, one of America’s most prestigious Ivy League schools. Sfax is a philosopher, theorist and critic best known for The Theory–an approach to criticism which has dominated campuses across the country since the 80s. Sfax is “the most celebrated critic in the United States,” and with The Theory applied to literature, “the Author was to find Himself declared well and truly dead.”

I had demonstrated that it was for the text to ‘write’ its author rather than vice versa, the presence of a human sensibility somehow embedded with that language, within that text, had at last been understood for what it truly was: an absence, a void. The old and handy pedagogical dichotomies, the so-called binary oppositions that had once served to authenticate the truth and completeness of the Author’s interior universe–identity and difference, nature and culture, self and society–had at last been reversed or dissolved.

The book opens with Sfax meeting Astrid, a “flickeringly brilliant if too conventionally focused” former graduate student, who tells him she plans to write his biography. Sfax, our first person narrator, is obviously not thrilled by the proposition and tells her that he will cooperate but that she will not ‘get’ him–that no one ever has. Perhaps that reaction isn’t too surprising from a critical theorist, or is there something else afoot? Something far more sinister? How much of Sfax, paradoxically, lies in his theory?

I proposed that, again, in every text, there would fatally arrive what I called an aporia, a terminal impasse, a blank brick wall of impenetrability, an ultimatum of indetermination, when its self-contradictory meanings could no longer be permitted to coexist in harmony and its fundamental ‘undecidability’ would undermine for ever the reader’s most fundamental suppositions.

Following the meeting with Astrid, Sfax begins to tell his own story, and yet even as the narrative of reinvention flows, holes appear in Sfax’s past–his life in France during the Occupation, the disappearance of a friend, his decision to move to America with “its bright patchwork of opportunity, its whole candid candied hugeness,” his humble beginnings in a book shop and his leap into academia with “the chance to no longer toil in some obscure store, handling other man’s books the way a bank teller must handle other men’s money.”


That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss of this slim novel of 135 pages, but I will say that if you enjoy novels about campus life and academic skullduggery, you should try this novel. Obviously Gilbert Adair has fun here (referencing Barthes) with this tale of university competitiveness, backstabbing academics and the unassailable qualities of dominant theories that hold academic disciplines in thrall. Even Giles De’Ath from Love and Death on Long Island is mentioned here in a passing reference to being an advocate of the Theory.

Adair, who breaks through that fourth wall, has a marvellous way with words which trickles down through his insufferable, snotty narrator. Here’s Sfax’s great enemy in the department, a hapless, harmless fellow named Herbert Gillingwater:

a kind of Peter Pan in reverse, never known to have been young. Indeed, his mousy nicotine-stained moustache and frankly sepia beard impressed one as older even than he was, deeply unappetizing hand-me-downs from some ancient parent; and it was claimed of him, an old maid of a bachelor, that if the striation of the corduroy suits he wore in all weathers looked as raggedly corrugated as it did, it was that he would freshen it simply by plunging it every six months or so into a sinkful of boiling water and detergent.



Filed under Adair Gilbert, Fiction

21 responses to “The Death of the Author: Gilbert Adair

  1. Oooh, I can’t resist a novel about campus rivalries (having worked in academia myself for a couple of years). You tempt me yet again…

  2. It has to be based on the life of Paul de Man. As was Axel Vander in John Banville’s trilogy which comprises Shroud, Eclipse and Ancient Light. De man was hot when Gert was at Unilversity, unmasked as dodgy later.

    • I don’t know if it is or not. I didn’t really look into it, but I’ll take your word for it.

    • Jeff

      Why was de Man dodgy?

      • He was a Nazi collaborater, bigamist and j

        • Sorry need to add there were also accusations of plagiarism. An account of it all here

        • Jeff

          Looking again at Martin McQuillan’s book on him, the striking thing is not so much his statements against Kewish influences on literature, as his post-war silence. So we have plenty of arguments about his writing for publications amounting to collaboration if we understanding that working in Nazi-occupied Europe meant supporting the regime, we have testimonies about his general non-anti-Semite behaviour in life, and it all falls into a hollow of his post-war creation. It is disingenuous to point out that his anti-Jewish sentiments about literature were few in number when the stakes were so high. Even without contemporary knowledge of the Holocaust, as an academic he must have known the responsibility his words implied in a climate of exclusion and fear.

  3. I’m in, I love the sound of this!

  4. PS Drat, I can’t find it in my usual sources. I’ll have to hunt around.

  5. I remember his film criticism and other journalism fondly, but haven’t got round to his fiction. I think he translated that Perec novel, the one that doesn’t use the letter ‘e’ – some feat in English. He was always interested in critical theory, and from your review here did so with healthy scepticism. Must add him to the list…Sounds a bit like Borges, too, with its self-reflexive playfulness (and other Oulipo characters [Perec] like Calvino, perhaps) – does this mean he’s maybe derivative rather than original?

  6. Jeff

    I’ve been dipping into Myths & Memories for a while. It’s an attempt at Mythologies for British culture. Entertaining but you can’t help but wonder what Adair himself thinks. I shall nonethless browse The Death of the Author, which on occasion also appears on the secondhand market.

  7. I’d probably enjoy this one. There’s something about these campus books.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.