Tag Archives: university professor

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.”

the-death-of-the-author

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.

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Still the Same Man: Jon Bilboa

In Spanish author Jon Bilboa’s taut, tightly written ominous novel, Still the Same Man, middle-aged Joanes has a chance encounter which leads to a terrible appointment with fate. Joanes was once a top student with a promising career ahead of him, but now in middle age, Joanes, the owner of a dying air-conditioning company, is facing failure. Dependent on the charity of his bombastic, wealthy artist father-in-law, Joanes, his patient wife and his teenage daughter, find themselves in a Mexican resort to attend the “teeth-grindingly tasteless” destination wedding of his obese father-in-law and his new wife, the employee of a tanning salon.

still the same man

On the night of the wedding, a hurricane alert changes everyone’s plans. Tourists are “desperate to fly out,” and with overcrowded airports, the wedding party has no choice but to move inland. Right before they leave, Joanes is ordered to take a sauna with his loud, crude, father-in-law where he is grilled about a promising looming air-conditioning contract:

The sauna was, in fact, a typical Mexican temazcal sweat lodge. Right next to the pool, there was a small, dome-shaped adobe construction that looked like an igloo or a bread oven. You entered by a door so tiny you had to crawl in on all fours, so tiny the father-in-law’s great carcass almost got stuck in it. From outside, Joanes spent a moment staring at that fat, tanned, waxed ass, only partially covered by its yellow Speedo, fighting its way through the door, then he averted his gaze.

While everyone else evacuates to Valladolid, Joanes is sidetracked and finds himself driving alone to join his family who are already on safe ground. Along the crowded roads where he joins thousands of other people also trying to escape the hurricane, Joanes spies a couple by the side of the road–an older man and his wheel-chair bound wife. Incredulous, Joanes realizes the man is none other than his old professor–the man he holds responsible for scuttling his career.

The professor has a tale about being ejected from an evacuation bus, and his version of events seems to be missing some salient details. The professor, an autocratic man who sails through life with the attitude that everyone is inferior, at first, doesn’t seem to recognize Joanes–even though Joanes was a stellar student.

Joanes, the professor and his wife, find themselves fleeing the hurricane and seeking refuge in a rudimentary Mexican hotel. With no power, and dying cell phone batteries, tensions between the hurricane evacuees explode. Ironically danger doesn’t come from the hurricane, although the hurricane exists as an unpredicatable background driving our characters relentlessly towards their violent fate. The savagery of nature seems nothing compared to the savagery of humans.

This compulsively readable, shocking novel takes an extremely dark, twisted path in its exploration of damaged psyche, simmering resentments, and horrific revenge. Author Jon Bilboa describes the professor’s absolute, tyrannical power in the classroom and his “aristocratic indifference” towards the students with a painful echo of accuracy. Many of the students hated the professor for the way he demeaned his students. Joanes admired him–a reflection perhaps on the hidden side of Joanes’s nature. But when Joanes’s promising career is snatched away, over time “the professor became
the virtual stooge for Joanes’s problems.” In an apparent act of kindness, Joanes gives the stranded professor and his wife a lift. How can this possibly end well?

The professor became a vessel for all his frustrations and rage. And the vessel gradually filled up, and its contents grew more and more viscous, until eventually they became as hard as stone; the professor was no longer a mere emotional device, a fantasy for self-exoneration, he’d become the one true culprit of everything bad that had ever happened to Joanes.

Translated by Sophie Hughes

Review copy.

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