Bayard's literary subterfuge at least reveals how best to face his work, says Stuart Kelly
HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN'T READ
WHEN this book was published last year in France, it generated a great deal of slightly malicious Anglo-Saxon glee. Bayard, a professor of literature at that hotbed of esoteric literary theory, the University of Paris VIII, and a practising Lacanian psychoanalyst to boot, admitted not only that he frequently pretended to have read books he'd never so much as opened, he also lectured to students on books that he hadn't read.
In senior common rooms across the length of the UK, academics metaphorically punched the air; delighted that their suspicions had been confirmed and that the French had finally confessed to be out-and-out charlatans. Bayard, rather on the back heel I suspect, maintained the whole thing was a piece of erudite leg-pulling (indeed, Granta billed the book as "Literature/Humour") and claimed the British had failed to appreciate his Gallic wit.
Now that the English translation has appeared, we can assess Bayard's work with less of the academic one-upmanship. It is a real curate's egg of a book: parts are downright fascinating; parts are interestingly contentious; parts are pure bilge, parts are just wrong. The critics seem equally divided. The New York Times bills it as a kind of self-help manual ("a survivor's guide to life in the chattering classes"), while the London Review of Books is po-faced ("a witty and useful piece of literary sociology").
Bayard opens by classifying the different kinds of books he hasn't read. There's Unknown Books (UB); Skimmed Books (SB); Books He Has Heard About (HB) and Forgotten Books (FB); each is then qualified with plus or minus signs depending on what Bayard thinks he thinks about them. So Musil's The Man Without Qualities is SB and HB++, and his own academic work on Hamlet, charmingly, is FB-.
When he's not being quite so insouciant and knowing, Bayard is actually a very good critic. He writes excellently, propos of Montaigne, about forgetting. And he's right: we don't 'know' a book like we 'know' the rules of chess or how to do long-division. Our knowledge is actually fragmented memories, scraps and tatters of recollection.
Bayard is surprisingly perceptive about the film Groundhog Day, and gives a fascinating account of the Tiv tribe in West Africa, and how bemused they are by a production of Hamlet (they wonder if Old Hamlet is a zombie, for example, and think Hamlet is being utterly unreasonable in expecting his mother not to remarry as soon as possible since "who will hoe her farms"?).
When Bayard turns from our habits of misreading to how to survive confrontations with people who have (or perhaps have not) read the books in question, it all begins to falter. He evokes the back-biting and nepotism of the "literary world" by writing on Balzac's Lost Illusions – and really just made me want to re-read the novel.
In a way, his background as a psychotherapist begins to creep in. Why are we ashamed of not having read certain books? Beneath the veneer of bookish chit-chat, Bayard diagnoses a seething mess of suppressed violence, with "well-read" becoming a synonym for "socially superior". Instead of trudging through Bayard's increasingly farcical tricks for "getting one over" on other people, I would have preferred to read more about how and why we use culture to judge others, dismiss people, find romantic partners and negotiate with our colleagues.
Overall, this book suffers from one glaring problem. Bayard is writing about how to talk. And in talking, without a doubt, we can gloss over, be non-committal and do not have to read the books being discussed. In hard, cold, printed prose, however, his demonstrations can come across as facetious and wrong. It's not just factual errors (though there are a few). Having confessed to the gaps in his reading, his reliance on second-hand ideas and borrowed notions becomes depressingly clear. You might be able to talk about books you haven't read: writing about them is a far dicier proposition. v