Books that are really ideas

Via a comment on Ann Althouse’s blog, I skipped over today to this review in the London Times of an essay titled Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus (“How to discuss books that one hasn’t read”), which was written by one Pierre Bayard, who is a professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII. And also (writes the reviewer, Adrian Tahourdin) a “practising psychoanalyst.” How beautifully French.

Bayard’s droll conceit includes a description of the four categories into which he places books:

“LI” indicates “livres inconnus” (books he is unfamiliar with); “LP” “livres parcourus” (books glanced at); “LE” “livres dont j’ai entendu parler” (books he has heard discussed) and “LO” “les livres que j’ai oubliés” (books he has read but forgotten).

Tahourdin next recounts that Joyce’s Ulysses falls into the category LE.

[Bayard] claims not to have read the novel, but he can place it within its literary context, knows that it is in a sense a reprise of the Odyssey, that it follows the ebb and flow of consciousness, and that it takes place in Dublin over the course of a single day. When teaching he makes frequent and unflinching references to Joyce.

I suppose we should delight in his honesty.

I also wonder . . . hmmmm . . . what do his students think?

I’m afraid I can’t relate. Having attended a modest state college, I’m reasonable certain that my lit professors had actually taken the trouble to read the books to which they had the habit of making “frequent and unflinching references.” An alarming lack of pretension, I agree. But I forgive them.

Another thought also occurs to me. What does it say about a literary novel when People Who Read Serious Books can sum it up in a single sentence — sum it up as an idea — without even having to read it — and then discuss it, as that idea, amongst themselves?

Where are its roots?

Michael Blowhard wrote this, a couple of days ago, in a post about mystery writer Elizabeth George:

When you pull an artform out of the earth it grows from, even if you do so with the best or the loftiest of intentions, it’s likely to whither and then die.

I’m not sure we can accuse Joyce of yanking literature out of the earth — I think he was just marchin’ to the beat of his own drunken Irish drummer — but in the end he didn’t need to even if he’d wanted — he has the Bayards of the world to do it for him . . .

[tags] James Joyce, writing, books, literature [/tags]

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