'Voyage Around the World', a French poster from the late 19th century © Private Collection; Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Images

Pierre Bayard: genius, or dinner party contrarian?

Journey through falsehood
March 24, 2016
How to Talk about Places You’ve Never Been is the second book in a trilogy by Pierre Bayard. “I like trilogies,” he told me when we met for coffee, smiling a little at this misdirection. Bayard does not write novels; he is an academic, a professor of French literature at the University of Paris 8. He has written 19 books on literature and other cultural loiterings, several of them triplets. Bayard is also a psychoanalyst. This is a dangerous mix. Fact, fiction, criticism, literary theory and the musings of kaleidoscopic perception. I had read his book over the weekend. It was like reading a painting by Wassily Kandinsky. I ordered a fizzy mineral water to clear my head and asked him an ordinary question.

“What will the next book in this series be about?” Bayard would not tell me. The first was entitled, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Naturally I haven’t read it, but nonetheless I found it an interesting discourse on the discourse of discourse.

We met at the Café Beaubourg, a modern restaurant-cafe opposite the Centre Pompidou inexplicably popular with Parisian intellectuals. Bayard is small, slight and has the generous bouffant hair of a young John Travolta.

“I hope I have invented a new kind of writing,” he told me, insouciant. “My essays have always had a fictional part.”

He is their author, he explained, but not their narrator. This device, he pointed out, is often employed in literature. In the genre of academic monograph, however, it is less frequently experienced. It is not often to be found in critical theory either, which is another way of describing his work, while at the same time, referring to my own review-essay, which, hereafter, should be regarded as allusively arch and as fundamentally unreliable. Pretend, in other words, that I am not Wendell Steavenson as indicated in italics at the top of this article, but that I am a fictional character I have created for the purposes of writing about a writer who writes about the fallacies of writing under the guise of another first person, not his own.

I admit I did not recognise his cunning ruse at first. At first I was only confused. Blank-brained and uninitiated, I read his prologue and privately catalogued the tone as superior gobbledygook so often deployed in the realm of books about ideas: “In order to reflect on this particular relationship between literature and space, the act of description, to which writers have frequent recourse in their daily practise, is key, because it provides a privileged observation post for studying the singularities of fictional space that literature invents and the significant differences between it and the real world.”

I was lost in the land of Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell, somewhere between the conurbations of cultural populism and stating the bleeding obvious. I confess I wrote nasty notes like “grumpy philosophising Frenchness” and “dinner party contrariness” in the margins. In real life Bayard was a little less obscure. He explained the creation of his unreliable narrator: “Just as a novelist invents characters who may be part of himself but not himself.” The I was not I. “I am fond of reading—how could I teach literature without opening books? I am fond of travelling—I have just returned from New York. Of course it’s not me!”

Bayard’s “narrator” is a capricious fellow, an intellectual dabbler, a minor buffoon, to borrow one of his own examples as a characterisation, a Phileas Fogg adventurer, who is constantly travelling, full of vicarious observations, but never seems to arrive. Bayard (himself) describes him as “a bit of a paranoiac.” The narrator dislikes travel; it is inconvenient, it is uncomfortable. But Bayard (himself) argues that by using a different persona it allows him to provoke debate. “Of course the narrator is wrong! It’s stupid to say that travel is worthless, but it can be an original perspective to review the questions.”

How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been does not tell you how to talk about places you’ve never been. Rather it is a peripatetic journey through a series of falsehoods. Each chapter is the story of another liar. Marco Polo never went to China. Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg stayed in his cabin and failed to visit any of the places he passed through during his circumnavigation of the globe. The novelist Édouard Glissant could not travel to Easter Island for health reasons so he sent his wife instead. In Voyage en Amérique published in 1826, François-René de Chateau- briand invented whole chunks of America he hadn’t seen. The anthropologist Margaret Mead thought she had discovered an example of human sexuality without taboo or shame but in fact was only the butt of an elaborate joke by Samoan Islanders. Jayson Blair imagined his reporting for the New York Times. Rosie Ruiz won the Boston Marathon in 1980 in record time by taking the subway. Jean-Claude Romand created a career as a high-flying international doctor and then killed his whole family to prevent them from finding out that he was nothing of the sort. In the 18th century, George Psalmanazar convinced all of London he was an inhabitant of the island of Formosa, even inventing a Formosan language, despite the fact he was blonde and blue eyed. Karl May, the German criminal and writer, wrote thinly veiled autobiographical hagiographies set in an American west he had never seen. Blaise Cendrars made a prose poem about a journey on the Trans-Siberian Express that he had not undertaken.
"'My book contains the right sentences but also nonsense,' Bayard finally admitted to me. On this point he is correct."
Fantasists, fibbers, charlatans, storytellers, con-men—some are merely novelists. Each presents the reader (and the author) with the lacuna between fact and fiction, reality and imagination. Is our idea of the world made up of inaccurate descriptions like Psalmanazar’s Island of Formosa where people lived underground and rode hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses? Do we, the beguiled audience, believe what we read because it is convenient to our own sensibilities? Did Margaret Mead project her own hopes of a sexually liberated age on to her teenage Samoans?

Does it matter if some facts are wrong? Can it be that a fictional version—like Karl May’s depiction of the Wild West, which indicts the murderous land grab of the Europeans and presents many of its Indian characters as sympathetic and complex, is perhaps preferable to a contemporaneous account? Could it be, Bayard’s grounded narrator posits, that this kind of fabrication allows the world “to be transformed through writing, rendering it more just.”?

I had the feeling, reading between the lines into the spaces and interstices of query and consideration, of trying to follow a path along an illegible map led by a grouchy guide who never left his armchair, that I had got lost in a foreign intellectual tradition as alien as Formosa. Bayard assured me (the author was kindly, even if his narrator was snooty) that even the French had at first misunderstood him. In one of his early books, Off the Subject: Proust and Digression (1996), he argued that it was necessary to eradicate digression in literature. “Of course it was a joke!” cried Bayard, sipping his demitasse of coffee as the raw wind blustered outside. But academic colleagues took him at face value: “there is a general sense that academic books must be serious,” Bayard lamented. “Now people know there is a humoristic sense in my books.” They have since become bestsellers in France.

“My books are very well received in the United States,” he said gratified. “They understand the sense of humour and the reasoning. To use fiction and theory, or fiction and essay to try and reflect on, what are to me, very important problems.” The British remain nonplussed. Bayard was sad and a little hurt, I think, that even his detective trilogy on British literature—Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery, Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles and Enquiry into Hamlet—were largely ignored in Britain.

“They asked me to meet someone from BBC Paris and they tested my English,” he recalled. Clearly, he thought, they had found it wanting (he speaks pretty good English, but it’s hard for him to understand complex questions) and he had not been invited to do radio or television as he was in America. “Of course the Americans think I talk like Shakespeare!” he laughed.

Bayard is very clever; but is he disingenuous or a genius? At the Café Beaubourg, I sat back in my uncomfortable modern conceptual chair made of scuffed metal painted white with a back rest in the shape of a pair of lips. The bubbles of my Badoit went up my nose and made my eyes sting. I was, perhaps foolishly, clinging to a life raft of my own theory: that despite the tongue-in-cheekiness, Bayard had used the device of the nutty narrator as a kind of alter-ego in a Socratic debate that would come to an actual conclusion. Slowly, I realised, this was not the point.

“My work is a project to seize something about [the act] of creation that cannot be seized,” said Bayard.

How To Talk About Places You’ve Never Been is a concertina work, pleated alternately true and false. Paradox and inverse. Subverse. Bayard likes to play with doubt. He likes to play with a superincumbent style. He delights in the overlap and the gap between the writer’s word and reader’s imagination to draw “imaginary realms” and “inner landscapes.” Kandinsky, I thought again. When you are trying to catch a glimpse of narrative on the precipice of abstract expressionism.

“My books destabilise the reader,” he told me. Yeah, no shit.

Bayard’s chapters are the hopscotch juxtapositions of someone else’s thoughts. What unites the stories of these variously inaccurately described geographies? Not much except the construct of his own jumping synapses, which is to say his thoughts, which is to say his ideas, which is to say—which is to say, well, he is an author and it is a book, like any other. Full of paragraphs that may confuse or delight or seem to hold secret coded clauses that resonate just with you.

“The most important thing for a writer is to make his readers travel,” Bayard, or rather his narrator, notes late in the book. I myself have written books about other places; some people might call me a journalist but I know that there is no greater truth than fiction. I underlined this passage and wrote in the margin next to it: perhaps it doesn’t matter how you get it (by careful observation or by dreaming), just that the story is good. Perhaps nothing about the truth of any of it matters except in the mind of the reader.

“My books contain the right sentences but also nonsense,” Bayard finally admitted.

On this point he is correct.