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.