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Faking it

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read; Pierre Bayard Translated from the French by Jeffrey Mehlman; Bloomsbury USA: 186 pp., $19.95

December 02, 2007|Jane Smiley | Jane Smiley is an essayist and novelist.

WHEN my editor sent me this book, he forgot to tell me not to read it, and therefore I neglected to not read it before beginning to write about it. On the jacket back is a list of 12 novels. I noted that I had read eight of them, several more than once. On the front is a picture of a stack of novels, including "In Search of Lost Time," which you would never have in one volume, but I was happy to see it, because when I read the whole thing some years ago, I skipped only five pages, toward the end of "The Captive," because I thought M. was getting a bit repetitive (and only there!).

Anyway, it took me about a third of Pierre Bayard's book (which has a very long title I won't repeat, though it is a short book) to realize I was supposed to write my piece in ignorance. I read enough of the book to understand that Bayard, a professor of literature at the University of Paris, considers every level of knowledge of a book some form of ignorance, so I'm still OK here.

Fortunately, Professor Bayard's knowledge of French literature and mine don't seem to overlap at all; he hasn't read Proust and I have, while I haven't read Valery or Montaigne and he has. Even better, we have both read Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," but he remembers it and I've forgotten it, so I am ideally suited to write about his book, whatever it's called.

I begin with an irrelevant anecdote: When I was reading French novels for my book "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel," I sought in vain for a comic novel. Someone suggested a recent novel about a woman who, after sleeping around, finds that she has turned into a pig. I can't remember the title or the author, but I do remember that I didn't find it funny, nor was there a happy ending, and I thought, "Well, if this is what the French consider comic, I'll stick with violent (Sade), bitter (Balzac), energetic (Zola) and detailed (Proust)." I gather that at that very period, Bayard was working on this book. In doing so, he has redeemed French comic literature, because his book is very funny, in a tricky sort of way, although not in a laugh-out-loud sort of way.

However, the chapter about Montaigne is quite poignant, because Bayard, while retaining his light tone, shows that for at least part of his life Montaigne had serious problems with his memory (early-onset Alzheimer's? severe attention deficit disorder?), so much so that not only could he not remember what he thought of books he had read just a few years previously but he could also not remember the experience of reading them. Sometimes (Often? Always? Bayard is not clear about this, but maybe that's because Montaigne is not clear about it either), he could not remember things he himself had written, and he was terrified of being unable to distinguish between what he had written and what someone else had written (or does Bayard extrapolate from Montaigne to come up with this? I have no idea).

Anyway, this image of Montaigne sticks in my mind with a kind of countervailing poignancy to the image of Paul Valery, who was proud to have not read Proust and didn't mind eulogizing him even so. According to Bayard, Valery seems to have thought that not reading books gave him, in fact, the best right to eulogize their authors, because his sense of their literary position was unsullied by acquaintance with their work, and therefore (this is my own word) selfless.

Position! That is our subject! Is that what makes this whole idea so French? Bayard suggests that social status depends on seeming to have read lots of books that, truth be told, no one actually enjoys reading, and so not only do you have to have a good line of bull but you also have to have a rationale for not reading, a theory that supports your practice (although, unless you are Professor Bayard, you shouldn't reveal your rationale). However, this doesn't work so well in translation. My son, for example, is a pure nonreader, and as an American teenager, he is proud of it. Men in America often declare that they don't read and certainly never read novels. And they seem to mean it, even though books are selling everywhere. So, position, at least social position, is not a reason to buy Bayard's book about talking about books you haven't read. The jacket is nice, though -- good colors and matte paper.

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