BOOK REVIEW / The man behind de Man?: 'The Death of the Author' - Gilbert Adair: Heinemann, 13.99

GILBERT ADAIR has invented a marvellously over-ripe style for this ivory tower whodunit: a combination of Jamesian scrupulosity and patrician kitsch out of Nabokov, which smells dreadfully fishy long before the first murder is committed. We are on the campus at 'New Harbor', leafy, wealthy, riven with scholarly lust and envy. America's favourite French deconstructionist guru, Leopold Sfax, is telling the story of his life, and of the triumph of his Theory, which has 'split in two as many faculties as the Dreyfus affair had split families at the turn of the century'.

So famous is preening-but-humble Professor Sfax that one of his ex- students, Astrid Hunneker - 'Her very name was a signifier of the 'creative' in all its poignant horror' - is planning to write his biography. And this is where the trouble starts. There is of course a built-in contradiction about the whole project, given that the Theory's main contention is that the Author is dead, that the language really writes him, that words go their own sweet way, unconnected with the 'real' world of the writer's experience. But as it turns out, there are very special reasons why this Author doesn't want his past investigated; in fact, Leopold Sfax invented the Theory precisely because he needed desperately to erase his own shameful history of wartime collaborationist writing, done under the pseudonym 'Hermes'. When he argued that all meaning dissolves into 'an infinite regression of empty linguistic signs', he was secretly plotting the death of that Author, the 'final solution' that would obliterate his old anti-Semitic self.

Some readers - probably most, since this is, in the horrible phrase, 'literary fiction', and so aimed at the knowing classes - will have recognised long before this that Adair is embroidering on the ongoing real-life row about the late Paul de Man's Fascist affiliations. De Man died before being found out, Adair's egregious Author ('Reader, I tell a lie') confesses his crime in a pre-emptive strike, and in the process (you realise) of planning another before our very eyes. Or does he? Can dead men tell tales after all?

It's a skilful and savage performance, with twists which one shouldn't reveal. And the central idea, that killing the Author is harder than it looks, has to be simply true. What has happened is that He is now unmasked, cavorting on the page along with the other characters; not an omniscient, anonymous figure, but a lying, local and irresponsible 'I'. It was Nabokov, with the creation of Humbert Humbert, who first thoroughly exploited the criminality of the first person - 'You can count on a murderer for a fancy prose style' - and Gilbert Adair here pays the master a fitting tribute of loving mimicry.

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