Two recent reviews of mine appeared in the Sunday Business Post magazine – the first of Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language (Harvill Secker) and the second of Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing (Faber). Excerpts below…
The 7th Function of Language begins with a real-life event: the death of renowned semiotician and literary critic Roland Barthes. On the 26th of March, 1980, Barthes was struck by a laundry van while walking across the Rue des Ecoles in Paris. He had just attended a “cultural lunch” hosted by the Socialist presidential candidate Francois Mitterand. One month later, at Salpetriere Hospital, Barthes died of his injuries.
In Binet’s version, Barthes was carrying a document composed by the Russian literary theorist Roman Jakobson. This document reveals a hitherto unknown form of speech (the “7th function” of the title) that might be a key to political power. As Barthes lies dying, the hapless Superintendent Bayard is assigned to investigate his accident. Bayard finds himself trawling the higher echelons of French intellectual life, uncovering in the process a conspiracy involving then-President Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, up-and-comer Francois Mitterand, the Bulgarian secret service, and a rogue’s gallery of real-world French intellectuals.
The central joke in The 7th Function of Language is that everyone appears under his or her real name – meaning that a high degree of familiarity with the last three decades of French intellectual life is required, if you want to get the most out of Binet’s gags. Popping up in The 7th Function are, in no particular order, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Phillippe Sollers, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Umberto Eco, Bernard-Henri Levy, Louis Althusser, Michelangelo Antonioni, Paul De Man, Helene Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Claude Levi-Strauss, Camille Paglia, Roman Jakobson, Gayatri Spivak, Noam Chomsky, and John Searle. Binet’s satire is not subtle. At one point, Derrida is eaten alive by a pack of dogs unleashed by Searle. In real life, they had a philosophical disagreement about how language works. If this is the sort of thing that sends you into gales of laughter, then The 7th Function of Language is just the book for you.
The title of Hanif Kureishi’s new novella is a dirty joke out of Hamlet. “That’s a fair thought,” the Black Prince quips, “to lie between maids’ legs.” “What is, my lord?” asks Ophelia. “Nothing,” Hamlet replies. “Nothing,” therefore, means the female genitalia – a subject of obsessive interest to Waldo, Kureishi’s aging and impotent narrator. But “the nothing” is also, of course, the void that awaits us after death. Waldo is terminally ill: he suffers from “diabetes, prostate cancer, an ulcer, early MS, constipation, diarrhoea and only one good hip.” In The Nothing‘s 167 lean pages, then, Kureishi addresses himself to a classic, if now debatably relevant, theme: the failing powers of male flesh.
The opening sentence lets us know what we’re in for. “One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again.” As Waldo repines in his sickbed, he overhears his wife, Zenab, copulating with his friend, Eddie, in the room next door. Zenab is twenty years younger than Waldo. His thoughts about her never stray very far from the sexual: “Her ass is still firm. When I could rim her little hole, or halo, as I call it, and push inside, she’d almost slice the tip of my tongue off.” Quite. Eddie is a former public schoolboy, a rogue, and a chancer: “one of those Soho characters you see at screenings, festival openings, parties and dinners.” At his zenith, Waldo was an internationally famous filmmaker. Now he wheels himself about his decaying mansion flat in London, spying on his wife and her lover, embracing his “descent into voluptuous masochism,” and plotting his revenge.