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In Praise of Failure

By
May 10, 2009

books250.jpgSeveral of the critics who appraised Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read upon the translation’s release in 2007 appeared to be more comfortable joking about not having read the book under review than taking a close look at the unsettling elusions and readings Bayard offers in it. They seemed not to get it, at least not in the way I very much wanted it to be got. Even Francine Prose, who wrote the translation’s foreword, had to quip: “Pierre Bayard puts his readers—this reader—in a uniquely paradoxical position. Having just read his witty How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, I have now discovered that there was no reason for me to have read it in the first place.” When asked in a pre-release interview with the New York Times whether he thought the book would do well in the States, Bayard himself couldn’t help but make a joke: “I have no idea. It was a bestseller in France. People bought it without reading it—they followed my advice. It was a bestseller in Germany, too, because there are many nonreaders in Germany, and they want to see their rights defended.” Is he joking? I am not so sure. In any case, everyone, including the writer himself, found it all very witty.

By the end of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (which I admit to having read twice), it doesn’t matter so much to me whether Bayard really means to discredit reading in favor of not reading or skimming or just faking it. Of course, he would throw any meaning I find in the book right back at me—which is part of its genius. Still, it seems clear enough that Bayard wants us to acknowledge, as have many before him, that reading isn’t a stable act. What we understand to be reading is often not reading: it is misreading; it is forgetting; it is looking, futilely, in books for what Bayard calls our “inner book”—the imaginary text we wish the author had written. The text we ourselves wish to write.

I have not read in its entirety Bayard’s Comment améliorer les oeuvres ratées, a book published in France in 2000 and, as far as I know, not yet published in English. I am not even fluent in French. In fact, I came very close to failing French several times over the eight years I studied the language. This does not make me proud. But it does make me want to explore my persistent lack of facility with a language whose structure and habits I understand only well enough to catch a word here, a sense or mood there (let’s say I “skim” French). And so, a good French-English dictionary in hand, I read “Hélas!” (literally, “Alas!”), the introduction to _Comment améliorer les oeuvres ratées_ and was as taken with the iconoclastic ambitions expressed in it as I am with those expressed in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read—so taken that I decided to give translation of “Hélas!” a shot.

And it is an inept shot. The impossibly mixed constructions I made out of Bayard’s sentences remind me of the pidgin English spoken by H. Hatterr, the protagonist and narrator of G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr, a novel presented as a memoir of a search for enlightenment. Hatterr explains in the introduction to his story, “I write rigmarole English, staining your goodly godly tongue, maybe: but, friend, I forsook my Form, School, and Head, while you stuck to yours, learning reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic.” I stained my own tongue and at times thought I’d forsaken my own head as I translated “Hélas!” The sentences I turned out easily matched Hatterr’s: their puzzling syntactical contortions, their gibberish. I was, at times, that bad. But I got by. I ironed the sentences my translations had wrinkled (leaving a few puckers in for Hatterr-like character); I took a few liberties. Okay, more than a few.

I know that if he were to read what follows, Bayard would not recognize every phrase, every metaphor, every flourish as his own. Maybe he would see only a blurry facsimile of the introduction he wrote. But I’d like to think that to translate is to heed his advice that we read not to get some fixed idea of a given work, but to envisage and even begin to write the work we are always looking for but will never find. I might not handle the French language with grace or skill, but I can say this much: in loosely translating the introduction to a book I have not yet read, I have at least imagined a book I would very much like to read.

—Suzanne Menghraj

from How to Improve Failed Works

“Alas!” or “Wow. That Sucked.”

by Pierre Bayard translated by Suzanne Menghraj

Critics don’t simply interpret literature—they transform it.

—Gerard Genette, Nouveau discours du récit

Wow. That sucked. That’s what every sensible person who has read the works discussed in this book says about each of them. Bad plot, inconsistent voice, bloated style, lame lines—such are the characteristics that depressingly mark these surprisingly pitiful works. And the question that inevitably arises with each work’s first disappointing moment is this: How did such a brilliant mind—one in full possession of its literary talents—manage to produce such awful writing?

Human beings have a tremendous capacity for failure and our failures take many forms. The range of literary failures available for our perusal should thus come as no surprise. Indeed, the field of failed works is immense—immense enough to make it nearly impossible to till the whole thing. So I have chosen to overlook second-rate writers and those who simply aren’t very good at their craft and have limited myself to discussion of remarkably bad works by remarkably good writers. The advantage of narrowing the field in this manner is twofold. For one, it helps me guard against readers who would suggest that I draw examples from my own writing. It also invites us to compare writers’ failures with their successes and in doing so, attempt to understand how literature and the minds that create it work. And, of course, don’t work.

Isn’t it high time we started thinking about all the crap good writers make? Wouldn’t it benefit us to understand the creators of these works and, as part of that understanding, pay homage to their moments of fatigue and inattention? After all, whereas perfect works, isolated by their completeness, hardly offer a hook on which to hang a critical thought, failed works offer insight into the intricate mechanisms of creation by which we might come to recognize the improbable alchemy that gives rise to great literature.

To carry out this study of failure and its possibilities, I have made an effort to choose works from various periods (the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries) and literary genres. One will find discussed in these pages four novels (Maupassant’s Fort comme la mort, Proust’s Jean Santeuil, Giono’s Le Bonheur fou, and Marguerite Duras’s L’Amour), three works of poetry (du Bellay’s L’Olive, Victor Hugo’s Dieu, and René Char’s Moulin premier), three epics (Ronsard’s Le Franciade, Voltaire’s La Henriade, and Chateaubriand’s Les Martyrs), two plays (Molière’s Dom Garcie de Navarre and Corneille’s Héraclius), and an autobiographical work (Rousseau’s Dialogues).

Isn’t it high time we started thinking about all the crap good writers make?

Though I’ve made careful selections with regard to period and genre, my choice of works will inevitably strike many readers as arbitrary. Why choose one great author over another? And with regard to a chosen author, why deem a particular work a failure—which is to say appreciably less accomplished than the guy’s other stuff? No doubt, all the works discussed in this book have their detractors, even among those disciples who’ve devoted their lives to a featured author’s genius. But to have detractors—or upholders for that matter—doesn’t prove much. No number of favorable or unfavorable critiques constitutes an aesthetic guarantee.

There is no satisfactory defense against the charge of arbitrariness. It is, after all, subjectivity that rules the mysterious ways in which literature is received. Still, even if the choices made here have no claim to objectivity, the subjectivity that informed them by no means prohibits me from using my chosen examples to reflect on what a failed work is—to perhaps devise a provisional definition of literary failure. Nor does my subjectivity prohibit those who would argue against the inclusion of particular selected works from contesting those works’ value as examples of failure.

Discussion of a subject such as failure calls for a change in our relationship to literature. Accustomed as we are to thinking about masterpieces and masterpieces alone, we are gripped, from the time we are young, by an attitude of respect and even veneration toward texts, an attitude that we must avoid here at all costs.

It’s not simply the choice of works that marks this journey as different; it’s our entire relationship to reading and the underlying tropes that organize that activity. Even if it claims to reserve judgment, traditional criticism—that which concerns itself with successful works—is preoccupied to a fault with moments of textual depth and semantic complexity. But criticism that is sensitive to failure is different: it is criticism in search of flatness and vacuity. And whereas traditional criticism is often anxious to praise the work it discusses, what we must attempt here, above all, is to disparage and do harm.

A whole new critical vocabulary needs to be invented in order to speak well—which is to say, poorly—of failed works. The words we ordinarily rely on are simply inadequate. It undoubtedly makes sense to draw from fields beyond literature—from climatic catastrophes or perhaps military disasters—to find expressions suitable to a description of literary failure. The point is, we must do away here with the critical tradition of commenting on works with sympathy or with a minimum of courtesy and instead force upon ourselves this one constraint: that we make only disagreeable, malicious remarks about the texts discussed within these pages.

Failure imposes on this book its logic and shape. As it is essential to have up front a precise description of the state of affairs, we begin in the first section, “Dismay,” with a damage assessment. On the basis of four areas of concern—general idea, rhythm, figurative language, and character—we will see that the picture of failure these texts present is overpowering.

If it is possible to overcome the despondency that results from witnessing such failure, we will attempt in the second section, “Scrutiny,” to describe in a more analytical manner the sheer inadequacy witnessed in the first section. Yes, with the aid of Freudian psychoanalysis and response theory, we will try to determine how it is that such masterful writers working so diligently could let themselves go so far as to produce such awful texts.

Whereas traditional criticism is often anxious to praise the work it discusses, what we must attempt here, above all, is to disparage and do harm.

Now of course, we cannot reasonably maintain such negative attitudes. And we cannot in good conscience allow these valuable if miserable texts to remain excluded from our cultural heritage. We thus proceed in the third section, “Improvement,” to make things better. First, we will try to vindicate the selected texts by applying to them the ideas proposed in the second section. We will, in effect, offer a second life to failed works—works that would, without the assistance provided here, be left to forever wander the far edges of literature.

I am aware that a project such as this is likely to shock a few readers, particularly those who have lovingly chained themselves to the works discussed. Those readers will wince when we suggest formal modifications or invent new outcomes or invite a character from one text to pass through another like an unwitting wanderer through a wedding in the park. I see no need for these readers to upset themselves. After all, this meddling we will do is nothing new. In fact, it’s as old as literature itself. What author has not been offered advice—perhaps in a much-too-pleasant manner, but advice nonetheless—as to how to transform their work into something better? Think of it this way: we are offering a way out for all those devoted readers who daydream about what, in another world, their favorite author’s worst work might have been. Perhaps any dissatisfied reading of this very book will inspire a rewriting as ruthless, as free, as ecstatic as those we shall now proceed to carry out.

—Translation published by arrangement with Les Éditions de Minuit and Georges Borchardt, Inc.

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Suzanne Menghraj teaches writing in New York University’s Liberal Studies Program. “In Praise of Failure” is the third in a six-part series of nonfiction Menghraj is writing for Guernica with support from a Liberal Studies faculty grant. Calypso Awakenings, the series’ second piece, appeared on Guernica in March 2009.

Photo by “Swamibu”: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swamibu/2868288357/ via Flickr

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