I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
(Emily Dickinson, 1861)
Who writes here? Omniscient author or unreliable narrator? Actually, it’s you, the reader, who is ‘writing’ the text, according to the French literary theorist Roland Barthes (1915-1980). Barthes’s provocative statement ‘death of the author – birth of the reader’ sees a text not as the expression of an author’s intention but as a system of signs in which meaning is generated solely by the interplay of these signs. Barthes maintains that the identity of the speaker of a text cannot be established, because ‘writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.’1 The author becomes a kind of ghost in his/her own text and can never step outside this text to explain, for this would only engender more words. As a critic, Barthes is aware that he is a victim of his own argument, for critics, as disentanglers of the text, go through an artificial process as they try and determine meaning, and in so doing generate yet more texts. David Lodge, in ‘Consciousness and the Novel’, notes that ‘academic criticism… cannot help trying to say the last word on its subject; it cannot help giving the impression that it operates on a higher place of truth than the texts it discusses’.
I would suggest that Barthes’s theory that the reader is the site on which writing finds unity and meaning is an explication of the observation already made by Proust in ‘Time Regained’2: ‘every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.’ Barthes was one of those French ‘new critics’ who erupted from the cultural woodwork of Modernism with such bewildering abstractions that, to quote Shakespeare, ‘nothing is but what is not’.3 A backlash to this post-modern hocus-pocus is a rejection of Barthes’s ephemeral ‘scriptor’ and a rise in the cult of the author as personality. The 21st century reader is, as Javier Marías observes in ‘Written Lives’, ‘uncomfortable with something whose authorship cannot be attributed to a face; it is almost as if a writer’s features formed part of his or her work’. Marías describes the John Singer Sargent portrait of Henry James, that master of the psychological novel:
James’s face is a uniform whole, the cheeks and cranium forming the indivisible continuum of a politician or a banker. However, in the Sargent painting, with its opaque gaze, there is one detail that undermines this apparent respectability and precludes him from being either politician or banker: the thumb hooked in his waistcoat pocket, clumsily or timidly, uncomfortable and ill at ease, the whole awkward hand hanging from there.
In the photo taken with Henry’s older brother, William James, Marías observes how
only his [Henry’s] eyes save him from being passed over, that and the jolly
bow tie, an extraordinary concession to fantasy in such an ascetic person.
But the gaze is frighteningly intelligent, for it is an intelligence turned outwards,
far more inquisitive than that of his philosopher brother, whose face, at first
glance, seems, erroneously, to have more personality: you have only to look at
their eyes to see this, William looks straight ahead, almost without seeing,
Henry is looking to one side, doubtless seeing even what is not there.
Henry James was famous for his penetrating eyes, described by Edmund Gosse as ‘the intolerable scrutiny’, as though he were looking through a person with a view to the soul.
This association of the visual appearance of an author with his or her text can be illusory. When the youthful narrator in Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is introduced to the author Bergotte, whose writing he admires, he struggles to reconcile the man he sees before him with the power of his prose:
The name Bergotte made me start, like the sound of a revolver fired at me point black, but instinctively, to keep my countenance, I bowed: there, in front of me, like one of those conjurers whom we see standing whole and unharmed, in their frock-coats, in the smoke of a pistol shot out of which a pigeon had just fluttered, my greeting was returned by a youngish, uncouth, thickset and myopic little man, with a red nose curled like a snail-shell and a goatee beard. I was cruelly disappointed, for what had just vanished in the dust of the explosion was not only the languorous old man, of whom no vestige now remained, but also the beauty of an immense work which I had contrived to enshrine in the frail and hallowed organism that I had constructed, like a temple, expressly for it, but for which no room was to be found in the squat figure, packed tight with blood-vessels, bones, glands, sinews, of the little man with the snub nose and black beard who stood before me. The whole of the Bergotte whom I had slowly and delicately elaborated for myself, drop by drop, like a stalactite, out of the transparent beauty of his books, ceased (I could see at once) to be of any possible use.
Like James, Proust’s scrutiny had a devouring quality, and he is described as having ‘strangely luminous, omnivorous eyes’. Proust circulated amongst a fin-de-siècle social set of French aristocracy, artists, intellectuals, dandies and queens. Léon Daudet, journalist and novelist, describes in Salons et journaux, what it was like to sit down with him in the fashionable restaurants where Proust liked to spend his evenings,
wrapped in woollens like a Chinese knick-knack. He would ask for a grappe de raisin, a glass of water and declare he had just got up, that he had influenza, that he was going back to bed, that the noise was harming him, glance around him anxiously, then mockingly, finally bursting out in magical laughter and stay. Soon coming from his lips, hastily and tentatively offered, remarks of extraordinary originality and perceptions of diabolical subtlety…He resembled both Mercutio and Puck, pursuing several ideas at a time, adroit and excusing himself for lacking goodwill, tormented with ironical scruples, naturally complicated, throbbing, silky.
Proust understood that the power of writing could transcend the death of the author. He owed much of his influence to the writings of Ruskin, and when he learnt that the eighty-one-year-old writer had died of influenza at his Lake District home, he wrote in a letter to Marie Nordlinger (who had helped him with his translations of Ruskin) how he felt both sad and consoled, ‘for I sense what a small thing death is when I see how forcefully this dead man lives, how much I listen to him, admire him, strive to understand him and obey him, more than I do most of the living.’ When Proust finally ran out of his own breath he was laid out for friends to pay their respects. The novelist and critic Edmond Jaloux observed that Proust looked
more dead than other corpses. He was totally absent. His thin hollowed mask, blackened by a sick man’s beard, was bathed in a greenish shadow, half mysterious. A big bunch of violets was resting on his chest…In the same way that he hadn’t been alive like other people, he wasn’t dead like others, and the grief of his friends was taking part in something of the inexpressible majesty which emanated from his immobile face.4
1 ‘Death of the Author’ (1968) in Image – Music – Text
2 written 1916-17, published 1927, five years after Proust’s death
3 Macbeth I iii
4 Hayman, Ronald, 1990. Proust, London, Heinemann.