Short Cuts

John Sturrock

A few years ago, a brilliant small book on detective fiction appeared in France called Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd? It got talked about at the time for demonstrating, rather neatly it was thought (by the then sitting tenant of this space in the LRB, Thomas Jones, among others), that at the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot hit on a wrong solution to the crime, that the too devious Dame Agatha had for once thrown even herself off the scent. I was on the point of adding that, of course, this was the novel in which Poirot decided that the who who done it was the man telling the story – who thereby earned himself a star billing among the deceivers known to the theorists of fiction as ‘unreliable narrators’; the ‘of course’ being as much as to say: ‘you know that as well as I do because we’ve all read the book.’

Except that I, for one, haven’t read it, but seem to remember from once hearing about it that such was the trick ending. Nor, truth to tell, have I read Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, and if I called it a ‘brilliant’ book, that was mere hearsay. So maybe I should be feeling a bit awkward at giving the impression I have read things I haven’t? Absolutely not. I’ve been let off that painful hook by Pierre Bayard, the man who previously showed how the tiresome Hercule had laboured in vain and has now published another brilliant small book (which I swear I’ve read): Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? (Minuit, €15). This is a witty and useful piece of literary sociology, designed to bring lasting peace of mind to the scrupulous souls who grow anxious whenever the book-talk around them becomes too specific, and either say nothing or else say too much, only to feel bad later on at having faked first-hand acquaintance with authors or titles they know they’ve either never read or totally forgotten.

Bayard’s title, you’ll have noticed, ends with a question-mark, a sly interrogative concession which might just perhaps ensure that he won’t get lazily shelved down the cultural end, if any, of the self-help bay in the book stores, when what he has written is in no sense a bluffer’s guide, full of practical tips on how to stay afloat at the next bookish conversazione you get sucked into. Rather, he wants us to know that it doesn’t in actual fact matter how much or how little we’ve managed to read, we can still go confidently ahead and have our say. And the more olympian we can contrive to be in advancing our opinions, the less need there is to back them up with detailed allusions to this text or that. For a first role model Bayard brings on the librarian in Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities, who has charge of the three and a half million volumes in the imperial library of Kakania. He has never read a single one of them, never gone beyond the titles on the spines and the lists of contents at the front, on the strength of which he can claim to have an incomparable vue d’ensemble of the literary world, one that would be ruined were he to have read whatever wretchedly small proportion of the stock he had time for. That austere position is one backed up, in a more exalted register, by another of Bayard’s heroes, Paul Valéry, who was notorious for the thinness of his reading and correspondingly celebrated for the breadth and penetration of his thoughts about the practice of literature in general.

Bayard is not exactly against reading, even though he tells us that he has more or less given it up for himself – a risky admission for a literary academic to make. But since this is no less than the ninth title he’s contributed to the series of which it’s a part – a series appearing under the rubric of ‘Paradoxe’, it’s no surprise to learn – reading has perhaps given way to paradox-mongering for a hobby. His point is simply that we care overmuch about dividing the too many books we live among into the two bald classes of the read and the unread, as if they were the only two classes there are. He can do better. He divides the books he at any rate used to live among into four, more nuanced and more realistic categories. There are the books he doesn’t know at all; the books he’s speed-read; the books he’s heard tell of one way or another; and finally the books he’s read but forgotten, as one more victim of what he nicely calls ‘an irrepressible movement of oblivion’.

There is, that’s to say, no category of books that he’s read from first word to last. Whenever he quotes a source – and the authors he quotes from in sufficient detail to wear as an effective disguise include Oscar Wilde, Montaigne, David Lodge and Umberto Eco – he always allots the book he’s citing to one class or another, giving page references from books he admits to not knowing or from one of his own books (Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd? no less) he wants us to believe he’s forgotten. His candour is as amusing as it is suspect, but the case he’s making is serious. We have no call to be hard on ourselves for being parsimonious or forgetful readers, for just as those who write books seldom feel that their reviewers have read the book that they wrote, so we all of us carry some sort of virtual library inside our heads that we have every right to draw on without worrying whether it matches the virtual libraries of others or is especially faithful to the facts of the books we find ourselves discussing. I mean to be a whole lot less scrupulous about these things in future.