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The best books on Deconstruction

recommended by Peter Salmon

An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida by Peter Salmon

An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida
by Peter Salmon

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For the general reader deconstruction has a bad reputation. It is seen as over-complicating, arcane and wilfully obscure—but as its founding genius Jacques Derrida pointed out, “If things were simple, word would have gotten around.” Here Peter Salmon, author of an excellent new biography of Derrida, chooses five books to get you started on the text and everything inside it.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida by Peter Salmon

An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida
by Peter Salmon

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Before we get into your choice of books, could you just give us a brief description of what deconstruction is—or was?

Yes, deconstruction is generally associated with Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher, born in 1930. It came to prominence in the 1960s, with his examination of the meaning of meaning, of how we put things in quotation marks, and how, with words and language, meaning isn’t fixed, the fact that it’s disputed, that it is constructed in some sense. He says that the truth is constructed, that things like God are constructed, things like law are constructions, and those constructions are conventional, they’re human. And they can therefore be deconstructed: we can look at how they were constructed, why they were constructed, what powers constructed them, and so forth. And we can take those apart.

Now that doesn’t destroy the thing in question. It leaves this thing intact. However, once we’ve done that process, we’ve looked at the thing from lots of different angles. And, in particular, Derrida liked to do that with books. Books could never be coherent and stable in their meaning, they could never have a singular meaning, although we often casually talk about them like that. We might ask what a poem means, for example. For Derrida, that was the wrong question. The answer will always be wrong, because books are a mishmash of very different things. We have these cultural myths that they’re stable entities. He argued that they’re not stable entities, and it’s very interesting to take them apart.

So, to get this clear, you’re not saying that when you deconstruct a book or novel, you’re trying to get at the author’s intentions or anything like that. That might be just one interpretation.

Absolutely. The author’s intentions have no more authority than anyone else’s. One of the amazing things about writing, as anyone who’s done any writing whether casually or otherwise knows, is the transformative process that happens when you write something down, particularly if you’re writing fiction—although Derrida would argue this across all types of writing.

When you’re writing, some kind of magic happens, and the meaning escapes from you, the meaning changes, even in the most conventional sort of writing. That is one of the incredible and brilliant things about writing. Think about what you’re intending to do as a writer—and let’s just go with fiction for a moment. There’d be no particular reason to read my fiction, if I just wanted to put down my views. I’m a white, heterosexual, middle class, middle-aged man. My views aren’t necessarily very interesting. However, if I sit down and make some characters do things to each other, talk to each other, interact in different scenarios, then something changes about that. And when someone then reads that from a different background, or even from a similar background, then another meaning layer is added to it, maybe a more interesting meaning than the one I attempted to impose.

It’s not that easy to get Derrida’s notion of deconstruction clear, because it is quite a complex idea. There are many different interpretations of, say, Lord of the Flies. William Golding was interviewed about what he meant by putting these kids on a desert island. And he had a definite idea of the forces that lie latent in humanity, and that it doesn’t take much to lose that veneer of civilization. Now, you seem to be saying that doesn’t have any more authority than somebody interpreting it as a parody of a Boy’s Own story.

If the person making that argument makes a coherent argument, I think that’s right, absolutely. I mean, if you were just saying that his opinion of the book, his intention with the book, is what he said, then we could just listen to what he said and we wouldn’t actually need the book. The book that he’s written, Lord of the Flies, has obviously changed meaning over time. The characters are from an all-boys school which, I think at the time he was writing, would have been somewhat conventional. Whereas now that has a whole lot of meanings that it didn’t have at that time. The ideas of ‘civilization’ and ‘non-civilization’ have changed over time. So these readings continue to accumulate around the book, they continue to change with the book.

“You can bring anything you want to reading a book—and we all do”

Heart of Darkness has changed meaning several times and every reading is a new meaning. If one of these authors just wants to sit down and tell us their political opinions, or their literary opinions, or their aesthetic opinions, we can listen to them. But they’re still writing books, because there are other things that happen, and other ways of embracing that knowledge.

Am I right that, for a deconstructionist, reading it as about the absence of women would be a legitimate reading—or reading it as about fashion in the 1950s?

Yes, certainly. You can bring anything you want to reading a book—and we all do. We’re all individuals, we’re all singular individuals. So we’re all doing that fairly naturally, as we go along. You can make an incisive reading on one of those topics. Now that reading can be good or bad. If you’re doing ‘50s fashion’, I would imagine it’s going to be harder to do a very good reading of the book, than if you’re looking at issues of race or gender and so forth, but not impossible. There may be things in there that can be brought out of that book that the author certainly didn’t know about, that no one else may have ever thought about.

Again, it’s easy to mystify this. In fact, it’s not mystification. Whenever we’re reading a book, we’re doing that, we have a certain set of beliefs and concepts and so forth. And often we forget that we’re doing that. And often we can be lulled into a false sense of common sense—that the book is just a story which is unfolding before us. But when you are reading a book closely, and critically, you do look for these things, you do look for absences and particular styles of writing and all that sort of thing.

For another example, you wouldn’t write Lord of the Flies in the same way now, because how we use language has changed. In a sense, it’s a time capsule of that time. So that language is also something controversial, to be looked at, to be examined.

Deconstruction often gets a bad name, because it seems to be a kind of relativism, saying every interpretation is as good as every other interpretation and that any text can sustain multiple, contradictory, overlapping interpretations. There’s no right answer to what a book or a text means, so it seems to be saying anything goes.

You’re correct when you say that there’s no right answer to what a book means. I think most educated readers would feel that anyway. You wouldn’t say there was a single set meaning to The Waste Land, for instance. Derrida was always very, very careful to argue that he wasn’t a relativist. He didn’t believe that all readings were as good as other readings. He didn’t believe you could just shout the word ‘Hat!’ at a novel and that would be a fair interpretation. Like all of philosophy, like all of thinking, there are boundaries to how far you can go. So there are boundaries of logic and of ethics and other boundaries where things become a little bit disputed around the edges. Derrida was very clear that there was no relativism in this. There was scepticism in this, yes, but all of philosophy is a type of scepticism, isn’t it, looking at things, examining them, taking them apart? That’s not relativism. Having said that, some of the followers of Derrida have had a more open view of this and have attempted—I think badly—to take novels apart to the point where there’s nothing left. I think it was J. Hillis Miller who said something like, ‘You’re looking for the thread that you can pull that unravels the whole thing.’ And I think that does a disservice to Derrida’s methods.

Derrida, when he was doing deconstruction—at which he is brilliant, unlike some of his followers—would hone in on something about the text that the text produces itself, whether it’s the sound of the text, the absences that we’ve been talking about, or some of the contradictions. He didn’t just go in and say, ‘I’m going to do “50s fashion” about Lord of the Flies.’ He would never do that.

Let’s move on to your first book, which is Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida. Why did you choose this book?

Well, I chose this because you can’t really get around it when it comes to deconstruction. It is the urtext and it is also one of the books which either draws you into deconstruction and leaves you stuck there for years and years, or that pushes you away from deconstruction. It’s also one of those books that probably more people have claimed to have read—and not to have read—than virtually any other book other than Ulysses.

When I was doing philosophy at university, I certainly pretended to read Of Grammatology. And for me, part of the problem here is the reception of Of Grammatology. It is classed as a book of philosophy, which it is. But with books of philosophy, we tend to have a set of expectations. One of the expectations we have is that we’ll find a fairly logical argument. We start with one proposition, there are building blocks, there are contradictions and so forth. And the argument progresses cogently, even in someone like Nietzsche or Heidegger. We expect that from a philosophy book. Of Grammatology doesn’t really work like that. I describe it in my biography of Derrida as ‘bonkers’. I think in the first draft I actually called it ‘batshit crazy’, but that didn’t get past the publishers, so we went with ‘bonkers’.

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In a sense it is exactly that. This is Derrida, who was 37 when he wrote it, who had these ideas that he hadn’t really found an outlet for yet. It’s one of those books where he just throws in everything he knows at that point, almost unashamedly. It’s about writing; it’s about deconstruction; it’s about language. There’s a vast section on Rousseau and masturbation, and sections on supplementarity and pictographic language, all these things are thrown together. It’s also a mash up of two different essays that he’d written separately, but put together clumsily—he always felt he had put them together clumsily.

It’s all of these things. And, because it’s so forbidding, it does turn a lot of people off deconstruction altogether. I think that the thing to do is to read it, in a sense, as you would read a piece of fiction. You can dip into it, you can understand a few paragraphs, and then not understand a couple of paragraphs. We are used to doing that with some fiction, particularly with something like Ulysses, to use an obvious comparison. We are comfortable with the idea that meaning will gradually emerge as we read along. And if we don’t understand something, we can dump it and come back to it. But for me—and I’m sure for many, many people—you sit down with the first paragraph and think, ‘I don’t understand this’ and stop.  I say, don’t panic, and don’t stop.

But it seems to me if you’re going to approach it like that, you have to have faith that there is something worth devoting that time to?

Yes, which is a risk. But you know, all reading is a risk – which is a very Derridean thing to say. We take that risk any time we open a book – we risk wasting time. Now, obviously, with a book of this level of influence, I would hope people would think it has something to say, and so you would take that risk. And I think what gradually happens, and it took me a long time—and again, like Ulysses—it’s one of those books where every time you go back to it, you understand a little bit more. It’s one of those books where gradually the meaning grows on you. For Derrida, one of the central things is that meaning is not fixed, that any declarative statement has to be questioned. So Of Grammatology avoids declarative statements in a way that other philosophy books don’t. It puts things in quotation marks; it uses lots of the tactics of novels; it uses bits of dialogue; it uses epigrams; it uses hyperbole – all of these things. It uses all of those as its tactics, not gratuitously, but because it’s performing deconstruction as it goes along. The footnotes are vast, the endnotes are vast. You really have to allow yourself to get lost in the thick of it.

Let’s move to your second book choice.

One of the other problems I think people have with Derrida—and this is something shared by both his acolytes and his detractors—is that he’s seen as emerging out of nowhere. But he didn’t. The book I want to talk about is Dialogic Imagination, which is a collection of four essays by Mikhail Bakhtin.

Derrida came from the tradition of phenomenology in France. But he also drew on a long tradition of critical reading and dialogic imagination. Bakhtin was a Russian theorist, who wrote a lot in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. He was more or less unheard of in the West until after his death in 1975. He was very interested in the way that language functions as a type of dialogue. He saw fiction as the epitome of this. In fiction, there are various voices going on, the voices of the characters, the voice of novelistic technique, the voice of the narrator, the voice of the time—all of these dialogic things were clashing with each other. He was particularly interested in Dickens and Dostoevsky, and also Mark Twain, whom he saw as exemplars of this sort of method.

Just to be clear about the word ‘dialogic’ in this context, are you talking literally about dialogue?

Yes. But the literal dialogue is not necessarily two characters talking. The dialogue is also where a given character is talking in dialogue with all the other books that are being written, with a literary style, with what I think, with what the reader thinks. One of the things about dialogue is that it creates meaning.

Now you and I, we’re having a dialogue here. We’re both saying things, and possibly thinking things that if we weren’t talking to each other, we wouldn’t say or think. So we’re creating meaning in some sense by dialogue. That is something that novels can do. But for Derrida even a philosophy book is talking to other books of philosophy, it is talking to its times, it is talking to its reader, and it is talking in the voice of the person speaking. This book by Bakhtin is a precursor of Derrida in many ways, arguing that you can’t just treat a book as characters doing stuff over the course of some period of time, with a final resolution. There are many other things going on, all this meaning being created and conveyed.

And is this book a bit more accessible than Of Grammatology?

Yes, it’s much more normally written. Just about everything is more accessible than Of Grammatology

So, we’ve started with a tough one and we’re moving into the realms of intelligibility.

Yes, absolutely. Bakhtin analyses Dostoevsky, giving an extended look at Dostoevsky’s work. Again, you have that familiarity, something to latch onto, whereas Derrida sometimes almost spins in space, or is referencing unheard of Sumerian texts, that sort of thing.

And with Bahktin’s dialogic approach, presumably, it’s not so much to say there are multiple, or huge numbers of readings, it’s just to alert you to ones that you may have overlooked, as it were.

Yes, definitely. That’s part of it. When you’re reading a book, you shouldn’t treat it as a realist thing. Fiction, even realist fiction is, of course, a created thing under a set of conventions. So, you need to be very aware of that. But he’s also fascinating on the way that language works in this way. People tend to think language conveys singular meaning in many cases.

One of the ways of looking at him, I think, is to compare him to someone like Hegel, with his thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In a sense, Bakhtin’s approach is similar, but without the synthesis. You don’t have this resolution that takes primacy. He, like Derrida, is fascinated by the way that language moves along like a river, as it were, and just keeps going and going and going and accreting meanings, developing meanings and changing meanings over time.

Interesting. What’s your next book?

Circumfession. It’s actually called Jacques Derrida/Circumfession. The bit called Jacques Derrida is written by Geoffrey Bennington, who was one of his main English translators. The bit called Circumfession is written by Derrida and, again, this is performing deconstruction. In a sense, the top half of the book is Bennington talking about Derrida and going through his theories. The bottom half of the book is a series of footnotes, which is Derrida telling his life story, but a very partial life story, a life story based very closely on St Augustine’s Confessions.

To deal with the Derrida part first. For him, confession was a very interesting thing. Obviously, he wrote a lot about Rousseau and Rousseau’s autobiographical Confessions. In addition, he was very intrigued by St. Augustine’s Confessions, particularly chapter 10 where Augustine says, ‘Why do we confess when we’re confessing to God, who is the one entity who actually knows everything we’ve done?’ So confession actually isn’t about explaining to God. Confession is something else, about self-justification, about talking, about speaking, about thinking, about writing. Derrida is performing this down at the bottom of the text on the page, and he sticks fairly closely to St. Augustine’s methods and structure.

Does he draw your attention to that, or can you just read that into it?

Most of the chapters start with a little quote from Augustine. It’s also very close because Augustine wrote about the death of his mother. That is one of the main things in the Confessions, the death of Augustine’s mother. Rebecca West thought it the most moving moment in all of literature. Derrida is also writing about his own mother dying. So he’s drawing these parallels all the time, but also exploring the nature of what confession is, of what secrets are, and what sins are. He’s doing that down at the bottom of the text and, I think, writing very beautifully.

There are people to whom Derrida is anathema. They just think his writing is nonsense—and some Derrida is. But I think sometimes Derrida writes incredibly movingly, especially about himself, and about guilt, and about secrets and mourning and those sort of things. So he stayed on the bottom of the page, while above him Beddington is basically going through the theories of deconstruction. In that sense, it’s a dialogue as well.

“All of these writers are trying to get away from the idea that you can just declare things”

One of the challenges that Derrida set Bennington was that Bennington wasn’t allowed to quote Derrida when he’s describing deconstruction. Bennington’s having to come up with his own words. In a way that’s sealing off the idea of Derrida being in the top half of the book, Derrida’s own words don’t have access to the upper half.

There’s this beautiful dialogue that happens between them. It’s one of those books where it’s annoying when you first open it, because you don’t know if you should be reading the top or if you should be reading the bottom, or one then the other, or what’s going on. But, again, it requires that reading where you open yourself up to moving between the two, and more and more meanings come out of that. It’s performing deconstruction as much as saying what deconstruction is.

When was it written?

It was written in 1993.

Very late Derrida then.

Yes. One interesting thing: early on, Derrida would not allow himself to be photographed, because he didn’t want Jacques Derrida, the man, to get in the way of the philosophy. He also—I think, quite rightly—hated author photos. That fits with his philosophy. He, as author, shouldn’t have any greater say over the text than anyone else, so the author doesn’t matter all that much: although eventually that position, not being photographed, was unsustainable. But early on, he also eschewed autobiographical writing generally. But gradually, as his thinking evolved, more and more he came to see all philosophy as a sort of confession of the philosopher, that you’re this certain person who has written a book. This particular person has written Hegel’s works, this particular person has written Heidegger’s works, and you can’t pull the person away from that, you have to analyse that. His writing became a lot more autobiographical. Quite movingly, the end of the book consists of lots of photographs of Derrida throughout his life, which in some ways is a sort of arrogance or showing off. But I think he thought of it as performing arrogance. He was performing this idea of, ‘here is me, here is this thing now’ having, throughout the book, had this very self-deprecating, in many ways quite sad version of himself.

I don’t know this book, but I know Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, which is also heavily influenced by phenomenology. And, although purporting to be about photography, it is really about the death of his mother. But there is a sort of creativity in form and topic that is a characteristic of the group of thinkers thought of as post-structuralist. They were exploring new ways of writing philosophy, or else resurrecting old ones. You might say that sort of playfulness is already there in Tristram Shandy or in Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous books, or in Nietzsche, but it’s very much against the kind of formal academic system-building, monograph-driven, journal-article driven approach to writing philosophy.

Yes, absolutely. And I think they are obviously in dialogue with each other about this. I’m glad you brought up Camera Lucida. That kind of sadness, and that sense of mourning that is in that book, I think, is very much in Circumfession.

Derrida later had a collection called Work of Mourning, which was a collection of writings about, and even funeral eulogies of, his contemporaries who had died. It is a book about the idea of mourning – that any friendship has mourning built into it, in the sense that, at some point, you will lose each other. One of you will die, or the friendship will be broken off. Of course, in this particular book, as with Barthes’s Camera Lucida, the mourning is for the parent. Derrida says something like, ‘this woman who’d never read a word that I’ve written is going and therefore, he, Derrida, is becoming a different person through that process.’

These philosophers wanted to bring the feeling self into that. A lot of them, of course, grew up during World War Two and in the aftermath of World War Two, after that calamity. You can’t shrug that off from any of these writers—whether France was implicated in the calamity or had resisted it. All those things were built into their way of looking at the world.

What’s your fourth book choice?

Newly Born Woman by Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément. I put this in to show some of the wider effects of deconstruction. One of the things I was pleased to discover when I was writing my biography of Derrida was that he did try and learn from the lessons of feminism or feminisms. Cixous was very close to him in lots of ways. He actually said that, for him, Cixous was the best French writer of the late 20th century. They were both Algerian, and they had an incredible solidarity. They did a lot of books together as dialogue. She was almost as prolific as him. And, in many ways, she’s even more rebarbative with some of her stuff, if you’re not used to reading these things. She came to prominence in the Anglophone world with her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”. In that and in Newly Born Woman, she’s trying to create or recapture what she calls a ‘feminine mode of writing’.

There are often lots of complexities around that now, to do with gender and sex and so forth but, at the time, she was trying to write against a masculine text. And for her, the way of doing that was retaining the feminine body as present in the act of writing, speaking through that body’s mode of being, in the way she argues that most men, in her view, retain the masculine body in their writing, as a sort of undisputed normality. In a sense, I’m using this book to represent a lot of different modes of thinking, which deconstruction allowed to come into the philosophical realm. The book is a complex taking apart of the masculine text, the female text, and a building up of possible ways of writing and possible ways of disrupting the normal voices of philosophy. It looks at a lot of psychoanalysis and a lot of literature. It’s quite a confronting and challenging book, in the same way as Of Grammatology is. You are meant to feel uncomfortable reading it. You are meant to see someone battling against those hierarchies that Derrida was also interested in turning over—man, woman, good, evil. Like Derrida, Cixous doesn’t just want to turn the hierarchies over, as in putting them the other way around. She wants to see how they are in dialogue, how they battle with each other, how they create each other.

One of the famous essays in there is called “Sorties”. She’s making ‘sorties’ against the masculine voice, against the conventional voice. She’s going out, gathering what she can, going back in and trying to write her ‘own’ text.

Is the book accessible? Would it be intimidating for a general reader?

It is intimidating, but it’s supposed to be intimidating. One of her sorties is against just being able to have a nice, casual read of some good conventional stuff. I would probably recommend “The Laugh of the Medusa” for a first reading of Cixous, although it’s less of a deconstructive text, which is why I didn’t include it here. It’s much more of a scream of pleasure, anger and joy, and all of those things. It’s a more conventional book in that sense. But she’s very interested in trying to get away from a straight narrative telling of everything. One of the things about Cixous is that she embraces plurality, in language and meaning and female embodiment. Her writing constantly and consciously goes around in circles, circle after circle after circle after circle, to try on the one hand to reinforce meaning through repetition, but on the other to make it suspect, through the accretion of difference.

It seems to me a feature of just about everybody writing in this mode, under the influence of deconstruction, that they’re not afraid of being difficult writers. I don’t know whether that’s a virtue or not; I suspect it isn’t. But that’s my particular take. Is there an argument for saying this a good thing that they’re difficult to read?

I think there’s an argument for saying it’s a good thing and there’s an argument for saying it’s a bad thing. I think it depends on the text that you’re reading. Derrida said “if things were simple, word would have gotten around”, which I think is terrific.

He put that very simply.

Exactly. By its nature, deconstruction is saying that simple declarative statements are suspect; that clarity is a tactic. Sometimes it’s a justifiable tactic. In science, for instance, or analytic philosophy, or lots of philosophy, clarity is a virtue. It is the best way of doing it. But you shouldn’t mistake that for absolute truth. If a scientific truth could be given by something that’s doesn’t possess great clarity, then you would use that too.

All of these writers are trying to get away from the idea that you can just declare things. They are also very open to the ways that meaning is generated by fiction, as we’ve covered, or by the methods of fiction. We read a piece of fiction, which is obviously made up characters doing things; it’s like playing with dolls. These writers are quite happy to use those sort of tactics in order to produce something philosophical as well as literary. Many of them are described as ‘post-modernist’. I see many of them, in fact, as using modernist techniques, the literary techniques of the 1920s, and so forth. Take Ulysses as an example. Being rebarbative, being difficult to get to, can sometimes make things more rewarding and sometimes can reveal truth.

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When it’s done badly, it’s terrible. I think Derrida does it badly sometimes. I think all of them do it badly sometimes. I think there are just some bad writers in this tradition too. One of the things you can do with deconstruction, which happens too often—and Derrida didn’t do it as much as he’s accused of—is just taking up a pun or an etymology and flogging it to death for page after page after page. There are some writers who do that. Derrida didn’t do that, although he occasionally slipped into that. He occasionally was almost doing ‘pretend Derrida’.

I think if you’re looking for a very simple, easy read, or you’re looking for a very clear read—and why not look for that, a lot of philosophy requires that—then, possibly, these are not places to go.

I guess what could be said in favour of this is, it’s impossible to read a book like Of Grammatology without being aware of the difficulty of interpretation, and your own search for meaning in the signifiers, as it were, on the page. It actually draws attention to so many different ways you could interpret a text. So if that’s what he’s trying to show you—rather than just saying it—it’s a success. But different people have different levels of tolerance for that kind of device.

Yes, you’re correct. He’s performing the work by doing it. But Plato writes in dialogue, which I actually find quite rebarbative and which I struggle to read. But he’s doing that for a particular reason, to get this meaning for us. And I think the basic thing is that, if something is written clearly, that doesn’t mean it’s good. If something is written rebarbatively—to keep using that word—it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Derrida is performing deconstruction as he’s thinking it up or through. And just to bring up one book: he does, in the 1970s, do a book called Glas, which I think goes a bit too far. It’s written in two columns, one column is on/by Jean Genet and one column is Hegel…

… Just literal quotations from them?

Quotations, but also analysis and footnotes and all that sort of thing. It’s a beautiful-looking book. It is performing the fact that books are constructed things and are in dialogue. In performing it I think that he goes a bit too far, in the sense that he makes you forget that even just a normally written book is also doing that. He’s performing it to an absurd point. I find it almost unreadable. So that’s the hard limit for me of Derrida.

This reminds me of a lot of conceptual art. There’s a kind of conceptual art where you get something more by seeing it in the flesh. And there’s another kind of conceptual art where just hearing a description of it is sufficient for you to understand the point and nothing whatsoever is gained by seeing that thing in an art gallery. That’s just the remnants of some kind of performance. You get it just from knowing that that performance has taken place. Glas, the way you’ve described, is taking a position to an extreme, like Finnegans Wake. I can live without reading that.

Absolutely. With those conceptual art pieces—not all obviously, the great stuff is great—it’s actually the catalogue that tells you what you need to know. And for me—obviously, there’s stuff going on that maybe I’m not picking up—but I just don’t think it’s worth the effort to be honest. Glas for me is a bit like that, the explanation is the book. But many disagree.

Your final choice is a bit different. It’s a novel.

Yes. I thought I’d push the boat out a little bit. This is a book called “53 Days” by Georges Perec. Perec was a novelist best known for his book, Life: A User’s Manual, which is 600-and-something pages, set in one second, in an apartment block. It’s quite a complicated and interesting book. The chapters are a ‘knight’s tour’ from chess of this apartment block, although he sets up a 10-by-10 square rather than 8-by-8 when he travels around it, just to make it more difficult for himself. In each chapter, again much like Joyce did with Ulysses, he had strict rules—a colour has to be used, a place has to be used, a quotation from another novel and quotations from one of his own have to be used. So it’s like a puzzle to be solved—and it is in fact about jigsaw puzzles. And the whole book covers one second in time…

“The author’s intentions have no more authority than anyone else’s”

Perec also wrote another book translated into English as A Void, which is a brilliant translation. It’s a novel which doesn’t feature the letter ‘e’. The whole book does not have a single ‘e’. This is a neat trick, but also has a deeper purpose—Perec lost his mother in the Holocaust and his father was killed early on in the war, fighting in the French army. This book, therefore, is unable to include the word mother and father in French. That’s part of the underlying structure, their presence and absence.

So just on that, not to use the letter ‘e’ when writing in French is really difficult. The amazing thing with that book is that some people read it and reviewed it without realizing ‘e’ was missing.

Absolutely. He pulls it off. The translation A Void does a similar trick—a void, the gap, the missing thing. So it’s quite a feat of translation, but the original book is quite astonishing. Perec sets himself these little problems that he has to work out, and they generate his fiction and thus meaning.

So, “53 Days”—the title is in quotation marks. A lot of books are described as ‘post-modern’, but I think this is actually a deconstructed text. Perec was going to Australia to teach for 53 days, which he realized was how long it took Stendhal to write Charterhouse of Parma. So he decides he’s going to write a novel in 53 days, why not?! The book then incorporates a lot of stuff from his time in Australia: characters named after the pizza shop he goes to; the Commandos who descend on one scene are named after New South Wales train stations. But he’s also writing a murder mystery about a stolen book, which is itself a murder mystery. Perec, at one stage, is narrating the story of the narrator who’s narrating the plot of the book, which has a novel in it, the plot of which he’s narrating to us. There are boxes inside boxes.

That sounds almost like Kierkegaard. In Either/Or there’s a story concealed within a story, within a desk. But why do you say it is deconstructionist?

First of all, because the novel is in quotation marks. This was a trope of Perec’s – one of the lovely things about Life: a User’s Manual is that he starts the knight’s tour of the book in apartment No. 66 and ends in No. 99. Those are the quotation marks around the novel.

That’s brilliant.

So “53 Days” is an invented novel about an invented situation about an invented novel about an invented situation. But, also, I think it’s deconstructive in the sense that—and this wasn’t Perec’s intention—he never finished it, he couldn’t get it done. He couldn’t get it nailed down. For a start, he couldn’t do the book in 53 days. He left behind all these intriguing notes.

It’s also deconstructive because he was attempting, as he always did, to ‘perform’ what I think is a really interesting idea of Perec’s, which is the idea of the ‘clinamen’. A clinamen is a fault within the system. So, for instance, in Life: a User’s Manual, the knight’s tour of 10 by 10 should cover all 100 apartments, a chapter for each. But there are only 99 chapters. He sets up these schemes, like there’s got to be a colour in every chapter, and then one chapter will be missing that colour.

In a sense, he’s performing this incoherence of the text or this fact that the text can’t be fully realized. And he was fascinated by this idea of ‘clinamen’. For me, that is, in a sense, what Derrida’s doing when he looks at texts. Derrida called them ‘aporias’, things that couldn’t be resolved within a text, which prevented the text being whole. Wholeness is a misbelief which we impose from outside without realising we are doing so. Perec and Derrida draw attention to this.

So, I think “53 Days”, in particular, is a very interesting case of that, deliberately through a clinamen, although we don’t know what the fault he was building was because he didn’t finish the book, and ‘accidentally’, by not finishing the book. In a sense, this itself is a beautiful deconstructive gesture as well, although I’m sure he didn’t mean his death to do that. But it does. It’s an unfinished text and therefore meanings continue to generate themselves, puzzles, clues, and new readings. His final gleeful mystification.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

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Peter Salmon

Peter Salmon

Peter Salmon is an Australian writer living in then UK. His first novel The Coffee Story was a New Statesman book of the year. His biography of Jacques Derrida, An Event Perhaps, was described Prospect magazine as ‘Brilliant ... one of the clearest introductions to 20th-century continental philosophy available – a scintillating account of Derrida's life and thought’ and ‘Thrilling’ in the Times.

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Peter Salmon

Peter Salmon

Peter Salmon is an Australian writer living in then UK. His first novel The Coffee Story was a New Statesman book of the year. His biography of Jacques Derrida, An Event Perhaps, was described Prospect magazine as ‘Brilliant ... one of the clearest introductions to 20th-century continental philosophy available – a scintillating account of Derrida's life and thought’ and ‘Thrilling’ in the Times.