Saturday, December 10, 2011

Gilbert Adair, 1944 - 2011

Gilbert Adair died two days ago.

Adair is, I think, best thought of as a writer in that slightly old-fashioned category, "man of letters". Some obituarial writings stress his relationship to film -- he was a film critic, and had some of his novels filmed. But Adair was largely about words and the culture of words so far as I can see.

I've only read two-and-a-bit books by Adair, although I've enormously enjoyed all of it, and read some more than once.

First, I've read Adair's utterly fabulous and delightful novel The Death of the Author -- a postmodern murder mystery (which, incidentally, is a whole subgenre), based around (not Barthes, as one might think from the title, but rather) Paul De Man, and the various revelations around his history of writing literary criticism for a fascist-friendly newspaper during world war two, including at least one directly antisemitic piece. It's really quite terrific, and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in that sort of thing (a murder mystery set in academia, a send-up of De Man, a postmodern mystery, or anything else). (Much later update: it turns out the book has been brought back into print by Melville House Publishing, so you can read it, if you like (and those of you who think you might like most definitely will like.))

Second, I've read Adair's astonishing translation of Geroges Perec's lipogrammatic novel La disparition, published under the title A Void. A lipogram, of course, is a piece of prose written deliberately eschewing one (or more) letters of the alphabet; Perec's La disparition contains no instances of the letter e (in French, as in English, the most common letter of the alphabet). Adair's translation, rather remarkably in my view, respects this constraint, and manages to translate Perec's e-less French novel into an e-less English one. (Perec's novel, incidentally, is also a postmodern mystery, in which the lack of an e symbolizes greater, unspeakable losses which haunt an unknowing world.)

For obvious reasons, translating a lipogram into a lipogram is a much harder, and thus in some ways more impressive, linguistic challenge than simply writing one: Perec could shape his novel according to his constraint, discussing things that happened to have no e in French, whereas Adair had to follow Perec's subject matter. There have been critiques of how well he did this (scroll down (or search for Adair) at this link to read Ian Monk's critique of Adair's translation). But personally I am quite grateful that he did it, and did it as well as he did.

(I've dealt with this topic before; for more on the translations of La disparition, see this post; for more on lipograms in general, see this one.)

Finally, I've read a few of the essays in Adair's (unspeakably marvelously titled) collection The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice. I think that title alone justified Adair's existence on this earth, and ought to preserve his memory.

Adair wrote all sorts of other things -- a biography of the real boy who inspired Thomas Mann's Death in Vencie, The Real Tadzio; a sequel to Lewis Carroll's two Alice books, Alice Through the Needle's Eye; and a number of other novels, including his most famous, Love and Death on Long Island, and also a number of other mysteries (about which I know little).

As a man of letters in an age of which tends to max out after 140 or so, I fear Adair is not very widely known, and may well not be long remembered. But it's a pity. Letters really get good when they pile up in long sequences: and Adair did this very well. If you've not heard of him before, and you enjoy sequences of letters longer than 140, see if you can track down The Death of the Author. It's quite fabulous. And I myself may well see if I can track down Love and Death on Long Island, which sounds good too.

Gilbert Adair, RIP.

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