Making it up?
BY ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Pierre Bayard, the man who gave us the enjoyable Comment Parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? (How To Talk about Books You Haven’t Read), has done it again. This time he has turned his attention to travel with the equally provocative-sounding Comment Parler des Lieux où l’on n’a pas été? (How to talk about places we haven’t been).
The title of the series in which the books appear - Editions de Minuit’s “Paradoxe” - might have been invented for Bayard. Note too the teasing question mark in the French, which the English translator thought prudent to omit, removing the ambiguity in the process. The earlier book became a surprise bestseller in France, with more than 80,000 copies sold; how many of those buyers bought it in the mistaken belief that they had picked up some sort of self-help manual? Far from being a mere farceur, Bayard teaches literature at Paris VIII and is a practising psychoanalyst.
In his earlier book, he was shamelessly keen to let us know about all the books he hadn’t read, had merely skimmed, or had forgotten - this didn’t prevent him from discussing them in some depth. This time he doesn’t mind revealing either that he has travelled little. But, as he points out, Immanuel Kant famously never left his home town of Königsberg, taking the same walk every day; this apparently didn’t prevent him from writing about other countries. We will have to take his word on that one. Bayard dedicates his book to this “stay-at-home traveller par excellence”.
Of course this isn’t really a book about how to convincingly pretend you have been to Vietnam when in fact you haven’t. Rather Bayard discusses travel writers through history: Marco Polo, for example, wrote about China, but Bayard follows the Sinologist Frances Wood in believing that he never went there. Bayard wonders whether he ever made it as far as Constantinople. None of this devalues what he wrote: he will have got his detailed accounts of life in China from other travellers.
Equally Chateaubriand can’t possibly have travelled as extensively in North America as he claimed in the time that he was there. Bayard provides some of Chateaubriand’s fantastically detailed and vivid descriptions of Mississippi and Florida, but did he ever get there? According to Bayard, these are “in all probability completely invented”.
The novelist Edouard Glissant, on the other hand, is quite open. No longer able to travel long distances, he sent his wife on a trip to Easter Island - about which he was intending to write a book. She came back with detailed notes which he fashioned into a book (published in 2007, under joint authorship). Bayard even comes to the defence of Jayson Blair, the New York Times journalist who was rumbled for filing reports from places he hadn’t been, on one occasion a few blocks down from where he lived.
Bayard has some excellent pages on Blaise Cendrars, the Swiss writer who blended travel fact and fiction better than anyone. Did he really travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway, about which he wrote so poetically? It’s unlikely, thinks Bayard. At the time Russian troop movements by rail would have made such a journey by a foreign traveller almost impossible.
Does any of this matter? Not hugely, but there is something seductive about Bayard’s literary games. They encourage us to view books in a different, more liberated way. What will he turn his attention to next?