The Literary Tourist Interviews Sam Taylor

The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about newly released books in translation. This month Andrea Gregovich interviews novelist, journalist, and French translator Sam Taylor, author of The Ground is Burning and The Republic of Trees. The Seventh Function of Language, a bawdy and fanciful detective novel about the death of Roland Barthes, is the second novel Sam has translated by France’s Laurent Binet.

Andrea Gregovich: The Seventh Function of Language is a detective novel about the death of Roland Barthes, who in real life died when he got hit by a laundry van under what I’ve always understood to be unsuspicious circumstances. This novel proposes, instead, a fictitious conspiracy around his death: he was onto a higher function of language than the ones he’d already identified in his theoretical work, and this new function would allow a speaker to use their words to make anyone do anything. Kind of the holy grail of literary theory, which could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands. I’m fascinated by this Seventh Function—did the author invent this? Is it a concept somewhere in the texts of literary theory?

Sam Taylor: My understanding is that it was originally a minor addendum to Roman Jakobson’s six functions of language, which Laurent Binet imagined as a sort of superpower.

AG: I was excited to read this, because it’s a fun and unusual book aimed squarely at one of my most beloved niches of nerddom: Barthes and his realm of literary theory. For me this book was a delight, but its subject matter is such a specific and difficult area of study—I wondered if it would struggle to find its target audience. How has it been received in translation? Can you tell yet if it has found its readers in English?

ST: Yes, I must admit I had the same reaction when I first read the book: that it was brilliant and funny, but a bit obscure in its subject matter and less universal in its appeal than HHhH. So far, though, I think sales have been similar to HHhH, and the reviews have been—if anything—even more ecstatic. Partly, I suspect, because a whole generation of book reviewers were just as enamoured as you by what they learned about literary theory in university!

AG: There’s a sort of reckless merging of the post-structuralist theory and the detective novel that happens in the plot: the police detective Bayard basically commandeers the life of Simon Herzog, a local semiotics lecturer in Paris, for help investigating this world of reading signs and signifiers, a world he doesn’t understand. It turns out semiotics has a lot in common with police work: Simon turns out to be a better detective, using his semiotics skills, than the actual detective. I can’t decide if this is a ridiculous, reductive way of looking at semiotics—that it’s a more intellectual form of detective work—or if it’s a funny yet accurate depiction. What do you think?

ST: I knew nothing about semiotics before reading The Seventh Function, so I’m probably not the right person to answer that question. But I’m glad he managed to make semiotics entertaining because it would have been a very dry novel if he hadn’t.

AG: Absolutely. The voices in this book are so well crafted. I could recognize the literary theorist characters I know well, and I also got a good, humorous sense of the voices and intellectual foibles of the ones whose work I’m not familiar with. When the theorists are pontificating in the text, was the author drawing directly from their work or was he satirizing them? Did you consult the texts (original or translated) of Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault, or any of the others for the style of your translated words?

ST: The book is littered with quotations from all those writers (and many others), which Laurent altered and edited according to his whims. So it’s both homage and satire at the same time, I think. Perhaps slightly more satire than homage, though.

AG: The book is also dense with historical details. There are substantial passages about things like baroque and classical architecture, the infamous tennis rivalry between Borg and McEnroe, and presidential politics of France in the early 1980s. Did you or your editors have to do a lot of fact checking to make sense of some of this history? Was this material in the book all historically accurate, or did it too get pulled into the fictional level of the story?

ST: Yes, we did a lot of fact-checking, and not all of the ‘facts’ in the novel were factual. Some of these ‘mistakes’ were deliberate (like Borg losing the final to Lendl), others weren’t. Of the ones that weren’t, Laurent decided to leave some as they were, just for the hell of it. Others—some of them pretty obscure, like a description of the beginning of Madness’s single ‘One Step Beyond’—he was happy to correct. Don’t ask me why.

AG: In contrast to the more heady theoretical and historical passages in the book, there’s a pot-boiler detective voice telling the story, and it’s this sort of style that really carries the narrative. It comes in more straightforward, no-nonsense sentences that were a welcome relief for me when the theory and history had me thinking too hard for too long. Were you consciously thinking about this detective novel style as you chose your words in English? Does the author have a particular literary inspiration, like maybe Raymond Chandler?

ST: I don’t know, the voice doesn’t sound like Raymond Chandler to me! You’d really have to ask Laurent this question, but my guess would be that he was more influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and, in particular, two novels by Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum.

AG: The detective novel conceit ultimately collides with the book’s literary theory, when at certain points in the story, Simon has the realization he’s a helpless character being moved haphazardly about like a chess piece in a novel. Things get really wacky when this metafictional awareness takes over, with bizarre sex scenes on top of photocopiers and dramatic violence from which the heroes narrowly escape. With such a wild ride of a narrative, did you ever have any moments not knowing what the heck was going on as you worked your way through the translation?

ST: I read the whole book before I translated it because the publisher wanted a report on it, so my reading experience was probably quite similar to yours. By the time I came to translate it, I knew what to expect. I did think it improved on a second reading, though, which is the sign of a very good book.

AG: Simon and Bayard stumble upon and get involved in the Logos Club, which is a fascinating element of this book. It’s basically a fight club for duels in rhetoric, where the losing speaker gets a finger chopped off. This is another part of the story I’m curious about. Is there a backstory to the Logos Club, or is this a work of the author’s imagination?

ST: I assume it’s a fictional conceit, but you’d really have to ask Laurent.

AG: You’ve translated two of this author’s novels—which is your favorite? And what are you working on next?

ST: I’ve translated two novels by Laurent Binet: HHhH and The Seventh Function. I loved them both, but HHhH remains my favourite, partly because it was the first novel (by anyone) that I ever translated, and partly because I think it’s genuinely moving, as well as funny, compelling, clever and original.

I’m working on my own next (fifth) novel at the moment. My next translation project is Leila Slimani’s first novel, The Ogre’s Garden; I already translated her second novel, the Prix Goncourt-winning Chanson Douce, which will come out first in English under two different titles: Lullaby in the UK, and The Perfect Nanny in the US. It’s a very taut and nuanced literary whydunnit about the murder of two young children by their nanny.

Andrea Gregovich is a writer and translator of Russian literature. Her first translated novel USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid was published by Fiction Advocate in 2014, and her translation of Nadezhda Belenkaya’s Wake In Winter was released in 2016 by Amazon Crossing.

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