Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 5, 2018

The 7th Function of Language, by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor #BookReview

I can’t quite believe that I almost didn’t read this book.  I had read a rather discouraging review and decided not to bother even though I had read HHhH and really liked it.  And then someone among my blogging friends (who? I can’t remember!) Michael from Knowledge Lost reviewed it very favourably and so I brought it home from the library.  And loved it.  It’s been a while since I read anything that’s so much fun.

The novel is a spoof on the crime novel because there is no crime – except for the murder and mayhem triggered by the investigation – and it’s also a playful romp through the arcane conflicts that bedevil philosophy, reducing it to the status of a tennis match.  And along the way, a whole heap of famous intellectuals and politicians are cheerfully mocked in a way that explains why the novel is set in 1980-81.  (They’re mostly all dead, and can’t sue!)

The story begins with the death of Roland Barthes, who was, in real life, knocked down by a laundry van and died from his injuries a month later. In Binet’s hands, however, this event triggers a police investigation because Barthes was a famous French philosopher specialising in semiology (the study of signs) and he had just had lunch with the Presidential candidate Mitterand.

Superintendant Jacques Bayard is assigned to investigate.  Bayard is a would-be Maigret whose modus operandi is more like Inspector Clouseau.  He bumbles around not noticing the presence of two thugs in a menacing black Citroen DS, he misses clues that are right under his nose, and the crims are always one step ahead of him.  He also has no idea what semiology is but he has fixed opinions about the value of what goes on in French universities:

Courses open to all, but of interest only to work-shy lefties, retired people, lunatics or pipe-smoking teachers; improbable subjects that he’s never heard of before .. No degrees, no exams. People like Barthes and Foucault paid to spout a load of woolly nonsense. Bayard is already sure of one thing: no one comes here to learn how to do a job. (p17)

Still, he buys a copy of Roland-Barthes Made Easy.

Lesson one: The basics of conversation.
1 — How do you formulate yourself?
French: What is your name?
2 — I formulate myself L.
French: My name is William.

Puzzled (why L, why not W?), Bayard presses on.

3 — What ‘stipulation’ locks in, encloses, organises, arranges the economy of your pragma like the occultation and/or exploitation of your egg-zistence?
French: What is your job?
4 — (I) expel units of code.
French: I am a typist.

Bayard is smart enough to know that all this is a parody, fun stuff for intellectuals (whom he despises).  But he reads on:

5 — My discourse finds/completes its own textuality through R. B. in a game of smoke and mirrors.
French: I speak fluent Roland-Barthes. (p.22)

It’s no good.  He doesn’t get it.  So he takes himself off to the Sorbonne and barges into a lecture about semiology, where he meets his reluctant conscript to the investigation, Simon Herzog, who’s a tutor in semiology at the university.  He likes Simon because Simon explains semiology using references to James Bond movies.  It is Simon who applies Sherlockian skills of deduction to suss him out:

Your manner of dressing signals your profession: you wear a suit, which indicates an executive job, but your clothes are cheap, which implies a modest salary and/or an absence of interest in your appearance; so you belong to a profession in which presentation doesn’t matter, or not very much. Your shoes are badly scuffed, and you came here in a car, which signifies that you are not deskbound – you are out and about in your job. An executive who leaves his office is very likely to be assigned some kind of inspection work. (p.32)

Simon does not want to be Bayard’s translator, and especially not to help out the incumbent President Giscard because he loathes conservative politics, but in a neat inversion of Smart Sherlock Holmes and dopey Dr Watson, the duo set out to solve the mystery.

And why is Giscard involved?  Well, because it is thought that the ‘accident’ was a deliberate attempt to acquire a precious document that Barthes had on his person. The document is about the mysterious 7th function of language, which confers enormous power on anyone who can use it.  (There are actually only six functions, and you can, if keen, read what they are here).  Giscard and Mitterand want to have this 7th function, and so do other people, including some Bulgarians who want to best the Soviets; philosophers from both sides of the Atlantic who are engaged in mortal combat over their fixed positions; and also intellectuals who joust for the title of Grand Protagora in esoteric debates which have provenance dating back centuries.

I suspect that I have failed to convey just how witty this sparkling novel is; how it made me laugh out loud; how I earbashed The Spouse about it (because he’s majoring in philosophy in his BA); or even to explain why I loved it so much I didn’t want it to end.  But it has won a swag of awards, including the Prix Interallié (2015), the Prix du roman Fnac (2015), and was nominated for the Prix des prix littéraires (2015) and the Man Booker International Prize (2018) once it was, thank goodness, translated into English.  So my advice is, ignore the naysayers who think everything should be dumbed down, and find out for yourself.

PS (Five minutes later) From reviews I now see at Library Thing, I note that readers who have studied semiology and/or philosophy think that you need to have studied them in order to appreciate this book.  Lighten up, ye scholars!  You are wrong.  I knew nothing about semiology and nothing at all about the disputes between Continental Philosophy and the Analytics in the UK and the US.  Binet explains anything you need to know, painlessly, and in ways that will make you laugh.

Author: Laurent Binet
Title: The 7th Function of Language (La septième fonction du langage)
Translated by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Harvill Secker, 2017, first published 2015
ISBN: 9781910701591
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The 7th Function of Language


Responses

  1. I’m glad to see your favourable review. I too have waffled between the wildly polarized reviews of this book. Positive ones make me want it, negative ones discourage me. I will have to add it to that endless list!

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    • Ah, Joe, I have no hesitation in saying that you will love this.

      Like

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

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  3. Oh boy you are tempting me. I hadn’t heard any naysayers, but then I haven’t read much about it. I am behind in keeping up with blogs, and I don’t read much in the way of reviews otherwise. Sounds like a great read – humour is so hard to do.

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    • I can’t remember where I read the snooty review… probably the Australian or The Saturday Paper, and really, I do not know why I read either of them…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m glad you finally gave this book I go, such an amazing example of how literature can be both thrilling and educational. I love this novel, but still haven’t read hhHh yet

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    • Ah, it was you! I could not work out why I couldn’t find the enticing review among my usual suspects, and it’s because I can’t subscribe to your blog by email so it wasn’t anywhere in my inbox.
      I will amend things to record my thanks and add a link to yours ASAP.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Weird you can’t subscribe via email. Not sure what that is about

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        • There’s a box of options to subscribe via Twitter, FB, Instawhatsit, FeedSomething and so on, but there isn’t the usual box that says ‘subscribe by email’ and you put your email address into the box, and whenever there’s a new post, voila! there it is in your inbox!.

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  5. Having loved HHhH I’ve had this on the pile for ages – why have I not read it yet? I have skimmed some of your review so as not to spoil things but am glad this one is a success too! :)

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    • I predict that your review will be good fun to read too:)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. so glad you liked it. I read it in French and loved it to pieces: https://wordsandpeace.com/2015/11/28/book-review-la-septieme-fonction-du-langage-i-love-france-171/
    I really need to read HHhH

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    • I expect it’s even better in French, but you know, he’s written it really skilfully, so that if, for example, you don’t really know who Giscard is, or Mitterand, it gets revealed in the text in the cleverest of ways. Those ‘student interviews’ which summarise in one paragraph and in a light-hearted way, what the stoush between the two schools of philosophy are about, are sheer genius, because they tell you what you need to know without seeming at all didactic.

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  7. I’ve read both your Binet reviews and now I want to read him too. I was forced to write about Barthes and Foucault in my coursework, I understand that are important, but that is nearly all I understand. This book can only improve matters I am sure. And thank you for the link to Citroen DS – a godess of a car.

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    • I had a ride in a DS once. When we first arrived in Australia my mother had a lovely friend who used to pick us up and take us for excursions to the beach. It was delicious when the suspension pumped up.
      Alas, when my mother got her own car, it was a boring old Hillman Minx, just like we’d had before….

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  8. He does strike me as a bit of a Marmite author, one who evokes very strong reactions either way. In some respects, that’s no bad thing – it’s certainly better than feeling ambivalent about a book. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it so much.

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    • Well, I hope readers are willing to give him a go:)

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  9. […] on David Malouf’s comments about “clever” fiction). The 7th Function of Language (Lisa again) was fun, with a Lit. professor hero, and lots of lectures about literature, but in the end was […]

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