« Reading Marcel Bénabou » indeed. If one were to take Bénabou at his word—and what better word than the title of his first book, Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books—one would surely despair of the possibility of reading him at all. Thus, the first principle of Bénabaldian Studies : never, ever take Marcel Bénabou at his word. For, pacet Bénabou, there are such books, three of them to date. And people do read them. In fact, some people have been known to wander into Marcel Bénabou’s books, never to return. Thus, the second (and final) principle of Bénabaldian Studies : reading Marcel Bénabou, take care to scatter colored stones—not crumbs !—behind you, and beware of gingerbread houses. You will do well to lace up your sturdiest hiking boots, too, because the readerly paths that Bénabou traces in his books are winding, rocky, and infinitely recursive ones. Whatever other concerns they may seem to deal with, all of Marcel Bénabou’s books are centrally about, well, books. They are delightfully obsessional in their insistence on that theme, and the authorial voice in all three is marked by a frank—and frankly disarming—duplicity. These are quirky books, written by a quirky writer for quirky readers ; they offer an astringent tonic in a time when narration, across genres and media, falls as often as not into saccharine complacency.
Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, first published in France in 1986, is a sustained meditation on that postmodern hobbyhorse, the impossibility-of-writing-a-book. Yet here (in a manner that the reader will quickly come to recognize as typically Bénabouian) that meditation takes the form of parody, a critique executed with a canny layering of irony in which each successive layer questions and carnivalizes the one that precedes. It is a book that’s always beginning, where everything is introductory, liminal, prefatory. The page Bénabou designates explicitly as the « First Page » occurs well into the text, just when one might have assumed that one had gotten past the beginning, and into the thick of things. In that perspective, reading Marcel Bénabou may feel at times like walking in wet cement. But perhaps that’s one of the points Bénabou is making about writing : in his view, that activity is properly conceived as being about beginnings, rather than endings. Thus, Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books reads like an introduction to a much longer book, a potential or virtual book, one that is impossible to write. It is in any case one of the most interesting—and most amusing—books published in France during the last twenty years ; and in recognition of that distinction it was awarded the coveted Xavier Forneret Black Humor Prize. Where Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books is principally focused on writing, Dump This Book While You Still Can ! (1992) is a book about reading and its discontents. It greets its readers with these inspiring words : « Come on, dump this book. Or better yet, throw it as far away as you can. Right now. Before it’s too late. That resolution is your only escape, believe me. » Having survived that dire initiation, the reader willing to forge onward will discover a story devoted to a conspiracy (a false conspiracy inevitably enough), one that hinges on the reading of a singularly elusive text. That situation provides delicious fodder for the worst sorts of readerly paranoia. Perhaps the best way to approach it is as a perverse whodunit, where the reader is both the victim and the guilty party. The title that Bénabou originally proposed for Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun : A Family Epic (1995), « One Always Writes the Same Book, » was refused by his publishers. That’s too bad, because that title would have enacted an interesting—and utterly Bénabouish—commentary on the text it designated, signifying on the one hand simply and naively, and on the other hand through a gesture of most egregious deception. In appearance at least, Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun is quite different from Bénabou’s other books. He tells us that he wants to write the story of his family, and that of his family’s community, while it is still possible to do so, that is, before time, distance, and other tales erase the traces of that story. But in spite of himself as it were, despite his noblest intentions, Marcel Bénabou ends up writing a book about himself. The kind of narcissism that fuels his writing and causes it to burn so brightly is the object of a great deal of humor here, as Bénabou commits the sin of the ego over and over again, wallowing shamelessly in it for our amusement. Yet the seriousness of his purpose can be glimpsed lurking in the wings, and from time to time it takes center stage, as when Bénabou obligingly describes what he’s really up to in this book : « making the unfinished and unfinishable book not an unfortunate result of my incompetence, but rather a genuine literary genre with its own norms and rules. »
It is useful to think of Marcel Bénabou’s books as a cycle (and for the moment at least a tricycle), since the mutual affinities that prevail among them are many, and because each book finds its richest meaning in the context of the whole. The titles he chose for them (if one thinks of the original title of Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun) would seem to suggest just that, insofar as there is a neat progression from first person to second person to third person. The word « book » figures in all three titles, moreover. And felicitously enough, for otherwise these books are impossible to classify generically : neither memoirs, nor novels, nor confessions, nor autobiographies, Bénabou’s writings beggar our standard taxonomies such that we must fall back on the default term, « book. » When we do so, he’s got us right where he wants us, caught squarely in the weft of his splendid obsession for the book. So who is this splendidly obsessed individual, anyway ? Marcel Bénabou was born into an old, distinguished, and large Sephardic family in Meknès, Morocco in 1939. When he was seventeen years old, he went to Paris to study, first at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, then at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He earned his doctorate in Roman history at the Sorbonne, and has professed that subject for many years at the University of Paris. Ten years before he tried to tell us why he hadn’t written any of his books, he published an erudite volume of historiography entitled The African Resistance to Romanization (1976). In 1969 he joined the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Oulipo), a group of mathematicians and writers founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais and devoted to the study of literary form ; he has served as that group’s Definitively Provisional Secretary since 1970.
Without a doubt, the genial confraternity of the Oulipo helped to hone the finer points of Bénabou’s obsession, and to orient them in the directions they take in his books. For it is very much a question of potential literature in Bénabou’s writing. Reflecting on how a book might have been written, speaking figuratively (and often literally) in the conditional mode, Bénabou gradually sculpts a hypothetical literary monument, the Book. The latter is neither precisely Mallarmé’s ideal Book nor the Book dear to the Cabalists—though both of those constructs inform Bénabou’s thinking. Rather, its profile becomes apparent, in a manner of speaking, through the longing of the book for the Book. That is, when a writer—any writer at all, but most obviously Marcel Bénabou, granted the ostentation with which he puts the process on display—strains to write the perfect book, that desire, though continually and necessarily frustrated, testifies nonetheless to the potential existence of the Book. This is the case, quite apart from whatever results materially from those strainings. Yet, intoxicating as we may find the ether of the hypothetical ideal, let us not forget that Bénabou’s tortured staggerings toward the Book have thus far produced (will wonders never cease ?) three books. And each one of those, though it fails in its will to be the Book of Books, might quite legitimately be described as a book of books.
Quotations, allusions, and literary references of various stripes color Bénabou’s writing to a degree that mocks our commonly-held notions of intertextuality. You can’t turn around and spit in Marcel Bénabou’s books without hitting an eminent representative of the Western literary canon. As a way of sketching the vastness of the literary field in which Bénabou plants his books (and also, I confess, for the sheer joy of the catalogue), allow me to list the figures whom he cites, either explicitly or allusively : Ecclesiastes, Homer, Aesop, Pythagoras, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Epicurus, Cicero, Virgil, Livy, Seneca, Martial, Tacitus, Tertullian, Apuleius, Plotinus, St. Augustine, Moses Maimonides, Dante, Abraham Abulafia, Annius of Viterbo, Rabelais, Bonaventure des Périers, Scève, Ronsard, Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, François Maynard, Hobbes, Descartes, Corneille, La Rochefoucauld, La Fontaine, Pascal, Spinoza, Boileau, Racine, La Bruyère, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Lessing, Chamfort, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Sade, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Goethe, Joseph Joubert, Jean Paul, Chateaubriand, Hölderlin, Walter Scott, Novalis, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Stendhal, Alfred de Vigny, Heinrich Heine, Delacroix (the painter’s Diary), Balzac, Hugo, Dumas père, Gogol, Poe, Michel de Guérin, Musset, Thackeray, Herman Melville, Henri Amiel, Baudelaire, Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers, Jules Verne, Edmond About, Emile Zola, Thomas Hardy, Odilon Redon (his Diary), Mallarmé, Henry James, Nietzsche, Verlaine, Lautréamont, Huysmans, Pierre Loti, Isaac Leib Peretz, Rimbaud, Joseph Conrad, Sholem Aleichem, Jules Laforgue, Jules Renard, Miguel de Unamuno, Israel Zangwill, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, Julien Benda, Gide, Proust, Valéry, Alfred Jarry, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Raymond Roussel, Apollinaire, Amédée Achard, Jean Jalabert, Max du Veuzit, the Tharaud brothers, Edmond Fleg, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Jean Paulhan, György Lukács, Maurice Sachs, Pierre Benoit, Pierre Jean Jouve, Pierre Reverdy, Franz Werfel, Jean Cocteau, Walter Benjamin, Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille, Jorge Luis Borges, Henri Michaux, Michel Leiris, Raymond Radiguet, Raymond Queneau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Nizan, Maurice Blanchot, René Char, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, Malcolm Lowry, Cioran, Lawrence Durrell, Edmond Jabès, Maxence Van der Mersche, Albert Camus, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, Josefina Vicens, Italo Calvino, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, and Georges Perec.
Well. Faced with such an array, one might ask several questions. Granted the length, breadth, and weight of the « others » in Bénabou’s books, is there enough « Bénabou » in them to consider them truly his ? Is the intertextual panorama background or foreground ? Does it serve to support, legitimate, and authorize Bénabou’s own writing, or does it on the contrary overwhelm the latter, like a literary tsunami ? Far from begging those questions, Bénabou is the first to ask them. Gazing slack-jawed upon literary tradition, he is persuaded that it is always either too early to write (because one is not yet fully mature) or too late (because others have already done it, and better). Faced with the classic choice of writing or living, he finds himself capable of neither, and ponders a retreat into literary quietism. Reading Marcel Bénabou, however, one may discover alternative paths of action, exiguous though they be, ones that may offer some small succor to us—and indeed to Bénabou himself. For much of Bénabou’s writing can be read as an anatomy of reading ; and looming at the center thereof is the search for the ideal Reader. « Isn’t the true reader one who is capable of constructing the place where dispersion takes on meaning ? » Bénabou asks, typically disguising injunction as interrogation. And that order is a forbiddingly tall one, for any reader who is less than ideal. That’s the very point, though : we are not Readers, any more than Bénabou is a Writer. Or rather, we are Readers to the extent that Bénabou is a Writer. It is precisely within that vexed but highly articulative dynamic, the play of book and Book, writer and Writer, reader and Reader, that literature takes on whatever meaning it can hope for, according to Marcel Bénabou. Recognizing that, he tenders us a wildly prodigal contract, one that promises us full franchise in the literary act, on the condition that we join him unreservedly in play—that is to say, in work.``
Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.
Dump This Book While You Still Can !
Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun : A Family Epic.