An Interview with Laurent Binet

Lydia Perović talks with the novelist about his love letter to French theory

 Laurent Binet. Photo courtesy of author.

Laurent Binet. Photo courtesy of author.

THE LITERARY CRITIC Roland Barthes died in 1980, right after a lunch meeting with the then-presidential candidate for the French socialists, François Mitterand. He was hit by a truck rushing past him. But what if it wasn’t an absurd traffic accident, demands Laurent Binet’s new novel? And who would have killed Barthes, the master of text, the dealer in signs, and the author of, well, “The Death of the Author?” Would he have been killed over a dangerous piece of writing that he had in his possession? Who would have wanted this paper, his frenemies from within ‘French theory’, or perhaps one of the presidential candidates gearing up for the campaign? 

Binet’s  La septième function du language (Grasset, 2015) spins a whole parallel history of the French intelligentsia at the beginning of the eighties, including characters named Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Louis Althusser, and Gilles Deleuze. It also journeys abroad to include Umberto Eco, John Searle, and a precocious PhD student of gender named Judith.  

The seventh function of the title, it turns out early in the novel, is the seventh function missing from Roman Jakobson’s officially elaborated six functions of language—the secret part of the manuscript that the linguist only hinted at in his books, but kept hidden from the eyes of the public. For a reason: the seventh function is the incantatory, manipulative, performative power of language that can convince, mobilize, and possibly enchant. In Binet’s counterfactual universe, the intellectuals, the French politicians, and the Communist agents all want the manuscript—and Barthes was the last who, by the grace of Jakobson, had it. 

The detective assigned to investigate the case is clueless about philosophy and irritated by the poseur leftism of the French intellectuals, so he hires a young semiology university instructor as an interpreter. They discover the existence of the secret Logos Club, something of a fight club for well-spoken erudites from around the world, and have encounters with young gay hustlers around Barthes and Foucault, Bulgarian agents with moustaches and poisoned umbrellas, Japanese guardian angels, Italian far-left students, drug-addled partiers of Cornell University, Venitian street life—and so on. The pace is madcap, the screwball exchanges snappy, and the plot tangled. But shining through it all are the thinkers of the era. Although the novel, for Binet, is never a hagiography, he’s respectful of the oeuvre of his characters, if not exactly their behaviour as private citizens.    

Binet was born in 1972. His first novel, HHhH, a historical thriller translated to English in 2012, won the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and was published in close to forty countries. His following book, Rien ne se passe comme prévu, chronicles the time he was embedded in the electoral campaign of the then-head of Parti socialiste, now President François Hollande. We spoke over Skype barely a week after the mass shootings of November 13. Life was kind of getting back to normal, he said, but not quite—it feels like everybody he knows knew somebody who was directly affected. He started off by lighting a cigarette. “I haven’t smoked in four days, so I can reward myself with a cigarette, right? It’s been a stressful few days in Paris.” 

We spoke over Skype barely a week after the mass shootings of November 13. Life was kind of getting back to normal, he said, but not quite—it feels like everybody he knows knew somebody who was directly affected.


PEROVIĆ
Did you ever worry that somebody would sue? I think that would be the first thing English-language publishers would worry about.

BINET
I didn’t, but to be honest, the possibility did occur to my publisher too. They consulted two lawyers who ultimately okayed the book. I don’t know how it is in America, but in France fiction is quite well protected. To sue over a novel and to win, you really have to have a massive case. My novel is a work of fiction revealing itself as fiction page after page. Nobody has the slightest reason to believe that Barthes was really murdered. The events I created are so unbelievable, nobody can take them as even remotely true. So I went into it quite confident. Still, once the book was out, I heard that Philippe Sollers, for instance, was not happy. But Sollers as a writer himself is on the side of freedom of the novel and literature and is ready to defend them—he had defended Houellebecq too when he was accused of islamophobia some years ago—and it’s not very likely that he would go to court over a fictional portrayal.  

PEROVIĆ
The feat of this novel is that while you’ve turned some of the greatest thinkers of our time into comic characters, you’ve also honoured their writing to a T. You seem to have read everybody, and took great care to convey them faithfully.

BINET
That’s exactly what I tried to do. And this doesn’t have to be a contradiction. They are human and I can make fun of them as humans, but I remain interested in their thought. And I can be impressed, angered or disagree with what I read, but I always took the thought and the writing seriously. I’ve read them closely and my novel was a way to engage in discussion with their work. Some readers in France were shocked by my fictionalization of Michel Foucault, and thought that I was making fun of him by putting him in certain situations. But those scenes are based on what’s written in some of Foucault’s biographies and what his friends had shared about his life. And the situations he’s in, in fiction or in life, don’t take away from his legacy. 

And you’ll remember, Michel Foucault is the only one in the book who’s not chasing the seventh function of language. He’s just not involved in the whole ‘linguistic turn’, he is in the plot in order to help his young friend Slimane.

 Lydia Perovic. Photo courtesy of the author.

Lydia Perovic. Photo courtesy of the author.

PEROVIĆ
In that, too, you honour his intellectual biography because, as you note in the book, he did stop being interested in language while many of his contemporaries stayed the course.

BINET
Yes. I followed carefully the timing. One reason Lacan is not very present in the book is that his power was running out around that time, he wasn’t as flamboyant as before. He was tired, a shadow of himself, really. So I didn’t make him one of the protagonists. The second reason is, I wasn’t taken by his writing as much. I have always had reservations about Lacan. He’s interesting but I don’t think I’m entirely convinced by his oeuvre.  

PEROVIĆ
You also seem to have read everything that your ‘characters’ have said in the media. I mean, that stuff about the dynamics between Kristeva and Sollers, they themselves reveal most of that in various interviews. 

BINET
[grins] I can’t possibly comment. But let me ask you something. What attracted you to my book?

PEROVIĆ
Oh, I love these people. Kristeva means the world to me. Foucault’s writing was hugely important when I was young.

BINET
Aha! Good. 

PEROVIĆ
And there’s a lot of Kristeva in your book. But my favourite scene is the party where you have Kristeva in the kitchen, making out with a girl, and Sollers in the living room next door, pontificating to their guests.  

Some readers in France were shocked by my fictionalization of Michel Foucault, and thought that I was making fun of him by putting him in certain situations.

BINET
I wasn’t sure about that scene, but did end up putting it in… In a way, I wanted to give her the upper hand. He is such a loud mouth a lot of the time. 

PEROVIĆ
And there’s this episode in which she’s looking at the skin forming on top of her café au lait and having a visceral reaction to it, while also trying to analyze her own reaction, and musing about memory and writing… L'ecrivain : un phobique qui réussit à métaphoriser pour ne pas mourir de peur mais pour ressusciter dans les signes.

BINET
It’s all from her work, the book on abjection, and that I think is a quote. She herself wrote about the aversion to milk skin. Yes, I try to honour her thought. 

PEROVIĆ
How did you decide which thinkers to put at the centre and who to leave aside?

BINET
I was led by the crime investigation itself. Barthes was murdered, so the cop has to look at the people close to him, his friends and relatives. The closest friends Sollers and Kristeva had to be at the centre. Bernard-Henry Levy was there at the time…

PEROVIĆ
Was he really? I thought adding BHL to some of the scenes was a joke?

I have always had reservations about Lacan. He’s interesting but I don’t think I’m entirely convinced by his oeuvre.

BINET
The Bologna chapter is completely made up, but the scene at the hospital is close to what actually happened. I heard from an eyewitness that they really did come to the hospital and demand better treatment for Barthes, told hospital staff, Don’t you know who he is, etc. BHL was around. Barthes was friends with most of the ‘French theory’. There are exceptions, of course. Most important for me was the querelle between Searle and Derrida about the performative side of language—this was a goldmine for me. I did not anticipate it, but as the novel progressed, Derrida became really important. 

On the other hand, Deleuze doesn’t have a central role in the book. I mean, I love Deleuze, but I don’t always understand his writing, and can’t claim any degree of mastery over his thought, so did not feel at ease enough with his philosophy to use it in the novel. He’s only a walk-on. Indirectly, he is very present in that sex scene in Bologna, which is described in Deleuzian vocabulary, but all in all, I remain humbled before Deleuze, and he remains on the sidelines in the novel.

PEROVIĆ
Regarding Derrida, you dramatized one of his key articles, "Signature, Event, Context" from 1977, and his subsequent exchange with Searle. After some serious intellectual jostling between the two, the Derrida of your novel gets killed by Searle’s wild dogs at a cemetery at midnight. How did that whole section come to be?

BINET
Actually, I knew Searle’s work better than Derrida’s initially. In France, as you probably know, Derrida is not studied a lot in the academe. I knew Austin, Searle, Saussure, Jakobson, those language philosophy guys much better. But as soon as I started reading Derrida in depth, I fell in love with his writing. And felt closer to him than to Searle in that debate. Searle’s work remains interesting, but I think he’s more psychorigide, while Derrida is just… nicer. That scene with the dogs—and I wanted it to be spectacular—is a reworking of a scene from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. There are many nods to Sherlock Holmes in the novel. Simon Herzog, who’s Bayard’s interpreter of philosophy, is something of a young Sherlock Holmes, and shares Holmes’ initials. Semiology, the subject that he teaches at university, is in essence detective work.

PEROVIĆ
You also found a way to work Althusser’s murder of his wife into the plot. And the murder did indeed happen that very year, 1980.

The main topic in France for years now has been national identity. A topic that just doesn’t smell particularly good to me.

BINET
I researched what other things beside Barthes’ death happened in 1980 and I discovered that Althusser had killed his wife on that year and figured that I had to make the connection. Same with the bomb explosion at Bologna’s train station in August 1980. And remember the umbrellas with poisoned tips? There are records of Bulgarian spies targeting dissidents this way around that time, I didn’t make that up. The Bulgarian secret service was very active. As Julia Kristeva is of Bulgarian origin, I fabricated the connection. I added all these events into one plot, the search for the seventh function. 

PEROVIĆ
How did you go about writing Althusser as a character? His wife is much livelier in the book than he.

BINET
She’s rarely discussed or even remembered these days, so I wanted to do the opposite. And that dinner scene at Sollers and Kristeva’s, I wanted to write all that from Hélène’s point of view. I set that challenge for myself. 

PEROVIĆ
After he murders her, he’s released as not criminally responsible, put in a mental institution for two years… And you sort of show the unfairness of it. Life goes on.

BINET
It really happened that way. He ended up living in a small apartment the rest of his life… not forgotten by any means. You’ll remember the ranking of the intellectuals at the end of my book? A magazine polled 500 people from the cultural life to choose the top three of the most important living French intellectuals. That survey was done in 1981, a year after the tragedy, and he still had a good ranking. Incredible. Today, not a lot of people quote or use his work. He himself is not forgotten, but his work is getting close to being. Foucault’s work is still around, Barthes very much so, it’s his centenary this year, and as for Derrida, there’s at least one article appearing every year about how unfair it is that “Derrida is being forgotten”, but that’s where it usually ends.

PEROVIĆ
Yes, I was going to ask you, what is the status of the ‘French theory’ philosophers in today’s France?

BINET
People know of them, people know they are important. In formal education, they may appear in philosophy courses here and there. But it’s not like in higher education in the US, where you’re very likely to end up reading some Foucault or Derrida as an undergrad. If you’re studying literature, that is—not philosophy. 

PEROVIĆ
And in multi-disciplinary studies, like gender studies, race studies, etc.

I understand that it’s a bit dirty, going to the media under the conditions set by the media, but you have to know what you want—if you want to be heard, you have to speak somewhere.

BINET
Yes. In France we are not very good at crossing disciplines, literature is literature, philosophy is philosophy. It’s something that I like about North American higher education. So, the ‘French theory’ continues to be more famous in the US than in France. And we complain about it. There is a strong offensive of conservative thinkers in France today and we are complaining that all the good left philosophers have disappeared. We are talking about the “good old times when we had Deleuze, Derrida,” etc. But at that time, they weren’t such stars. And they were not media intellectuals, they were not on TV every week. 

PEROVIĆ
Who are France’s prominent public intellectuals today?

BINET
Now it’s the minor philosophers like Alain Finkielkraut, Michel Onfray and Éric Zemmour, who’s not an intellectual, really, but he’s very present in the media. Zemmour as a journalist, Houellebecq as a writer, and Finkielkraut and Onfray as philosophers. Onfray came from the left, but took a turn right. As Deleuze said, philosophy is the creation of new concepts, and Onfray never really creates any. He is a good historian of philosophy. Those guys are not the same level, but they’re talking a lot and talking in a very conservative, right-wing way. The main topic in France for years now has been national identity. A topic that just doesn’t smell particularly good to me.

PEROVIĆ
I don’t get the celebrity of Houellebecq.

BINET
I guess he’s good at catching l’air du temps, the trends of the day, and he does it well. That’s his talent, and there are people who like that. And I assume people like to read about characters who are even more depressed than themselves? 

PEROVIĆ
Are there any younger thinkers or activists who claim Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault as ancestors? I can only think of Edouard Louis…

BINET
Yes, he’s interesting, with his friend Geoffroy de Lagasnerie and their père spirituel Didier Eribon, who was friends with Faucault. They are very active. I think we still have good thinkers, a lot of them in the field of economy and social science. There’s Thomas Picketty, whom you’ll know, and there’s Frédéric Lordon, a philosopher who talks a lot about the economy. There’s also the sociologist Éric Fassin. But they’re not in the media all the time. 

PEROVIĆ
What about Kristeva? 

BINET
She is very international, in demand around the world. But in France, Sollers is more often invited than her. And that’s probably her choice too. This is something you can be ambivalent about. Edouard Louis says we have to re-conquer the cultural space and we have to strike back, but when he’s invited to TV shows, he declines. There’s maybe a contradiction there. I understand that it’s a bit dirty, going to the media under the conditions set by the media, but you have to know what you want—if you want to be heard, you have to speak somewhere. 

Isn’t it marvellous, they tell me, that people can still get angry over a novel? In 2015?

PEROVIĆ
Wasn’t there a conference recently they didn’t want to go to because it included an historian they found too reactionary

BINET
Yes, yes, I even signed their petition. I wasn’t totally convinced by the way they did it, but I was impressed by their anger and youth, and I signed. In a way, they won—they created a scandal, and provoked a public discussion. Everybody wanted to weigh in. 

PEROVIĆ
And some of his opponents even dubbed a Hitler’s Rant video for the occasion. 

BINET
I remember that! Hilarious.

PEROVIĆ
It just shows how lively your culture is, if there are ideological brawls between writers and the Downfall parody videos that refer to Foucault, Derrida, and Judith Butler.

BINET
Yeah, that’s what my publisher told me when I was attacked by some of Sollers’ friends. Isn’t it marvellous, they tell me, that people can still get angry over a novel? In 2015? Yeah, okay, you’re probably right… 

PEROVIĆ
There were critics in France who took offence that in your novel you put Foucault in a gay sauna? 

BINET
I did not quite get that. Like, there’s something wrong with being in a gay sauna?

PEROVIĆ
I watched a clip from a TV show in which you get attacked by a critic for the undignified treatment of Foucault and for reducing him to a body? Just how perfect was that?

BINET
It was like suddenly Spinoza never existed. The body was an issue. And some of the criticism I’ve received from those quarters says that my book is all about the body and the everyday, and not about the mind. Which is just inaccurate. I don’t write about the body as something apart from the thought—it’s about the body and the thought together

PEROVIĆ
Speaking of bodies, Judith Butler also appears in your book. How did she end up in the Cornell University chapter?

BINET
She was too young to be a teacher at that time, so I have her as a PhD student. She is of course a great feminist thinker and she also worked on the performative function as a means of male domination. This ties in nicely with the central project of the book. Also, my then-girlfriend was doing gender studies and was a PhD student herself at Cornell and was very immersed in those philosophical debates at the time, so I learned a lot about Butler through her. 

PEROVIĆ
There’s a scene in which she explains the difference between illocutionary and perlocutionary…

BINET
…to the cop, inspector Bayard. And Butler and he become friends by the end of that party. And, um, more than friends.

PEROVIĆ
He evolves in the course of the novel, put it that way.

BINET
It’s a very French tradition, le roman initiatique—similar to the German term Bildungsroman. Usually it’s about a young person learning about life. I wanted the book to be Simon’s Bildungsroman, but didn’t want to neglect Bayard, I wanted him to have his own arc narrative. So he starts off as a homophobe, but by the end of the Cornell conference he lets himself be topped by a lesbian with a strap-on. 

PEROVIĆ
Let me ask you quickly about the politicians in your book. Mitterand was really that good in the pre-election debate that you put in the book?

BINET
Yes. Seven years before, he was terrible in the debate with Giscard, but in the 1981 debate he was good. So I connected the seventh function to his dramatic rhetorical success.  

PEROVIĆ
Nobody in 1980 really knew if the socialists were going to take the presidency?

[H]e starts off as a homophobe, but by the end of the Cornell conference he lets himself be topped by a lesbian with a strap-on.

BINET
But everybody thought that Mitterand’s victory would bring in major changes in France, a real socialism. It didn’t happen, as we all know. What I also wanted to show is that the 1980-81 period was thought to be a turning point in France, but it was a turning point globally for very different reasons. It wasn’t the dawn of the socialism, but the dawn of Reagan and Thatcher and the rest of the world went that way. We are still living the legacy of Thatcherism.

PEROVIĆ
Your first sentence is La vie n’est pas un roman. And you step out of the narration frequently in the book. Simon at one points figures out he’s in a novel and he’s not happy about it.

BINET
That’s what I’m interested in: seeing how the novel can question the relationship between the notions of fiction and non-fiction, real and invented. In this novel, I play with it from the point of view of a character. What Umberto Eco examines in Lector in Fabula, the possible worlds for a fictional character and for the reader, but doing this from inside the novel. And it’s kind of Derridean to question the narrative voice…

PEROVIĆ
When the récit gets smooth-going, you puncture it: wake up, all this is a fabrication.  

BINET
I like to play with the suspension of disbelief, and to disturb it from time to time. But that’s playing with fire, in a way. You kick the readers out of the fictional world that you built up to that point, then try to bring them back. I like encountering this as a reader. Milan Kundera does it, and in another way, Bret Easton Ellis. I don’t usually care for serial killer stories, but he plays with that, too, you never know if it’s really happening or not. I liked being played with as a reader. 

PEROVIĆ
You even make fun of your own procédé. Simon notices your narrative tricks and he doesn’t like them.

BINET
But he’s also becoming paranoid at that point. And after reading Derrida, you cannot really be sure you’re on firm ground with any kind of a statement. Who or what is talking while I’m talking to you now? Simon is losing grip after all those close encounters with philosophers. 

PEROVIĆ
What are you working on these days? 

BINET
I have this manuscript of poems by a Czech surrealist that I translated some time ago, but could never get published. I’m hoping the success of this book will help me find a publisher for that—I’ll give it another try. 

 

LYDIA PEROVIĆ's forthcoming book, All That Sang (2016), happens to be set in Paris. Her work has appeared in The Believer, The Awl, n+1, and elsewhere. 

LAURENT BINET is the author of La septième function du language (2015) and other novels. In 2010, he won the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. 
 

WHAT TO READ NEXT: "I had read her best known poems...and found myself bored."