Roland Barthes met Valéry Giscard d’Estaing on 9 December 1976 at a lunch hosted by Edgar Faure, the president of the National Assembly, at the Hôtel de Lassay. Michel Foucault had turned down Faure’s invitation as a protest against Giscard’s failure to put an end to the death penalty, and the left-wing figures who went anyway were later subjected, Barthes’s biographer Louis-Jean Calvet reports, to sarcastic inquiries such as ‘So, how was the soup?’ Barthes didn’t like being sneered at for consorting with a patrician representative of the centre-right, and his friends made it known that he had, over coffee, made pointedly Marxisant small talk: he’s said to have asked Giscard if he favoured the withering away of the state, and Giscard is said to have replied: ‘Why not?’ The sneers continued all the same, and when, a little over three years later, Jack Lang invited Barthes to lunch with François Mitterrand, Barthes worried that accepting would be viewed as a craven attempt to make amends. Mitterrand enjoyed chatting with people like Barthes, but the lunch also appeared to be aimed at brushing some intellectual stardust over the following year’s socialist candidate for the presidency. Still, as Barthes said of his meal with Giscard, ‘a myth hunter … must hunt everywhere.’
That lunch, which took place in a flat in the Marais on 25 February 1980, with Lang doing the cooking, apparently went quite well. But then Barthes, en route back to his office, walked into the path of a laundry van, which left him unconscious and bleeding from the nose. He wasn’t carrying ID, so several hours went by before anyone worked out who he was, after which his editor François Wahl tried to keep first the press and then crowds of anxious admirers away from Barthes’s room at the Salpêtrière hospital, where he would die a month later from complications caused by his weak lungs. The first reports of the accident were slow to appear and hazy about the extent of Barthes’s injuries, a circumstance that struck – and still strikes – his friend Philippe Sollers as suspicious. Sollers and his wife, Julia Kristeva, swept into the hospital and made, by all accounts, a bit of a scene. Had news of Barthes’s condition been held up by a conspiracy to stop people getting the idea that Mitterrand had put the evil eye on him? Did the staff even know what a prestigious patient they had on their hands? ‘It’s a shame there is no photographer in the room,’ Laurent Binet writes in his dramatisation of the visit, ‘to immortalise this great moment in the history of French intellectuals.’
In his first novel, HHhH (2010), which tells the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Binet says that inventing a character in order to illuminate historical material is like ‘planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence’. That’s pretty much what he does in The Seventh Function of Language, in which Jacques Bayard, a tough, right-wing cop, shows up at the hospital with secret orders from his bosses to find out if Barthes’s accident contains the seeds of a scandal they can use to discredit Mitterrand. Bayard is fine with that, but he’s an honest cop too, and his investigation isn’t perfunctory. Does the victim have any enemies? Sollers and Kristeva – flanked by Bernard-Henri Lévy, who has also showed up, as he does throughout the novel – indicate that he does. Who? ‘The Stalinists! The fascists! Alain Badiou! Gilles Deleuze! Pierre Bourdieu! Cornelius Castoriadis! … Um, Hélène Cixous!’ Bayard writes these names down in his notebook, but they’re no more help than what he’s told by Foucault, to whom he pays a visit at the Collège de France. ‘The big baldy’, who seems unaccountably ill-disposed towards agents of the state, speaks darkly of ‘the system’ when Bayard asks who might have wished to harm his friend Roland.
‘Episteme, my arse,’ Bayard thinks as he tries to decipher a lecture by Foucault, who, he suspects, gets paid more than he does for spouting ‘woolly nonsense’ at an institution where no one learns how to do a job. Similar logic makes him feel a mild repulsion when he takes a look at Roland Barthes Made Easy, a parodic Barthes-speak phrasebook published in 1978. The historical Barthes was upset by this gentle lampoon, and Bayard instinctively dislikes both its ‘verbal intimidation’ and its air of a smug joke designed to exclude people like him. (‘Bayard is no idiot,’ the narrator remarks. ‘He’s already doing a bit of Bourdieu without even realising it.’) He decides to seek out an interpreter, and a sniffy person at the Sorbonne directs him to the University of Paris VIII at Vincennes. There he finds a young lecturer, Simon Herzog, teaching an introductory semiology course with examples from the James Bond films – material, at last, that Bayard is at home with, as well as a nod to Umberto Eco’s analysis of Ian Fleming’s narrative structures. True to his initials, Simon uses his training to perform a Sherlock Holmes-like cold reading on Bayard, who responds by requisitioning him in the name of police intelligence.
So begins a mismatched-buddy policier that’s also a conspiracy thriller. For it seems that Barthes’s run-in with the laundry van wasn’t an accident. Though Bayard doesn’t notice it at first – the narratorial camera peers past him to flag it up, in the style of a Hitchcock movie or a Tintin book – a black Citroën DS, the car Barthes put on the cover of Mythologies (1957), in which there’s a discussion of its then futuristic lines, has followed him since his first visit to the Salpêtrière. Inside it are two men with moustaches, umbrellas, cheap suits and Eastern European accents, who lurk discreetly in the background when our heroes are in the field. Two Japanese men, driving a blue Renault Fuego, are ever present too, and nosey minor characters with missing fingers crop up with improbable frequency. It soon turns out that they’re all attracted by a mysterious document entrusted to Barthes by persons unknown, a document that had vanished by the time he reached the hospital. This short text had to do with a ‘seventh function of language’, a phrase that Simon is able to unpack with reference to the functions – referential, emotive, conative, phatic, metalingual and poetic – outlined in a famous paper by Roman Jakobson.
Those are only six functions, Bayard points out. Simon combs through Jakobson again and finds, in a passage on subsets of the conative, a mention of a ‘magic, incantatory function’. Jakobson gives examples: a Lithuanian spell (‘May this sty dry up, tfu, tfu, tfu, tfu’) a North Russian incantation (‘Water, queen river, daybreak! Send grief beyond the blue sea, to the sea bottom, like a grey stone never to rise from the sea bottom, may grief never come to burden the light heart of God’s servant, may grief be removed and sink away’), and a passage from the Book of Joshua (‘Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Aj-a-lon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed’). ‘Yeah, yeah,’ Simon thinks, while Bayard is still struggling to get up to speed on Saussurean linguistics: ‘This Chaussure, does he know Barthes?’ ‘Er, no, he’s dead.’ Yet someone is prepared to kill to find out more, and Giscard, the KGB and the Bulgarian secret service, unknown to our heroes, are taking an interest in the case. Could it be that the secret of a new kind of performative utterance, an utterance that lets a speaker persuade anyone to do anything, had somehow made its way to the great critic and sémiologue?
The only way for Simon and Bayard to find out is to follow the trail deep into the worlds of Parisian, then Italian, then Anglo-American intellectuals. The novel’s portraits of the first group – in addition to Barthes, Foucault, Kristeva, Sollers and the omnipresent BHL, we spend time with Deleuze, Lacan, Todorov and Althusser, and get glimpses of Cixous, Guattari, Derrida and Sartre – are sometimes admiring, often cheeky and, in one or two instances, crushingly satirical. Together they make it clear that Binet, who was born in 1972, is interested in these figures as denizens of a historical moment. The Seventh Function isn’t a novel of insider gossip, like Sollers’s Women (1983) and Kristeva’s The Samurai (1990), and doesn’t bear much resemblance to Anglophone theory-novels along the lines of Gilbert Adair’s The Death of the Author (1992). As a comic extravaganza it salutes David Lodge, whose character Morris Zapp gets a walk-on part. But for Binet, riffing knowingly on narrative theory isn’t an end in itself. As well as being a kind of allegory, and an elaborate joke, his conspiracy plot is a way of arranging non-fictional events for an ironical snapshot of those exotic times.
Barthes’s death is the first such event, and Barthes himself, with his English suits and cigarettes and ‘sad spaniel eyes’, comes in for respectful, sensitive treatment. Even when having an assassin turn Barthes’s ventilator off, and imagining Barthes’s dying reverie (he expires, to his surprise, thinking of a line from Corneille), Binet manages to seem affectionate rather than ghoulish. The farcical tone gets stronger as the investigation spreads out into Barthes’s sentimental dealings with rent boys, with an emphasis on Bayard’s discomfort among ‘fucking queer intellectual bastards’. In no time he and Simon, dressed only in little white towels, are padding through a gay sauna near the Gare de Lyon in search of a young man called Hamed, to whom Barthes might have given a copy of the missing document. Hamed, they’ve been told, has a fringe and an earring, but the steam makes it hard to judge people’s haircuts. Then ‘a loud, nasal, professorial voice’ cuts through Bayard’s paroxysms of homoerotic unease:
‘A functionary of the powers that be showing off his repressive muscles in the service of biopower? What could be more normal?’
Behind Bayard, a wiry, square-jawed, bald man is sitting, naked, arms outstretched and resting on the back of a wooden bench, legs spread wide, being sucked off by a skinny young man who does have an earring but also has short hair. ‘Have you found anything interesting, Superintendent?’ asks Michel Foucault … ‘You came here to find someone, but it looks to me like you’ve already found him.’ He points to Simon Herzog and laughs: ‘Your Alcibiades!’
In 2015, when The Seventh Function was published in France, Binet explained to interviewers that although he’d done a lot of reading and quizzed Eric Marty on Barthes, Didier Eribon on Foucault and so on, he depicted his real-life characters by way of their ‘mythologies’. His Foucault is a figure of prodigious energy and charisma who’s forever popping up to unsettle the two investigators. He’s shown gliding through a posh Parisian disco, where he gets into ‘a heated conversation with one of the singers from Abba’, and later flips out on LSD in an American S&M club. But he pulls himself together in time to deliver a keynote lecture the next morning, and his fading interest in purely linguistic forms of power, plus his emancipatory passions, means he’s never a serious suspect in the case.
Another event in Binet’s sights is Althusser’s murder of his wife, Hélène, in November 1980, which makes him an obvious candidate for a bad guy role. In the novel’s telling he strangles her after she unwittingly throws out a copy of the elusive document, which he’d hidden in a pile of junk mail at someone else’s behest. Althusser’s mental illness and ‘obedient temperament’ make him, at best, a secondary player, easy to manipulate rather than an out-and-out villain. Even so, the narrator raises an eyebrow at his ‘carefully constructed’ neuroses, and goes on to quote, with incredulous italics, a sentence from his post-murder autobiography: ‘Mao even granted me an interview, but for reasons of “French politics”, I made the stupid mistake, the biggest of my life, of not turning up for it.’ In an earlier chapter Kristeva, hosting a dinner party, grimaces when she sees that Althusser has turned up with his tiresomely uneducated wife. The gathering is presided over by a senile Lacan, who occasionally ‘squeaks like a little bird’ or ‘makes a sound like an owl’ while everyone pretends there’s nothing wrong with him and his mistress plays footsie with BHL under the table.
Kristeva gets up to some sexual mischief at the dinner party as well, and she’s generally indicted as the brainier half of a monstrous power couple. But the novel cuts her some slack for putting up with Sollers, then still the editor of Tel Quel, who in the course of the 1970s went from Moscow-line communism to Maoism and then to pro-Americanism with a sprinkling of libertinage and Catholic mysticism. Binet casts Sollers as a childishly boastful, histrionically self-involved buffoon who tirelessly spews either free-associative prose-poetry or monologues about, say, Americans’ amazing obliviousness to Derrida’s debt to his novel Numbers (1966), ‘which no one in New York or California has ever bothered to translate! Seriously, it’s just priceless!’ Kristeva has heard each anecdote a thousand times, and at one point seeks distraction by contemplating the skin on her cooling café au lait, which gives her the central image for some much quoted lines on abjection in Powers of Horror (1980). The plot has a nasty fate in store for Sollers, to which he’s dragged still babbling of Louis Aragon’s praise of his first novel, but he’s a funny and strangely irrepressible character, partly because his monologues, like many of the other characters’ speeches, are in many cases lifted from his own exuberantly madcap writings.
Barthes was famous in France at the time of his death – A Lover’s Discourse (1977), an unexpected bestseller, got him on TV with Bernard Pivot – and Foucault was known for his frequent political interventions. But others in the novel’s cast were widely seen as somewhat peripheral figures, moth-eaten soixante-huitards who hadn’t, in many cases, been very enthusiastic soixante-huitards in the first place. It took non-French imaginations to lump them all together as, in Binet’s words, ‘les philosophes de la French Theory’, and as the story spirals outwards Simon and Bayard get a close-up view of the way France, at the beginning of the 1980s, ran counter to the times as a net exporter of radical hopes.
The first international stop is Bologna, where they go in search of help from Eco, who, hearing about the document’s blood-soaked trail, has a sudden vision of a poisoned monk. ‘I have to finish preparing a lecture on the ekphrasis of quattrocento bas reliefs,’ he says apologetically; besides, he has a train to catch in the morning. So the two Frenchmen spend the rest of the evening learning about the deep state’s ‘strategy of tension’ from students fired up by the Deleuzo-Guattarian teachings of Franco Berardi, aka Bifo, an autonomist Marxist and celebrated pirate broadcaster. An attractive young woman reminisces enthusiastically about Guattari’s rock-star reception at a French philosophy conference three years earlier, though it seems that ‘that young guy in a white shirt’ nearly got beaten up. (BHL, not by chance, is in Bologna now too, but ‘in order to pass incognito’ he is wearing a black shirt.) She and Simon have Deleuzo-Guattarian sex: ‘Bianca is now the iron horse atop Simon, who lies on the marble slab, all his muscles tensed … “There is only one kind of production: the production of the real.”’ Another historical event, the bombing of Bologna’s central station in August 1980, brings the trip to an end.
Next up is a conference at Cornell University, where the novel stages a postdated, highly fanciful version of Derrida’s clash with John Searle and pushes the boat out still further on the story’s farcical and shaggy-dog aspects. Methodological tensions play out like scuffles between the Jets and the Sharks: ‘You analytic pricks!’ ‘Take your Derrida boys and piss off. Now.’ Simon, pursued through a library by an angry philosopher of language, dodges down the nouveau roman aisle. To his horror he realises it’s a dead end. The conference culminates in a mad set piece: a frat party at which Simon dashes from room to room trying to warn Bayard that one or other star lecturer is about to get his hands on the fatal document. At every turn there are distractions: Noam Chomsky making out with Camille Paglia, ‘an undergrad named Donna’ organising a bacchanal, Guattari ‘hitting on an innocent postgrad from Illinois’. Bayard – who’s being taught a lesson about gender performativity by the young Judith Butler during a drugged-up threesome with Cixous – finds out what’s going on in time to disrupt the handover, though not in time to prevent the story from taking a decisive step into irrealism via the death of someone who wasn’t in fact torn apart by wild dogs in 1980.
By this point Simon has been troubled for a while by a feeling, made worse by the enormous joints that students keep handing him, of being a character in a crudely assembled novel. The evidence seems compelling to him, including as it does a roster of the cartoonish devices – a car chase, a beautiful Russian spy, a murder by poisoned umbrella, and a secret society that stages rhetorical duels in which the loser has a finger chopped off – that Binet has been using to keep the action moving. ‘Succumbing to an unhealthy structuralist-paranoiac reflex to search for recurrent motifs’, he finds plenty of those, and notices that they’re grouped into similar patterns in each section of his adventures. And surely ‘a character like Sollers cannot really exist.’ His paranoia increases as Binet brings the plot to a suitably baroque conclusion in Venice, where a re-enactment of the Battle of Lepanto, in which Cervantes fought, allows for further reflections on the novel as a form. Another comic set piece is still to come, followed by a series of epilogues that use Mitterrand’s election victory in 1981 to bring the story back round to history again.
Binet is very good at avoiding the undecidability-by-numbers that sometimes plagues enterprises of this kind. HHhH, which is filled with discussions of his worries about the corniness of historical fiction, isn’t solemn or pompously self-referential. The tone is almost chatty, and the digressions on the limits of his research give the storytelling a powerful reality effect. He uses some of the same devices in The Seventh Function: early on there’s a lot of ‘I’m not sure how widely known Barthes’ homosexuality was at the time’ and ‘We are in [Laurent] Fabius’s magnificent apartment in the Panthéon, which as I imagine it …’ and ‘I’ll spare you the now obligatory copy-and-paste of the Wikipedia page.’ But these soon give way to teasing over whether or not Simon will turn out to be the narrator, and to dramatising the guilty pleasure – in a literary culture that honours Paul Valéry’s refusal to write sentences like ‘The Marquise went out at five o’clock’ – of arbitrarily making stuff up. According to Binet, The Seventh Function’s destabilised reality is modelled after the move from pseudo-memoir to fantasy in Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park (2005) as well as the classic mise en abyme. And here and there he gives his walk-on characters more plangent feelings than those either comedy or antihumanism require.
‘The signified is in everything,’ Eco says in the novel, ‘but that does not mean … that there is an infinity of interpretations.’ Binet casts him as one of the good guys, and in spite of all the destabilising Binet’s own text still offers, as Eco puts it, gulping white wine, meanings that aren’t ‘incompatible with its own contextuality’. On one level it’s a nostalgic look at a period in which French thinkers spent less time brooding on national identity, and excited interest from abroad on a scale that hasn’t been reproduced since. On another it’s a parable about the danger of getting so excited about signifiers that you’re blasé about politics being reduced to a media spectacle. On another it’s an excursion into ‘exofiction’, an effort to rejig relations between fiction and history that puts Binet among such figures as Emmanuel Carrère, Javier Cercas and Álvaro Enrigue. And on another it’s an exercise in pure intellectual slapstick of the kind that French humourists do well, though if Binet has also read Ellis’s Glamorama (1998), a parodic conspiracy thriller about fashion models, then it’s possible that his novel shares a few shreds of DNA with Zoolander. Sollers is reported not to have found it very funny, but Cixous sent Binet a letter saying she’d enjoyed the book a lot.