27 October 2008

Gilbert Adair's Buenas Noches Buenos Aires

I saw a copy of Gilbert Adair's Buenas Noches Buenos Aires in an Oxfam bookshop this weekend, and I'm glad I didn't pay the full price: it's now in the trash can.

The book is almost a disaster. It’s a coming-of-age novel from a gay perspective, concerning a shy young Englishman (Gideon) who teaches EFL in Paris in the early 1980s; he is also the (possibly unreliable) narrator. The reader could expect a novel of this nature to be obsessed with the sexuality described, but unfortunately this is almost all that is described: the overwhelming emphasis is on appearances, and the internal life of Gideon is preoccupied with agonising over how he looks to others. His sex life consists almost entirely of masturbation, so to save face in the predominantly homosexual staff room he invents a wild sex life and so (sort of) becomes one of the superficial lads. Unfortunately, the book is equally superficial.

The French language and explanations thereof are a major problem. Like many cookery articles, Adair liberally sprinkles his novel with French phrases and sentences, often translating even quite simple things. And, OK, it’s perhaps amusing for non-French speakers to learn what ‘bite’ means in French: I once taught English in France for a few years and well remember a large group of French teenagers I took on holiday to England rolling about the coach with laughter on seeing a billboard which called a Mars bar (or something similar) ‘The Big Bite’. But then why doesn’t Adair also translate ‘mes semblables, mes frères’ on the final page of the novel? Perhaps because Gideon/Gilbert would then have to explain that this is a slight mis-quotation from Baudelaire and… No, that would be advertising one’s cleverness, pasting it on the wall for all to see.

In the end, it’s the tedious (and very unfunny) jokes that destroy the book: if we generously suggest that they come from the timid Gideon himself, desperate to impress with his perceived sparkling wit, then one or two jokes would have been enough; but as I feel that it’s Adair’s sense of humour we’re reading, this is a more serious matter. What kind of readership is Adair aiming at with this novel? One of the jokes that, er, stands out for me is the gay club called 'The 400 Blow Jobs', a pun on Truffaut's famous New Wave film The 400 Blows. Tee-hee, snigger, but surely he wasn't imagining that early adolescents would read this? And presumably he didn't give the French because the joke doesn't work in translation: an example of what Gideon would perhaps have called 'having your gâteau and eating it'. As another example, an encounter with a short-tongued beau is pondered on afterwards: ‘Was I sexy, though? Wath I theckthy?' This is just one of a number of 'witticisms' based on the way people pronounce words, and the novel would not so much better – but less bad – for their omission.


Jorge Ordaz said...

Splendid blog! I enjoy your literary posts, especially those related to Lionel Britton.
Best wishes from Spain.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Many thanks for this comment, Jorge, and very best wishes from England!