Ben Winch's Reviews > Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books

Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books by Marcel Bénabou
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it was amazing
bookshelves: french, mainland-european, 5-stars

In the beginning, a short sentence. Only half a dozen words; simple words, the first to come along, or almost the first. Assigned above all to mean that here ends a silence.
Okay, you got me. That’s good advice: “the first to come along, or almost the first”. And “here ends a silence” – that’s poetry! Not that it’s anything new, mind, but Maurice Bénabou doesn’t make that claim.
I am of course a bit late in joining the cohort of those who make the book the subject of their books, who make writing the theme of what they have written.
Hence his paralysis – or near-paralysis. Hence his self-questioning. Here is a man who, it seems, has read one of everything; who knows and anticipates and forsakes all the tricks writers use to make spells of their books; who, at times, believed himself incapable – because too critical – of such magic. Starting from the certainty – or apparent certainty – of his calling, he then proceeded by reduction, deleting from his conception of his work everything that had precedent. There wasn’t much left. And ultimately, all he can do is describe the book that could have been, if all his restrictive parameters were fulfilled, via another book – this book – that is, inevitably, a compromise.
Of all the obscure, or in any event poorly elucidated, facts of my past, the most surprising for me is still this one: why did I come to believe one day that I should write? A simple, seemingly obvious question, yet it took me a long time to feel the need to ask it of myself. It was only after a first long series of aborted attempts that doubt as to the validity of my “calling” appeared and that I came to wonder about the origins of what, until then, I had considered a kind of determination independent of my will. But after that questioning commenced, it did not cease; indeed, at certain times the better part of my work consisted of responding to it.
Ah! Now (though again, such work is far from without precedent) we’re getting somewhere! Though Bénabou claims allegiance with Raymond Roussel, this positions him, for me, with Beckett. And, to me, it’s this struggle – to account for his writing, to justify it, to excuse it even – that gives his book depth. Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, surprisingly, and despite all clues to the contrary (the familiar “playful” self-reflexiveness, the likewise playful direct address to the reader, the tortured convolutions of many of its playful sentences), is heavy, not least because it appears to have been born from suffering. Yet because of its author’s extreme distaste for such things, it never becomes, more than periferally, a sufferer’s memoir.
I, after all, is only a word like any other, a simple tool – useful at times – with which it is not forbidden to play, provided, however, that the game does not, as sometimes happens, lead to self-idolatry.
No danger of that here. Never, despite Bénabou’s canny observation that even self-mockery is a form of self-veneration, does he share more than is strictly necessary to convey the central dilemma that drives the book – a dilemma which, consequently, appears as close to universal as is possible. It’s all familiar, at least to this fellow self-questioner (who also hasn’t written any, or has written very few, of his books): at one point he even describes, in a short paragraph, his quasi-Pessoan detour through multiple personas, a phase which I’d been certain was hardly unique to Pessoa but of which, maybe, only those who do not write (or at any rate publish) their books have the luxury.

Bénabou, in other words, is a fellow traveller, an underachiever made good who bequeathes us, if nothing else, the story of his Sysiphan labours. Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books is a slim book (or “non-book”, as Bénabou would have it) but it’s significant, because it takes us a step closer to a complete, complex, coherent archetype of heroic literary failure. And call me crazy, but in a world full to bursting with books, I say we need a few more non-books. With The Book of Disquiet, with Beckett’s Watt, with Robert Walser’s The Robber, Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books stakes out, boldly, almost despite itself, new territory. Vast territory; all Bénabou’s done, virtually, is put a fence around it. And while his non-book appears to be just more “writing about writing”, it is actually – subtly, deftly, movingly – about something else entirely: namely, Bénabou, the modest perfectionist, who would rather he’d never had to write about himself at all.
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