Truth of the tale eludes a novel attempt

Murder in Byzantium

April 14, 2006

There is no reason why philosophers should not write novels. The best novelists are all philosophers, in fact, and so are the best dramatists; let us mention Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Beckett, Joyce, to pick a few at random — though they all wisely eschewed the didactic treatise and the academic paper as the vehicle for their insights, and discussed truth by telling tales — by "saying what never was yet always is".

But these philosophers — true philosophers — all knew something that Julia Kristeva, an academic psychoanalyst-philosopher in the day job from which she derives her main reputation, fails to grasp: that fiction works by showing, not saying. The failure of novels and plays written by people who are thinkers before they are storytellers is that they cannot resist — no, they do not know how to resist — writing long essays and lectures, expositions, histories, diatribes and debates over dinner, which they think they turn into novels by sticking a few cardboard cutout figures and a murder or two between them. This is the chief fault of Kristeva’s novel, her fourth, though it reads like a poorly edited first.

The unhappy translation is not much of a help, but it cannot be blamed for the glutinous longueurs of which the bulk of the text consists.

There are insights and interesting points of view dotted along the way; Kristeva is, after all, an intelligent contributor to the conversation of mankind in her day job, and when she quotes herself in the novel ("I’ve heard the same from Kristeva speaking at the Arab World Institute…") on the deracinated experience of immigrants lost between languages, she says things worth noting. But one would much prefer to read an essay by her on the subject.

The other faults in Kristeva’s novel lie in the thinness of the story lines that slightly entangle one another via painful contrivance, uninteresting and unrealised two-dimensional characters, a sagging, bulging, undigested mass of adventitious historical information, the random introduction of new characters all the way through (including mere pages from the end) as dei ex machina , and an overall fizzling-out of the plot lines which, long before the end, have anyway shed such faint interest as they began with. And the voices of the novel are uneven and unconvincing, ranging from facetious Raymond Chandler-esque to leaden-booted academese.

The "story" is banal. A serial killer is murdering members of a religious sect called the New Pantheon in Santa Varvara, a vaguely European nowheresville whose population consists mainly of new and recent immigrants. Stephanie Delacour, the "I" in which part of the novel is written and a reporter for a Paris newspaper, is sent to cover the case. She has an affair with the head of the investigating police, Northrop Rilsky, who is old enough to be her father.

Meanwhile Rilsky’s uncle, Sebastian Chrest-Jones, a professor of medieval migration, is secretly writing a novel about an 11th-century Byzantine princess with whom he is in love.

Such is the plot or plots. We discover nothing about the New Pantheon or why its votaries are being ritualistically murdered. Stephanie does very little investigating, but drinks gin in Northrop’s flat and reads Sebastian’s notes, which enable her to relate at stupefying length the tale of the First Crusade. Northrop experiences the angst obligatory for a French novel, but — a singularly unsuccessful policeman — solves nothing. Sebastian murders his Chinese mistress (she has a one-page existence in the tale) because she is pregnant, which in the closing chapters allows another Chinese person, and a rash of Chinese pictograms, to appear.

The flimsy plots and scenario are the scaffolding for much lengthy meditation on immigration, the weary old Freudian quest for the father, French politics, medieval history and the Byzantine princess-historian Anna Comnena. Mixed into it for Kristeva aficionados is some autobiographical reference, for Kristeva hails from the Balkans and knows about the immigrant transition from mother language to an adopted language, which in her Arab World Institute lecture she identified as the source of the yearning for another world, in some cases to be attained by becoming a suicide bomber in front of television news cameras. "The psychiatrist [Kristeva] had truly shaken up her audience that day," the narrator modestly remarks.

If the model for Kristeva’s version of a "novel of ideas" is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose , as the accompanying blurb tries to persuade us, she is a long way yet from appreciating that nothing can take the place of story and character — if a novel is to be a novel. Otherwise what is wrong with the essay form? Kristeva writes with an essayist’s instincts; she seems on this evidence to have not a single instinct of a novelist.

A. C. Grayling is professor of philosophy, Birkbeck College, University of London. He was a judge of the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2003.

Murder in Byzantium: A Novel

Author - Julia Kristeva
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Pages - 249
Price - £19.50
ISBN - 0 231 13636 6

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