Monday 29 December 2014

On Gilbert Adair

On 29th December 1944 the author and critic Gilbert Adair was born in Kilmarnock. Today is, or would have been, his seventieth birthday. He died too young, in 2011, and is very much missed.

I once sat next to him at a screening (in the now-defunct Museum of the Moving Image) of part of Jean-Luc Godard's epic Histoire(s) du cinéma. This must have been in the early 1990s. He fizzed and tutted and fidgeted throughout, and left as soon as the credits started to roll. Any chance of an encounter and a mutually rewarding friendship died on the spot, although that was hardly his loss. 

This blog, such as it is, owes a huge debt to Adair. When Philip Larkin shyly waddled up to Cyril Connolly at the memorial service for John Betjeman he stammered: "Sir - you formed me." I might have said the same to Adair, and with the same degree of timidity, if he hadn't sloped off so quickly at the end of that NFT screening. Since first reading his books in the 1980s I've tried to think and write as clearly and responsibly as he did.

He is one of the very few contemporary writers I have in toto - all the novels and essays and film books and translations, and a thick folder of newspaper and magazine articles clipped over the years. I bought his first book when it was published in 1981 - a ground-breaking account of the Vietnam conflict as depicted in Hollywood movies. He struck me then (and still does) as our very best film critic - only the great Raymond Durgnat comes to mind as a rival. Both men knew all there was worth knowing about films, and about much more than films. Both men wrote the kind of prose that only comes naturally to supernaturally gifted writers. 

I never tire of recommending another early Adair work - Alice Through the Needle's Eye, his pitch perfect sequel to Lewis Carroll's two celebrated books, and every bit as good as either. Both pastiche and homage, it should remain permanently in print. Then came his first real novel The Holy Innocents (filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci as The Dreamers with a script by the author) - a spellbinding and flawless debut. I was hooked, and for the rest of his career would snap up each new publication as soon as it appeared. The only (relative) duds came late with his 'Evadne Mount' trilogy - whimsical pastiches of Agatha Christie. He seemed to be coasting.

Best of the lot, for my money, is Myths and Memories (1986), a superb collection of essays on cultural subjects inspired by, and in many ways indebted to, Roland Barthes. 'Piquant and riveting' said Anthony Burgess on the cover blurb. Adair was a vital conduit of French thinking into mainstream British culture at a time when French thinking, before the buffoonish ascendancy of Bernard Henri-Levy, counted for something. Adair was a Francophone Francophile and wrote like a dream. Here, courtesy of the BFI, is The Nautilus and the Nursery, a typically tongue-in-cheek piece applying Barthes' deconstructive approach to (of all things) the dire Carry On series.

Subsequent essay collections - The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice and Surfing the Zeitgeist - are still essential reading. While some of his subjects may have lost their lustre the prose has not. It dazzles in its wit and insight and his range is breathtaking. No other cultural commentator comes close.  

The publisher and author Charles Boyle has written beautifully about Adair in his fine blog Sonofabook.

Here's David Thomson's Guardian obituary.

And finally, in case you're interested, is a partial bibliography: 


Alice through the Needle's Eye (1984)
Peter Pan and the Only Children (1987)
The Holy Innocents (1988)
Love and Death on Long Island (1990)
The Death of the Author (1992)
The Key of the Tower (1997)
A Closed Book (1999)
The Dreamers (2003) - a revised version of The Holy Innocents
Buenas Noches, Buenos Aires (2003)
The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (2006)
A Mysterious Affair of Style (2007)
And Then There Was No One (2009)


Hollywood's Vietnam (1981)
A Night at the Pictures (with Nick Roddick) (1985)
Myths & Memories (1986)
The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice (1992)
Wonder Tales: Six French Stories of Enchantment (editor with Marina Warner) (1995)
Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema (1995)
Surfing the Zeitgeist (1997)
Movies (editor) (1999)
The Real Tadzio (2001)

Letters by François Truffaut (1990) (also editor)
A Void by Georges Perec (1994) — winner of the Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize
Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau (2000) (introduction)

Gilbert Adair (29th December 1944 - 8th December 2011)

No comments:

Post a Comment