December 12, 2011
Hail & Farewell: Gilbert Adair
by Dennis Johnson
Our author, the renown novelist, screenwriter, and translator Gilber Adair died in London last week. As his friend Henry Porter observes in a remembrance for The Guardian,”He had been frail for the last year after suffering a stroke, which took much of his sight and deprived him of his chief pleasures of reading, writing and watching films, as well as a means of making money. But the year of living with the effects of a stroke taught him a lot about the tenderness of strangers as he made his way through half-a-dozen London hospitals.”
While we’re proud to have published what we think is one of his best novels — The Death of the Author, which Adair once told me was at least his favorite cover of all his books, simply because it had nothing on it except the title and his name — he is perhaps best known for his novel Love and Death on Long Island, which was also made into a critically-praised movie, for which he wrote the screenplay.
As Peter Bradshaw notes in another remembrance in the Guardian,
Gilbert Adair’s publications would take up an entire shelf: 12 novels, and further essays and critical studies, including a translation of François Truffaut‘s letters. Perhaps his single most gasp-inducingly clever achievement was a translation of George Perec‘s 1969 novel La Disparition, a work in which the letter “e” never features, except in the author’s name on the cover. It was a challenge Adair could not resist, and he published a prizewinning translation in English under the same constraints, entitled A Void.
Another appreciation, by Mike HIggins in The Independent — where Adair was film critic until he quit to write a screenplay for Bernardo Bertolucci— reiterates the wide variety of his writing, noting that, in addition to being the paper’s film critic, he wrote “a year-long column called The Guillotine, which throughout 1999 detailed, in his estimation, those figures who would fall out of the canon soon in the new century (Henry Moore, Bugs Bunny, Kenneth Tynan …).”
And as Jake Kerridge observes in a notice for The Telegraph, “Parody and pastiche informed much of Adair’s wide-ranging work.” As he notes,
Adair received much critical acclaim in recent years for two book-length Christie pastiches, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (2006) and A Mysterious Affair of Style (2007). They are period murder mysteries in which the sleuthing is carried out by Evadne Mount, an elderly writer of best-selling whodunits; she is a lesbian, wears a tricorne hat, and bears a strong resemblance to the Margaret Rutherford version of Marple, and also to Christie herself.
These novels are witty, allusive, full of cultural jokes both high (Evadne’s catchphrase is “Great Scott Moncrieff!”) and low (“This time” said Evadne, “it’s personal”). What you’d expect, in fact, from a writer who once published a book of essays called The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice.
All of the rembrances cited above are filled with delicious anecdotes about the quirky Adair. My favorite may be this from Henry Porter’s Guardian piece:
… writing for him was an activity that required the greatest possible precision. He devoted an obsessive care to the look of the page. Before the arrival of computers, he used to justify the right hand margin: if a word didn’t fit he would change the word or sentence so that there was no hyphen.
It seemed insane to me, yet it was evidence of an exacting nature and of his dedication to the language and effect he wanted to achieve.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives