One-Man Language

Le Schizo et les langues

by Louis Wolfson, with a preface by Gilles Deleuze
Gallimard, 268 pp., 28.50F

In the preface to his novel Le Bleu du ciel,1 Georges Bataille makes an important distinction between books that are written for the sake of experiment and books that are born of necessity. Bataille argues that the books that mean most to us are usually those which ran counter to the idea of literature that prevailed at the time they were written. He speaks of “a moment of rage” as the kindling spark of all great works: it cannot be summoned by an act of will, and its source is always extraliterary. Self-conscious experimentation is generally the result of a real longing to break down the barriers of literary convention. But most avant-garde works do not survive; in spite of themselves, they remain prisoners of the very conventions they try to destroy. The poetry of Futurism, for example, which made such a commotion in its day, is read by hardly anyone now except scholars and historians of the period.

On the other hand, certain writers who played little or no part in the literary life around them—Kafka, for example—have gradually come to be recognized as essential. The work that changes our sense of literature, that gives us a new feeling for what literature can be, is the work that in some way changes our lives. It often seems improbable, as if it had come from nowhere, and because it stands so ruthlessly outside the norm we have no choice but to create a new place for it.

Le Schizo et les langues is not only improbable, but totally unlike anything that has come before it. To say that it is a work written in the margins of literature is not enough: its place, properly speaking, is in the margins of language itself. Written in French by an American, it has little meaning unless it is considered an American book; and yet, for reasons that will be made clear, it is also a book that excludes all possibility of translation. It hovers somewhere in the limbo between the two languages, and nothing will ever be able to rescue it from this precarious existence. For what we are presented with here is not simply the case of a writer who has chosen to write in a foreign language. The author of this book has written in French precisely because he had no choice. It is the result of brute necessity, and the book itself has the urgency of an act of survival.

Louis Wolfson is a schizophrenic. He was born in 1931 and lives in New York. For want of a better description, I would call his book a kind of third-person autobiography, a memoir of the present, in which he records the facts of his disease and the utterly bizarre method he has devised for dealing with it. Referring to himself as “the schizophrenic student of languages,” “the mentally ill student,” “the demented student of idioms,” Wolfson uses a narrative style that partakes of both the dryness of a…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.