Back in 2014, a somewhat shadowy writer named C.D. Rose brought out “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure.” Organized alphabetically, its entries described authors so forgotten that most readers had never heard of them. Being of a suspicious cast of mind, I myself briefly wondered if Rose’s book might be a tricksy postmodernist jeu d’esprit and that he had simply made up Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki, Otha Orkkut, Eric Quayne and all the others.
Happily, those doubts have now been swept away. In a memoir that reads like a novel, C.D. Rose relates that, in the wake of “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure,” he was invited to lecture on neglected masterpieces at an unnamed but distinguished university, one that boasts “chairs in both Pseudo and Crypto Bibliography.” While Rose doesn’t identify the European city to which he traveled for these talks, it slightly resembles both Slaka and Hav, themselves too little known despite being the subjects of classic travel books by Malcolm Bradbury and Jan Morris.
From the very start of “Who’s Who When Everyone Is Someone Else,” Rose — like many people who visit foreign countries — feels disoriented and off-kilter. During a vertiginous taxi ride, he passes through Revolution Square, which looks precisely like Liberation Square, and both seem to be located in the same place. At the Arosa Hotel, he is “met by a tall man at the reception who gave me a curious look, a mixture of blankness and surprise, as if it were the strangest thing in the world that someone had walked into a hotel looking for a room.” This night clerk then explains to Rose, in perfect English, that “we have no idea who you are. You see, we do have a booking for a man with your name, but he was supposed to arrive last week. And anyway, he was German.” Perhaps, says Rose, I could take over his reservation? “I’m afraid, sir, that things are rarely so simple.” Eventually, though, the visiting lecturer is allocated a room dominated by a distinctly menacing wardrobe made of a shiny wood in which Rose can see his reflection. The words “sarcophagus,” “monolith” and “portal” quickly run through his mind. “I can’t say I felt it watching me, but as I looked at it I realized I was watching myself.”
The next day Rose learns that his host, a renowned professor, is temporarily indisposed but will doubtless appear at his first, or possibly second or third lecture.
As one could guess, much of Rose’s book — a sui generis mixture of reminiscence and criticism — comprises transcriptions of those talks, beginning with his account of that Joycean masterpiece “Phrt,” by Christine Fizelle. Though critics diverge on the work’s meaning, Rose contends that it is primarily about language itself. “Phrt speaks entirely in his own made-up words, his dialogue consisting of phots, shmirms, quizzles, franges and blats.” One of Fizelle’s “most famously difficult passages consists of eight pages that are purely typographical symbols.” Rose concludes by stressing that “Phrt” isn’t just a hugely long modernist experiment, but virtually unique in being written by a female author. Here, a captious reviewer might take issue and point to Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” and Marguerite Young’s “Miss Macintosh, My Darling.”
After Rose’s first presentation, a coldly formidable “Profesora” takes him aside to complain that it “was literary criticism or something.” In the future, she suggests, Rose should be simultaneously “more entertaining, and less friendly.” Later on, we learn, that the Profesora seldom actually reads books and instead prefers to read about them. “The secondary literature is so much more fascinating.”
In between his weekly lectures, Rose wanders through the city, seeking used-book shops and frequenting the same enigmatic cafe. Oddly enough, many of the people he passes seem vaguely familiar. He also keeps encountering the Profesora’s young assistant. To her he confesses his hope of locating the grave of the great writer Maxim Guyavitch, who is now decried as an impostor or enemy of the state. Matters start to grow even more unsettling when who should turn up but Fausto Squattrinato, the flamboyant performance artist who flits through the pages of “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure.”
At one of several low points for Rose, he finds himself paired with an Important Critic for a public discussion of “the state of literature today or literature’s role in the global conversation or some other equally worthy and utterly tedious subject.” The critic begins by declaring that “the value of hermeneutics is one which obviates the necessity for a radical transformative heuristics.” To which, the dazed Rose replies, “Was that a question?”
By contrast, Rose’s own lectures, packed as they are with illustrative passages, can serve as models of engaging literary appreciation. Through careful exposition, he shows us that Gabriel Ferreira’s “Sweeter Than the Milk of River Toads in the Mating Season” offers far more than the usual South American magic realism. Even that master of verbal analysis, William Empson, would envy the way Rose teases out the various implications of the rapturous kiss in C.P. Franck’s “The Vermilion Border” or explores the brutal subtext in Agnar Landvik’s lyrical prose-poem “The Dark Night Has Given Me Black Eyes.”
As should be clear, “Who’s Who When Everyone Is Someone Else” is just as captivating as “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure,” though Rose loses a little steam toward the end. It’s a book that belongs on the same shelf as Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” and several works by Zoran Zivkovic, Stanislaw Lem and David Markson. At the very least, Rose’s pages provide myriad astute observations about the nature of fiction. Let me close by sharing just one: “There is nothing so trite or pat as an ‘unreliable narrator.’ ”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.
By C.D. Rose
Melville House. 244 pp. Paperback, $19.99