The Mythologies of R.B.

Barthes: A Biography

by Tiphaine Samoyault, translated from the French by Andrew Brown
Polity, 586 pp., $39.95
Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

In 1978, Roland Barthes embarked on a series of lectures entitled “Preparation of the Novel” at the Collège de France. The novel? Which novel? The one that Barthes had long planned to write, of course. But he didn’t know quite how to begin, and he kept getting distracted. As Laurent Binet writes in his recent novel, The Seventh Function of Language, “All year, he has talked to his students about Japanese haikus, photography, the signifier and the signified, Pascalian diversions, café waiters, dressing gowns, and lecture-hall seating—about everything but the novel.” The novel never got written. On February 25, 1980, Barthes was run over by a laundry van while crossing the street after a lunch with François Mitterrand. He died a month later.

There was always something incongruous about Barthes’s ambition to write a novel. He made no secret of being bored by the great novels of the nineteenth century: “Has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word?” Although he had been a champion of the experimental “new novel” of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor in the 1950s, his best writing was inspired by photography, theater, painting, music, and, not least, consumer culture. Still, he remained haunted by the unwritten novel, as if it were proof of his illegitimacy as a mere critic. According to Tiphaine Samoyault in her superb biography, Barthes often felt like an impostor, which might explain the endearing notes of self-deprecation that punctuate his writing. As the novelist Philippe Sollers writes in his enjoyably grouchy homage, The Friendship of Roland Barthes, “he didn’t realize that what he had done was considerable.”

Nor did he realize that, by failing to write the novel, he had instead invented a new, aphoristic genre, a bricolage of aesthetic reflection, memoir, philosophy, and cultural criticism: a “New New New novel,” as Robbe-Grillet called it. Barthes’s influence left its mark on the novels of his friend Italo Calvino and his former student Georges Perec. Writers like Geoff Dyer, Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, Sheila Heti, and Maggie Nelson are almost unimaginable without Barthes, not to mention the school of contemporary French writing known as “autofiction,” associated with writers such as Annie Ernaux.

Barthes claimed that he was incapable of writing an old-fashioned novel because he could not invent “proper names.” Yet he did create one unforgettable character: Roland Barthes, or “R.B.,” as he called himself in his 1975 memoir Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Although he never entirely abandoned the rarified language of theory, most of his work can be read as a self-portrait, a discreet yet impassioned record of his tastes, his moods, his loves, and his vulnerabilities. As Susan Sontag put it, he was a “devout, ingenious student of himself.”

In his memoir, Barthes portrays himself as a self-effacing aesthete captivated by modernist innovation but secretly, a bit guiltily, a classicist, “in the rear guard of the avant-garde”; a plump…

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