Barthes’s Fantasy-of-the-Novel

Mairéad Hanrahan, “The Amazing About-Face of Roland Barthes,” Times Literary Supplement 19 January 2011

Kate Briggs’s wonderful translation finally makes available in English a most unusual book by one of the most significant literary figures of the twentieth century. The Preparation of the Novel comprises the notes of the third and last lecture course Roland Barthes delivered at the Collège de France, cut short in 1980 by his untimely death. …

The uncertainty begins with the title. Is The Preparation of the Novel merely a course/class/series of lecture notes about the preparation of the novel, or is it also part of that preparation? From the outset, both interpretations are carefully invited: although Barthes denies, contrary to rumours circulating at the time, that he is writing a novel (and states that, if he were, he would not propose a course on its preparation), at the same time he acknowledges the deeply personal nature of the course’s origin and stresses that the “fantasy” it mobilizes is his own “Fantasy-of-the-Novel”. The ambiguity this creates about the book’s genre never disappears, reinforced by the contradictory positions adopted at different moments. For example, at the beginning of Part II (the 1979–80 classes), Barthes invites us to think of the Course as a “film or book”, whereas elsewhere he distinguishes it explicitly from “real writing, that of the book”. One of the text’s most enjoyable features is that the reader can never determine whether or not Barthes himself is practising what he teaches. This uncertainty is echoed in the strong parallels suggested between Barthes’s own situation and that of the writers he considers. This is particularly the case with his discussion of the decisive moment when Proust’s masterpiece, À la Recherche du temps perdu, suddenly “took” or fell into place. Proust’s passing from essay to novel in 1909, a few years after the death of his mother, corresponds closely to the turning point in Barthes’s own life evoked at the opening of The Preparation of the Novel: he recalls an afternoon not long after his own mother’s death when he found himself gripped by the necessity of a dramatic change, a vita nova. But for “someone who writes”, this new life could only involve a new writing practice. The choice of “The Preparation of the Novel” as the topic of Barthes’s course thus reflects a shift analogous to the one which resulted in Proust’s novel.

In a significant editorial departure from the French original, this translation appends a transcription of an eight-page sketch of a novel found in Barthes’s papers after his death. The translator’s nuanced discussion in her preface of the decision to include the pages wards against the danger that the relation would be read only in teleological terms, and justifies the decision simply but persuasively on the grounds that the project, although available in French, had not hitherto been available in English. …

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