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. …

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’

This appeared in Guardian Books on 31 January 2011:

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’

Special case: Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Every year, the French government publishes a list of cultural events and personalities to be commemorated over the next 12 months. Compiling it is a lengthy and carefully-considered process. A High Committee of National Celebrations draws up a provisional list, which is then submitted to the Culture Ministry and, once approved, published in book form. Some 10,000 copies of the Recueil des Célébrations nationales 2011 were printed last autumn ahead of last week’s launch. Frédéric Mitterrand — the culture minister lui-même — had even penned a foreword, proving beyond a shadow of doubt that the project had received his imprimatur. However, when word got out that Louis-Ferdinand Céline was to feature alongside the likes of Blaise Cendrars, Théophile Gautier, Franz Liszt and Georges Pompidou, all hell broke loose.

Serge Klarsfeld, the country’s most famous Nazi hunter and Holocaust memorialist, expressed his indignation in the name of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France. The Republic, he argued, shouldn’t celebrate “the most antisemitic” Frenchman of his day — a time, lest we forget, when antisemitism was so rife that it led to state-sanctioned Jewish persecution under the Vichy regime. Mitterrand’s decision, two days later, to remove the novelist from the list was logical in light of this backlash, but also somewhat surprising since he must have known that his inclusion would prove controversial in the first place (was he protecting Sarkozy, whose favourite author happens to be Céline?)

Far more surprising, however, was the reaction of the French intelligentsia, who were almost unanimous in their defence of the author of Journey to the End of the Night. Literary heavyweight Philippe Sollers accused the Culture Ministry of “censorship”. Frédéric Vitoux, a member of the prestigious Académie française who wrote a biography of Céline, likened this decision to the airbrushing of history under Stalin. Pop philosopher Alain Finkielkraut feared that some people would draw the conclusion that a “Jewish lobby” was dictating policy to the French government. Bernard-Henri Lévy, another celebrity philosopher, claimed that the commemoration of Céline’s death should have been an opportunity to try to understand how a “truly great author” can also be an “absolute bastard”. Even more surprising, perhaps, was the fact that Serge Klarsfeld himself felt the need to declare that he rated Céline as a “great writer” before going on to describe him as a “despicable human being”.

France is a place where authors and artists are granted a special status — a kind of poetic licence or artistic immunity. In fact, the country continues to view itself, and sometimes to be regarded as, the natural second home of all artists. It is this very liberal attitude which attracted many members of the Lost and Beat generations after the second world war, and that still attracts outsider writers such as Dennis Cooper. Some of the greatest works of contemporary fiction in English — Joyce’s Ulysses, Nabokov’s Lolita or Burroughs’s Naked Lunch — were available in France when they were banned or considered unpublishable in Britain or the US. A telling culture shock occurred on live television, in 1990, when a journalist from Quebec told Gabriel Matzneff that only in Paris would he be feted for writing — however exquisitely — about his liaisons with underage partners (of both genders). Anywhere else, she stated, he would probably end up in prison. The journalist was subsequently depicted as a philistine, unable to appreciate the subtlety of Matzneff’s feelings or the beauty of his style. Baudelaire once wrote that “literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality” and, for better or worse, this has clearly become France’s official artistic credo.

Trying to account for this “exception française” is no mean task, but I suspect it has something to do with the elevation of art to the status of surrogate religion during the second half of the 19th century. A similar phenomenon was taking place all over Europe, of course, but it probably had more resonance against the backdrop of the ongoing struggle between Republicanism and Catholicism. Both Flaubert and Baudelaire were prosecuted for public obscenity, but when French MPs called for the banning of Jean Genet‘s The Screens in 1966 (for political reasons, this time), the culture minister (and novelist) André Malraux immediately stepped in to defend the inviolability of artistic freedom. By then, artistic creation was largely considered as a value in itself, beyond morals and politics; even beyond good and evil.

The dominant French view on literature was probably best expressed by Oscar Wilde, who ended his life in exile in Paris: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Not quite, though, in this case. No one is denying Céline’s talent as one of the greatest French writers of the 20th century — probably the greatest, with Proust. Is it possible, however, to distinguish the author of antisemitic tracts from the genius novelist; the man from the artist?

The Not-Oyster Bit

Tom McCarthy interviewed about Tristram Shandy in Henry HitchingsBirth of the British Novel broadcast on BBC Four, 7 February 2011:

HH: What is a novel?

(Tom McCarthy laughs.)

TMC: A novel is something that contains its own negation, right? So a novel is not a novel without an anti-novel lodged in it. It’s like an oyster: it isn’t interesting unless it has got a bit of grit in it as well — that not-oyster bit that kind of produces the pearl. In Tristram Shandy, this is precisely what produces the drama: the central drama of that book is its own undermining. And I think, in a way, this is what every book should be, in one way or another.

A Cathedral Full of Fire

Emma Brockes, “Michael Cunningham: A Life in Writing,” The Guardian 5 February 2011 (Guardian Review p.12)

…It is Cunningham’s project too, the pressure of which he feels, particularly after finishing a novel, when the terrible gap between what he hoped he’d produce and what he wound up with becomes apparent. Because, he says, one tends to value the things one isn’t good at, he has a fantasy that one day he’ll find he has written “some kind of vast epic novel that would include the Crimean war and interstellar space travel” rather than his usual slim volume of the interior lives of ordinary people.

“Like my hero Virginia Woolf, I do lack confidence. I always find that the novel I’m finishing, even if it’s turned out fairly well, is not the novel I had in my mind. I think a lot of writers must negotiate this, and if they don’t admit it, they’re not being honest. You have started the book with this bubble over your head that contains a cathedral full of fire — that contains a novel so vast and great and penetrating and bright and dark that it will put all other novels ever written to shame. And then, as you get towards the end, you begin to realise, no, it’s just this book. And it has its strengths, it has its virtues, but there’s nothing about the Crimean war, there’s nothing about interstellar travel. It says what it says and that’s it. And it joins all the other books in the world.” …


I spent half the night tossing and turning, fending off panic attack upon panic attack, fretting over everything in general; in particular, a few sentences I’d spent ages trying — and failing — to write. To think that, on a good day, Michael Moorcock can toss off some 50,000 words — or so I read in Hari Kunzru’s fascinating interview in The Guardian yesterday.

Naturally, today was a bit of a blur. I met one of my three half-sisters at Anvers. As I was early, I had a coffee at Les Oiseaux, a café across the road from La Cigale, the famous concert hall. I remember going there after an Interpol gig, in 2003, with a group of friends that included the young lady who would become my wife: that’s obviously one of the reasons why I’m fond of that café. It’s also slightly secluded and a good spot for people-watching — the prerequisites for any good Parisian café. It was mild and sunny, so I sat outside. It almost felt as though spring had arrived. It felt good, or as good as could be in my present state. It felt almost good. It almost felt good.

The restaurant experience was slightly surreal. For starters, the owner, who I had down as a typically Gallic character, was entertaining a young English guy in perfect English. He may well have been bilingual; I couldn’t hear him well enough to make sure. Then another English guy came in and they all started talking about Zadie Smith. (I almost expected her to walk in at this juncture.) Was he a literary agent or a translator? He was accompanied by a young woman — probably a writer — who was all dressed in black. The gaffer remarked that she looked scary. I glanced over at her. She was staring blankly at the menu. I felt I knew how she felt. Of course, it may just have been the effect produced by the menu.

On my way home, I walked past another restaurant. In fact, I walked past many other restaurants, but in this particular one I spotted an old mate of mine. He had already spotted me, but pretended he hadn’t. I followed suit.

Switched on the telly this evening, and my friend Tom McCarthy, was being interviewed about Tristram Shandy. As usual, he was spot-on. “A novel,” he said, “is something that contains its own negation, right?” Right.

I have always been very ambivalent about journals. I’m wary of the idea of writing as self-expression. I’ve always found it very difficult to talk about myself, as I fail to understand how anyone could be interested. People are attracted to journals in order to discover other people’s secret, private lives but I would never record anything that could embarrass anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings. Simon Critchley writes — and I was re-reading this yesterday — that “In the journal, the writer desires to remember himself as the person he is when he is not writing. …” Perhaps I don’t want to remember. Or can’t. I’m not even sure such a person really exists anyway.