Too Much of a Writer to Even Begin to Write

David Winters, Rev. of The Preparation of the Novel by Roland Barthes, 3:AM Magazine 28 June 2011

As Raymond Federman once wrote, ‘everybody is writing a novel these days,’ even if, and perhaps because, ‘nobody knows why.’ We live in a world where the wish to write, or, more often, to have written, speaks only of some other, inner wish, whose sense is left unspoken. The novel, real or projected, achieved or abandoned, exists in the mind of its writer less as a literary object than as a wish underwritten by other wishes. In this sense, The Preparation of the Novel takes the measure not of a set of texts, but of a nested structure of desires.

‘By the end of the 1970s,’ writes Kate Briggs in her preface to these lectures, ‘apparently “everyone knew” that Roland Barthes was writing a novel.’ Yet at the time of his death in 1980, Barthes had barely begun to plan his “Vita Nova”; the book remained a sketched hypothesis. This volume, comprising his third and final set of lectures at the Collège de France, could be said to plot the gulf between the project’s, any project’s, intention — its biographical or existential coordinates, conceived as a dense network of points — and its terminus as a felt form, whether fully grown or aborted, or both at once.

‘Will I really write a Novel?’ Barthes enquires at the outset of the course. ‘I’ll answer this and only this. I’ll proceed as if I were going to write one.’ He will prepare as if preparation were an end in itself, inhabiting the mad fantasy of a writing that falls short of its own composition, ‘pushing that fantasy as far as it will go.’ Only then will he breach or break, or get broken into, the recognition (kenshō) that writing is nothing but its wants and longings, that ‘the product is indistinguishable from the production, the practice from the drive.’ This is the reason why he must preserve the indeterminacy of each of the terms in his title. He speaks of a preparation that is neither ‘of’ nor ‘for’ a novel, and of a novel that is not a novel, nor a set of notes for a novel never to be written.

[…] Barthes is paralysed by his own crisis, which is also the crisis of all narrative, for him: a failure to navigate the passage from notation to novel. In this he is too much of a writer even to begin to write. He can only conjecture the contents of that transformation, whether dreamt or merely lived through, in which a novel ‘begins to take.’

[…] How does a novel persuade itself into completion? At the core of any novel is its own false promise to its author. The novel ensnares the novelist in its projected redemption of her life. Her life: not the open set of her possibilities, but the remains of the decisions she has made; the way she has lived. What’s left when her days have laid waste to her. She yearns for her novel to emerge, to claim its place as the end result of every action she has taken. In its light her life will get redrafted, justified as the story of the novel’s origin: its preparation. If her life had been different, people will say, her novel would not have been written. So, the novelist dreams of a single moment in which every ruinous thing she has done will be redeemed. Yet she is never delivered into this moment; her novel is a lie she tells herself, and literature is on the side of death. In the end, the novelist knows that she belongs here too, with literature.

[…] If, as Barthes says elsewhere, ‘a creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem’, then the novel to prepare will be one that presents its problems unsolved, exacerbated. A novel of which one could say that the scope of its failure is what makes it true.

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