Roland Barthes — The Preparation of the Novel

Roland Barthes

This week we will be featuring the recently published The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France (1978-1979 and 1979-1980). Completed just weeks before his death, the lectures in this volume mark a critical juncture in the career of Roland Barthes, in which he declared the intention, deeply felt, to write a novel

The following passage is from the Editor’s Preface to the French edition
 by Nathalie Léger. In this excerpt, Léger describes Barthes’s lecturing style and how his mother’s death and desire for a “new life” shaped the lectures:

Those who attended his lecture course recall the remarkable fluidity of his delivery, the deep and enveloping timbre of his voice, the warm phrasing that endowed his authority with infinite goodwill—­oratorical skills that are confirmed by the sound recording of the lecture course. When describing the course, many of those who attended the lectures emphasize the crowds, the fight to get a seat from the moment the doors opened, and how calmly Barthes could invent on the spot, his ability to improvise in a very consistent, sustained fashion. Very few recall him reading from a manuscript. Yet a comparison between the written version with the spoken version recorded by some members of the audience reveals scarcely any discrepancies between the two: only infrequent digressions in the spoken version and the rare last-­minute changes and cuts made to the written draft (in order to adapt it, where necessary, to the technical constraints of the lecture format) suggest that Barthes was reading, taking great care not to depart from the manuscript transcribed ­here.

That manuscript therefore contains, without remainder, everything that was presented in the lecture course. Several commentators have noted Barthes’s unease before the packed amphitheater at the Collège de France, his awkwardness before that dense and anonymous crowd as someone who, over the preceding years, had succeeded in creating a “circulatory space of subtle, flexible desires,” a closed and perhaps even isolated circle of an “amorous phalanstery” grounded in “a subtle topography of bodily relations” simply by gathering some of his disciples around a table at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. However, it was indeed in the context of the Collège de France, in the context of the constraints it imposed and the ambition it embodied that—­already in the inaugural lecture of January 1977—­Barthes articulated his desire for this “Vita Nova.” That desire, set out as the very principle of The Preparation of the Novel, was formulated for the first time upon Barthes’s integration into the Collège and is as it ­were anchored to it….

In October 1977, a few months after delivering his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, the death of Barthes’s mother abruptly interrupted the steady progression of his work and served as a painful confirmation of his desire for a new writing life. The novel, that “uncertain form,” the material of remembered as much as of desired speech, was for Barthes the only one capable of expressing what he calls the “truth of affect” whereby meaning is revealed and undone: “Moment of Truth = Moment of the Intractable: we can neither interpret nor transcend nor regress; Love and Death are ­here, that’s all that can be said”—­an echo of that other figure of the Intractable proposed at the beginning of the lecture course, when Barthes describes that moment of illumination in which he grasped, in a sudden flash, the direction that his quest would take. For the origin of the decision to undertake the course is to be found in that abduction of consciousness that Barthes calls a satori, in the rapturous event of April 15, 1978, described in the introductory session. April 15, 1978, is properly novelistic not only in terms of the role that this one date plays in the architecture of Barthes’s planned work, Vita Nova, but also because it inevitably recalls moments when the mind is completely overwhelmed, great moments of fundamental caesura, when the subject falters, whose narratives punctuate our intellectual and spiritual history. In its abruptness and its fugacity, that Barthesian eureka, that brief instant of incandescence and joy that, in the middle of a foreign city, oppressed by heat and boredom, suddenly lit up a banal afternoon, contains all the aspirations of the lecture course that, session after session, investigates literature’s capacity to capture the passionate epiphany of the instant, to give it an absolute value, and then to reconcile the rending of the self with the creation of the self. Was it really so important whether or not the quest culminated in the writing of the novel, of a novel? Elsewhere, a few years earlier, in A Lover’s Discourse, every figure of which could be read as an “Address to the Novel,” Barthes wrote: “I’m not actually bothered about my chances of being fulfilled in real terms (I don’t mind that they’re non­ex­is­tent). It’s just the will to fulfillment that blazes, that’s indestructible.”

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