Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
Translated by Richard Howard

Even after all these decades of reading, I still find that there are some books I finish and I just don’t know what to say about them – in a good way, but I still find myself a bit speechless! “Roland Barthes” by Roland Barthes is just such a book; I found it a stunning and absorbing read, yet what can I actually tell you about it? What is it saying to me or anyone else – what is Barthes revealing or concealing? I’ll trying to string something together, but what kind of sense it might make is anyone’s guess! 😀

Well, it’s Roland Barthes again, for a start; a man who’s been haunting the Ramblings this year, either in the form of books of his that I’ve read or documentaries I’ve been watching. I’ve only read a few of his works – he was a prolific man (and “properly clever”, as Richard Clay says!) – so I’m not sure what impelled me to pick up this particular book of his at this time, especially as I have both “Image, Music, Text” and “Cameria Lucida” lurking. But I did, anyway.

“Roland Barthes…” is ostensibly autobiography, but this being Barthes, it’s never going to be a straightforward look at his life. The book opens with a selection of photographs from the thinker’s past – what he describes as a ‘treat to himself’ – and bearing in mind his writings on the effects of images, these are particularly moving and telling. The captions reveal much about Barthes’ early life and family. However, these are followed by no linear narrative; instead, in a format closer to the structure of the “Mourning Diary”, Barthes uses headed paragraphs of varying lengths to explore his life obliquely through his work. It’s an intriguing conceit, and perhaps not surprising from someone who’s used to deconstructing the everyday!

…I myself am my own symbol, I am the story which happens to me: freewheeling in language, I have nothing to compare myself to…

As you can see from the amount of post-its sticking out of this relatively slim book, it’s a deeply thought-provoking piece of work. By looking at his life through the lens of his work, Barthes reveals himself gradually and indirectly – his likes and dislikes (I share his love of the Marx Brothers!), his beliefs and feelings, things which he recalls from his childhood and which still inform his life up to that point. His childhood in Bayonne is a touchstone, shown in the photographs at the start and often recurring in the text sections of the book. Barthes’ voice takes on a dual role, sometimes narrating his life in the first person and sometimes in the third; blurring the line between objectivity and subjectivity perhaps?

Propensity for division: fragments, miniatures, partitions, glittering details (according to Baudelaire, the effect of hashish), a bird’s-eye view of fields, windows, haiku, line drawing, script, photography, in plays the “scene” à l’italienne, in short, depending on your point of view, all the articulation of the semanticist or all the raw material of the fetishist. This propensity is labeled progressive: art of the rising classes proceeds by just such framing (Brecht, Diderot, Eisenstein).

I would be lying if I said this book was an easy read; it explores any number of complex topics and had me reaching for a dictionary at many points. But it’s a fascinating and evocative book to spend time with as not only does it raise all manner of intriguing ideas with phrases jumping at you which need more exploration (hence all the coloured markers!); it also does reveal much about the man himself. He was brilliant, yet apparently full of doubt about his life and his achievement; and I ended up wondering whether he realised that his thinking would become so important to how we decode the modern world.

“Roland Barthes” by Roland Barthes turned out to be unlike any other autobiography I’ve read – but then, Barthes is like no other writer I’ve read! He says at the start of this book that it “must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel” and that’s perhaps a good way to approach it. The real Barthes is often elusive and evasive here – but his ideas shine through and in the end maybe that’s what really matters.

(Although this post is going up in December, I’m going to claim the book for Nonfiction November! I read it in November, wrote the bulk of the above in November, and even if Barthes is obscuring some of the facts, it’s definitely not fiction! :D)