Barthes had spent the previous two months correcting proofs, then sending out signed copies, of his latest book – which would turn out to be his last – and subsequently slumping into something close to despair as hostile reviews began to appear in the press. Two days before the accident, his former student Julia Kristeva had spoken to him by phone and had been perplexed by an awkward turn of phrase that she put down to his depression. The book in question, about whose reception he seemed more than usually fretful, was La Chambre claire (translated as Camera Lucida): a “note on photography”, as the French subtitle has it, which in retrospect looks calculated to affront. Because what Barthes had written was neither a work of theoretical strictness nor avant-garde polemic, still less a history or sociology of photography. Instead, it was frankly personal, even sentimental: an essay in 48 fragments that deliberately frustrated readers looking for the semiotics of photography they imagined Barthes would (or should) write.
Mourning Diary makes a pretty nice companion to Camera Lucida.
It’s pleasing to see all these Barthes reprints and the great coverage they’re getting in the press. And funny to think, just last weekend I read a fatuous dismissal of Barthes (and, quite possibly, all of post-structuralism) in a remarkably dull and value-free academic book that took as its subject modernism and communication.