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Last December Columbia University Press published a posthumous work by Roland Barthes titled The Preparation of the Novel. The book consists of lectures for a series of courses on the writing of a novel, lectures which were among the last Barthes delivered before his sudden death in 1980. They also include excellent and informative introductions by both the book’s editor, Nathalie Léger, and translator, Kate Briggs.
At the time of the lectures many speculated that they were a run-up to a project many had long hoped Barthes would take on: the writing of his own novel, provisionally titled “Vita Nova.” Although Barthes never did write a novel, the lectures provide both an idea of how Barthes might have approached this unique task, as well as his typically profound thoughts on numerous aspects of the novel.
I’ve interviewed Briggs, on this capacious text. The Times Literary Supplement praised Briggs’ translation, saying in part “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.”
Scott Esposito: In his introduction to the first lecture, Barthes writes “for someone who has written, the domain of the Vita Nova can only be that of writing: the discovery of a new writing practice. The New expectation is only this: that the writing practice should break with previous intellectual practices . . . it’s this daily grind that must be interrupted.” What kind of writing do you think Barthes is getting at here, and are there any practitioners of it that you are aware of?
Kate Briggs: Barthes begins his lecture by noting that sometimes an event can occur in a life which turns out to mark a “decisive fold,” to prompt a shift, a radical change. One example he gives of this is Jacques Brel, who abruptly left the world of music after being diagnosed with cancer and took to sailing around the world. What has always struck me about the passage you quote is the fact that for Barthes this entirely new life should still be a life of writing. Perhaps it’s worth noting that Barthes’s version of the “daily grind” was the daily life of an academic: a life of teaching, supervision, articles, book editing, proof correction–those sorts of activities. But while Brel switched to a new activity, for Barthes the exigency was not to do something completely different, but to find a new way of engaging with what he’d already spent so much of his life doing. So Barthes’s Vita Nova would still be a life of writing, which suggests to me that the writing’s possibilities hadn’t yet been exhausted, and possibly that they’re just not exhaustible, and this has something to do with the peculiar nature of writing activity and why writing has such a powerful hold over those who practice it. Not only would Barthes’s Vita Nova still be a life of writing, it would still be a life of teaching. The lecture course amounts to a break with previous intellectual practices in itself in the sense that it’s a novel experiment in how to integrate teaching and writing, a test to see whether it’s possible to make those two activities into one and the same project, which in this case is the project of writing a novel. So I have always felt that the task Barthes is setting himself is actually harder than switching to a wholly unrelated activity: the break with the daily grind involves transforming rather than escaping that daily grind; trying to live the same life, but on an entirely different basis.
In terms of the novelty of this newly discovered writing practice, I think the point is it had to be new for Barthes: a writing practice that he’d not yet attempted. But it’s interesting to think about the kind of work he had already published–conceptually (and formally) innovative works such as A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, or Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, both of which seem to me to break with customary intellectual and writing practices. Yes, I can imagine Barthes saying, but: those works involved a fragmented writing; there it was a question of writing discontinuously whereas what would be entirely new would be the novel, conceived as a long, grand continuity. Length is very important here: the novel is the long, continuous prose form par excellence, even by definition (the one definition theorists seem to agree on is the novel is a long, continuous piece of prose). So to answer your first question: the sort of writing Barthes is getting at here is specifically the writing of a novel, in its connectedness, its continuity, its length. For Barthes, to write a novel would have been to engage in something entirely new, but something that he wasn’t sure he had the aptitude for. There’s a beautiful moment in the notes when he compares his anxiety around his aptitude for novel-writing to someone who worries his hands might be too small to play the piano. And that willingness to expose his vulnerability remarkable to me: remember that Barthes is setting out his desire for change in the context of a public lecture course at the Collège de France, he’s using the format of the lecture course as a means to engage in a writing project, but apparently had no idea what the outcome would be, no idea whether he’d manage to write the desired novel, and no idea whether he was capable of writing one. There’s a vulnerability running through the whole course that’s also–I think–a generosity: a way of not intimidating his audience, a form of what Barthes calls non-arrogance. So to come to your second question, I would reformulate it slightly, and ask: Are there writers, academics, intellectuals out there writing and teaching in this way, in the sense of daring to attempt something wholly new? Are there writers, academics, intellectuals out there showing similar willing to break with past practices, even if that means breaking with past positions, changing their minds, risking failure?
Barthes didn’t manage to produce a novel, but he does describe the kind of novel he would like to see written. It would, he says, be simple: which he defines as non-ironic, unself-conscious, non-arrogant, loving. It would be filial, so conscious of its lineage and it would desirous–something that calls for reading, that wants to be read and that we want to read. Those are perhaps surprising, not especially innovative criteria for this “new writing practice.” But then, again: How many contemporary novels do this? How many novels manage to be both intelligent and generous (non-arrogant)? How many novels are filial, in the sense of being alert to or even interested in the complex tradition of the novel? I’m thinking of what Tom McCarthy has said recently about what he sees as a refusal to engage with a legacy of modernism, or even with the fact that the nineteenth century realist novel–still the template for so much of what gets written today–was already anxious about itself and its own tenets. And how many novels actually manage to be objects of desire, to be something I want to read, that calls for reading?
Barthes didn’t write the novel he envisaged. But what he did is formulate a very concrete sense of a practice of notation, a daily writing practice which would be a form of preparation for the novel. Which leads me to your next question . . .
SE: I was intrigued by Barthes’ lecture on haiku, and his connecting its drastic brevity to the novel, which would be something along the lines of the opposite. Yet for all that, he leaves the connection between haiku and novel tantalizingly open. In your opinion, what do Barthes’ thoughts on haiku say about novels?
KB: I agree that the connection is surprising. In the story Barthes’ is telling, the novelist takes notes from life and these notes serve as the basis for the novel. Barthes’ opening claim is that novels are made of out of life and the capturing of life as it happens, as it befalls you, requires a practice of note-taking. This–that the material of the novel should be life–is intriguing in itself. Throughout the lecture course, one of the points Barthes insists on is just how hard writing is: how difficult it is to get started, how difficult it is to sustain a writing practice over time, how difficult it is to negotiate life with all its demands and still find the time necessary for writing. Another aspect of that difficulty is around having to make things up, to lie. It’s not easy to lie convincingly, but for some people (for Barthes) it’s difficult to bring yourself to lie in the first place: to make things up and write them down and present them as such to a reader. And the difficulty has to do with the simple fact that they’re not true. I’ve read this as described as primness on Barthes’s part, which doesn’t seem right to me at all–but perhaps that’s because it’s something I struggle with too? Either way, a resistance to making things up is clearly going to be a problem for any would-be novel writer. In the face of that difficulty, the tradition of preparation of and for the novel that Barthes engages with is that of the realist novel, the nineteenth century novelist who goes out in the world and takes notes directly from daily life. So that’s the starting point. But that in itself is by no means straightforward. How do you start up a practice of notation? What’s worth noting down? What isn’t? How do you decide? For Barthes, the haiku is the exemplary form of the sort of notation he’s getting at: the haiku–the shortest of short forms–captures life in its minutiae, its tenuity in the sense of all that’s slight, insubstantial, inconsequential. This is life in its tiniest details: a snail baring its chest, an empty ashtray on a cold morning. The idea is to develop a practice of notation that would achieve what the best haiku manage to do, which is capture in a minimal number of words something of life that makes us feel something; specifically, that makes us say, Yes! That’s it! That’s exactly how it is. The task of novel-writing would then be to somehow weave those moments together–or more accurately dot them, scatter them throughout a longer narrative because the novel just can’t sustain that level of intensity. But the question of how you’d actually achieve this is left suspended. So I’d suggest that the connection between haiku and the novel is left open because this problem– How to pass from the note to the novel, how to turn a sequence of discontinuous notes into a piece of lengthy, sustained prose?–is never adequately resolved.
We have no sense of the novel that would be tacked together out of that material taken directly from life. But Barthes does give us some examples of what that kind of notation might look like or read like. At one point, he describes sitting next to a man on the bus who was underlining every single line of a book in black ballpoint pen. The description is to illustrate a point about the difficulty in deciding what’s noteworthy, but as a notation from life it has a certain power, for me at least–I’ve retained it, I return to it, it rings “true”, that little scene speaks to me; Barthes notes that he didn’t get to see what book it was, and for some reason that speaks to me too.
So to go back to your earlier question: Can I think of any contemporary practitioners of the kind of writing Barthes is proposing? Well, if we think that the first stage of that new writing practice is a practice of notation, then Lydia Davis’s use of the very short form seems to me to have an affinity with a practice of notation Barthes is proposing in the course. For me, there’s something of that condensed capturing of life as it happens in her very short stories–and reading them I sometimes find myself thinking: Yes: that’s exactly it.
SE: In your translator’s introduction, you talk about the various ways in which “preparation” might be interpreted, at times linking the idea of novel-writing to a quest. What do you see as the relationship between writing and desire, both generally and in regards to “Preparation of the Novel”?
KB: The term ‘quest’ is there for several reasons. First because I had difficulty deciding on an equivalent noun for the French “une recherché” in English: a “search” is one option of course, and an important one because in it we hear the echo of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; “research,” is another, and the point is that this is an inquiry, an investigation. But as your question makes clear, though–in this case the search or inquiry is explicitly incited by a desire, and so “quest” imposed itself. But not just for reasons of translation.
Barthes refers to the protagonist of the story he’s telling (the story of someone who has experienced the desire to write and wants to set about writing a novel) as a “hero,” a “hero” who will have to undergo three “tests” or “trials.” So there’s already something mythical about the way this story is presented: writers as heroes who somehow manage to achieve their goals despite the setbacks, the difficulties, the interruptions, the breakdowns. Barthes is interested in the force, the desire-to-write that somehow sustains the writer throughout that process. In terms of the relationship between writing and desire, his point is that it’s a question that has been insufficiently studied in the field of literary theory–and this leads him to ask what for me are some very important, but very difficult questions: How is it that works of literature get written? What are the necessary conditions for writing to happen? Why is it that some readers, in love with certain books, feel compelled to write while others don’t? Barthes’ lectures were delivered in 1978-1980. His questions have received more attention recently–I’m thinking of the collected editions of The Paris Review Interviews, or a series in The Guardian where writers were invited to describe their rooms, as if access to the physical space of writing might offer insight into how the words get placed on a page, or the rise of what’s called “genetic criticism,” a particular critical approach which attempts to reconstruct the writing process from the available material traces. But what intrigues me about all of that is how these attempts to demystify the writing process seem to harbor or even generate their own kind of mystery: explanations that aren’t really explanations, because they never quite account for the existence of what they’re trying to explain. Arguably, this is also true of the lecture course, which initially seems to promise a thorough examination of the desire-to-write and how it gets converted into actual writing. But then, with the multiplication of examples–from Chateaubriand to Flaubert to Proust to Kafka–and of details–from the choice of form to pen to desk to daily writing timetable–Barthes’s questions somehow manage to look even more urgent, even more necessary, and even more unanswerable.
As for my own experience of writing and desire (since translation is a writing practice, albeit a very particular one), there’s a point in the course where Barthes talks about wanting to somehow append yourself to something that you find beautiful, something that for you is necessary, but that you lack. I think that’s a good description of where my desire to translate this work came from.
SE: Which of the lectures strikes you as particularly insightful, peculiar, worthwhile, or memorable?
KB: Barthes suggests that the destiny of all books is to end up as ruins, fragmented, remembered in bits and pieces but never in their entirety. I think the image he uses is a piece of lace: in our recollections of them, we turn the books we read into pieces of lace. Translating a book is a very specific sort of reading experience, and at one point I had spent so much time with the course that I was convinced I knew the lecture course by heart. I don’t, of course! My own piece of lace wouldn’t be made up of whole lectures. But I often find myself thinking of moments in the course. I certainly feel inhabited by the book–it’s still speaking to me, on a more or less daily basis. One passage I think of as particularly insightful is the section called “I’m Worth More Than What I Write.” Barthes is describing what he calls the mechanism of writing, how writing works in the sense of why writers keep on writing–why, to come back to my answer to your first question, for a writer even a wholly new life would still have to be a life of writing. Another relates to this curious way we remember books. At the end of Part 1 Barthes hypothesizes a new form of literary criticism which would be primarily interested in a book’s most powerfully affective moments. He calls it “pathetic criticism,” a criticism that would index those fragments of a book whose affective power ensures we remember them over all the others. I have found myself returning again and again to that proposition, wondering how it would work, would such a criticism would look like or read like. Since the experience translating The Preparation of the Novel (an experience that occupied most of about three years) I find I think differently about what critical writing can be and do, and about what teaching can be and do–thoughts that I’m now trying to put into practice. So to address what I consider worthwhile about the course: I would say that for me personally, as a reader, its singular value lies in the way it has profoundly shifted the way I think and work.
As for what might be seen as peculiar, I would say the lecture on photography. Not the content of the lecture itself–where Barthes anticipates the arguments he’ll develop in more detail in Camera Lucida–but the context in which it appears. In Camera Lucida Barthes refers to the relationship between photography and haiku only once, I think; certainly, photography is clearly very much the focus of that book. But when you read that the course, in terms of Barthes’s thinking at the time, it looks as if the main preoccupation was haiku, or more precisely the practice of notation (of which haiku is considered an exemplary form), with photography there as a particular instance or even as an example of that practice. So the proportional relationship is reversed, if you like: there’s a sentence on haiku in the context of a discussion of photography in Camera Lucida, but in the lecture course there’s a portion of a lecture on photography in the context of a sustained, lengthy discussion of haiku and notation. I mention this because Camera Lucida has always taken to be Barthes last work, a tragically apt meditation on the relationship between photography and death. And I wonder what would happen if the thinking on photography were seen as a kind of staging post on a much longer journey, a much more broadly conceived project, which was the writing of the novel? I wonder what would happen if, rather than rather than a final work, a last word, Barthes’ “note” on photography were read as part of this reflection on notation, itself just one element of that crucial first stage in the preparation of and for the novel?
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