Cover Page

In memory of my mother, Colombe Samoyault-Verlet


A Biography

Tiphaine Samoyault

Translated by
Andrew Brown



This book came into being in response to a powerful and persuasive suggestion from Bernard Comment. I owe a great deal to his detailed knowledge of Barthes’s work, to his close and generous rereadings, and to his encouragements. May he be, at the threshold of this book, the first to be thanked.

The help and support of Éric Marty and Michel Salzedo have also played a decisive role. This biography would never have seen the light of day without their trust, without the dialogues I enjoyed with them, or without the numerous documents they made available and gave me permission to consult. I am extremely grateful to them. Thanks in particular to Éric Marty for certain very valuable suggestions.

A biography cannot be written in isolation. It draws on information conveyed by both books and word of mouth; it is inscribed within a memory, in both its insights and its omissions. I would like to begin by thanking all those who have talked to me about the Roland Barthes they knew, and granted me interviews: Jean-Claude Bonnet, Antoine Compagnon, Jonathan Culler, Régis Debray, Michel Deguy, Christian Descamps, Pascal Didier, Colette Fellous, Lucette Finas, Françoise Gaillard, Anouk Grinberg, Roland Havas, Julia Kristeva, Mathieu Lindon, Alexandru Matei, Jean-Claude Milner, Maurice Nadeau, Dominique Noguez, Pierre Pachet, Thomas Pavel, Leyla Perrone-Moisés, Georges Raillard, Antoine Rebeyrol, Philippe Sollers and François Wahl.

I would also like to express my gratitude to the critics and scholars whose work has constituted an indispensable and valued basis for my understanding of Barthes’s life and work: first and foremost, Louis-Jean Calvet and Marie Gil, who wrote biographies of Barthes before me; also, Cecilia Benaglia, Thomas Clerc, Claude Coste, Alexandre Gefen, Anne Herschberg Pierrot, Diana Knight, Marielle Macé, Patrick Mauriès, Jacques Neefs, Philippe Roger, Susan Sontag and Marie-Jeanne Zenetti.

I would like to thank, in their several institutions, the people who generously helped me with my research: Marie-Odile Germain and Guillaume Fau in the manuscripts department of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Nathalie Léger and Sandrine Sanson at the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition contemporaine and all the staff at the Abbaye d’Ardenne who welcomed me on several occasions.

At the Éditions du Seuil, Flore Roumens followed the book as it took shape, with all her talent and enthusiasm; Jean-Claude Baillieul made several essential and detailed corrections. My warmest thanks to both of them.

To all those of my friends who kept me company during my progress on the book, I would also like to express my gratitude, especially: Bertrand Hirsch, Maurice Théron and Damien Zenone, and also Marie Alberto Jeanjacques, Christine Angot, Adrien Cauchie, Charlotte von Essen, Thomas Hirsch, Yann Potin, Zahia Rahmani, Marie-Laure Roussel and Martin Rueff.

Bibliographical note

Quotations from Barthes’s works are mainly taken from existing English translations. Where there is no translation published, references are to his complete works in French: Oeuvres complètes, new edition by Éric Marty, 5 vols (Paris: Seuil, 2002). These cover Barthes’s books, shorter texts and interviews from 1942 to 1961 (vol. I), 1962 to 1967 (vol. II), 1968 to 1971 (vol. III), 1972 to 1976 (vol. IV), and 1977 to 1980 (vol. V). References to the Oeuvres complètes follow the format OC, volume number (as roman numeral) and page number – e.g.: OC V, pp. 634–5.

Archives are quoted in accordance with the French system; i.e. the class number of the Roland Barthes archive in the manuscript department of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), followed by the number of the dossier consulted – e.g. BNF, NAF 28630. Some documents have the former class number from the IMEC (Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine), where the archives were held until 2012.

The provenance of other unpublished documents is indicated in the notes.


The voice

The aspect of Barthes that does not die is his voice. This is a strange phenomenon, since there is nothing more temporary than a voice. You need only listen to recordings from the past to realize this. A voice is soon outmoded, it ‘dates’ the speaking body. Gide noted this with regard to himself, in his Journal: ‘The most fragile part of me, and the one that has aged most, is my voice.’1 But when we hear Barthes expressing himself, we have the very vivid sense of a presence here and now – his voice resists going out of fashion. Listening to the recordings of his courses at the Collège de France, and the several radio and television broadcasts he took part in, the listener finds himself in a familiar environment. The grave, gentle timbre envelops the discourse, giving it a musical inflection. The ‘grain of the voice’ – and it was no coincidence that Barthes theorized this, as he knew that his own had perceptible properties – bears witness to a past able to act in the present, a continued memory, a recollecting forwards. Thus, what marks most people with the seal of mortality and transience is, in him, the opposite, guaranteeing a form of survival – something that also resides in what he says when he is speaking, of course. His remarks, and not just his voice alone, unite what is general for all with what is true for each person individually, and so continues to touch and persuade us today. This is how the voice counts, by drawing the truth from various and sometimes contradictory sources: intelligence and sensibility, ancient values and contemporary watchwords. This attitude is not without its risks. It often gives the subject a feeling of being an imposter. Barthes felt this all his life: belonging to several times and several places makes you into a person without a place, always in movement. One day, listening to a presenter finishing a broadcast on him with the words ‘And now, children, the nineteenth century is over!’, Barthes immediately noted down on an index card: ‘Yes, I’m from the nineteenth century. And on this I hang all of my excessive sensibility (which is never visible), my homology with the novels of that century, my taste for its literary language. Which means that I am trapped in a cruel paradox: on the one side “me” (the inner, unexpressed self), the affective imaginary, the fears, the emotions, the love, the intractable faith in an ethic of delicacy, of gentleness, of tenderness, the wrenching awareness that this ethic is insoluble, aporetic (what would it mean to make gentleness “triumph”?), and on the other side the world, politics, fame, aggressions, pranks, modernity, the 20th century, avant-gardes, my “oeuvre”, in short, and even certain sides, certain practices of my friends. à condemned to a “hypocritical” oeuvre (theme of imposture) or the scuttling of that oeuvre (hence the desperate tacking manoeuvres attempted in the last books).’2 Between two centuries, between two postulations – the self and the world – Barthes feels torn; contradictory, like his voice. This is what gives his oeuvre its powers of prefiguration. The avant-garde and revolt disfigure; the past refigures and the contemporary age configures. The undecided, paradoxical posture cannot adapt to clear-cut gestures. Quite the opposite: it arouses a sense of unease, a way of being a misfit that leads one to seek completely new solutions in order to exist all the same, to be of one’s time in spite of everything. This quest, which sometimes took a shape so impetuous that Barthes brought upon himself the charge of opportunism or fickleness, defines the condition of the precursor, the one who runs on ahead. Literally, he goes ahead of fashions, proposals and movements. More abstractly, he also opens a path for thinking about a new order of the world and our knowledge of it. The end of the book, the extension of the sphere of the biographical, the fragment, the withdrawal from logical argument, the use of hypertext, the new mechanography of memory: these are some of the questions Barthes explored and that make his oeuvre a field to explore today. Like all great thinkers, his powers of anticipation were as great as the mark he left upon his time: if we still read him today, this is because his criticism took new paths.

The voice, in Barthes, is a constant biographical feature. It unites all those who knew him into a unanimous group, all acknowledging the ‘beautiful voice’ he had. His voice has become his mark, his monogram. This sign has the advantage that it can bear at once absence and presence, the body and discourse. It sums up the prolonged resonance of a critical thinking for our time. For Barthes, indeed, everything is a matter of tact and timbre. It cannot rest content with being in discord with his age, as this would produce a dissonance. It is one thing to love the nineteenth century and the classics, to feel that one is sentimental and romantic; but to be sensitive to contemporary languages, showing that they can no longer, or barely, tolerate these past effects is quite another thing. The full meaning of Barthes’s intellectual enterprise, the full dramaturgy of his career, lies in the way he was always listening to the languages of his period, their difference and the exclusions they impose. This does not mean that we have to give up loving what we have loved of the past, either by reactivating the force of its modernity, the life still living within it, or by condemning ourselves to a certain solitude. Always we find the same oscillation between affirmation and withdrawal, aggression and gentleness. On 21 September 1979, looking back over his itinerary, Barthes noted: ‘The only problem in my active, intellectual life has been to bring together intellectual invention (its ebullience), the constraint of the Modern, etc., and maternal values that have to be superimposed on this: like anchoring points.’3 This problem defined his specific place, both participating fully in his own times and yet feeling always somewhat to one side. The paradox of a politically committed solitude also explains how Barthes shook up the institutions of knowledge. This considerable contribution was, for Foucault, what legitimated Barthes’s status as a precursor: ‘He was definitely the one who most helped us to shake up a certain form of academic knowledge that was non-knowledge. [. . .] I think that he’s someone very important when it comes to understanding the dramatic changes that have been taking place over the last ten years. He was the greatest precursor.4


It is not absolutely necessary to produce a life story in order to shed light on Barthes’s intellectual programme and contribution, and people may wonder why there is any need for a new biography. Among the main reasons that make it difficult to relate his life story is the feeling that there is not a great deal to be learned from such a narrative today. The huge effort put into editing Barthes’s unpublished work since the early 1990s by Éric Marty and others has considerably increased the autobiographical heft of his oeuvre. With The Preparation of the Novel, Mourning Diary and Le Lexique de l’auteur, many facets of Barthes’s life have been illuminated in succession. And if the main biographical reason appears in removing obscurities, discovering what was missing, and laying bare what was hidden, what meaning can there be in doing so for an author who sought increasingly to gain in clarity? Reading the vast number of index cards, taking into account the desk diaries and notebooks, allows us now to say that, for the period in which Barthes was becoming Barthes, every moment of his life is detailed. With an author who himself aimed at clarity, and did so without succumbing to the illusion of synthesis or a continuous narrative, how can we show the lacuna and the fragment, which are there right from the start, as adequate forms? There are three solutions, all equally flawed and disappointing. The first consists in going into ever more detail, correcting the narratives, and rectifying the facts: this is competitive and thus futile. It might show that in certain parts of the oeuvre, the author has turned his life into a legend, while in other places he has concealed great swathes of activity. But this narrative would never win out against the narrative put forth in the oeuvre, since life, though it may not always be what one says of it, remains what one does with it. Papering over the cracks, the second solution, is not a satisfactory method either. Biographical prose inserts the glue of continuous duration between fragments made of facts, emotions and texts, thereby denying the intimate truth of life, made up as it often is by juxtaposed moments, and crisscrossed by events, by large or small changes of direction, and by things forgotten. And the third solution, explaining the life by the work, is not viable either. It melds two heterogeneous realities together, forgetting to show how they may be rivals, sometimes clashing and sometimes even destroying one another. While a biographical reading can be justified and may produce significant results, it is of insufficient help when it comes to the sometimes conflictual encounter between living and writing in the existence of a writer and an intellectual.

Of course, I will not be able to manage entirely without these three approaches, and my work will also draw on these methods and will share their failings; but I shall at the same time be attempting to let the clarity proper to the oeuvre shine with its own living light, showing how it comes into bright being and sheds its gleam. The narrative will be conducted under the sign of gaps and omissions, and the argument will attempt to think through differences. We need to register the violence of the oeuvre, in terrible contrast as it is with the gentleness of the person (all the eye-witness evidence is in complete agreement here) and the relative insignificance of the life. For Barthes’s life was not an adventure story. It was not even exemplary: it did not have the generality or normality that might give a sociological or cultural value to biography. How can one write a life that was fully occupied in writing alone? What is left over from the traces in the texts and what type of revelation do we have a right to expect? The first revelation is probably this one: a writer’s life can be understood from the lacks which underlie it.

One difficulty lies in Barthes’s own ambivalence about biography, which he stated forcefully in his prefatory remarks to the interview with Jean Thibaudeau: ‘Any biography is a novel which dares not speak its name.’5 It is not as if he had always despised biography, or as if, like Bourdieu, he had denounced it as an illusion.6 True, he leaves ‘Racine as an individual’ out of it, but he treats authors (Michelet, Racine and Sade, for example) as places for experimentation and assemblage. Throughout his texts, he demonstrates a desire for signs of life that largely determine his almost sensual attachment to literature. The notations that, after 1971, in Sade, Fourier, Loyola, he called ‘biographemes’ are those shards of life, of singularity, that point us to the bodies of the subjects mentioned. A person consists in details and in their scattering, ‘somewhat like the ashes we strew into the wind after death’.7 These biographemes define an art of memory linked to an ethic of biography often mentioned by Barthes’s commentators: ‘Were I a writer, and dead, how I would love it if my life, through the pains of some friendly and detached biographer, were to reduce itself to a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections, let us say: to “biographemes” whose distinction and mobility might go beyond any fate and come to touch, like Epicurean atoms, some future body, destined to the same dispersion.’8 These famous words provide us with the programme for a life story that is less that of a biography than that of the ‘amnesiac’ autobiography of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, where the anamnesis, directly contrasted with biography, is defined as a ‘counter-march’ or ‘counter-descent’: ‘[. . .] a (hostile) challenge to chronology, to the false rationality of the logico-chronological, the ordo naturalis: it is an ordo artificialis (flash-back).’9 It is all there, unconnected, unyoked, as a fragment or trace. Polyphonic, opened up to the infinite process of re-composition, it turns any continuous narrative into a form of ‘obscenity’ (the French word cochonnerie, or swinishness, is used in Sade, Fourier, Loyola to refer to the flumen orationis, the fluvial aspect of continuous discourse) because it fixes an image, because it forgets that the self is forever shifting and inventing itself. By turning Barthes’s own self-portrait into a fetish text, many readers see biography as the most anti-Barthesian of gestures.10

And yet, what Barthes held up in contrast to continuity was still a quest for unity. On Michelet, he wrote: ‘I have sought merely to describe a unity, not to explore its roots in history or in biography’.11 It is, conversely, by pluralizing Barthes that we will compensate for the spirit of continuity inherent in the life story – not seeking any homology between the life and the work, but including both of them within stories and histories (here, too, in the plural), contexts and relations, and describing different kinds of genesis – the strata of archives, the things which life deposits within the documents of the real, the leitmotifs and refrains of the oeuvre. If biographemes are to biography what photos are to History, as Barthes seems to suggest in Camera Lucida,12 we will complement the biographemes with legends, linking them up or binding them together, drawing out the ideas within them. What is left – events, writings and traces – can be appropriated only in writing, in other words in the movement of a thought.

The writer of a biography might have been discouraged by other external reasons, beginning with the amount of work that has been done on the author, during his lifetime and since his death, both in France and abroad. It is striking that Barthes’s own reservations about biography should have entailed a veritable passion, among critics, commentators and writers, for his life. The term ‘Rolandism’ has even been coined to describe this drive to view the author as a character in a novel or to relate his life. In the very fine lecture he gave at the Collège de France on 19 October 1978, called ‘Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure . . .’, Barthes suggested the name ‘Marcelism’ for the special interest readers can take in the life of Marcel Proust, distinct from any liking they might have for his style or his oeuvre.13 This loving approach to the author is made via the disoriented narrative he gave of his own life in his oeuvre. In the same way, we can use the term ‘Rolandism’ to refer to this relation with a subject who returns endlessly to his own life as to a succession of figures. The profound relation between life and writing that is tirelessly staged in the books, lectures and seminars is one explanation for the interest many readers take in Barthes’s life: as if there were some magic key there, some spell that would open up several doors at once, the door of his personal quest and the door of the desire for writing that everyone harbours. Another reason for the wish to turn his life into a ‘Life’ is probably the fact that Barthes’s life is an accumulation of all the gaps one can imagine – gaps that always cry out to be filled. The initial lack was the father’s death; the parenthesis, the sanatorium; the concealed dimension, homosexuality; the discontinuous element, fragmentary writing; while the final lack was the silly road accident. These holes, these lacunae, require a narrative, a filling, an explanation.

Biographies, eye-witness accounts, critical investigations that also trace out a life, novels: the books that refer to Barthes’s life are now legion. Thirty-five years after Barthes’s death, the present biography is already the third to be published. In 1990, Louis-Jean Calvet produced a first complete ‘Life’ of Barthes.14 As the book came out so soon, it could be based on many eye-witness accounts. Barthes’s various milieus – family, intellectual circles, friends – are described in a detailed, vivid way. Calvet’s work is not an intellectual biography as such: while it studies the genesis of the work and offers explanations for it, that oeuvre is not grasped as a project of thought and writing. A second biography, by Marie Gil, saw the light in 2012. In it, the author takes literally the idea of life as a text, one that appeared often in Barthes’s seminars and was linked to the diary.15 The continuity is not the naive one of a life that can be unwound like a ribbon, but it appears in the homogeneity that is suggested between text and factual existence. Within this context, it is also a matter of highlighting the ‘graphy’ of a life,16 placing writing and life on the same level, and affirming ‘the homogeneity of all the materials [. . .]: facts, thoughts, writings, and that which is unsaid, the silences’.17 As well as these biographies, there are various eye-witness accounts. In 1991, Patrick Mauriès published a collection of memories staging different aspects of the personality of Barthes as a teacher and maître à penser for the young.18 In 2006, Éric Marty published his own work, presented as an essay and gathering texts of argumentative prose that shed a great deal of light on the notion of the ‘oeuvre’ and the idea of the ‘image’.19 But Barthes’s oeuvre is also discussed in terms of its unfolding, its sequence, in order to explain its intellectual genesis. The first part, ‘Memory of a Friendship’, is an extremely powerful set of memories of Barthes’s final years. Marty, who devoted several years to the editing and publication of Barthes’s complete works, is also the best transmitter of his life and thought so far. In books of interviews and memories, Tzvetan Todorov and Antoine Compagnon describe at length the Barthes they had known. Gérard Genette also paints his portrait in Bardadrac, and Barthes is one of the numerous secondary characters in Mathieu Lindon’s book on Foucault, Ce qu’aimer veut dire (What love means).20 Colette Fellous, in La Préparation de la vie (Preparation for life) paints a very loving portrait (full of rare odours – the perfume of Barthes’s mother, for example – and of the grain of his voice) of the man who remained her guide in life from the day when, coming out of a seminar (she had followed all of them between 1972 and 1976), he taught her to say ‘I’, to speak in her own name. ‘I follow his voice’, she writes, ‘and I rediscover the odour of Paris, of the Bonaparte and Balzar cafes, of the rue du Sabot, of the rue Saint-Sulpice, of the little Chinese restaurant in the rue de Tournon. I also rediscover the way his eyes wrinkled when he was trying to find the right words.’21

What is perhaps even stranger is the way Barthes has, since his death, become a character in a great many novels.22 Here too, the explanation lies in a wish to give continuity to his life – to make it continuous and to extend it – but also, no doubt, in the way Barthes set up an interplay between essay, autobiographical fragment and the desire for the novel. The ‘burning contact with the Novel’ that he presented in the lecture on Proust as the power to express an effective order, the words ‘It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel’ at the threshold of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, the oeuvre-as-life, also called a ‘third form’, the novelistic (romanesque) as a way of dividing up the real, as a writing of life: these suggestions comprise an appeal and, at the same time, a puzzle. The eye-witness accounts are extended, and the legend accentuated, in such works as Women by Sollers, first published in French in 1983; Renaud Camus’s Roman roi (Novel king), published the same year; Kristeva’s The Samurai, first published in 1990; L’Homme qui tua Roland Barthes (The man who killed Roland Barthes) by Thomas Clerc (2010); and La Fin de la folie (The end of madness) by Jorge Volpi (2003). The same is true of two novelized accounts of Barthes’s last days and his first days too, and the account of one of his summers.23 Some represent Barthes under transparent pseudonyms; others make him a character under his own name, introducing him into the fiction as a historical character rubbing shoulders with the fictitious characters. In every case, these texts cross the borders between novelized biography, historical novel and eye-witness account.

Even critical studies play on the interlacing of thought, life and novel, and often rest on the account of an intellectual career forced to convey the story of a life. As early as 1986, Philippe Roger’s Roland Barthes, roman showed a certain continuity to Barthes’s career by taking a close interest in the early texts and insisting on the omnipresence in Barthes of a great literary project that made any attempt to split his oeuvre into periods futile. In 1991, Bernard Comment’s Roland Barthes, vers le neutre (Roland Barthes, towards the neuter) also saw the unity of the subject as resting upon the coherence of a certain project, this time ‘the Neutral, understood not as a compromise, a lessened form, but as an attempt to escape from the obligations and constraints of the logos, of Discourse’.24 This portrait of an intellectual endeavouring to abolish distinctions was destined to be a landmark.25 The projective dimension of Barthes’s texts, their relation to the fragmentary and to note form, the love of the fleeting and the paradoxical, make this coherence compatible with contradiction, hesitation and even palinode. To base one’s authority as a teacher on phantasy is to free oneself from the principle of non-contradiction; it is to draw oneself and others into a whirlpool where it is very difficult to find any foothold. While he never produced any system, any ‘strong thought’, Barthes shaped his pupils and his readers by showing the need to place different forms of knowledge in tension, to detach oneself, to develop a culture of affects, to encounter the improbable. Finally, whether they put forward the hypothesis of a coherent Barthes whose endeavours follow a guiding principle, as do Philippe Roger, Bernard Comment, Gérard Genette, Claude Costa, Diana Knight, Marielle Macé and Vincent Jouve, or whether they imagine a Barthes cut in two, abandoning the great scientific project of the 1960s so as to enter a time of scepticism and egotism (this is Todorov’s point of view), or else of a Barthes of several identities, whose itinerary was shared out in successive moments (Annette Lavers, Stephen Heath, Steven Ungar, Patrizia Lombardo), all of them show how complex is that oeuvre inseparable from the life in which it was composed and written.

While seeking to conceptualize the difference between living, thinking and writing, I will in my turn postulate the unity of Barthes’s career as lying in the desire to write, which appeals to a potential intellectual project and an erotic dimension (accepting, too, the liking for change). But this unity is based on caesuras and lacks that create breaks and turnabouts. It is also subject to phenomena of discord, which make Barthes the contemporary of several times at once. Preferring to follow the ‘otobiographical’ project of Jacques Derrida and his dramaturgy of critical listening,26 I will be pricking up my ears to hear how the grain of Barthes’s voice also shaped his writing, but in a fundamentally discontinuous way. By presenting various types of raw material (the immense number of index cards, unpublished manuscripts, letters, notes made in desk diaries), I will make the work tremble under the impact of echoes from the outside world. In turn, the work will regularly displace the life story, shedding light and darkness on it in turn, sometimes giving it a shape, sometimes restoring it to shapelessness. Certain words will act as guiding threads: gentleness, delicacy, the heart-rending . . . and maternal love as the underground guide to the whole journey. On the other side lies the obsession with death, which impels one to write but also frequently inflicts great gashes on life. Among the principles guiding my narrative will be the desire to give the rhythm and movement of writing its vital dynamism, inscribed in breathing, in the body, in the vicissitudes of existence. This involves departing from the logic of books, the logic through which we most often envisage Barthes, so as to enter the time of production of his ideas and texts. Barthes did not give the book as a finite object closed in on itself any great significance, except in that it was still, in his day, an important instrument for the spreading of ideas and the winning of recognition. In one way, Barthes foresaw the book’s disappearance; or at least, his relationship to writing prefigured other ways of expressing ideas and spreading texts. Most of his books are collections of articles published in reviews several years earlier and, by the time they were published, Barthes was often haunted by other questions. Situating oneself in the time of writing sometimes allows us to shed new light on the oeuvre, to perceive from within an intellectual history while revealing its power to reflect our age. Thus, my book will follow chronological order; but to make sure it does not try to pass itself off as the natural way of proceeding, I will make the order of years yield at times to other principles. Parallels between Barthes and the decisive companions of his existence allow us, as required, to examine the relevant leitmotifs as and when Barthes encountered certain people, and not just in accordance with the order of years – for themes sometimes bring together texts and facts. Thus, certain years may be discussed twice over, in distinct chapters, but this is always so as to shed a somewhat different light on them, to put them in a different perspective.

I have been granted access to a quite considerable amount of completely new material in writing this biography: a significant portion of the correspondence, all the manuscripts, and above all the index cards which Barthes added to throughout his life, subjecting them to various classifications and re-workings. These index cards, which Barthes began as a student, using them as a bibliographical and then lexicographical resource, gradually became the place where he recorded a great deal of his life. In them, he assembled things he had seen and heard, travel impressions, phrases that he liked, ideas and plans. In the last two years of his life, the index cards became a veritable diary; thus, to designate what in the Fonds Roland Barthes is called the ‘Grand fichier’, I regularly use the expression fichierjournal, or ‘index-card diary’, which seems to correspond to his own hybrid use, one that he had invented himself. Michel Salzedo, Barthes’s brother, opened the doors of Barthes’s office in the rue Servandoni to me and authorized me to consult the desk diaries that Barthes used in a strange but persistent way from 1960 until his death. He did not use them in a prospective fashion, to note his meetings and his obligations for the next few days, but as an account book, in which he retrospectively noted the work he had completed, and the people he had met the day before.27 These volumes, like the index cards, pave the way to an altogether enthralling practice of ordinary, everyday writing. And these documents, almost none of which have been published, provide us with important bases for the story of his life. They can also be burdensome at times: the need to note down one’s life can make the labour of biography futile. At the same time, they invite us to seek other things than just facts, and to take account of the many spheres – public, semi-public, and private – in which writing is deployed.

I am not one of Barthes’s contemporaries. I was 11 when he died and it was not until six years later that I heard his name for the first time in a philosophy class where I had been asked to read The Pleasure of the Text. So I did not attend his lectures and most of his experiences are not known to me. However, Barthes is indeed my contemporary because I know that I owe to him a way of reading literature, the relationship that I am weaving between criticism and truth, and the conviction that thought proceeds from writing. By relating the story of the various paths he followed, existential, intellectual and literary, I am seeking to understand a part of what has shaped me and, at the same time, what made this shaping possible. When he died, Barthes felt that he had reached a turning-point in his life, but he did not think it was almost all over. The imperative of the vita nova, so obvious in the last seminars and a consequence of his mother’s death, implied less the idea of a downward slope than that of a new inflection to be given to his plans, a last stage of life to be discovered. In his lecture on Proust on 19 October 1978, he reflected on the major breaks that affect the ‘middle of life’: that of Rancé, who abandons the world after discovering the decapitated body of his mistress and retires to the monastery at La Trappe; and that of Proust, when he lost his own mother. This justifies, in Barthes’s lecture, the possibility of a ‘Proust and I’ bringing together in one and the same event the deaths of mothers: ‘A cruel bereavement, a unique and somehow irreducible bereavement can constitute for me that “pinnacle of the particular” Proust spoke of; though belated, this bereavement will be for me the middle of my life; for the “middle of life” is perhaps never anything but the moment when you discover that death is real, and no longer merely dreadful.’28 I was reading Barthes’s Mourning Diary on the day in February 2009 when I lost my own mother. I felt that I too was in the middle of the way. This was sign enough for the work to begin.