27 June, 2011Issue 16.5FictionLiteraturePhilosophy

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Unrealistic Innocence

Tom Cutterham

The Preparation of the NovelRoland Barthes, trans. Kate Briggs
The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars
at the College De France (1978-1979 and 1979-1980)

Columbia University Press, 2011
512 Pages
ISBN 978-0231136143


The Preparation of the Novel is a transcription and translation of notes for a lecture course given by Roland Barthes between 1978 and 1980 at the Collège de France, which followed his course on The Neutral, published in this series by Columbia in 2005. Parts of this lecture course also formed the basis of one of Barthes’s most prominent late works, Camera Lucida, published in English translation in 1981. As we might expect, then, The Preparation of the Novel sprawls out beyond Camera Lucida’s reflections on time and “the real”, incorporating them into an exploration of another act—writing a novel—that, like photography, both captures and transmutes.

“The urge to write”, Barthes says, nowadays “manifests itself as a sort of unrealistic innocence: refusal to think out the mediation.” Against this urge, these lectures explore the rationale of writerly mediations. What does it take to go from the desire to write to the act of writing itself, that which Barthes aptly, with self-conscious archaism, calls “the Work”? The structure of the lectures reflects and interrogates the processes of writing, from the gathering of material to the potential boredom of actually sitting down to write. It is as if we are about to set out on a journey, but first we must chart the course, anticipate the obstacles, and plan how we might overcome them. In other words, it is an effort to overcome that “unrealistic innocence” before we plunge into experience.

But in order to anticipate experience, Barthes continually has to navigate the tension between the universal and the subjective. This is a question of pedagogy, a problem of lecturing as much as it is also a problem of the novel itself. Barthes must balance between the specific and the general to offer a teaching that is more than just a self-reflection, something real and applicable, rather than vague and formulaic. In what sense is this the preparation of the novel? The subject of preparation covers a whole spectrum of abstraction. Barthes is speaking of all possible novels — but also, quite personally, of his own. “Will I really write a novel? I’ll say this and only this. I’ll proceed as if I were going to write one.”

His first problem is content. Where will the novel come from? If not from memory (because Barthes says his memory is bad), then from notes. The first year of his lectures, the first half of the book, develops a theory of note-taking. The idea is to translate present life rather than to regain lost time. Barthes asks “How to write at length, fluently, with one eye on the page and the other on ‘what’s happening to me’?” Haiku is central to Barthes’s answer, a miniature form full of potential for expansion. Crucially, “the haiku may be short, but it’s not finite, closed.” The relationship between haiku and novel is this: “In Search of Lost Time unfurls from the Madeleine like a Japanese paper flower in water…drawers opening, infinite unfolding. In haiku, the flower is still compact, a Japanese flower without the water: it remains a bud.”

Barthes claims here that this collision of the short and long forms is “the paradox that structures this course.” But this claim seems to be forgotten elsewhere. The more fundamental paradox is that of the specific and the universal. “There can be no general truth: this is what haiku says, one haiku after another.” It is for this reason that they are able to create “the certainty that this took place.” Nevertheless, in the infinite openness of haiku, there lies the general. Barthes wants to emphasise the way each haiku makes its spring this specific spring, but he can’t do so without also noting that the spring, the cherry-blossom, is something eternal, universal, a foothold for our imagination. The same thing happens in the lectures themselves. There seems to be no escaping from the general nature of the fantasy.

If the notion of spring was just subjective, if it was just Barthes’s spring, not ours, then who would listen to the lectures? Who would want to read the novel? Precisely because this plan of writing is a fantasy, because it’s a suspended moment (over two years of lectures) of what Dante called “the desire of speaking, and the fear of beginning”, each phase of the process is open, not yet pinned down by action or decision. They can’t be pinned down, Barthes implies, until the moment when we actually start writing, a moment which by definition will not come in these lectures. “I’ve decided to push this fantasy as far as it will go”, he writes, “to the point where either the desire will fade away, or it will encounter the reality of writing.” This is really a matter of “preparation for” rather than strictly “preparation of”. We’re not solving these problems. We’re psyching ourselves up for a challenge that is always yet to come.

If the first half of the book, the theory of note-taking and reflections on haiku, is Barthes’s enunciation of “the desire of speaking”, the second half is mired in “the fear of beginning”. Here we are not offered the infinite openness of observation of a world and a life in action, but the corroding doubt and boredom that comes with putting words on paper. Here Barthes is concerned with concrete reality: a writer’s diet, clothes, medications, daily schedule. Writing, Barthes writes, the trip on which we are setting out, is tough and requires toughness. Not only does it “push reading aside”, it threatens love itself; there is a “rivalry between the loved one and the Work”. Drawing on the diaries and letters of Proust, Kafka, and Flaubert, Barthes conjures a terrain of loneliness and boredom that awaits the writer. We stand on the threshold and fear to begin.

Would Barthes have taken the next step and written a novel himself? It is impossible to know now. On 23 February 1980, two days after giving the last lecture in this course, he was run over outside the Collège de France. One month later he died, leaving behind eight pages of what seem like plans for a novel titled La Vita Nova. That last lecture ended on a note of hopefulness, an affirmation of the desire to write, however naive. It is even an embrace of naivety, sweeping away the realist project he envisioned at the start. It is still possible, said Schönberg, to write music in C major. “There”, says Barthes, “you have the object of my desire: to write a work in C Major.” These lectures are no such work, but they are Barthes’s Work. In them, he had already begun to write. He had begun, with all the specificity and infinite unfolding he envisaged for his novel, to give flesh and sinew to his fantasy.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in American History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Tom is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.