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  • Posthumous Judgment
  • Daniel T. O'Hara (bio)
Album: Unpublished Correspondence and Texts
Roland Barthes
Jody Gladding, trans.
Columbia University Press
392 Pages;.Print, $ 22.00

Album is the latest large-format volume containing posthumously published materials by Roland Barthes. Like the earlier ones, it is in "European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism," whose general editor is Lawrence Kritzman. As the title page makes clear, however, this volume is "established and presented by Éric Marty with the assistance of Claude Coste for 'On Seven Sentences in Bouvard and Pecuchet.'" Previous volumes have not so elaborately detailed editorial responsibilities. These include Barthes' final three seminars given at the College de France where he was a professor of "literary semiology." They are the course notes on, respectively, the zero-point defining the gap between binary structures, which Barthes calls now "the neutral," the communal mediation of idiosyncratic rhythms of life by monasteries and other forms of institutional living, and the third extended seminar, "the preparation of the novel," also called by Barthes, a la Dante, his "vita nova." This is his story of preparing to and finally writing his fictional masterpiece. This proposed epic was never accomplished due to Barthes being run down by a laundry van on February 25, 1980 and dying in hospital a month later. These volumes are rich in insights into Barthes' career, especially that of its ultimate phase. We learn more fully that "the novelistic" means the fiction-like effect of such lyric poetic genres as haiku. That flash of the spectral kernel of the narrative is very suggestive for future analyses of the literary effects of Barthes' own texts, among others.

Album contains riches of its own. The volume is organized into five broad sections, each of which scrolls through a specific slice of Barthes's chronology so that all of them together culminate in a structure like wheels within wheels. The bulk of the sections consists of previously unpublished correspondences between Barthes and such friends and associates (among many others) as Jacques Veil, Georges Canetti, Robert David, Maurice Nadeau, Jean Cayrol, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Levi-Strauss, Maurice Blanchot, Jean Starobinski, and Julia Kristeva. Most of this correspondence concerns Barthes increasingly enlarging oeuvre, from Writing Degree Zero (1953) and Mythologies (1957) of the mid-fifties, through On Racine (1963) and Criticism and Truth (1966) of the mid-sixties, to S/Z (1970), The Pleasure of the Text (1973), A Lover's Discourse (1977) of the 1970s. Each of these large sections, also conveniently broken into chapters, ends with previously unpublished translations of valuable fugitive texts, such as "Sketch of a Sanatorium Society," "The Future of Rhetoric" (a revised version is in Writing Degree Zero), "Valery and Rhetoric," "On Seven Sentences in Bouvard et Pecuchet," and "Vita Nova" (his many outlines and plans for that spectral masterpiece of fiction). The "Two Romanian Texts" that also closes section two are, respectively, note-like comments on Parisian popular songs and boiler-plate report-writing about the politicization of Romanian science after the Communist take-over, and while in principle potentially of interest, they are, in fact, hohum and could have been confined to an extended footnote. Particularly significant, however, is the first section of seventy pages, "From Adolescence to the Romance of the Sanatorium: 1932-1946," which contains many of Barthes' reflections on his tuberculosis and his relapses, repeated operations, and confinement in asylums. The correspondence in this first section with his life-long friend Phillippe Rebeyrol is riveting, and we will return to one of Barthes' earliest letters from it. If there were more space, equally riveting from this first section is the correspondence, wholly one-sided, between Barthes and his lover at the time Robert David, whom he first met in the asylum but who left much earlier than Barthes did. David's letters are referred to in Barthes' but have not been found. Barthes' letters to David develop much of the vision of the lover's discourse thirty years before the seminar and book on that subject would appear.

In his nineteenth year, on May 10, 1934, Barthes is diagnosed with TB. After...


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