how can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?*

*Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage, Abacus, London, 1998.

Barthes read lots of books and I read Barthes. Back then, a first year undergraduate, I met Barthes through the ‘Death of the Author’. Everyone probably did, either there, or in Mythologies. Recently, I found the yellowing photocopy from all those years ago and re-read it. The argument seems confected now, demolishing an approach to literature that I had never actually encountered.

‘The Death of the Author’. Perhaps the title was unfortunate. The late Nicholas Zurbrugg thought most of us had missed an important point about French intellectual culture: the need to shock in order to get attention. Rather than an argument, the ‘Death of the Author’ might have been better understood as a tactic.

Roland Barthes

Incontro con Italo Calvino

Barthes was photographed at his desk on many occasions. Left is the youthful Cartier-Bresson photo. Everything is there: the Barthes’ nose, the English clothing, the index cards, the ubiquitous cigarette. He seemed relaxed at the desk, or a better term might be at home. The photographs away from the desk show a Barthes who seems distracted, ill-at-ease, perhaps bored. He was often bored, intensely bored, he would say, a condition that began in early childhood.

Barthes-at-his-desk-3Barthes includes a number of photographs of himself at his desk in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (Hill and Wang, New York, 2011). They are not portraits, like the Cartier-Bresson or the Julian Guideau, more like snapshots. Here Barthes is working, not looking at the camera. His workspaces mirrored each other (part of his structuralism, he once said): in the apartment in Paris, at the École, in the house in the south of France. The same. This is Barthes, the photos say to me, this is Roland Barthes at his desk. This is Roland Barthes, the writer.


I have been living with Roland Barthes for the past few years while working on Words and Things, a novel in which a young Australian academic heads to Paris seeking to discover the truth about a famed French intellectual, the elusive Jacques Simon. Jacques Simon bears an obvious similarity to Roland Barthes, but Simon is a fictional famed French intellectual, merely a character in a novel, whereas Roland Barthes…

In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Barthes is only the writer. Was this strange little book biography? Barthes said definitely not. At the beginning he directs the reader to consider it all ‘as if spoken by a character in a novel’. Barthes was not going to be the subject of his ‘autobiography’, but just another text. ‘I do not say: “I am going to describe myself”, he writes, but “I am writing a text, and I call it R.B”’

But what did it mean to be the writer? A writer is never just ‘a writer’, but always a particular writer, a particular type of writer producing a particular type of writing. And a writer is never only ‘a writer’. So what sort of writer was Barthes? What sort of writing was Barthes’? And who was the Roland Barthes who wasn’t just ‘the writer’?

Erica arrives in Paris with a mixture of naivety and determination, but her pursuit of this famous intellectual leads her nowhere. Or everywhere. Nothing is as it seems. Not Jacques Simon, not Jean-Pierre, Erica’s erudite French lover, not Paris itself. There are secrets everywhere, but there are also ways of seeing. New questions are framed, new understandings become possible.

As part of my own search for the writer, I went to the village of Urt in the south of France, a detour on a long and difficult journey in a black Renault from Bilbao in Spain to the village of Lanquais near the town of Bergerac. I was cheered by the discovery that the farmland along the road from Bayonne to Urt is known as Les Barthes, and although it has nothing actually to do with Roland Barthes, I carried away the idea that he had inscribed his family name somehow into the landscape.

I went to the cemetery at Urt to stand by Barthes’ grave, as people do at the graves of famous strangers. It was raining, as it often does in cemeteries. It was a lovely cemetery, this one at Urt, well-ordered and cared for, bunches of flowers and herbs on the graves. Hélas! My search for Barthes’ resting place was rather like a lot of things about Roland Barthes. I knew it was there somewhere, but I just couldn’t find it.

The cemetery at Urt

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