Roland Barthes / Lapham’s Quarterly

In 1979 Barthes was teaching a course at the Collège de France entitled “La Préparation du roman,” lectures translated into English as The Preparation of the Novel. One of his aims in that course was to explore the relationship between teaching and literary creation and the ways in which the one might stimulate the other. This article, published in Le Magazine littéraire of January 1979, a mass-market magazine easily available from French newsstands, is perhaps best read in that context. — Chris Turner

There are, it seems, few enigmas in literary history. Yet here is one that has Proust as its hero. It intrigues and interests me, particularly as it is an enigma relating to creation (the only sort of relevance to someone who wants to write).

People are fond of repeating that Proust wrote only one work, A la recherche du temps perdu, and that, even if that work is nominally a late one, all the minor publications that preceded were merely foreshadowings. That may well be. Proust’s creative life has, nonetheless, two very distinct parts to it. Until 1909 Proust lived the high society life. He wrote this and that and was published now and again, but despite his efforts and explorations his great work didn’t “come together.” The death of his mother in 1905 was a great shock to him and it led to his withdrawal for a time from society, but the desire to write soon returned, without his being able to overcome a certain sterile agitation. However, agitation gradually focused itself down into the form of indecision: was he going to (did he want to) write a novel or a work of nonfiction? He attempted nonfiction with an essay contesting the ideas of [Charles Augustin] Sainte-Beuve, though the style was novelistic, since, mixed in with fragments on literary aesthetics were set pieces, scenes, dialogues, and characters that would later appear in A la recherche. This set of essays (I am straining the word) called Contre Sainte-Beuve forms a manuscript which he submitted to Le Figaro in July 1909 and was rejected in the August. At this point there is a puzzling episode about which we know nothing, a “silence” that constitutes the enigma I spoke of. What is happening in that month of September 1909 in the life or the mind of Proust? The fact is that his biography shows him, by the October of that year, already pitching himself into the great work to which he will, henceforth, sacrifice everything, withdrawing from the world in order to write it and just managing to complete it before he is thwarted by death. So there are two parts to Proust’s life, two contrasting aspects that come either side of September 1909: before that point, worldliness and creative hesitancy; after it, withdrawal and firmness of intention (obviously, I am simplifying).

What is at play in this change is, as I see it, the following: all Proust’s writings preceding A la recherche are, to some degree, fragmentary and short—short stories, articles, scraps of texts. One has the impression that the ingredients are present (as we say in cooking), but the operation that’s going to transform them into a dish hasn’t yet taken place: it’s “not quite there.” And then, suddenly (in September 1909), “it all comes together”: the mayonnaise thickens and it’s just a question of gradually producing more and more. Moreover, Proust increasingly works with a technique of “adding in”: he is constantly reinfusing food into this organism which now begins to thrive because it is well set up. The physical writing itself changes: admittedly, Proust always wrote “at the gallop,” as he put it (and that manual rhythm is perhaps not unrelated to the movement of his sentences), but at the point when A la recherche takes off, the writing changes: it “tightens,” “becomes more complex,” and overflows now with energetic emendations. To sum up, a kind of alchemical operation occurred within Proust during that month of September which transmuted the essay into a novel and a short, discontinuous thing into a long, sustained, and fully formed one.

What happened? Why was it that all of a sudden, in a summer month, “it all came together” and remained so forever (until Proust’s death in 1922 and far beyond, since our present, active reading is constantly adding to A la recherche, feeding it up)? I don’t believe in any determining factor from the biographical sphere. Private events may, admittedly, have a decisive effect on literary work, but that influence is complex and operates with a time delay. There is no doubt that the death of his mother was, in some sense, a “founding moment” of A la recherche, but the book was not begun until four years after her death. I believe, rather, in some discovery of a creative order: Proust found a way—perhaps a purely technical way—to make the work “hold together” and to “facilitate” his writing (in the operational sense).

Intuitively, I shall argue that what was found probably belongs to one of the following “techniques” (or to more than one at the same time):

A certain way of saying “I,” an original mode of utterance that refers, undecidably, to the author, the narrator, and the main protagonist.

A (poetic) “truth” of the proper names that had finally been settled on. Proust hesitated for a long time over the main names in A la recherche. The book seems to take off when the “correct” names are found, and we know that there is a theory of proper names in the novel itself.

A change of scale: it may in fact happen (by some mysterious chemistry) that a project which has been stalled for a long time suddenly becomes possible once one suddenly—and in inspired fashion—decides to increase its size. For in the aesthetic order, the dimensions of a thing determine its meaning.

Lastly, a novelistic structure which Proust discovers as a revelation in Balzac’s Comédie humaine, and which is (I’m quoting Proust) “Balzac’s admirable invention of having kept the same characters in all his novels”—a procedure deprecated by Sainte-Beuve, but, in Proust’s view, an idea of genius. When one knows the importance of recurrences, coincidences and reversals throughout A la recherche and how proud Proust was of his mode of composition by “enjambment,” whereby an insignificant detail given at the beginning of the novel reappears at the end, as though it had grown, germinated, and blossomed, the thought arises that what Proust discovered was the effectiveness for novel writing of what we might call the (horticultural) “layering” of figures: a figure “planted” at one point, often discreetly (let us take the example at random of the “lady in pink”), reappears much later, having jumped across an infinity of other relationships, and becomes the root of a new growth within the novel (Odette).

All this should be researched more thoroughly, from both the biographical and structural standpoints. And for once, scholarship would perhaps be justified by the fact that it would be enlightening to “those who wish to write.”


Translated from the French by Chris Turner. Excerpted from “Masculine, Feminine, Neuter” and Other Writings on Literature: Essays and Interviews, Volume 3 by Roland Barthes, published by Seagull Books in May 2016. English translation copyright © 2015 by Chris Turner.

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