Barthes: A Biography

Written by Tiphaine Samoyault | Translated by Andrew Brown | Foreworded by Jonathan Culler
Polity | January 10, 2017

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a central figure in the thought of his time, but he was also something of an outsider. His father died in the First World War, he enjoyed his mother’s unfailing love, he spent long years in the sanatorium, and he was aware of his homosexuality from an early age: all this soon gave him a sense of his own difference. He experienced the great events of contemporary history from a distance. However, his life was caught up in the violent, intense sweep of the twentieth century, a century that he helped to make intelligible.

This major new biography of Barthes, based on unpublished material never before explored (archives, journals and notebooks), sheds new light on his intellectual positions, his political commitments and his ideas, beliefs and desires. It details the many themes he discussed, the authors he defended, the myths he castigated, the polemics that made him famous and his acute ear for the languages of his day. It also underscores his remarkable ability to see which way the wind was blowing Ð and he is still a compelling author to read in part because his path-breaking explorations uncovered themes that continue to preoccupy us today.

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REVIEWS

lt’s outstanding biography of Roland Barthes allows us to meet him in person, as it were, as a lively, seductive French intellectual. At the same time, Samoyault offers us a splendid introduction to Barthes’ ground-breaking writings in so many fields, from literary theory to meditations about the meaning of human existence." - Thomas Pavel, The University of Chicago

"Barthes, like no other modern writer, invented a critical form that was “live” in every sense, where the labor of writing criticism acquired animate breath and pulse as it entered Barthes’ chronicle of aesthetic preparation for a Vita Nova, a new life, a novel, a reading of ideologies, images, voices, cultural myths and above all literary texts. Such a self-writing subject poses a daunting challenge to the biographer. But Tiphaine Samoyault has risen to it, with a magisterial life of Roland Barthes, enriched by new archival material and her own peerless talents as both writer and literary critic." - Emily Apter, New York University

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