Tiphanie Samoyault on the process of writing her biography of Roland Barthes (Seuil 2015; Polity 2017)

Tiphanie Samoyault on the process of writing her biography of Roland Barthes

I worked hard, taking the historian’s approach to begin with: spent whole days consulting the archives; moving on to interviews (which weren’t actually that useful because my interviewees all remembered the very same traits, fixed like legends in their memory); reading the work in chronological order of its writing. This is an interesting point and one on which I would like to dwell for a moment. Most of the time we read authors from the past – even the recent past – in the wrong order, according to spatial or thematic contiguity. If you’re writing the biography of a writer or an intellectual, it is interesting to see how the work unfolds over time, it is the temporal contiguities that matter and that are revelatory. I would say that at certain points I shed new light on the work as a result of this chronological reading. During all of this, I had no sense of how I was going to move from the research to the writing.

And then one day it happened: I realized that in order to start writing the truth of his life (or at least what I thought was the truth of his life), I had to cut across the legend. Because since his death Barthes has become a kind of mythological figure. That’s why I began by narrating his death, the idea was to cut across that legend so as to be able to write his life. I had at least 20 different stories about Barthes’ death, which is a recent event, with facts that differed enormously from one story to the next, and what do you do with all those stories, obviously stories that not only feature in memories but also in novels, histories, short stories? By beginning with this chapter about his death I was able to start writing. And after that I didn’t stop, it all came very quickly and it was very easy because I was writing ‘in company’. Every morning, when I sat back down at my desk to write, I felt as though I were returning to a friend. And then in the end, when I encountered Barthes’ death again, it was no longer a legend, it was a fact: true, real, concrete. And that was when I turned off my computer, went out into the street and cried.

Tiphanie Samoyault and Sunil Manghani, “On Barthes’ Biography: A Dialogue”, Theory, Culture & Society 37 (4), 2020,43-63, 48-49.

The interview is open access (at least at the moment). The French edition of the book was published by Seuil in 2015; and translated by Andrew Brown for Polity in 2017.

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