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ROLAND BARTHES by Louis-Jean Calvet

ROLAND BARTHES

A Biography

By Louis-Jean Calvet

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-7456-1017-X
Publisher: Indiana Univ.

 This first full biography of Roland Barthes (191580) provides a useful overview of the celebrated literary and cultural critic's career, without taking itself too seriously. Because Calvet (Sociolinguistics/Sorbonne, France) sets out to provide a detailed portrait, his book inhabits a different genre than do such noted biographical sketches as Barthes's own Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and D.A. Miller's recent Bringing Out Roland Barthes. His subject's discursive tendencies prove infectious, however, and by the time he finishes, the impressionistic mode has clearly won out. Calvet begins with an intriguing account of Barthes's genealogy: One grandfather was a noted African explorer, the other a small-town railway inspector. Barthes never knew his father, a casualty of WW I. He was, on the other hand, extremely close to his mother, with whom he continued to live until her death, which came only shortly before his own. While living in straitened circumstances, the young Barthes excelled at academic pursuits. What augured to be a brilliant career was derailed in 1934, however, when Barthes was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Calvet sheds much new light on Barthes's sojourns in sanitariums and his subsequent years in foreign cultural attachÇ posts. He captures the delicate manner in which Barthes established his homosexuality without offending his often oblivious friends and the authorities where he was posted. Upon returning to Paris in the 1950s, Barthes rocketed to literary notoriety with his essay ``Writing Degree Zero'' and his influential Mythologies. Calvet provides much background information useful for understanding the better-known latter years of Barthes's career. He skillfully catalogues Barthes's intellectual eccentricities, from his obsessive writing routines to his improvisational pedagogy. The crucial role played by colleagues and friends like A.J. Greimas and Julia Kristeva emerges as never before. But overall, intellectual history is not Calvet's strong suit. His account of the impact and significance of Barthes's mature thought seems thin. Hardly definitive, then--but endearingly chatty, much in the spirit of Barthes himself.