Roland Barthes lived a life that provides ample material for a riveting biography and wrote fascinating, highly complex works that decades later still cry out for careful analysis. He was born in poverty but rose to international fame as a cultural critic and theoretician; his brilliant explorations of the “semiotics” of advertising, fashion, literature, and popular culture continue to influence scholars and attract numerous academic and nonacademic devotees. Yet Roland Barthes: A Biography only scratches the surface of what should be a compelling life story. While significant because it is the first biography of Barthes, it will surely be surpassed by later works that can easily build upon its plodding overview of data and thin, elementary analysis.
To be sure, Louis-Jean Calvet provides all the factual material that a reader might desire in a biography. One learns that Roland Barthes was born on November 12, 1915, to Henriette Barthes, an upper-class young woman married to a young seaman, Louis Barthes. Because of her financially unfavorable marriage and later romantic entanglements, Barthes’s mother was forever estranged from her wealthy relatives, who continued to snub her even after the death of her husband in 1916; Henriette eventually had to take up bookbinding to provide for Roland and her second child, Michel Salzedo, who was born out of wedlock in 1927. The family’s personal trials and financial problems were witnessed firsthand by Philippe Rebeyrol, who was Roland Barthes’s classmate in the early 1930’s and remained his close friend. From Rebeyrol, scholars know that Barthes’s early years were marked by intense poverty and continuing familial upheaval, soon made far worse by serious illness.
Certainly Calvet is a competent biographer, carefully relating the facts surrounding the early onset of Barthes’s lung disease, which began in 1934 and led to several very long stays in sanatoriums lasting through the mid-1940’s. Calvet draws on Barthes’s own letters, his published reminiscences, and interviews with numerous friends and acquaintances to provide an overview of the lonely life of a frustrated, gifted young student whose desire to continue his education remained unfulfilled because of uncertain health. Calvet also carefully details Barthes’s ambitious and successful plan of self-study, which encompassed works by Walt Whitman, Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, and Karl Marx, tells of Barthes’s interactions with fellow hospital patients and local townspeople, and surveys Barthes’s first experiments in writing for student publications. Yet throughout Calvet seems highly reticent to probe beyond the surface; he rarely relates Barthes’s severe bouts of depression to his sense of isolation as a young homosexual and never really explores the social and psychological implications of Barthes’s highly uncertain class status (while Barthes had contact with his wealthy relatives, he could never look to them for financial support). Going similarly unexplored is the full impact of World War II upon the young Barthes, who in a sanatorium was isolated from major battles but whose work was profoundly influenced by the political turmoil that surrounded him. Skimming over these issues, Calvet seems intent solely on relating hard facts, and doing so in the most concise fashion possible.
Equally thin, and at times even mechanical, is Calvet’s overview of the four years that Barthes spent as a teacher and cultural attaché in Bucharest, Romania, and Alexandria, Egypt, after he was finally pronounced cured and released from health facilities in 1946. Readers do learn a few details about Barthes’s active social life and the beginnings of his writing career as a correspondent for the periodical Combat during the late 1940’s, but nothing concerning the relationship between what he was writing and the life that he was living at the time. Even highly significant events are hastily reported and then dropped, such as Barthes’s developing relationship with A. J. Greimas, whom he first met in 1949. Greimas is one of the most important linguists of the twentieth century; his work on language had clear and profound impact on the development of Barthes’s own theories of cultural “signs” and systems of meaning. Yet again, Calvet seems unwilling to explore these connections, perhaps leaving to more analytically inclined writers the responsibility for probing and cri-tiquing Barthes’s work and the genesis of his ideas.
With Barthes’s return to Paris in 1950, readers enter the era of his most prolific production as a writer and a time of immense intellectual dynamism. Barthes was a contemporary and acquaintance of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and other leading French intellectuals...
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