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the Complete Review
the complete review - interviews

The Grain of the Voice

Roland Barthes

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To purchase The Grain of the Voice

Title: The Grain of the Voice
Author: Roland Barthes
Genre: Interviews
Written: 1981 (Eng. 1985)
Length: 365 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Grain of the Voice - US
The Grain of the Voice - UK
The Grain of the Voice - Canada
Le grain de la voix - Canada
Le grain de la voix - France
Die Körnung der Stimme - Deutschland
La grana della voce - Italia
El grano de la voz - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Interviews 1962-1980
  • French title: Le grain de la voix
  • Translated by Linda Coverdale

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Our Assessment:

B : good companion-volume to any reading of Barthes

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Grain of the Voice collects many of Roland Barthes' Interviews 1962-1980 (all in French publications, ranging from large-circulation newspapers to more specialized publications to Playboy) -- opening with a 1974 piece (which is not a dialogue, but was published as the preface to a series of dialogues ...), 'From Speech to Writing', and then proceeding chronologically, from 1962 through 1980. (Many of the interviews appear to be edited extracts, described as: "From an interview conducted by [...]" rather than the complete published texts, which is, of course, disappointing.) Many of the interviews are occasioned by the publication of Barthes' various books, making for a useful tour of his output during this time (when he published all his major work save the earlier Writing Degree Zero and Mythologies), as well as popular/critical reaction to it.
       In the introduction to a 1970 conversation in L'Express they still note that: "Roland Barthes is little known to the general public", but a 1973 interview in Le Nouvel Observateur suggests he is, by then: "a central figure in modern French criticism, a figure whose every move is followed with the greatest of interest"; by 1980, Le Matin practically gushes that: "A book by Roland Barthes is always an event".
       In a 1977 interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy Barthes's first comment is: "I don't much like interviews" -- in response to Lévy's claim that:

Roland Barthes, we see very little of you, and you rarely speak in public: aside from your book, we know almost nothing about you ...
       The focus in his conversations is, indeed, largely on his books, and the thinking (and reading) behind them, Barthes focusing on his semiology -- signs in everything ! -- and on the literary, as he suggests generally: "what we ought to do is retrace not the biography of a writer but what could be called the writing of his work, a kind of ergography". Summing up elsewhere, he says: "What I do within myself is philosophize, reflect on my experience" -- though what we get here is certainly more reflection than experience.
       Observing that: "You have written that you don't like the spoken interview which is tape-recorded and then transcribed", Pratiques helpfully provide a questionnaire for Barthes to respond to, and several of the other pieces are also basically response-forms -- three questions that Le Monde submitted to "twenty well-known intellectuals", for example -- but in most of these pieces Barthes does engage in conversation, with varying degrees of back and forth. If somewhat all over the place, the focus on specific works and subjects does prove fairly insightful about these and Barthes' views.
       There are interesting work-titbits too, including the repeated question as to whether or not Barthes has or could see himself writing a novel, an idea he seems to like to toy with while also admitting it's unlikely he'd ever get around to it -- not least because: "my writings are already full of the novelistic (which is the novel minus the characters)". Later, he also explains that another reason for not "changing my manner" and trying something different, like a novel, is that: "I'm afraid of being boring. And I'm afraid of being bored".
       As to his actual work, in discussing S/Z -- his close study of Balzac's Sarrasine -- he reveals, for example, that:
I had begun studying the first three pages of Flaubert's Un cœur simple using the same method, but I let it drop because it seemed to me a bit dry, lacking in the kind of symbolic extravagance I later found in Balzac.
       Barthes mentions much of his own reading and what interests him, from noting: "I love the writing of Ollier, Claude Simon and Nathalie Sarraute", to influences such as Sartre and Brecht -- "There was Brecht, and there still is, I still feel a close tie to Brecht". And already in a 1962 interview he also suggests:
     Imagine a mind like Brecht's confronting life today; that mind would find itself paralyzed by the diversity of life. The world is becoming too rich in stimuli.
       Sade comes up repeatedly -- a writer Barthes engaged with at length, notably in Sade, Fourier, Loyola --, with Barthes noting that: "I have always greatly enjoyed reading Sade, contrary to the current opinion that Sade is a boring author" and judging:
I think he is a very great writer, in the most classical sense of the word; he constructed marvelous novels. That's what I love in Sade, and not so much the transgressive aspect, although I understand its importance. I love Sade as a writer, as I love Proust.
his recognition as a writer should be twofold: as a fine composer of stories, which I think is obvious, and as the producer of a typical sentence, the Sadean sentence. In its erotic developments, this sentence has an incredible beauty and precision. One need only compare Sade with pornographic novels to see that the difference is in the style. And one would experience what it is that makes a great writer.
       The contrast with Alain Robbe-Grillet is also an interesting point -- an author about whom Barthes noted:
Robbe-Grillet doesn't kill meaning at all, he scrambles it; he thinks it's enough to mix up a meaning for it to die. It takes more than that to kill meaning.
       And, in comparison to Sade:
Robbe-Grillet's universe, which is combinative, offers itself explicitly as a universe of perversion, whereas the Sadean universe is not reducible to any erotic perversion whatever, it is unclassifiable on the neurotic chart. Sade upsets psychiatry, he upsets psychoanalysis, and that is what defines his radicality.
       Meanwhile, as he nicely puts it: "Proust is a world-reading system" (though, as he points out: "there are many other possible reading systems", and, for all his appreciation of Proust he makes clear: "I'm not 'Proustian'").
       As the interviews progress, more or less, from book to book, they address each of their subjects more closely, from fashion (The Fashion System) to Barthes' fascination with Japan (Empire of Signs) -- and the interesting contrast to China, which he visited but could do nothing with -- and so on. It's a good introductory overview -- even as, since Barthes insists: "Everything has a meaning, even nonsense", it can only feel like a starting point.
       The Grain of the Voice does make for a good companion volume to reading Barthes' other work -- and one which is of use and interest regardless how much, or little, else of Barthes the reader has already read. Disappointing, however, in the presentation is the absence of an index, which would be useful for a collection such as this one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 July 2023

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The Grain of the Voice: Reviews: Roland Barthes: Other books by Roland Barthes under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author and teacher Roland Barthes lived 1915 to 1980.

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© 2023 the complete review

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