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the Complete Review
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Mourning Diary

Roland Barthes

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To purchase Mourning Diary

Title: Mourning Diary
Author: Roland Barthes
Genre: Notes
Written: (2009) (Eng.2010)
Length: 261 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Mourning Diary - US
Mourning Diary - UK
Mourning Diary - Canada
Journal de deuil - Canada
Journal de deuil - France
Tagebuch der Trauer - Deutschland
  • French title: Journal de deuil
  • October 26, 1977-June 21, 1978
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Richard Howard
  • "Text established and annotated", and with a Foreword by Natalie Léger

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Our Assessment:

-- : loose, fragmentary collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 9-11/2010 Eric Banks
Le Figaro . 27/2/2009 Jean-Marc Parisis
FAZ . 15/4/2010 Peter Geimer
Libération . 5/2/2009 Mathieu Lindon
London Rev. of Books . 19/11/2009 Michael Wood
The National . 29/10/2010 Scott Esposito
NZZ . 21/8/2010 Stefan Zweifel
The NY Times . 15/10/2010 Dwight Garner
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/1/2011 Lori Soderlind
Slate . 3/11/2010 Meghan O'Rourke
Die Zeit . 18/3/2010 Iris Radisch

  Review Consensus:

  Quite favorable, though note it's fragmentary and is best seen as part of his larger output

  From the Reviews:
  • "But beyond the glimpse it provides of Camera Lucida, Mourning Diary is an unguarded and striking document on its own, a memorial to maman and a terse working draft" - Eric Banks, Bookforum

  • "C'est un livre de dédoublement, déchiré entre l'insondable «chagrin» d'un fils et les exigences théoriques d'un penseur." - Jean-Marc Parisis, Le Figaro

  • "Von Anfang an verbindet er das Tagebuch mit dem Nachdenken über die angemessene Sprache der Trauer. Bezeichnend ist seine Weigerung, die Trauer einem fertigen Vokabular, beispielsweise der Begrifflichkeit der Psychoanalyse, anzuvertrauen. (...) Neben der sprachlichen Qualität des Textes ist seine Bedeutung für das Verständnis anderer Schriften des Autors hervorzuheben." - Peter Geimer. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Que ce livre soit posthume empêche évidemment de savoir comment il aurait été si Barthes avait eu l'intention de le publier, d'autant plus que son rapport au lieu commun passe par les divers degrés de la langue (il ne voulait certes pas qu'on s'arrête au deuxième, seul l'infini lui semblait un chiffre honnête) et que des notes du Journal, d'apparence banale (par exemple, que la disparition de sa mère lui fait penser que lui aussi mourra «à jamais et complètement»), aurait pu être renversées (comme le fait qu'on écrit pour être aimé, dans Roland Barthes) jusqu'au moment où la banalité peut ouvrir sur une liberté. Mais la banalité n'est certes pas ce qui caractérise ces pages émouvantes." - Mathieu Lindon, Libération

  • "(A) sort of sketchpad for Camera Lucida, a trying out not of sentences but of an array of complicated perceptions and feelings; and a slim memorial in its own right. (...) But the Journal is also a haunting account of a man watching himself grieve -- watching what doesn’t ‘present itself as watchable’. It’s not that he thinks the vigil is going to do him any emotional good, but he has to keep looking so that he can write, and writing, he believes, is a kind of haven" - Michael Wood, London Review of Books

  • "A chronicle-in-fragments of the two years after his mother's death, Mourning Diary is a work of profound intellectual and emotional strength. (...) Exact and enigmatic, the notes feel like a natural extension of the terse books that Barthes specialised in, and their suggestive declarations make Mourning Diary feel substantial despite its small size. Though these notes offer only fragments of thought, they give an impression of immensity, as if they were the extremities of a submerged mass." - Scott Esposito, The National

  • "Mourning Diary feels like a first draft: it has repetitions, ambiguous passages and even (as Barthes admits) emotional banalities. But this book’s unvarnished quality is the source of its wrecking cumulative power. Barthes’s ironic intellect, apparent everywhere in his many books, is wrapped here around his sore and nakedly beating heart. Mourning Diary is not his finest work, but it is his most ardent and approachable." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "This volume will provide fresh insight into Barthes’s work and theories. But the diary also has power of its own: it is a stirring mosaic of loss as the author grasps at the void." - Lori Soderlind, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is eminently Barthesian that Mourning Diary isn't a book one reads in a traditional sense but rather a questioning space one enters, imagining what happens in the interstices." - Meghan O'Rourke, Slate

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mourning Diary collects several hundred notes Roland Barthes jotted down on slips of paper in the days, weeks, and months following the 25 October 1977 death of his mother. It is not a 'diary' as such, though the notes have been put in chronological order, and as editor Natalie Léger acknowledges:

     The reader is not presented with a book completed by its author, but the hypothesis of a book desired by him.
       (How much he desired it -- specifically in this form -- and its publication remains an open question, of course.)
       The notes are almost all very personal, as Barthes records his feelings and reactions to the death of his mother, and to this process of mourning he finds himself going through - and acknowledging, for example, that:
In taking these notes, I'm trusting myself to the banality that is in me.
       He also claims:
I don't want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it -- or without being sure of not doing so -- although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.
       This ambivalence, of how to work through and record his grief, perhaps explains why Barthes himself did not publish this book; as is, what is collected here remains very much like -- at best -- working notes towards a real text.
       Apparently extraordinarily close to his mother (they lived together most of their lives), the loss was a great one for him. In facing it Barthes also comes to confront his own mortality: among his observations is the change resulting from the fact that the one person he 'lived for' was now dead; so, for example:
What have I to lose now that I've lost my Reason for living -- the Reason to fear for someone's life.
       Barthes' notes are obsessively inward-focused, with barely any notice of anything beyond: the extent of it is an Aldo Moro mention and the observation that:
What seems to me the furthest from, the most antipathetic to my suffering: reading the newspaper Le Monde and its acid and well-informed procedures.
       (His mother died shortly after the deaths of the leading Baader-Meinhof members (and the murder of Hans-Martin Schleyer by others in the group), which dominated European news coverage in those weeks; all this goes entirely unmentioned.)
       Even as Barthes wallows in his grief he manages to step back and observe his reactions: he can write things like: "ultimately I fall into an abyss of suffering" without then going on and on about the nature of that abyss.
       Nearly a year on, he's more analytical and specific:
Mourning. At the death of the loved being, acute phase of narcissism: one emerges from sickness, from servitude. Then gradually, freedom takes on a leaden hue, desolation settles in, narcissism gives way to a sad egoism, an absence of generosity.
       Hey, whatever works for him ..... (The generalizations might, however, not work so well for everyone: Barthes is much better when he remains self-obsessedly introspective than making grand pronouncements.)
       As translator Richard Howard notes in his Afterword, Barthes was writing other works at the same time as he was making these notes -- works that he even meant to and did publish -- and Mourning Diary can't be separated from these; Howard goes so far as to suggest:
Mourning Diary can be correctly read only by a concomitant reading of these ultimate books and of the hundreds of pages of Barthes's final texts written at the same time [à la fois] he was producing these crucial and painful notations.
       No doubt, the value and interest of these notes increases if they are set in a larger context, and they are surely of greatest interest to the Barthes-obsessed and those familiar with Barthes' other writings. The idea of a book that can somehow/only be "correctly read" in a certain context seems rather troubling [honestly, if I had read that in a foreword rather than on the book's last page I would have chucked it right there] but also points to some of the limits of the book. It's not entirely an 'insider' text, but it certainly helps to be familiar with Barthes' life and writing (the few annotations barely offering any help in either regard). For those who aren't, Mourning Diary does offer some interesting and well-expressed impressions of grief and mourning, and certainly seems heartfelt. Nevertheless, either way, on the whole it's still rather thin.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 November 2010

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Mourning Diary: 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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