Roland Barthes and the Citroën DS
Citroën DS 19 (Photo by Auto BILD Syndication/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
There’s a nice review in this week’s TLS of a novel about Roland Barthes. La Septième Fonction du langage by Laurent Binet (Grasset) imagines Barthes’s assassination (“Who killed Roland Barthes?” asks the cover line of the book). The writer was in fact knocked down and killed by a laundry van in Paris in 1980.
Barthes’s centenary fell on November 12, and was marked by an exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France earlier this year. Binet’s centenary tribute is rather more irreverent. In his highly entertaining novel, Michel Foucault is depicted with a rare degree of insolence: accosted on the steps of a packed amphitheatre in the Collège de France by Jacques Bayard, the police officer in charge of the investigation into Barthes’s murder, “he looks at the hand gripping his arm as if it was the biggest assault on human rights since the Cambodian genocide”.
This insolence is extended to living figures: the writer Philippe Sollers, who has already appeared in a less than flattering light in Michel Houellebecq’s fiction, is lavishly sent up, as is his partner Julia Kristeva. Bernard-Henri Lévy also makes an appearance. I wonder what they make of the novel.
Also given more than a roll-on part in the novel is the fabled Citroën DS, or Déesse (Goddess) as it soon became known. Contemplating the wrecks of two cars implicated in the crime, Bayard wonders “Why a DS? Production stopped in 1975". And began in 1957. In his essay on the “New Citroën” (published in Mythologies, 1957), Barthes writes: “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object” (translation by Annette Lavers). I particularly like that enormous white steering wheel. And does anyone who ever rode in the back of one recall how the suspension would rise when the key was turned in the ignition? A unique sensation.