Roland Barthes, Jorge Luis Borges and Other TLS Reads

The editor of the TLS, Peter Stothard, picks his favorite articles. This week: Roland Barthes’ about-face on importance of authors, Jorge Luis Borges’ neverending oeuvre, and the Chalabi family history.

Roland Barthes’ Surprising About-Face

Does it matter where, or at what time of day, a writer writes? Roland Barthes thought so. In his lectures at the Collège de France on The Preparation of the Novel, "one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century" homed in on the “minutiae of authors’ habits.” Flaubert was of the Virginia Woolf cast of mind, requiring “no more than a quiet room with ‘a good fire in winter and a pair of candles to light me at night,'” whereas Proust favored his bed, and wrote through the night, in a “complete inversion” of ordinary living. In this "most unusual book," reviewed by Mairead Hanrahan in the TLS this week, the man who decreed the Death of the Author did an about-face and returned both the author and the work to center stage.

The Unknown Jorge Luis Borges

For Jorge Luis Borges, the subject of Martin Schifino’s review, night came to mean something other than a good time to write: “Night and darkness, as poetic subjects and metaphors, expand only with the arrival of blindness.” Typically, Borges embraced his affliction “as a gift,” which encouraged recollection. "Readers find it easy to carry Borges in their heads. It has proved rather difficult, however, to carry his work in a reasonable number of books"—Borges' publishing history has turned out, appropriately, to be labyrinthine.

Upper-Class Iraq Recalled

The TLS’s Middle East Editor, Robert Irwin, finds the family history of the wealthy Chalabi clan from Iraq "has some resemblance to John Galsworthy’s fictional Forsyte Saga, since the Chalabis were, like the Forsytes, a great clan bonded by a concern for money." The author's father, Ahmed Chalabi, had a "somewhat shady role in persuading the U.S. to invade Iraq" and this version of modern Iraqi history is certainly partial, but nonetheless of great value.

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Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq War.