Mourning Diary

Roland Barthes; Translated from the French and with an afterword by Richard Howard

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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Behind the unflagging mind of the man Susan Sontag considered "the most consistently intelligent, important, and useful literary critic to have emerged anywhere" lay a deeply sensitive man who cherished his mother with a devotion unknown even to his closest friends. The day after his mother's death in October 1977, Roland Barthes began a diary of mourning. Taking notes on index cards as was his habit, he reflected on a new solitude, on the ebb and flow of sadness, and on modern society's dismissal of grief. These 330 cards mark a major discovery in Barthes's work, proving a skeleton key to the themes he tackled throughout his life. They are also a unique study of grief—intimate, moving, and universal.


Praise for Mourning Diary

"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 . . . not his finest work, but it is his most ardent and approachable. Barthes for Beginners, cynics may label it. I prefer to think of it as something else: the literary equivalent of an acoustic recording, a welcome, belated, stripped-down addition to his oeuvre . . . a slender volume that one wants to linger over, to devour slowly."—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"A revelation to readers of the great Barthes."—Judith Thurman, The New Yorker podcast

"Precise and touching memories intersect with spare and at times desperate notes on time, death and grief, written despite 'the fear of making literature out of it.'"—Julian Barnes, The Times Literary Supplement

"A collection of aphorisms, sadnesses, self-analysis: a journal of savage intimacy"—Adam Thirlwell, The New Republic

"A beautiful, lapidary portrait of mourning."—Meghan O'Rourke, Slate

"A belated and unexpected gift."—The London Review of Books

"A writer whose books of criticism and personal musings must be admired as serious and beautiful works of the imagination."—Edmund White

"Though Barthes left behind disciples, there can be no replacing him; his brilliance has a wavelength all its own."—John Updike

"These penseìües on the process of grieving the loss of a mother are an invitation to eavesdrop on a densely qualified rational mind touched by eternal loss. While continuing his life work, the great French cultural critic Barthes kept notes of sadness and self-reflection on slips of paper. This fragmentary book begins the night after his mother's death; informing it all is the presence of absence. Although conflicted by the very process of making literature from grief, Barthes contemplates such day-to-day, unexpected spells of sadness as living in an empty apartment; how the role reversal of caring for a dying parent affected him; the larger mysteries of time; and his own generalized mental state. Compiler and annotator Leger to be commended, as is redoubtable translator Howard, who, in a nostalgic afterword, describes both his experience with Barthes's mother, Henriette, and the relative merits of the craft of rendering any book into another language. This volume is both a window into the soul of a philosopher and a unique contribution to the inspirational literature of the adult child left behind."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Read an Excerpt

October 26, 1977–June 21, 1978

October 26, 1977
First wedding night.
But first mourning night?

October 27
—You have never known a Woman's body!

Read the full excerpt


  • Roland Barthes; Translated from the French and with an afterword by Richard Howard

  • Roland Barthes was born in 1915. A French literary theorist, philosopher, and critic, he influenced the development of various schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, existentialism, social theory, Marxism, and post-structuralism. He died in 1980.

  • Richard Howard Copyright Stephen Barker