The Indeterminate I


by J.M.G. Le Clézio, translated by Daphne Woodward
Atheneum, 256 pp., $4.95

The Opoponax

by Monique Wittig, translated by Helen Weaver
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $4.95

The French “New Novel,” although still an amorphous entity very difficult to define, is now old enough to have produced a second generation of exponents, among whom I would place these two new authors, who have been the most widely acclaimed young writers to appear during the last two or three years. La Fièvre, a collection of short stories written in the “New Novel” manner, is Le Clézio’s second book; the first, Le Procès-verbal, won one of the annual literary prizes two years ago. Mlle. Wittig is also a prize-winner; L’Opoponax has been awarded the Prix Medicis and has been praised by two older “New Novelists,” Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. It has also been discussed enthusiastically and at length in the New Statesman by Miss Mary McCarthy, who seems to consider it as being almost as important as Mme. Sarraute’s Fruits d’or, which, in her view, is already a classic. I may as well say at once that, while I respect the writings of Mlle. Wittig and Mme. Sarraute, I find Miss McCarthy’s comments on L’Opoponax rather more stimulating than the book itself, just as I felt that her theories about Fruits d’or related to some novel that she herself might possibly have liked to write, but which was not convincingly embodied, at least for me, in Mme. Sarraute’s actual work. And, generally speaking, most “New Novels” strike me as providing more enjoyment through the discussion they arouse than through the preliminary reading of the text. This may mean that I cannot react directly to a new crystalization of sensibility and have to fall back on trying to grasp it intellectually. Or it may be indicative of something paradoxical in the “New Novel” itself, which concentrates so fiercely on certain limited approaches to reality that its main usefulness is to irritate the reader into a reassessment of his general concept of consciousness.

M. Le Clézio and Mlle. Wittig are, temperamentally, very different from each other, the former being very neurotic and, indeed, perhaps too overtly anguished to fit entirely into the “New Novel” pattern, the latter robust and commonsensical, in so far as a writer of this kind can believe in commonsense. Neither, however, tries to any extent to achieve objectification in created “characters”; both occasionally seem to be describing named people from the outside, but this is merely a way of avoiding the monotony or inaccuracy of saying “I” all the time. Their theme is the fluctuation of their own inner awareness, the mystery of identity, the impossibility of coinciding with being and, in this respect, they derive, of course, like a good part of the “New Novel,” from Existentialist psychology. Each consciousness is, at once or successively, subject and object; it can only know itself as subject by turning itself into object; and then again, when an object is contemplated intensively, it surges back into, and swamps, the subject. For instance, one of Le Clézio’s “heroes,” in thinking about his wife, becomes his wife in the sense…

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