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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 that he no longer feels her to be separate from himself but espouses her movements through the kind of transmutation of identity that is normally accepted as occurring in dreams, but in fact occurs all the time in the waking state. Le Clézio is so convinced that the drama of the consciousness’s relationship with itself is the central problem for the writer that he looks upon the traditional literary genres as out-of-date devices corresponding to mistaken concepts. As he says in the preface to Fever:

Poetry, novels and short stories are singular antiques by which hardly anyone is deceived any longer. What’s the use of turning out poems or stories? All that remains now is writing, writing by itself, gropping one’s way with words, searching and describing, meticulously, in depth, hanging on, hammering out reality, rejecting compromise.

LITERATURE BECOMES, then, the meandering monologue, or internal dialogue, of the subjective-objective consciousness. Similarly, Mlle. Wittig’s innovation in L’Opoponax is to write an apparently autobiographical novel about a girl, covering the period from earliest childhood to adolescence, without ever allowing the character to speak to herself, or of herself, in the first person; she refers to herself as “Catherine Legrand,” which is her social label, or as on, the indeterminate pronoun, which often does duty for “we” in colloquial French and is here obviously meant to suggest the vague halo of undifferentiated awareness in which we live most of the time. (The translator, understandably, renders on as “you,” but this conceals the point and simply repeats the objectification of “Catherine Legrand.” Incidentally, this objectifying use of the pronoun had already been exploited by another “New Novelist,” Michel Butor, in La Modification where the hero addresses himself consistently as “you,” using the formal vous instead of the normal, intimate tu.)

Apart from this technical peculiarity, Mlle. Wittig’s account of childhood is surprisingly Behaviorist. Or perhaps this is no surprise; there is an as yet unbridged gap between Sartre’s concept of Existentialist Will and his concept of the phenomenological situation, and the “New Novel,” as a whole, has dropped the difficult problem of will to concentrate on the easier matter of the situation. At any rate, deliberately flouting the usual division into paragraphs, which would indicate a “willful” ordering of events or a hierarchy of importance, Mlle. Wittig juxtaposes short incidents, all coolly, though vividly, described in the present tense. Catherine Legrand has a country childhood; her life is a whirl of games in the schoolyard, half-understood school lessons, rough-and-tumble frolics with the other girls and boys along the river banks or in the vineyards around the town, innocent unruliness in church and occasional, incomprehensible, grownup events, such as funerals and other ceremonies. Mlle. Wittig certainly manages to render the sensation of childhood as a kaleidoscopic flurry of incident, devoid of any general principles and which the child, inevitably, sees as it were from the underside, since the process of growing up consists precisely in getting one’s head, to some slight extent at least, above events. Catherine Legrand makes no overall sense of her experiences and it is probably not an accident that, in the very number of the New Statesman containing Mary McCarthy’s enthusiastic appraisal of L’Opoponax, Mlle. Wittig herself writes on Jean-Luc Godard’s films, which she commends for their discontinuity and plotlessness. My reservation about L’Opoponax (which is really very different from Godard’s films, whose surface discontinuity masks comparatively traditional romantic attitudes) is that the jumble of vivid, physical descriptions of childhood is not enough, because I seem to remember that, in childhood, plotlessness on one level was accompanied by a constant endeavor to create a plot on another level. Mlle. Wittig’s child does not live with one foot in a mythic dream, which, I imagine, is the normal childhood practice. She is too positivistic. All the penumbra of childhood emotion, which is so difficult to describe, has been removed from these bright little sentences, which become rather tedious when one realizes that they are not going to have any further dimension. Actually, poetic overtones do occur during adolescence, a homosexual crush develops, and the word opoponax (the name of a medicinal gum) is used as a kind of numinous term, possibly to signify the terror and delight of sexual desire. But what is faintly sketched in at this late stage ought to have been present from the beginning. I am sure most of us have numinous experiences from the age of three; Proust, to name only one writer, has given marvelous accounts of pre-adolescent emotion. However, Mlle. Wittig, like most “New Novelists,” is afraid of tackling traditional emotions head-on, so she removes them altogether by the systematic use of a technical device. This is “interesting,” like deciding to paint only in one color or to draw using only straight lines, but the interest soon wears thin. Although we are indeterminate, the truth of this indeterminacy cannot be rendered by amputation.

LE CLEZIO is more satisfactory, I think, because he is trying, with naive honesty, to extend the description of the alienated consciousness that was already carried a long way in Sartre’s La Nausée and Camus’s L’Etranger. His “New Novel” aspect is that he disregards all social and political problems and fills a good deal of space with dogged enumerations of physical details, as if the only thing the consciousness can do in certain moments of stress is to relieve the ache of its anonymous void by close attention to the discrete particulars of the external world. His “heroes” go bathing, take aimless walks, or wake up in the night with tooth-aches, and the mere sensation of being alive then becomes so acute as to amount to hysteria. By “fever,” Le Clézio means more or less the same thing as Sartre’s “nausea,” i.e., contingency sickness, the vertigo which arises from persistent contemplation of the central point of non-comprehension. Now and again, there are hints that the vertigo might suddenly turn into ecstasy, as if the nothingness of the creature might be unexpectedly transformed into fullness through communion with God. But these mystic intimations are slight and, in any case, are not accompanied by any metaphysical comment. However, it is significant that, recently, during a visit to Paris, Le Clézio saw Ionesco’s new play about religious aspirations, Le Soif et la faim, and at once published an article hailing it as a masterpiece. His own writing is, as yet, on the verge of the clinical, as if he were just managing to hold in check some serious psychic disturbance which may have more to it than Existentialist nausea. Hence, as one reads him, a strong impression of claustrophobia, which combines with the usual, oppressive solipsism of the “New Novel.” But he is undoubtedly a talent with remarkable possibilities.

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