Project for a Revolution in New York
Since 1955, when I spent a happy week at the Château d’Eu in Normandy listening to some of the practitioners of the French New Novel, then in the springtime of their fame, expressing their anti-Balzacian views among the imperial, and utterly Balzacian, bric-à-brac of the Orléans-Braganza family, I have puzzled intermittently over this relatively recent artistic phenomenon. The New Novel has been one of the major events during my career—or accidental involvement—as a teacher of French, and I have quite failed to respond to it in any positive way. Ought I to resign, or do they also serve who expound their own obtuseness? I hope so, because I have proved almost as insensitive as a French classicist reacting to the Romantic movement between 1820 and 1830.
This is not, however, because I cling deliberately to any conservative notions about what the novel ought to be. I find the theoretical statements of the New Novelists extremely interesting and, for the most part, intelligible and even acceptable as philosophical principles. Over the years I have had many opportunities of hearing them talk further about their creative beliefs; indeed, I have listened to M. Robbe-Grillet giving the same lecture at least three times in different places, although I have occasionally suspected that, in his case, it is artfully calculated to keep the debate alive through ambiguity rather than to settle it by clarification.
But, generally speaking, I have grasped the argument: it is now old-fashioned to assume, as everyone once did, that the function of the novelist is to show a character or a group of characters living through a phase of life in a recognizable social context. People, whether seen from the outside or the inside, are not “characters”; they are indefinitely complex series of appearances to which it is risible, and almost vulgar, to attach proper names. Time is a mystery—an always immediate mystery, since the past and the future are mere illusions of the shifting present. Any realism of the social context is out of the question, because reality is infinite and multifarious and can only be rendered linguistically by partial, and often mutually exclusive, grids. There are no plots in nature, so that to tell a story in terms of cause and effect is to accept a naïve, linear fiction.
So out go the characters, the story as a chronological sequence, the identifiable narrator or narrators, and any commonsensical description of social settings. All these things are said to smack of the false bourgeois certainties of the nineteenth century, and should be left to those retarded writers who repeat the automatisms of the past without realizing that new forms have to be invented to convey new perceptions. On the whole, what the New Novel gives us in the place of the traditional story is very carefully arranged linguistic structures palpitating in a sort of void, as if they were autonomous patterns or puzzles.
My difficulty is that these patterns or puzzles provide me with little …