Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology
The Pleasure of the Text
The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers
Come Back, Dr. Caligari
Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts
The Dead Father
The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Men and Women at Love
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
In the Heart of the Heart of the Country
The Floating Opera
The End of the Road
The Sot-Weed Factor
Lost in the Funhouse
The Crying of Lot 49
The New Novel is close to forty years old. Although forty is young for an American presidential candidate or a Chinese buried egg, it is very old indeed for a literary movement, particularly a French literary movement. But then what, recently, has one heard of the New Novel, whose official vernissage occurred in 1938 with Nathalie Sarraute’s publication of Tropismes? The answer is not much directly from the founders but a good deal indirectly, for, with characteristic torpor, America’s Departments of English have begun slowly, slowly to absorb the stern aesthetics of Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet, not so much through the actual writing of these masters as through their most brilliant interpreter, the witty, meta-camp sign-master and analyst of le degré zéro de l’écriture Roland Barthes, whose amused and amusing saurian face peers like some near-sighted chameleon from the back of a half dozen slim volumes now being laboriously read in Academe.
Barthes has also had a significant (or signifying) effect on a number of American writers, among them Mr. Donald Barthelme. Two years ago Mr. Barthelme was quoted as saying that the only American writers worth reading are John Barth, Grace Paley, William Gass, and Thomas Pynchon.1 Dutifully, I have read all the writers on Mr. Barthelme’s list, and presently I will make my report on a kind of writing that derives from, variously, Gertrude Stein, Joyce, and Beckett; from the American University itself, as fact and metaphor; from Dada, Zero Degree French novelists, and Roland Barthes himself. But, first, a look at M. Barthes.
For over twenty years Barthes has been a fascinating high critic who writes with equal verve about Charlie Chaplin, detergents, Marx, toys, Balzac, structuralism, and semiology. He has also put the theory of the New Novelists rather better than they have themselves, a considerable achievement since it is as theoreticians and not as practitioners that these writers excel. Unlike Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, and Butor, Professor Barthes is much too clever actually to write novels himself, assuming that such things exist, new or old, full of signs or not, with or without sequential narratives. Rather, Barthes has remained a commentator and a theoretician, and he is often pleasurable to read though never blissful, to appropriate his own terminology.
Unlike the weather, theories of the novel tend to travel from east to west. But then, as we have always heard (sometimes from the French themselves), the French mind is addicted to the postulating of elaborate systems in order to explain everything (including the inexplicable), while the Anglo-American mind tends to shy away from unified-field theories. We chart our courses point to point; they sight from the stars. The fact that neither really gets much of anywhere doesn’t mean that we haven’t all had some nice outings over the years.
Nine years ago I wrote an exhaustive and, no doubt, exhausting account of the theory or theories of the French New Novel. Rejected by the American literary paper for which I had written it (subject not all…
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