In Theory: Towards a New Novel

This appeared in Guardian Books on 13 May 2010:

In Theory: Towards a New Novel

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s provocative essays on creating new literature outside the ‘dead rules’ of the past resonate now

Alain Robbe-Grillet

A novel ‘expresses nothing but itself’ … Alain Robbe-Grillet. Photograph: Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images

David Shields recently dismissed most contemporary novels as “antediluvian texts” that “could have been written by Flaubert 150 years ago”. “In no way,” claimed the author of Reality Hunger, “do they convey what it feels like to live in the 21st century.”

He has a point — albeit one that Alain Robbe-Grillet had already made in 1965 when he deplored the fact that young French novelists were praised for writing “like Stendhal” but castigated as soon as they refused to abide by the “dead rules” of a bygone age. Along with Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon — the main proponents of the new novel (nouveau roman) — Robbe-Grillet stood resolutely in the second camp. In his essays, he returns time and again to the notion that the novel, from Stendhal to Joyce, has constantly evolved — hence the absurdity of using “the norms of the past” to judge the fiction of today. Far from representing a rejection of the past, the quest for a new novel was thus very much in keeping with the history of a genre which, by definition, must always be renewed.

Feeling that his work was too often misrepresented by the critical establishment (with a few notable exceptions including Barthes, Blanchot and Nabokov), Robbe-Grillet published a series of articles to set the record straight. In 1963 they were collected in Towards a New Novel — for my money, one of the most important works of postwar literary criticism. However, these “critical reflections” were never meant to constitute a manifesto. Every novel, according to Robbe-Grillet, is a self-sufficient work of art which cannot be reduced to some external meaning or truth that is “known in advance”. “The New Novel,” as he put it, “is not a theory, it is an exploration.” Why bother writing a book that illustrates a rule when “the statement of the rule would suffice”?

Quoting Heidegger at the beginning of an essay on Waiting For Godot, Robbe-Grillet writes that the human condition is “to be there”. In another essay, he states that it is “chiefly in its presence that the world’s reality resides”. So there you have it. Man is here, the world is there and the distance between the two lies at the heart of the new novel project. We endow the world with meaning (or meaninglessness) in order to control it. From this point of view, the writer’s traditional role was to excavate nature in order to unearth the “hidden soul of things”. Robbe-Grillet calls for the creation of a new form of fiction that reflects the “more modest, less anthropomorphic world” we live in today — one which is “neither significant nor absurd,” but simply is.

This seemingly anodyne observation has serious literary ramifications. Gone is the traditional hero of yore who believed the world was there to be conquered and whose hour of glory coincided with the triumph of individualism. Gone is the humanist “communion” between people and things: “Things are things, and man is only man”. Gone is the notion of tragedy, which Robbe-Grillet sees as a twisted ploy to reaffirm this solidarity: “I call out. No one answers. Instead of concluding that there is no one there (…) I decide to act as if someone were there, but someone who, for some reason or other, will not answer”. In the new novel, “Man looks at the world” but “the world does not look back,” which precludes any symbolism or transcendence. The novelist’s task now is to describe the material world, not to appropriate it or project himself onto it; to record the distance between human beings and things without interpreting this distance as a painful division. All this implies that the “entire literary language” be reformed. Similes and metaphors, which are often used gratuitously to confer literary status upon a text, are seldom innocent since they tend to anthropomorphise the world.

The new novel is routinely attacked for being inhuman and coldly descriptive. Robbe-Grillet responds that his work is in fact far less objective than the godlike, omniscient narrator who presides over so many traditional novels. Description here is purely subjective and takes centre stage, whereas in Balzac, for instance, it simply sets the scene by lending the plot an air of authenticity. Instead of referring to an external, pre-existing reality, Robbe-Grillet’s descriptions seem to create their own objects, their own hallucinatory reality. “Nothing,” he explains, “is more fantastic, ultimately, than precision.”

The reality of any work of art is its form, and to separate style from substance is to “remove the novel from the realm of art”. Art, Robbe-Grillet reminds us, is not just a pretty way of presenting a message: it is the message. Like the world out there, a novel is self-sufficient and “expresses nothing but itself”. Its “necessity” has nothing to do with its “utility”. Whenever an author envisages a future book, “it is always a way of writing which first of all occupies his mind,” which leads Robbe-Grillet to state — provocatively — that “the genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking”. Creative writing classes should always start and end on that note.

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Here is a slightly longer version of the same piece:

David Shields recently dismissed most contemporary novels as “antediluvian texts” that “could have been written by Flaubert 150 years ago”. “In no way,” claimed the author of Reality Hunger, “do they convey what it feels like to live in the 21st century.” He has a point — one that Alain Robbe-Grillet had already made, back in 1965, when he deplored the fact that young French novelists were praised for writing “like Stendhal” but castigated as soon as they refused to abide by the “dead rules” of a bygone age. Along with Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon — the main proponents of the so-called New Novel (Nouveau Roman) — Robbe-Grillet stood resolutely in the second camp. Throughout his essays, he returns time and again to the notion that the novel, from Stendhal to Joyce, has constantly evolved, hence the absurdity of using “the norms of the past” (and specifically those of the 19th century) to judge the fiction of today. He defends the nouveaux romanciers from accusations of formalism by arguing that the true “formalists” are in fact those who write formulaically, as if “the ‘true novel'” had been cast “once and for all” in the Balzacian mould: “But we, on the contrary, who are accused of being theoreticians, we do not know what a novel, a true novel, should be; we know only that the novel today will be what we make it, today, and that it is not our job to cultivate a resemblance to what it was yesterday, but to go forward”. Far from representing a rejection of the past, the quest for a new novel was thus very much in keeping with the history of a genre which, by definition, must always be renewed. “Flaubert wrote the new novel of 1860, Proust the new novel of 1910”: it was up to the nouveaux romanciers to bring the novel kicking and screaming into the 1950s.

Feeling that his work was too often misrepresented by the critical establishment (with a few notable exceptions like Barthes, Blanchot or Nabokov) and misunderstood by large sections of the reading public, Robbe-Grillet started publishing a series of articles in order to set the record straight. In 1963, they were collected in Towards a New Novel (For a New Novel in the American version; Pour un nouveau roman in the original) which, for my money, remains one of the most important works of post-war criticism. Not surprisingly, these essays cover the period during which Robbe-Grillet was also producing some of his greatest works of fiction: The Voyeur (1955), Jealousy (1957) and the screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

In retrospect, some of the author’s predictions may seem wide of the mark: the New Novel did not, for instance, bring about “a revolution more complete” than “romanticism or naturalism”. Robbe-Grillet’s Pascalian “wager” that “man, some day, will free himself” of the concept of tragedy, strikes me as impossibly naive. The claim that calling upon the reader to play an active part in the creation of the world of a novel will also enable him “to learn to invent his own life” probably sounds a tad too ambitious — or even pretentious — for us today. But all this is just nitpicking when set against the radical renewal of fiction that is heralded within these pages. Whereas Finnegans Wake feels like a one-off or a dead end, Towards a New Novel still reads like a blueprint for a truly novel novel.

Robbe-Grillet’s forays into criticism were frowned upon by those who clung to the old cliché of the great writer in the throes of creation as “a kind of unconscious monster” emitting “‘messages’ which only the reader may decipher”. Not only did the author claim that there was no “antinomy between creation and consciousness,” but he was also convinced that literature had entered an age of self-conscious creation in which “critical preoccupations” would prove a “driving force”. However, his “critical reflections” were in no way intended to constitute “a theory, a pre-existing mould into which to pour the books of the future”. Every novel, according to Robbe-Grillet, is a self-sufficient work of art which cannot be reduced to some external meaning or truth that is “known in advance”: “The New Novel is not a theory, it is an exploration”. Why bother writing a book that illustrates a rule when “the statement of the rule would suffice”?

Towards a New Novel is neither a theory of the novel nor the manifesto of a new literary movement. Robbe-Grillet speaks of “a possible novel of the future,” “this literature still in progress” and the search for “a realistic style of an unknown genre beyond Flaubert and Kafka”. It is all very modest and tentative. There are few references to the “New Novel” as such — a term coined by a journalist in 1957 — and none to “L’Ecole du regard” (literally the School of Sight) or “L’Ecole de Minuit” (many of the nouveaux romanciers were published by Les Editions de Minuit where Robbe-Grillet was a literary advisor for 30 years). The New Novel, we are told, is simply a “convenient label for writers seeking new forms to express new relations between Man and the world”. This is as close to a programme that we get.

Quoting Heidegger at the beginning of an essay on Waiting For Godot, Robbe-Grillet writes that the human condition is “to be there”. In another essay, he states that it is “chiefly in its presence that the world’s reality resides”. So there you have it. Man is here, the world is there and the distance between the two lies at the heart of the New Novel project. We endow the world with meaning (or meaninglessness) in order to control it. From this point of view, the writer’s traditional role was to excavate nature in order to unearth the “hidden soul of things”. Words were traps “in which the writer captured the universe” before handing it over to society. Robbe-Grillet calls for the creation of a new form of fiction that reflects the “more modest, less anthropomorphic world” we live in today — one which is “neither significant nor absurd,” but simply is. This seemingly anodyne observation has huge literary ramifications.

Gone is the traditional hero of yore who considered the world was only there to be conquered and whose hour of glory coincided with the triumph of individualism. Gone is the humanist “communion” or “solidarity” between people and things: “Things are things, and man is only man”. Gone is the notion of tragedy, which Robbe-Grillet sees as a twisted ploy to reaffirm this “solidarity”: “I call out. No one answers. Instead of concluding that there is no one there (…) I decide to act as if someone were there, but someone who, for some reason or other, will not answer”. In the New Novel, “Man looks at the world” but “the world does not look back,” which precludes any symbolism or transcendence. The novelist’s task now is to describe the material world (not to appropriate it or project himself onto it); to record the distance between human beings and things (without interpreting this distance as a painful division). All this implies that the “entire literary language” be reformed. Similes and metaphors, which are often used gratuitously to confer literary status upon a text, are seldom innocent since they tend to anthropomorphize the world.

The New Novel is routinely attacked for being inhuman and coldly descriptive. Robbe-Grillet responds that his work is in fact far less objective than the godlike omniscient narrator who presides over so many traditional novels. Description here is purely subjective and takes centre stage whereas in Balzac, for instance, it simply sets the scene by lending the plot an air of authenticity. Instead of referring to an external, pre-existing reality, Robbe-Grillet’s descriptions seem to create their own objects, their own hallucinatory reality. “Nothing,” he explains, “is more fantastic, ultimately, than precision.”

The reality of any work of art is its form, and to separate style from substance is to “remove the novel from the realm of art”. Art, Robbe-Grillet reminds us, is not just a pretty way of presenting a message: it is the message. Like the world out there, a novel is self-sufficient and “expresses nothing but itself”. Its “necessity” has nothing to do with its “utility”. Whenever an author envisages a future book, “it is always a way of writing which first of all occupies his mind,” which leads Robbe-Grillet to state — somewhat provocatively — that “The genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking”. Creative writing classes should always start and end on that note.

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