The End of Realist Stories

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 November 2013:

The End of Realist Stories

The limitations of mimetic storytelling are ever more apparent, but what should come next is less clear

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter's painting 'Strip' showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Strip’ showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Literary fiction is dead — or if not dead then finished, according to the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted writer Lars Iyer, who argues it has become a “repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas” and suggests that novelists should spread the word that “the time for literary novels is over“. But literary fiction has always been dead, has always needed the mould-breaking writing which the Goldsmiths prize celebrates.

Ever since its birth, writers have been suspicious of the novel, reaching for the authenticity of the real — often presenting their work as memoir, à la Robinson Crusoe. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. Ashamed of its frivolity, fiction drapes itself in the gravitas of non-fiction.

If literature needs to be something more than just storytelling, then perhaps one could argue with Maurice Blanchot that it only truly becomes grown-up when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth“, but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree“.

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time. For Fredric Jameson, realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance in its narrative in order to kill it off, and turn into its antithesis.

Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of the secularisation of society; a process that ran counter to the “universalising conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels sought to focus on the singular, contingent, and therefore unliterary aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomisation of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of “affects”, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told.

The realist novel was a product of this tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of fiction today. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. As Borges warns, “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete”.

The history of the novel could thus be reinterpreted as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. Don Quixote perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Emma Bovary is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing”, and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and EM Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. Similarly, the realist novel attempted to dissolve whatever smacked of literariness. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists”, and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”.

Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality“. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe”, and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. For his part, the nouveau romancier was convinced that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

The nouveau roman may not be very new any more, but there’s no shortage of writers lining up alongside Iyer to call time on the traditional novel. For David Shields, novels are “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. JM Coetzee is “sick of the well-made novel,” while Zadie Smith says she suffers from “novel-nausea”. Even the thought of fiction is enough to make Karl Ove Knausgaard “feel nauseous“.

Tim Parks is the latest to confess he shares “Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels,” but he’s less convinced that Shields’s hunger for reality is the answer. Writers such as Beckett or Lydia Davis may have avoided the trap of the traditional novel, he argues, but “this kind of writing … seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction”.

If the novel is dead — always already — as Iyer suggests, then it’ll take more than a dose of reality to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing lying at our feet.

****

Here is a longer, earlier incarnation of this piece:

Fictive Realism

The Goldsmiths Prize, whose first laureate will be announced next month, was launched “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Hopefully, it will act as an antidote to the blandness of the Booker and the spread of so-called fiction fatigue. Reports of the death of the novel have always been greatly exaggerated, of course, but David Shields clearly struck a chord with his Reality Hunger manifesto. Novels, he claimed — reprising arguments which Robbe-Grillet and John Barth had rehearsed in the 50s and 60s — are “works of nostalgic entertainment,” “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. J. M. Coetzee declared that he, too, was “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings”. Zadie Smith came down with a similar bout of “novel-nausea”. Karl Ove Knausgaard reached a stage where “just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made [him] feel nauseous”. According to Lars Iyer — whose coruscating comedy, Exodus, graces the Goldsmiths shortlist — literary fiction has become “a kind of repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas”. In a recent interview, he even argues that the task of the novelist today is to spread the word that that “the time for literary novels is over”.

According to Nietzsche, the terrible truth about existence was revealed but also beautified in tragedy at its Grecian best. Offered a glimpse into the abyss, the spectator was saved from the temptation to jump by the aesthetic anaesthetic. Likewise in literature, where fact is viewed, obliquely, through fiction. This tension between the Dionysian and Apollonian accounts for some authors’ ambivalence towards the narcotic of narrative: its reassuring reordering of chaos, and entertainment value. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. This, no doubt, is why so many early novels purported to be authentic documents — frequently memoirs, à la Robinson Crusoe. Ashamed of its frivolous lack of necessity, fiction draped itself in the gravitas of non-fiction. After Maurice Blanchot, one could argue, contrarily, that literature only truly emerges when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno‘s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth,” but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days,” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its fictive nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, are wary of the consolations of fiction, with their whiff of prelapsarian micturation. They sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete,” warns Borges, in one of his most famous stories. The history of the novel could thus be construed as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. In Don Quixote — arguably the first great novel — the eponymous anti-hero perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Likewise Madame Bovary. Emma is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing,” and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and E. M. Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists,” and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”. Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality”. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe,” and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. The nouveau romancier believed, for his part, that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world  — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Although the world is simply there in all its awesome weirdness, reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s “capitalist realism“, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is literature’s unsurpassable horizon. The paradox is that the original (real?) realist novel, set out to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality, as Fredric Jameson explains in The Antinomies of Realism. The title of his latest work refers to the conflicted, agonistic nature of this literary trend. Realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance within its belly in order to abort it, and turn into its antithesis.

Uncontentiously, Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of a process of secularisation of society, that ran counter to the “universalizing conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels took on an Adamic quality by focusing on the singular and contingent — aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomization of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified (and literary) “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of affects, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told. The realist novel was the result of this tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the telling of a tale that has happened “once and for all” in the preterite tense) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” would be explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention would frequently break down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognizable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new sub-genres and stereotypes which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of the novel today. “A book that does not contain its counterbook”? Sounds like literary fiction to me.

La faim du livre

Along with Gérard Berréby, Augustin Trapenard, and Hervé Laurent, I was interviewed by Linn Levy for a piece entitled “La faim du livre” which appeared in the December 2013 issue of Swiss magazine Edelweiss. The article features on pp. 44-47; my interview is on p. 46.

La faim du livre

Edelweiss part en quête de la littérature contemporaine, des mots qui dérangent et se demande si être écrivain veut encore dire quelque chose par les temps qui courent. Quatre intellectuels se penchent sur ces questions et nous éclairent.

«Nous sommes les visages de notre temps», clamaient les futuristes russes, le poète Maïakosvki en tête, il y a exactement un siècle, pétris de la conviction que l’art qu’ils inventaient allait renverser l’ordre des choses, qu’en récrivant le monde ils façonneraient le futur. Et aujourd’hui? A qui appartiennent les visages de l’époque contemporaine? Peut-on encore écrire? Et quels sont, parmi le demi-millier d’ouvrages publiés cette rentrée en Suisse et en France, ceux qui tordent la littérature, l’éprouvent, l’inventent? Oui, dans quels livres trouve-t-on les questions que nous ne nous sommes pas encore posées? Difficile pour le lecteur de se retrouver dans le magma de fictions qui ornent les étals des librairies comme les marchandises envahissent les hypermarchés. Le divertissement, devenu la norme au risque d’endormir insidieusement les esprits, laisse peu de place au doute, la tension semble diluée, presque rien ne dérange, pas grand-chose ne dépasse. Alors, pour celui qui a faim d’autre chose que de spectacle et qui ne déteste pas être dérangé – «Etre scandalisé, un plaisir», assurait Pasolini –, il s’agit de résister en cherchant les lignes qui dévient, la littérature, la vraie, ce souffle qui a «la faculté d’empêcher la folie du monde de s’emparer totalement de nous», comme l’écrit Alberto Manguel. Quatre experts nous éclairent sur les mots d’aujourd’hui, l’influence du web, la mort imminente du droit d’auteur, celle de la figure de l’écrivain, sur le remix aussi, et l’irrévérence anglo-saxonne ou helvétique… L’éditeur Gérard Berréby, l’écrivain et professeur Andrew Gallix, le journaliste Augustin Trapenard et le critique d’art Hervé Laurent ont accepté de surcroît de dévoiler leurs titres préférés de la rentrée.

Andrew Gallix
Ecrivain, éditeur, professeur à la Sorbonne

L’écriture a cinquante ans de retard sur la peinture – triste constat de l’artiste Brion Gysin dans les années 60… «Et, pour le philosophe et romancier anglais Lars Iyer, la situation n’a fait qu’empirer. Le roman, censé échapper au monde des genres, est lui-même devenu un genre. Pour lui, la littérature est morte (comme la musique classique avant elle) et les livres que l’on peut encore écrire doivent exprimer la distance qui nous sépare de la grande littérature du passé. Cette «postlittérature» s’inscrit d’ailleurs dans un contexte politique et culturel plus général: pour Mark Fisher ou Simon Reynolds, par exemple, la modernité est derrière nous. Cette nouvelle crise du roman, symbolisée par Reality Hunger, le manifeste de David Shields, se traduit souvent par un rejet de la fiction.» Les idées se bousculent dans l’esprit brillant d’Andrew Gallix. L’écrivain britannique, professeur à la Sorbonne, collaborateur du quotidien The Guardian, punk depuis l’âge de 12 ans, a lancé en 2000 le premier blog littéraire en anglais, «3:AM Magazine»1, dont le mot d’ordre est le très groucho-marxesque: «De quoi qu’il s’agisse, nous sommes contre». Un webzine si avant-gardiste qu’il a donné naissance à un véritable mouvement littéraire, The Offbeat Generation, regroupant des plumes anglophones non conformistes (Tony O’Neill, Ben Myers, Tom McCarthy notamment), rejetant la culture dominante et le monde traditionnel de l’édition. «La littérature est quelque chose qui résiste, analyse-t-il. Même s’il n’existe plus vraiment d’avant-garde – le web l’a diluée en quelque sorte –, je remarque que l’écriture conceptuelle, expérimentale prend de plus en plus d’importance. Il y a toute une génération d’auteurs qui reste très influencée par la théorie poststructuraliste de Derrida, je pense notamment à Rachel Kushner. Il y a un autre courant d’écrivains, américains pour la plupart, qui s’inscrit dans la directe lignée de l’éditeur Gordon Lish – celui qui a en quelque sorte fait Raymond Carver. Pour eux, tout se passe au niveau de la phrase. Et, pour finir, je trouve passionnante et à suivre la scène littéraire qui s’est formée autour de la revue new-yorkaise n+1 (nplusonemag.com).»
1 http://www.andrewgallix.com / http://www.3ammagazine.com

Il lit:
Au départ d’Atocha, Ben Lerner (à paraître)
C, Tom McCarthy, L’Olivier
Nue, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Editions de Minuit

La influencia de la ansiedad

This article, translated by Iris Bernal, appeared in Función Lenguaje 2 (summer 2012)

La influencia de la ansiedad

“Llegamos demasiado tarde para decir algo que no se haya dicho ya” se lamentaba La Bruyère a finales del siglo XVII. El hecho de que el propio La Bruyère
llegara tarde al afirmar esto (el Eclesiasta y Terencio ya se habían adelantado a él en los siglos III y II AC) venía a demostrar su aserto. Según la precuela de Macedonio Fernández, anterior al Génesis, siempre hemos llegado demasiado tarde. Este autor imagina lo que bien podría haber sucedido cuando Dios estaba a punto de crear el universo. De pronto, una voz clama en el desierto, interrumpiendo el eterno silencio del espacio infinito, la misma que aterra a Pascal: “Todo ha sido escrito, todo ha sido dicho, todo ha sido hecho”, se lamenta. El Todopoderoso, que ya ha escuchado esto con anterioridad, sigue adelante sin darle importancia, dando sentido a la famosa ocurrencia de André Gide: “Todo está ya dicho, pero como nadie escucha, hay que volverlo a decir” (Le Traité du Narcisse, 1891). En el principio fue el verbo, y el verbo es anterior al principio mismo.

En su obra más influyente, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom argumentaba que los grandes poetas románticos malinterpretaron a sus ilustres predecesores “con el fin de liberar un espacio imaginativo para sí mismos”. La figura del padre literario se asesinaba, metafóricamente hablando, a través de un proceso de “transgresión poética”. T.S. Eliot ya había expresado una idea similar a propósito de la de Philip Massinger: “Los poetas inmaduros imitan; los poetas maduros roban; los malos poetas desfiguran lo que toman, y los buenos poetas lo convierten en algo mejor, o al menos en algo diferente” (1920). Borges, discípulo de Macedonio, al cual Bloom hace referencia, compartía la misma longitud de onda (aunque en el extremo opuesto del dial) cuando exclamaba que “cada escritor crea sus propios precursores” (1951).

Según Bloom, este sentimiento de inferioridad es, más que un fenómeno característico del Renacimiento, el motor principal de la historia de la literatura: “Llegar tarde no me parece en absoluto una condición histórica, sino una situación que pertenece al hecho literario como tal”. A lo largo de los siglos, la creación literaria ha sido siempre un diálogo de dos direcciones entre el pasado y el presente (el primero subsiste en el segundo; el segundo arroja luz sobre el primero). En sus Essais (1580), Montaigne ya se quejaba de la multiplicación de exégesis parasitarias: “Es más laborioso interpretar las interpretaciones que interpretar las cosas, y hay más libros sobre libros que sobre cualquier otro tema: no hacemos más que parafrasearnos unos a otros”. George Steiner, otro crítico sincero de “el Leviatán de papel del discurso secundario”, sostiene que la forma más elevada de paráfrasis se halla en la propia literatura: “Cuando el poeta critica al poeta desde el interior del poema, la hermenéutica lee el texto viviente que Hermes, el mensajero, ha traído del reino de los muertos inmortales” (Real Presences, 1989). Esto implica que la creación literaria no trata sobre la expresión del yo, sino sobre la recepción y la transmisión. “El verdadero poeta es hablado por el lenguaje, el poeta es el médium elegido, por decirlo así, en virtud de su naturaleza osmótica, permeable, gracias a lo que Keats denomina su ‘capacidad negativa’. Antes de ser nuestro, el acto de recepción es el del artista-creador” (Grammars of Creation, 2001). Lo que llama la atención es que Steiner, cuya concepción de la literatura deriva de sus creencias religiosas, debería estar totalmente de acuerdo, en este punto, con Tom McCarthy, que viene, por decirlo de alguna manera, del otro lado de las barricadas. Para el autor de C (2010) -una novela que versa sobre la ficción como recepción y transmisión-, “el escritor es un receptor y el contenido ya está ahí. La tarea del escritor es filtrarlo, ejemplificarlo y remezclarlo; no de forma aleatoria sino de forma consciente y atenta”. Dándole la vuelta a la cronología, él considera Finnegans Wake como el código fuente de la ficción anglófona: un nuevo comienzo, más que un hiato o un punto y aparte. Por supuesto, McCarthy es un gran admirador de Maurice Blanchot, quien afirma en La Part du Feu que “la literatura, al igual que el discurso cotidiano, comienza con el final”; con lo que quiere decir la muerte (como posibilidad o imposibilidad). Si la literatura comienza con el final, concluye con el principio ya que la creación literaria, bajo su punto de vista, es una búsqueda maldita de su fuente de inspiración. Así como Orfeo no puede evitar mirar atrás para ver a Eurídice en la oscuridad del Hades (y de esta forma perderla para siempre) el escritor sacrifica su obra para permanecer fiel a su origen dionisíaco y oscuro. A la pregunta “¿dónde va la literatura?”, Blanchot nos da la siguiente respuesta: “La literatura va hacia ella misma, hacia su esencia, la cual es su desaparición” (Le Livre à Venir, 1959). El “contenido” está “ahí fuera” -siempre ahí- toda la literatura es “paráfrasis”: “¿Quién estaría interesado en un discurso nuevo y no transmitido? Lo importante no es contar, sino volverlo a contar, y en esta repetición, contarlo de nuevo como si fuera la primera vez” (L’Entretien Infini, 1969). Los escritores modernos deben “comenzar de cero en cada ocasión” mientras que sus ancestros simplemente tenían que “rellenar una forma dada” (Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?). La imposibilidad de empezar de cero (la ausencia de una “primera vez” definitiva) significa que la literatura fracasa al comenzar una y otra vez, como si se tratara de una compulsiva repetición inducida de forma traumática. En otras palabras, no cesa de acabar. La novela, dice Tom McCarthy, ha estado “viviendo su propia muerte” desde Don Quijote; la “experiencia del fracaso” es parte integral de su ADN. Si no estuviera muriendo, no estaría viva.

Escribiendo para el New York Review of Books en 1965, Frank Kermode afirmó que “el destino específico de la novela, considerada como un género, es el de estar siempre muriendo”. Y proseguía afirmando que la muerte de la novela era “el material sin el que la literatura moderna es inimaginable”. Esta cuestión de la muerte de la literatura es de hecho tan antigua como la propia literatura. Se puede rastrear hasta Juvenal y Tácito, pasando por David Shields, Samuel Richardson, y llegando a los escribas del fin-de-siècle. Para Richard B. Schwartz, el asunto empezó a torcerse en el Renacimiento tardío: “la Literatura en mayúsculas realmente murió con la aristocracia que la consumía” (After the Death of Literature, 1997). Según Steiner, el declive comenzó con la crisis lingüística que acompañó al auge de la novela. Después del siglo XVII (después de Milton), “la esfera del lenguaje” dejó de abarcar la mayor parte de la “experiencia y la realidad” (“The Retreat from the Word”, 1961). Las matemáticas se volvieron cada vez más difíciles de traducir al lenguaje; la pintura post-impresionista escapaba de toda verbalización; la lingüística y la filosofía destacaban el hecho de que las palabras se refieren a otras palabras… La proposición final del Tractatus (1921) de Wittgenstein atestigua esta intrusión de lo innombrable: “De lo que no se puede hablar, hay que callar”. Tan solo cuatro años antes, Kafka había conjeturado que quizá hubiera sido plausible escapar al canto de las Sirenas, pero no a su silencio.

Harold Bloom tiene razón: llegar tarde no es simplemente una “condición histórica”. Después de todo, ya era uno de los temas principales del Quijote. Así como señala Gabriel Josipovici, “este sentimiento de haber llegado, de algún modo, demasiado tarde, de haber perdido para siempre algo que alguna vez fue una posesión común, es una preocupación clave, la preocupación fundamental del Romanticismo” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?, 2010). En contra del ambiente de deterioro de la confianza en los poderes del lenguaje -igual que el “desencanto del mundo” de Schiller se estaba volviendo más aparente, y la legitimidad del escritor, en un “tiempo destituido” (Hölderlin) de Dioses ausentes y Sirenas mudas, parecía cada vez más arbitraria- la literatura llegó a ser considerada como un “absoluto” (Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe y Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Absolu Littéraire : Théorie de la littérature du romantisme allemand, 1968). Walter Benjamin describió de forma célebre el “lugar de nacimiento de la novela” como “el individuo en soledad”, un individuo aislado de la tradición que no puede reclamar ser el portavoz de la religión o la sociedad. Tan pronto como este “individuo en soledad” se elevaba al estatus de un alter deus, la tardanza esencial a toda la creatividad humana resultaba obvia. “Ninguna forma artística”, dice Steiner en Grammars of Creation (2001), “nace de la nada. Siempre viene después” y el “creador humano se enfurece ante [este] venir después, al ser, para siempre, segundo con respecto al misterio original y originador de la formación de la forma” (Real Presences, 1990). William Marx ha analizado con gran maestría cómo en Francia las desmedidas reivindicaciones para la literatura condujeron a esta decadencia prolongada. Esta evolución, de lo sublime a lo ridículo, tuvo lugar en tres etapas. A finales del siglo XVIII, la literatura se transformó en un sucedáneo de la religión. En una segunda etapa, marcada por la arrogancia, los escritores intentaron aislarse del resto de la sociedad (el arte por el arte) desencadenando de este modo un proceso de marginalización. En una última fase, la devaluación de la literatura (a los ojos del público en general) fue interiorizada por los propios escritores e incorporada a sus obras (L’Adieu à la Littérature. Histoire d’une dévalorisation XVIIIe-XXe siècles, 2005).

En sus Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik (compiladas en 1835), Hegel declaró, de manera brillante, que el arte se había transformado en “algo del pasado”. No quería decir con esto, como a menudo se ha creído, que el arte y la literatura estuviesen muertos, o incluso en decadencia, sino que no podían seguir transmitiendo de forma adecuada las más elevadas aspiraciones espirituales de la humanidad. En otras palabras, no podían seguir siendo el instrumento para expresar lo Absoluto. Influido por Hegel, Blanchot se pregunta: “¿Está el arte alcanzando su final? ¿Está pereciendo la poesía por haberse visto reflejada en sí misma, igual que aquel que muere después de contemplar a Dios?” (Le Livre à Venir). Si, como él propone en otro sitio, “la literatura surge en el momento en el que la literatura se convierte en una pregunta”, entonces la respuesta es no (La Part du Feu, 1949). Sin embargo, al transformarse en una pregunta, la literatura se transforma a su vez en su propia respuesta, por lo que ya no es capaz de sincronizarse consigo misma. Uno podría alegar que la literatura es entonces la distancia que la separa de sí misma. “Aquellos viejos tiempos”, anteriores al Génesis según Witold Gombrowicz, “cuando Rabelais escribía cómo un niño hacía pis contra el tronco de un árbol” habían acabado. “Retroceder al universo de los géneros literarios no es una opción”, ratifica Gabriel Josipovici, “como tampoco lo es un retorno al mundo del ancien régime” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?). Esta crisis de identidad se agravaba por una conciencia cada vez mayor de las limitaciones de la creación literaria. La literatura ya no sabía exactamente lo que era, pero sí sabía lo que no era, lo que ya no era capaz de hacer. “Ser moderno”, como declaró Roland Barthes, “es conocer lo que ya no es posible”. Es también anhelar esa imposibilidad, en la forma en la que Borges lo hacía en “el otro tigre, el que no está en el verso”. Tom McCarthy afirma que una novela es “algo que contiene su propia negación”, que clama contra sus propias limitaciones. Según este autor, la literatura es “un medio que sólo marcha cuando no funciona”: es “un fallo en el sistema, igual que un fallo en el ordenador”. “Fracasa otra vez. Fracasa mejor”, como decía Beckett en Worstward Ho (1983). Para Blanchot, es precisamente esta imposibilidad esencial de la literatura (su incapacidad para convertirse en una instancia del Absoluto hegeliano) lo que la preserva como posibilidad. La obra está siempre por venir.

La potencialidad, el angustioso vértigo de la libertad, es fundamental para la modernidad literaria. Pierre Menard responde a la arbitrariedad de la ficción (puesta de relieve por la libertad creativa) reescribiendo palabra por palabra Don Quijote y, de este modo, convierte la contingencia en necesidad (“Pierre Menard, autor de El Quijote”, 1939). Otra respuesta a esta cuestión es la de Henry James, que permite al lector sentir “la narración como podría haber sido” tras “la obra construida y limitada a la que él da vida” (Le Livre à Venir). Una creciente reticencia a dar vida a cualquier obra, por muy limitada que sea, se hizo sentir desde el siglo XVIII en adelante. En Sygdommen til Døden (1849), Kierkegaard observó cómo “se hace cada vez más plausible porque nada se vuelve real”. Llevando esta lógica hasta el extremo, Rousseau afirma que “No hay nada más bello que lo que no existe”, mientras que Keats resaltaba la belleza innombrable de las melodías “no escuchadas” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”, 1819). Una figura emblemática, como señala Dominique Rabaté (Vers une Littérature de l’épuisement, 1991) es el “demonio de la posibilidad” lui-même: Monsieur Teste de Valéry, que se niega a reducir el campo de posibilidades convirtiendo cualquiera de ellas en realidad. Es un claro precursor del Ulrich de Musil -el epónimo Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930-42)- al cual Blanchot describe como alguien que “no dice que no a la vida sino que aún no, quien finalmente actúa como si el mundo no pudiera nunca empezar excepto al día siguiente”. Otra figura representativa es Lord Chandos, de Hofmannstahl, el cual, habiendo renunciado a la literatura porque el lenguaje no puede “penetrar en el núcleo más íntimo de las cosas”, llegó a personificar un motín mudo instigado (en la vida real) por Rimbaud (Ein Brief “Lord Chandos”, 1902). Estos escritores cada vez más reticentes, los cuales, como el Bartleby de Melville, “preferirían no hacerlo” (“Bartleby, the Scrivener”, 1853), son los que Jean-Yves Jouannais denominó “artistas sin obra” (Artistes sans oeuvres, 1997); los partidarios de lo que Enrique Vila-Matas denomina la “literatura del no” (Bartleby y compañia, 2000).

La literatura ha ido muriendo inexorablemente a lo largo del siglo XX. En 1925, José Ortega y Gasset escribió sobre el “declive” de la novela. En 1930, Walter Benjamin afirmaba que estaba en “crisis”. Theodor W. Adorno creía que no podía haber poesía después de Auschwitz. En 1959, Brion Gysin (el de los “cut-ups”) se quejaba de que la ficción llevaba un retraso de cincuenta años con respecto a la pintura. A principios de los ‘60, Alain Robbe-Grillet criticó la momificación de la novela en su encarnación del siglo XIX. En 1967, John Barth publicó “The Literature of Exhaustion”, texto en el que hablaba de “la extenuación de determinadas formas o el agotamiento de determinadas posibilidades”. Ese mismo año, Gore Vidal diagnosticó que la novela estaba exhalando su último aliento. “Debemos continuar durante mucho tiempo hablando de obras y escribiéndolas, haciendo como que no nos damos cuenta de que la iglesia está vacía y que los feligreses se han ido a otra parte, a ocuparse de otros dioses”. En 1969, Ronald Sukenick publicó una colección de relatos breves titulada The Death of the Novel. A comienzos de los ‘70, el Nuevo Periodismo de Tom Wolfe fue considerado por algunos como el futuro de la escritura creativa. La muerte de la literatura y el mundo tal y como lo conocemos hoy en día, se convirtió en un tema de actualidad entre los académicos estadounidenses a principios de los ‘90 (ver, por ejemplo, la obra de Alvin Kernan titulada con gran acierto The Death of Literature, 1992). Habitualmente, argumentaban que los Departamentos de Inglés habían sido secuestrados por los estudios culturales, la Filosofía Continental y la corrección política enloquecida (a la que Bloom ha denominado “Escuela del Resentimiento”).

Desde entonces, han ocurrido dos cosas. La novela -que fue creada con el propósito de fusionar la poesía y la filosofía (según los primeros Románticos alemanes), de contener los demás géneros e incluso, el universo entero (siguiendo la concepción de Mallarmé acerca de El Libro o el sueño de Borges de una “Biblioteca Total”)- ha sido relegada a la “ficción”, un género que aborda la creación literaria como si el siglo XX nunca hubiera existido. Al mismo tiempo, la era digital ha llevado el exceso de información (del cual ya se quejaba en su momento el Eclesiasta) a un nivel completamente nuevo. Como consecuencia de esto, David Shields cree que la novela ya no está capacitada para reflejar la compleja vitalidad de la vida moderna: él prescribe nuevas formas híbridas de escritura (Reality Hunger, 2010). El poeta estadounidense (y fundador de UbuWeb) Kenneth Goldsmith nos pide encarecidamente que dejemos de escribir del todo para centrarnos en recombinar los textos que hemos ido acumulando a lo largo de los siglos (Uncreative Writing, 2011). Trasladando el retrato que James Joyce hizo de sí mismo como “el hombre del corta y pega” a la era digital, Mark Amerika afirma que hoy en día todos somos “remezcladores”. Sin embargo, ¿qué ocurriría si, tal como se preguntaba Lewis Carroll, las combinaciones de palabras fueran limitadas y ya las hubiéramos utilizado todas?

Según Steiner, somos “agonistas”, “vamos rezagados”: “No tenemos más comienzos” (Grammars of Creation). Para nosotros, el lenguaje “está desgastado por el uso” y el “sentido de revelación, de profuso conocimiento” exhibido por los escritores del periodo Tudor, Isabelino y Jacobeo “nunca ha vuelto a ser plenamente recuperado”. En vísperas de los innombrables horrores de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, Adorno ya sentía que “los cadáveres de las palabras, palabras fantasmales” era todo lo que habíamos dejado. El lenguaje se había corrompido, irremediablemente arruinado por “el uso de la tribu” (Mallarmé). ¿Es que acaso ya no podemos seguir el mandato de Ezra Pound de “hacerlo nuevo”?

“Incluso la propia originalidad ya no es capaz de sorprendernos”, escribe Lars Iyer en un destacable ensayo publicado recientemente por The White Review. Según este novelista y catedrático de filosofía, vivimos en “una era de palabras sin precedente” pero en la cual los Novelistas Importantes han dado paso a “una legión de escribas”. La literatura tan sólo sobrevive como ficción literaria kitsch: una “parodia de estilos pasados”; “una pantomima de sí misma”. Este es un terreno que Andrew Marr ha revisitado a comienzos del siglo XXI. La novela, hoy en día, “no reivindica ampliar los límites del modo en que entendemos el mundo” y se encuentra anclada a finales del siglo XIX: “Los cientos de buenos artesanos de la novela, que aprendieron de forma laboriosa y detallada las lecciones acerca de la construcción de la trama y los personajes, dónde ser recargados y cuándo lacónicos, se han convertido en réplicas modernas de máquinas pensantes llevadas a su máximo nivel de desarrollo hace un siglo. Es como si el motor de combustión interna hubiera sido perfeccionado en 1870 y todos los coches de hoy en día fueran simples modelos victorianos con un estilo actualizado”. La conclusión a la que llegó Marr fue que la novela –tal como ocurrió anteriormente con “la sinfonía, el ballet, el arte figurativo o la cerámica esmaltada”– podría haber perdido ya su esplendor: “… las grandes obras, el tiempo de los descubrimientos, está muerto y no puede ser reabierto” (“Death of the Novel”, The Observer 27 de Mayo de 2001). En “The Literature of Exhaustion”, John Barth ya había pronosticado cómo “las ultimidades sentidas de nues- tro tiempo” (por ejemplo, el mismísimo final de la novela como “forma artística mayor”, tal como mencionaba Marr) podrían convertirse en alimento para obras futuras. En este sentido, Iyer da en el clavo. En su opinión, no estamos escribiendo las páginas finales de la literatura (su conclusión) sino más bien su “epílogo”: la nuestra es “una literatura después de la literatura”. Mientras que los poetas Románticos de Bloom se sentían “subsidiarios” frente a sus ilustres predecesores, Iyer cree que hemos llegado demasiado tarde, y punto. La literatura hoy en día ya no es “la Cuestión en sí misma, sino la Cuestión que se ha desvanecido”. La tarea del escritor es “conjurar al fantasma” de una tradición que se ha dado por vencida. De este modo, las novelas de Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke o el propio Iyer no son tanto la evidencia de un revival del nouveau roman, sino ejemplos de un nuevo tipo de ficción ontológica que explora las posibilidades perdidas del Modernismo.

Según Kathleen Fitzpatrick, la muerte de la novela ha sido utilizada por los novelistas como un ardid para garantizar su supervivencia (The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, 2006). Nos queda comprobar si, como afirma Iyer, nos hemos adentrado en una era post-literaria, o si por el contrario, la crónica acerca de la muerte de la literatura ha sido magnificada una vez más.

Una versión reducida de este artículo fue publicada en el periódico británico The Guardian, el 10 de enero de 2012, con el título “In Theory: the Death of Literature”.










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The Death of Literature

This appeared in Guardian Books on 10 January 2012:

The Death of Literature
The fact that people have been proclaiming its passing for centuries only makes the sense of its ending more acute

[The end: headstone in Lund Cemetery, Nevada. Photograph: Deon Reynolds/Getty]

“We come too late to say anything which has not been said already,” lamented La Bruyère at the end of the 17th century. The fact that he came too late even to say this (Terence having pipped him to the post back in the 2nd century BC) merely proved his point — a point which Macedonio Fernández took one step backwards when he sketched out a prequel to Genesis. God is just about to create everything. Suddenly a voice in the wilderness pipes up, interrupting the eternal silence of infinite space that so terrified Pascal: “Everything has been written, everything has been said, everything has been done.” Rolling His eyes, the Almighty retorts (doing his best Morrissey impression) that he has heard this one before — many a time. He then presses ahead with the creation of the heavens and the earth and all the creepy-crawlies that creepeth and crawleth upon it. In the beginning was the word — and, word is, before that too.

In his most influential book, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom argued that the greatest Romantic poets misread their illustrious predecessors “so as to clear imaginative space for themselves”. The literary father figure was killed, figuratively speaking, through a process of “poetic misprision”. TS Eliot had already expressed a similar idea in 1920, when he claimed that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”. Borges (a disciple of Fernández, whom Bloom references) was on the same wavelength (but at the other end of the dial) when he claimed that “each writer creates his precursors”.

According to Bloom, this feeling of “secondariness” is not specifically a Romantic phenomenon, but rather the very engine of literary history. Down the centuries, literature has always been a two-way dialogue between past and present — the former living on in the latter; the latter casting new light upon the former. George Steiner thus contends that the highest form of literary criticism is to be found within literature itself: “In the poet’s criticism of the poet from within the poem, hermeneutics reads the living text which Hermes, the messenger, has brought from the undying dead” (Real Presences, 1989). This implies that writing is not, primarily, about self-expression, but about reception and transmission; as Winnie the Pooh once put it, with uncharacteristic menace, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you”. What is striking here is that Steiner — steeped in the Judaeo-Christian tradition; scourge of Gallic theory — should be in total agreement, on this point, with novelist Tom McCarthy, who comes, as it were, from the other side of the barricades. For the author of C — a novel which is all about fiction as reception and transmission — “the writer is a receiver and the content is already out there. The task of the writer is to filter it, to sample it and remix it — not in some random way, but conscientiously and attentively”. Turning chronology on its head, he sees Finnegans Wake as the source code of anglophone literature — a new beginning — rather than a dead end or a full stop. The novel, says McCarthy, has been “living out its own death” ever since Don Quixote; the “experience of failure” being integral to its DNA. If it weren’t dying, the novel would not be alive.

According to Steiner, the rise of the novel was contemporaneous with a growing linguistic crisis. After the 17th century — after Milton — “the sphere of language” ceased to encompass most of “experience and reality” (“The Retreat from the Word“, 1961). Mathematics became increasingly untranslatable into words, post-Impressionist painting likewise escaped verbalisation; linguistics and philosophy highlighted the fact that words refer to other words … The final proposition in Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus (1921) bears witness to this encroachment of the unspeakable: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. Four years earlier, Kafka had conjectured that it may have been possible to escape the sirens’ singing, but not their silence.

Harold Bloom is right: belatedness is not merely an “historical condition”. After all, it was already one of the major themes in Don Quixote. Yet, as Gabriel Josipovici points out, “this sense of somehow having arrived too late, of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?, 2010). Against the backdrop of declining confidence in the powers of language — just as Schiller‘s “disenchantment of the world” was becoming ever more apparent, and the writer’s legitimacy, in a “destitute time” (Hölderlin) of absent gods and silent sirens, seemed increasingly arbitrary — literature came to be considered as an “absolute“. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” as “the solitary individual”: an individual cut off from tradition, who could no longer claim to be the mouthpiece of society. As soon as this “solitary individual” was elevated to the status of an alter deus, the essential belatedness of human creativity became glaringly obvious. “No art form,” says Steiner, “comes out of nothing. Always, it comes after,” and the “human maker rages at [this] coming after, at being, forever, second to the original and originating mystery of the forming of form”.

As early as 1758, Samuel Richardson had wondered if the novel were not just a fad, whose time had already run out. By the 20th century, the picture looked far bleaker. Theodor Adorno felt that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. In 1959, Brion Gysin complained that fiction was lagging 50 years behind painting. In the early 60s, Alain Robbe-Grillet attacked the mummification of the novel in its 19th-century incarnation. In 1967, John Barth published “The Literature of Exhaustion” in which he spoke of “the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities”. The same year, Gore Vidal diagnosed that the novel was already in its death throes: “we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods”. The death of literature, and the world as we know it, became a fashionable topic among US academics in the early 90s (see, for instance, Alvin Kernan’s aptly-titled The Death of Literature, 1992). Their argument was usually that English departments had been hijacked by cultural studies, Continental theory or political correctness gone mad (Bloom’s “School of Resentment”).

Since then, two things have happened. The novel — which was meant to fuse poetry and philosophy, to subsume all other genres and even the entire universe (following Mallarmé‘s conception of The Book or Borges’s dream of a “Total Library”) — has been reduced to “literary fiction”: a genre that approaches writing as if the 20th century had never happened. At the same time, the digital age has taken information overload to a whole new level. As a result, David Shields believes that the novel is no longer equipped to reflect the vitality and complexity of modern life (Reality Hunger, 2010). Kenneth Goldsmith — the poet to whom we owe the wonder that is UbuWeb — urges us to stop writing altogether in order to focus on recombining the texts we’ve accumulated over the centuries (Uncreative Writing, 2011). We may all be “remixologists” now, but what if (as Lewis Carroll wondered) word combinations were limited, and we had used them all up?

According to Steiner, we are “terminalists”, “latecomers”: “we have no more beginnings“. For us, language “is worn by long usage” and the “sense of discovery, of exuberant acquisition” exhibited by writers during the Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean periods “has never been fully recaptured”. On the eve of the unspeakable horrors of the second world war, Adorno already felt that “the carcass of words, phantom words” was all we had left. Language had been corrupted; irredeemably soiled by “the usage of the tribe” (Mallarmé). Perhaps is it no longer possible for us to follow Ezra Pound‘s injunction to “make it new”.

“Even originality itself no longer has the ability to surprise us,” writes Lars Iyer in a remarkable essay recently published by The White Review. According to the author of Spurious (shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize), we live in “an unprecedented age of words”, but one in which Important Novelists have given way to “a legion of keystroke labourers”. Literature only survives as literary-fiction kitsch: a “parody of past forms”; a “pantomime of itself”. In “The Literature of Exhaustion”, Barth had envisaged how the “felt ultimacies of our time” (ie the end of the novel as “major art form”) could become the material of future works. Iyer cranks this up a notch. We are no longer writing literature’s conclusion but its “epilogue”: ours is a “literature which comes after literature”. Where Bloom’s Romantic poets felt “belated” vis-à-vis their predecessors, Iyer feels that we have come too late for literature, full stop. Literature today is thus no longer “the Thing itself, but about the vanished Thing”. The writer’s task is “to conjure the ghost” of a tradition that has given it up. By this token, the novels of Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke and Iyer himself are not so much evidence of a nouveau roman revival as instances of a new type of hauntological fiction which explores the lost futures of Modernism.

Given that Iyer has published two books on the work of Maurice Blanchot, one cannot but think of the French author’s answer to the question ‘Where is literature going?’: “literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”. Perhaps the “Thing itself” was about “the vanished Thing” all along – but stop me, oh-oh-oh, stop me, stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.

Quotes

“A reviewer said about my third book, a collection of linked stories, that if I kept going in this direction (i.e., toward concision), I’d wind up writing books composed of one very beautiful word. He meant it as a put-down, but to me it was wild praise.”
David Shields, “Life is Short; Art is Shorter,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 May 2011

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.