Of Literary Bondage

This appeared in the August 2013 issue of Numéro Cinq, with a wonderful introduction by Douglas Glover:

Of Literary Bondage

andrewgallix

How is the marchioness? Still playing Alice in Rubberland?
– Adam and the Ants, “Rubber People”

Surprising as it may seem, “The marquise went out at five” ranks among the most famous quotes in modern French literature. It could have been tossed off by some Gallic Bulwer-Lytton type, and in a manner it was, albeit a fictitious one. These hapless words were first recorded in the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, midway through a rant against what Barthes would dub the “reality effect“. André Breton recalls the time when Paul Valéry assured him he would never write a novel, adducing his aversion to opening sentences à la “marquise”. Referenced by numerous authors, from André Gide to Nathalie Sarraute through Francis Ponge, the marchioness and her teatime peregrinations, came to embody everything that was wrong with a certain brand of conventional fiction.

It was not just the insipid incipits of well-made novels that Valéry objected to. He believed that writing always betrayed the complexity of human thought. “The more one writes,” he wrote, “the less one thinks.” Valéry’s Monsieur Teste — a close cousin of Melville’s Bartleby and Musil’s Ulrich — is particularly scornful of novels and plays, in which “being is simplified even to stupidity”. Like his character, the reluctant author felt that prose was essentially prosaic — a communication tool as pedestrian as a peripatetic marquise in a potboiler. Poetry, on the other hand, was conversant with the ineffable, and could therefore be regarded as a true art form. The fact that some of the greatest novels of the last century merged prose with poetry, and that some of the greatest poets of our time (Gary Lutz) are fiction writers, seems to invalidate this dubious theory. Nonetheless, Valéry’s quip tapped into a growing sense of disillusionment with the novel, which, despite some very notable exceptions, already seemed to have ossified in its Victorian incarnation. Compared with the avant-garde movements’ attempts to bridge the gap between art and life — chief among them, Breton’s Surrealism — the novel’s “puny exploits” (Beckett) seemed risible.

Above all, Valéry objected to the arbitrary nature of such perfunctory preambles, anticipating Knausgaard‘s recent crisis of faith: “Just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous”. Here, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is tested to breaking point by the nagging feeling that the marchioness could just as well have been a duchess on a different timetable, or an alien on another planet. What is lacking, to quote Dylan Nice, is the sense of “a text beyond the writer to which the writer submits”.

The refusal to submit to external constraints was key to the emergence of the novel. Gabriel Josipovici analyses this trend in What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “Genres were the sign of submission to authority and tradition, but the novel, a narrative in prose, was the new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. It is this crisis of authorial authority that Valéry’s marquise throws into relief.

In Reading Writing, Julien Gracq took Valéry to task over the alleged randomness of his imaginary opening sentence. “Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem,” he argues; it just takes longer for patterns to emerge. Quite. Even at a micro-level, any minor amendment can trigger a butterfly effect. Should the marchioness morph into a princess, for instance, we might suddenly find ourselves slap bang in fairy-tale territory. Should she pop out, say, instead of simply going out, the register, and perhaps even the meaning, would be altered, and so forth. The point, however, is not whether everything counts in a novel, but whether a novel of this kind counts at all.

“The marquise went out at five” parodies all those narratives that aim for verisimilitude whilst inadvertently advertising their fictive status. In so doing, the sentence conjures up a quantum multiverse of alternatives. It haunts itself, begging to be rewritten over and over again, until all possibilities have been exhausted, and it can finally be laid to rest. The most recent example of this repetition compulsion is Jean Charlent’s Variations Valéry (2011) — a series of pastiches of 75 different authors, riffing off the famous phrase (which Claude Mauriac had cheekily used as the title of an early novel). Significantly, the marchioness made an appearance in One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Raymond Queneau‘s famous collection of ten sonnets (1961). Composed as an antidote to a bout of writer’s block, it comes in the singular — but fittingly ludic — shape of a flipbook. The fourteen lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding line in any of the other poems. By the author’s reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Queneau thus succeeded in producing a work that was at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms). It was also the founding text of the OuLiPo — Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop — which Queneau launched with François Le Lionnais, in 1960.

Queneau parted company with the Surrealists over aesthetic, as well as political, differences. He increasingly objected to their experiments in automatic writing, premised on the idea that freedom was “the absence of all control exercised by reason” (Breton). “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery,” countered Queneau, “The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” Italo Calvino concurred: “What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically”. It is, paradoxically, through the observance of rules that emancipation takes place. “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

Historically, the importance of the Oulipo is to have provided an escape from the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) through the reintroduction of external constraints.

After Literature

“Literary Melancholy: Lars Iyer Interviewed by David Winters,” 3:AM Magazine 15 November 2011

… For me, the truth about Montano’s sickness is that literature, what is called ‘literature’, has very little to do with our world. Something has happened. Something has come between us and the world of literature we admire. And that ‘something’ has to be acknowledged if literature is to avoid becoming a kind of repertoire routine, like The Nutcracker at Christmas.

… Much supposedly ambitious literary fiction seems to have similar characteristics. In attempting to distance itself from our marketized, neoliberalized, liberal-democratized world, it has become as stylized as bad high-fantasy. I want to read books that are commensurable with this world, in content and form, books that have abandoned a whole repertoire of literary gestures but which still, in some way, respond to what literature once was. I want to read books that make a problem of their inheritance, a problem of coming somehow after literature. I want to read books that register a sense of their own belatedness. … [F]or whatever reason, and we can speculate about this, it is not only a certain literary style, but literature itself, that is no longer believable.

Montano’s Malady is not a lament. It is not heavy-handed, like Austerlitz. It isn’t Solemn or Serious in a kitschy way. It is swift and light. It is funny. It belongs on our side of the great divide that separates us from figures like Kafka. But, for all that, Montano’s Malady does acknowledge this divide. It does negotiate its relationship with Modernism, with the past. It does situate itself with respect to Old Europe and the ‘narrative voice’ of Old Europe’s great writers. And it does all of this in the present, in our present.

… But, for me, Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s polemics are remarkable not only for their particular prescriptions for the novel, which remain exhilarating, but also for the very fact that they felt able to prescribe a future for the novel at all. For me, their prescriptions for a new novel can only, in the end, be so many more exhibits in the museum of literature. Their essays belong to an almost-unimaginable past in which such ideas mattered, a past which had a real stake in the future of the novel.

Sometimes, I wonder whether my making claims of this kind is a result of my literary melancholy! Shouldn’t it be possible, if one only tried hard enough, to dream of a fabulously new novel to come, of a nouveau roman newer than the nouveaux romans of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, of an eternally nouveau nouveau roman which would always belong to the future? Mightn’t there be some fiery rebirth of the Modern in some faraway place, among writers who write new manifestos in the dream of restoring a revolutionary purity to their endeavours? But I can only say that it seems to me that literature has, in some fundamental way, run its course.

… But for me, for whom literary melancholy is not a merely personal issue but a condition of writing in our time (and this is why I admire what I have read of David Markson, who thoroughly understands this point), no novel, least of all Spurious, could be a nouveau roman, and much less a nouveau nouveau roman! My novel, like all novels published today, is a roman after the roman, a novel that comes after the novel and after literature.

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.

****

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.