The New Novel
The term New Novel (nouveau romari) became associated with a group of French writers in the 1950s, most notably Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget, Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, and Robbe-Grillet, who rejected literary traditions of plot, action, narrative, and characterization, and created a new novelistic form that presented an objective record of events. Robbe-Grillet coined the term New Novel in his published essays on the nature and future of the novel, later collected in his Pour un nouveau roman in 1963.
Originally this group of writers was referred to as romanciers du regard, “novelists of the glance.” Jeanine Plottel, in her article on Robbe-Grillet for European Writers, explains, “When the accuracy of this term came to be questioned and the diversity of these writers became more and more obvious, their novels more and more puzzling,” the term nouveau was adopted.
Initially the French literary world rejected this new form. Its popularity grew as a result of the reestablishment of the decades, or ten-day conferences, a French literary tradition. These conferences were run at the Centre Universitaire de Cerisy-laSalle in southern Normandy by Mme. Heurgon Desjardins, and attended by leading writers and intellectuals, including Andre Gide, Thoman Mann, and Paul Valery. The conference held in 1970 cemented acceptance of the New Novel as an important part of contemporary French literature. Robbe-Grillet’s prominence in this group of writers was reinforced during a 1975 conference that fo cused on his novels and films.
John Fletcher, in his article on Robbe-Grillet for Dictionary of Literary Biography, argues that the impetus for the creation of this new literary school lies in how Robbe-Grillet and his contemporaries responded to the occupation of France during World War II. Fletcher insists that the occupation “humiliated” an entire generation of French and “led them to question the grounds of the commitment to radical politics preached by intellectuals of the preceding generation, particularly by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and their associates.” According to Fletcher, Robbe-Grillet became a spokesperson for this disaffected generation in the mid 1950s, when he began “to cast doubt on philosophical concepts such as meaning and identity which the elders still took for granted.”
The structure of most novels prior to this period expresses a belief in an intelligible universe. The intelligible universe of Pride and Prejudice, for example, assumes that all young women should fin husbands. Even in the absurd world depicted by the French existentialist authors, humans could find meaning in their own existence if they accepted personal responsibility for their lives. The new writers, however, found this humanistic philosophy false. Robbe-Grillet and other authors associated with the New Novel would not accept the firm tenets of previous writers, claiming texts presented not truth but indeterminacy. Writers of this genre wanted to represent reality without any imposed interpretations. One way they try to achieve this objectivity is by fragmenting the text so that readers can reconstruct the descriptions of objects and direct experiences, and therefore the reality, for themselves.
Fletcher characterizes their writing as expressing “a new realism, a new attitude to time, a new conception of plot, and a new approach to character in literature, all of which had to be tougher, harder, and more transparent” than in the works of more traditional authors. This new school refused to provide recognizable geographical, historical, or psychological contexts for characters. They confounded readers’ perceptions and understanding by breaking up the chronology of the plot, often cutting back and forth between different periods of time and between memory and imagination. Through these methods, the writers do not allow readers to rely on traditional methods of interpretation.
Scholars, like Laurent Dechery in his article in Mosaic on Robbe-Grillet’s use of language, have compared elements in works by writers in the New Novel school to those of surrealist artists. The surrealism movement originated in France in the 1920s. Surrealists rejected traditional, rational artistic renderings and instead promoted expressions of the unconscious mind.
Surrealism was an extension of Dadaism, a nihilistic movement in art and literature started in 1916 in Zurich by Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, along with Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, and Richard Huelsenbeck, in response to the widespread disillusionment engendered by World War I. The founders meant Dadaism to signify total freedom from ideals and traditions concerning aesthetics and behavior. The most important concept of Dadaism is the word “nothing.” In art, Dadaism produced collage effects as artists arranged unrelated objects in a random fashion. Dadaism in literature produced mostly nonsense poems consisting of meaningless, random combinations of words, which were read in public cafes and bars.
These constructions in art and literature stressed absurdity and the role of the unpredictable in the creative process. This group came into vogue in Paris immediately after the First World War. Tzara carried the school abroad where its influence became apparent in the poetry of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and in the art of Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. By 1921 Dadaism as a movement was modified into surrealism.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Published by Gale, 2002.