Reflections on the Novel: Address to the Colloquium on the New Novel, New York University, October 1982

Article excerpt

Before beginning, I would like to be forgiven if the talk that I am going to give lacks a certain rigor and lets fly in a number of different directions. For reasons "beyond my control" (as we say), I only knew that my visit here would be authorized twelve days before my departure, which left me very little time to try to put the notes I had made while thinking about this colloquium into some kind of order, and to hastily draft a text that would doubtless have gained from being more condensed. But I am not to blame for that ...

And firstly, by way of a preamble, I must warn those who have come to listen to me that they have before them just a self-taught writer whose literary knowledge does not go beyond an amateur level.

Most of you, whether teachers, critics, or students, certainly know a good deal more than I do about the novel, drama, or poetry, as well as literary theories, semiology, or linguistics, which makes me sometimes wonder, as a matter of fact, whether contrary to what Barthes thought, Jakobson did not in this instance give to literature a poisoned offering, as others may have done in some respects with sociology or psychoanalysis.

But after all, perhaps it is written that art must periodically navigate between the redoubtable reefs of scientism. For example, at the end of the last century, a painter whose name we would certainly have otherwise forgotten, Paul Serusier, worked out a "theory of complementary colors" as attractive as it was unusable at a practical level, and, not to be outdone, we have seen, in recent years, writers toiling away and exhausting themselves in the construction of texts relying entirely upon dreary sequences of anagrammatical acrobatics more or less inspired by Saussure or again by a celebrated psychoanalytical guru.

It is not that I want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but apparently, just as Lenin denounced the "infantilism" of leftwing communism (which nevertheless seems to continue), there is a chronic illness of art and literature which may be infantile, or senile for all I know, but which scientists of all persuasions are diligently engaged in aggravating, not curing.

As far as I am concerned, my cultural equipment is that of a dilettante. When I was young I was pushed toward mathematics (which, alas, I have forgotten), and I do not even have my baccalaureate in philosophy. The little I know has been acquired by chance--in reading, traveling, walking round museums and going to concerts, always in a rather desultory way, without ever worrying about studying a subject in depth, obeying solely the rules of pleasure. It was for example necessary that I be taken prisoner (I think that one of the lucky aspects of my existence has been to have lived the first part of it in a somewhat troubled Europe, which enabled me, by getting involved willingly or unwillingly in certain events, to learn, I think, other things than can be learned in books) ... it was necessary, therefore, that I be taken prisoner in order for me to read Kant and Spinoza, not by choice, but, once again, because that was what happened to be there. I experienced then, moreover, something doubly instructive: the discovery first of all that in a space surrounded by barbed wire and where it was strictly forbidden to possess anything beyond the absolute minimum required for the most elementary form of survival, it was possible to find almost anything, from women's suspenders to Das Kapital via obscene photographs and the Acts of the Apostles; then, that if Kant and Spinoza were not of any practical or even moral and intellectual use to a starving man (they did not in any way help me to accept my abject state), these books nevertheless offered, even to one as philosophically profane as I am, the possibility of the kind of stimulation reading procures--purely gratuitous in a sense, but irreplaceable because of its very gratuitousness, like music or painting.

So much then for my intellectual formation, or, if you prefer, my "cultural baggage," constituted for the most part of lacunas and contained in the kind of colander that is my brain, retaining here and there a few scraps of knowledge, at least consciously, for after all it is possible that the ingurgitation of Kant and Spinoza, as with mathematics, forcibly as it were, and of which I do not have a very clear recollection either, may, without me knowing it, have contributed to shaping it, in the same way (albeit negatively) as the books I have never had the desire to open again, like for example La Princesse de Cleves, Les Liaisons dangereuses, Lucien Leuwen, or again those which I never managed to finish so much did they bore me, whether it be La Cousine Bette, L'Education sentimentale, and, I must admit, the majority of nineteenth-century novels of that kind, as well as their twentieth-century counterparts, whose characters, with their too predictable and too rational destinies (as against those, for example, of Dostoyevsky) make me think of the bulls so prized by matadors and which, in bullfighting slang, are called "ferrocarrils," that is, "mounted on rails," because they charge in a straight line, quite predictably, toward their prey. …