The “Nouveau Roman”: where to start?

The Nouveau Roman was a French Modernist literary movement of the 1950s whose antecedents were Joyce, Beckett and Proust. A common theme among the works produced by those writers grouped as nouveax romanistes were “discontinuity, rupture, difference and revolution”¹, and they defined themselves against “a dominant culture in thrall to a staid and anachronistic concept of realism”².

It’s a movement which inspired British writers in the 60s and 70s such as BS Johnson, Rayner Heppenstall, Ann Quin and – perhaps surprisingly – Muriel Spark. In the U.K. – historically less receptive than France to anything theoretical – Scottish publisher John Calder did a heroic job of keeping the English-language translations in print. Although Alma Classics have reprinted some of Calder’s backlist, these are works that by and large remain little-known in Britain.

Here, then, is a top 5 to give you a taste of what it’s all about. This list reflects my own personal choices, and in the interests of fairness I’ve only selected one book per author.

1. JealousyAlain Robbe-Grillet

I’ve written in depth about Robbe-Grillet on this blog before, and about Jealousy here. This, Robbe-Grillet’s third published novel, is probably his finest achievement. In it he marries form and content perfectly. Set in a colonial banana plantation, this short, intense work is not merely an examination of jealousy, it’s a direct example of it at work. An unnamed, never-referred-to but ever-present narrator studies the behaviour of his wife and a family friend, who he suspects of having an affair. His jealous mind loops, circles, obsesses and suppresses. The current UK edition has a useful introduction by Tom McCarthy, of whom more below…

Robbe-Grillet moved into film-making in the 60s. Although later works show his deeply problematic sexual politics, his first three films – l’Immortelle, Trans-Europe-Express and The Man Who Lies (available as part of a BFI box set) – are all enjoyable cinematic transpositions of his literary techniques.

 

2. The InquisitoryRobert Pinget

This, along with Changing Track, below, is one of the nouveaux romans where the narrative style is most obviously foregrounded. The Inquisitory takes the format of a question and answer session – an interrogation – over 400 pages, between an unknown authority and the servant at a French country house. A crime may have been committed, but we never find out what, and although the servant’s answers illuminate an entire rural French community, they contradict and undermine themselves, making objective truth impossible to establish.

 

3. The Use of SpeechNathalie Sarraute

The senior member of the movement, Sarraute’s most famous work is her first – Tropismes – which, published in 1939, pre-dates the other works here by a good two decades. It’s a revelatory work of twenty-four short pieces that examine “tropisms” – those buried currents of unspoken feeling that lie underneath human interaction (Alma Classics have recently brought it back into print in the UK). “Dramatic actions, hiding beneath the most commonplace conversations, the most everyday gestures, and constantly emerging up to the surface”

The Use of Speech (sadly out of print) inverts the idea by taking everyday spoken phrases, and examining the real meaning behind them, the tension and conflict that they sublimate.

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The most awkward band photo in history. Left to right: Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Pinget, publisher Jérôme Lindon, Samuel Beckett, Nathalie Sarraute

4. Moderato CantabileMarguerite Duras

I’ve also written about Marguerite Duras elsewhere on this blog. Moderato Cantabile is on the surface a quite straightforward, even slight, piece of writing. Over succesive days, a married woman meets a man in a bar near where a love affair ended in murder. Their conversation circles around the tragic couple while their own relationship develops. What Duras does over and over in her work is under-write: her fiction seems stripped of overt emotion, and that’s because it’s all under the surface: the reader has to parse the words the characters speak, and pick up on every nuance of behaviour, to reveal the tumultuous passions below. Peter Brook’s pedestrian but watchable adaptation stars Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Paul Belmondo and although in French (bien sûr) it’s – along with A Hard Day’s Night – the closest an English-language director gets to the cinema of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave).

 

5. Changing TrackMichel Butor

I’ve previously reviewed Changing Track (la Modification, also translated as A Change of Heart). It’s the most accessible and easily enjoyable of my top 5 nouveaux romans. It tells of businessman Leon Delmont’s train journey from Paris to Rome in order to be with his mistress: told in the second person, you’re immersed in the thought processes of Butor’s character.

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The book alternates between Delmont’s observations of the people in the carriage around him and the French countryside the train speeds through, with reflections on the decisions and situations that have led him to this point. At the start, his memories relate to events from longer ago but the closer to Rome he gets, much more recent memories – troubling memories – begin to undermine the earlier ones.

 

Where to go next?

The Flanders RoadClaude Simon

A bit controversial, leaving Simon (a Nobel leaureate, no less) out of a Nouveau Roman top 5: connoiseurs would probably swap him for Pinget.

In the simplest terms, The Flanders Road examines – over and over, from multiple viewpoints – an ambush during World War 2. But it’s much more complex than that.

Simon’s prose can be daunting for the uninitiated (and has put me off re-reading The Flanders Road for years). His long, looping sentences, with levels of nested clauses that can make Proust read like Dr Seuss, are not going to be everyone’s cafe au lait.

 

The Mise-en-SceneClaude Ollier

The least-known of all the writers here, and one who, though far less revolutionary than some of his contemporaries, deserves wider renown. I’ve reviewed the two works by Ollier that I’ve been able to find in English (the other is Law and Order). The Mise-en-Scene owes much to Robbe-Grillet, but that’s not a bad thing. His works are less mystifying, and easier to read on a surface level.

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A surveyor, Lassalle, is working on the plans for a new route through the mountains of French-held North Africa. He is following in the footsteps – literally – of a previous engineer, who seems to have been murdered. The novel is an account of his fortnight’s stay in the mountainous region, trying to plot a route for the new road. The Mise-en-Scene is a book about the impossibility of knowing anything, and the whole book is a sustained meditation on the futility of trying to attain definitive, objective knowledge.

 

The Nouveau Roman Reader – Fletcher, John & Calder, John (ed.)

The perfect sampler for much of the work I’ve covered above, plus some writers I haven’t included. This 1986 compendium contains an introduction to, and extracts from, each writer’s work and a superb, penetrating overview of the movement as a whole. Long out of print, this is an essential purchase.

 

And after that?

England’s Tom McCarthy and Belgian author Jean-Philippe Toussaint are two contemporary writers who have taken up the challenge laid down by the original nouveaux romanistes by eschewing conventional psychology and the assmumptions of 19th century humanist fiction. Their work often adds a sense of humour absent from their 1950s predecessors.

McCarthy’s Remainder (for me, one of the best novels of the century so far) features one of the great unlikeable narrators, who has been awarded £8.5 million in compensation for an unspecified injury, and spends his fortune recreating – over and over and over, and on an increasingly ambitious scale – exact moments that he remembers but whose significance he can never quite grasp. Proust with a death drive.

McCarthy wrote about Toussaint much, much better than I can.

Although not conventionally included among the group (despite the photos above!), but given that his work was published by Les Éditions de Minuit in France and Calder in the U.K., Samuel Beckett is an obvious cousin of the nouveau roman. His postwar fiction such as Watt not only explores what it means to be in the world, but also the meaning, value and even the point of the language used in doing so.

I mentioned Robbe-Grillet’s film career above. No mention of the nouveau roman would be complete without reference to the Left Bank cinema of filmmakers such as Alain Resnais, who worked with Robbe-Grillet on Last Year At Marienbad and Duras³ on Hiroshima Mon Amour. His 1968 film Je t’aime, je t’aime is a time-travelling sci-fi in that wonderful tradition of 60s French science fiction (La Jetee, Alphaville).

I hope this piques your interest and sends you off to investigate some fascinating authors.

 

 

¹ Pierre Bourdieu quoted in Guy, Adam – The Nouveau Roman and Writing in Britain after Modernism, p 6.

² ibid, p7

³ Duras herself had a long career as a filmmaker, though her work is less easily available in the U.K. than Resnais’s.

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