When Jean-Paul Sartre asked in 1947 What Is Literature?, an unknown scholar set about replying in the left-wing newspaper Combat with an article that later became Writing Degree Zero (1953). Roland Barthes’ book may appear at a first and gammy glance not to have anything to do with Plato and Descartes, but France’s post-war condition was suitable to string rhetoric up by the neck like a Nazi collaborator. Sartre’s main purpose since the Allied victory was to Apple Inc. the French language into a reliable, streamlined communication tool that any moron could learn to use with intuitive ease. Of the two gremlins Sartre had to ferret out of language’s chests and cupboards, Nazi propaganda paled in the long, cold shadow of what Jean Paulhan called the “Terror”, a gallic mania for eschewing in the name of absolute self-expression everyday language, and for so intensely suffering anxiety over the crime of commonplacing that writers pursued a rarefied personal language to the point of grammatical destruction, unintelligibility, and in extremis silence.
Paulhan’s description of the French literary scene before the war makes it seem as dire as the country itself would shortly become after the blitzkrieg: “We only wanted to break free from a language that was too conventional and now we are close to breaking free from all human language. Ancient poets took proverbs, clichés, and common feelings from all over the place. They welcome this abundance, and gave it back in kind.” One trend sought to solve simplisme “by describing feelings or presenting characters that are so out of the ordinary that commonplace expressions would be inappropriate for them, feelings and characters that are so complex that an entirely new language would be needed for them, one that made prior allowance for them.” Another “hidden trend in literature – hidden, but from which have emerged some of the most enduring works ever seen in our time – demands of the poet, through some alchemy, another syntax, a new grammar, even forbidden words in which a sort of primitive innocence would come back to life, and some long lost adherence of language to the things in the world. This was the ambition, and sometimes the achievement, of Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Joyce.” One madcap Monsieur Hiliase “has gone as far as to take letters apart: his work is odd to look at – and even to feel, since the new letters he uses are presented in relief.”
As a literary critic at the Nouvelle Revue Française, Paulhan knew that this alexic phenomenon was one of Modernism’s martyrdoms inflicted upon the writer since Flaubert and Baudelaire. Few consequences underline with neon lights Modernism’s disgust at the insurgence of democracy better than its strategic flight to phrasal fastidiousness. We saw in part one that the end of Rhetoric in Europe’s school system led to the scientific method and a folly for foraging facts as if they were toilet paper in a pandemic. Now consequences followed suit into modernity’s demotic suite: the newfound respect for vernacular idioms and the normalization of a natural, unpolished style; the rise of concentrated clusters of facts, aka newspapers, which helped to erase vestiges of rhetoric in daily speech; and the change of aesthetic criteria from rhetorical inventiveness and emulation of classic models to authenticity and truth analogous to scientific findings. This last consequence set literary authors on a spiraling path down a total rejection and suspicion of most text as “rhetoric”: that includes, in fact the load of the blame lies in, popular literature, newspapers and political speeches. Writers, at least those who took themselves seriously – perhaps too much as Paulhan often jokes – didn’t want to be confused with peddlers of penny dreadful, feuilletons and pablum, railed journalists (even if they moonlighted at it when money for absinthe ran low) and retreated from politics. The press, popular opinion, populism, democracy’s hellspawn. One has to sympathies with Modernists: journalists and politicians are as good at lies as Saint Augustine. Secularization led to so a wide sense of spiritual cheapening – this is when the concept of “kitsch” first shows up – that Art became a religion unto itself, the last sacred realm that had withstood defilement, and it could only remain so at the cost of repudiating the masses, by writing for a happy few who were probably unhappy since they were missing out on fun trash like Rocambole.
Rhetoric, then, a grand enemy who had meant something very specific when 17th-century empiricists and Cartesians tore its institution down, was now an evil essence as imbedded in the fabric of the universe as Thanos when he got hold of the Cosmic Cube; “rhetoric” now became synonymous with “commonplace”, which had once been a respectable rhetorical technical term (it’s a translation of the Latin topos), whose identity was diluted in the recent and sinister “cliché”, which derived from cliché-verre, a glass print technique that allowed a mechanical reproduction of a single image. Although literature is inescapably rhetorical, the early Modernists thought rhetoric was an Alcatraz they needed to escape from and thought they could not thanks to an ingenious plan but thanks to a hunger strike: “If we were to define writers over the last one hundred and fifty years,” wrote Paulhan, “through their countless adventures, in terms of what they have always demanded, we find that they are unanimous in wanting to refuse something: so we have Rimbaud’s ‘poetic old-fashionedess’, Verlaine’s ‘eloquence,’ or Victor Hugo ‘rhetoric’. ‘I had a lot of trouble,’ said Walt Whitman, ‘taking out all of the poetic traits from Leaves of Grass, but I managed it in the end.’ And according to Laforgue: ‘The hallowed culture of the future is an anti-culture.’ Jules Renard remarks that ‘The art of writing today lies in mistrusting worn-out words.’”
This led to a suspicion of leaden language and its unfolding sprachkrisis. “The old language, the historians say, was exhausted, only clichés could result from the attempt to prolong its use”, Roger Scruton summarizes in Beauty: a very short introduction. How many examples one uses to argue this point basically depends on how much one wishes to show off. The easy route is to just name-drop the Holy Bible, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “The Lord Chandos Letter”, an awesome short-story in which a Renaissance poet relates to Francis Bacon how he suddenly feels cut off from the meaning of words. Or instead the persistent German tradition of sprachkritik, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, etc. Bergson’s not that popular nowadays, but he could do the job too. Valéry’s cameo (“The Marquise went out at five.”) in André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto is appropriate, if not mandatory, to this occasion. Then there’s Carlo Michelstaedter’s Persuasion and Rhetoric, in which rhetoric stands for everything that is fleeting, evil and coercing man into living in a commonplace, conventional, resigned world of social lies and self-deception. The great Karl Kraus’ diatribes against journalism come in handy, as would the growing quips and jabs since 1800 by Macaulay, Coleridge, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Chesterton, Nietzsche, Upton Sinclair Flaubert, Eça de Queiroz, Mark Twain, take your pick. Instead of alluding to the Dictionary of Received Ideas one could show some reach and mention Léon Bloy’s less frequently mentioned altar to clichés, Exégèse Des Lieux Communs. We could pilfer Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcisus preface: “And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage”. We could quote from Guy de Maupassant’s “Le Roman”, the preface to Pierre et Jean, in which he despairs at the possibility of composing a fresh sentence: “Which of us all can boast of having written a page, a phrase, which is not to be found — or something very like it — in some other book? When we read, we who are so soaked in (French) literature that our whole body seems as it were a mere compound of words, do we ever light on a line, a thought, which is not familiar to us, or of which we have not had at least some vague forecast?” (John Barth loves to tell the story of the Egyptian scribe Khakheperresenb’s Complaint: “Would I had phrases that are not known, in new language that has not been used not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken.” It’s a time-honored occupational hazard!)
The trick with the exhaustion of language fear, whose collecting examples of is one of my hobbies, mainly because I don’t believe in it, is knowing when to stop quoting these lovable curmudgeons since language thankfully never ran out for them whenever they were moaning that it was running out.
When Paulhan started writing The Flowers of Tarbes or, Terror in Literature in 1936, he had in mind a type of Terror which had reached its apex due to the Surrealists, but in fact what he identified dovetails nicely with part one: as novelists strove to be more and more realistic and devised a criterion of quality according to a scale of “authenticity”, language became a source of endless irritation since it could never report something as realistically as reality itself; fiction cannot purify itself of all contrivance, artificiality, it can never wholly do away with the narrator unlike a mathematical equation, it must always affirm its fictionality; there will always be a distance between the object and its name. Plus the writer must use idioms sullied by usage, including literary usage. What Whitman meant by taking the poetic traits out of poetry was using English as if it had not been previously used to make poetry, which is impossible since any reader who reads “urn” and “nightingale” will automatically think of John Keats, and “Lucifer” instantly recalls John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The net profit of this anxiety was immense, since the quality and innovation of the Modernists derived a lot from their frantic romanticizing after a long-lost pure language that would have made Khakheperresenb blush. “Can’t you see that when the language was new – as it was with Chaucer and Homer – the poet could use the name of the thing and the thing was really there?” asked Gertrude Stein. The reply to this is to simply state that English and Greek were certainly not “new” when Chaucer and Homer used it. Indeed, around the time Stein supposedly asked this, Millman Parry was proving that a big chunk of Homeric language is just a series of oral tradition clichés weaved together, since an oral culture rhapsode doesn’t receive stimuli to Make it new! unlike a writer in print culture, the real catalyst of chronic originality syndrome.
“And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect,” wrote Conrad. That’s almost like doing science’s job. But science, to which the author’s job was analogously compared since the 17th century, uses instruments instead of words, doesn’t have to worry about impurity. However, writers instead of accepting language’s slip-shod soul, that it’s a repository of past associations and allusions, craved science’s purity and prestige, an infallible instrument set apart from daily usage, untainted by publicity, the press and politics, which rendered reality in a more direct, authentic manner than ever before. Here’s how Breton attempted to close the gap between object and name: “Totally preoccupied with Freud as I then was and familiar with his methods of investigation which I had some slight occasion to practice on patients during the war, I resolved to obtain from myself what one tries to obtain from others, namely a monologue delivered as rapidly as possible, on which the critical mind of the subject is unable to pass judgement, unembarrassed consequently by reticence, comprising, as precisely as possible, spoken thought. It appeared to me, and still does – the manner in which the phrase about the man sliced in two came to me bears witness to it – that the speed of thought is no greater than that of speech, and does not necessarily defy capture in language, nor even the flow of the pen.” Breton and his retinue thought authenticity was reachable through methods like automatic writing and collective games in which the individual dissolved under a collective enterprise as steadily as grammar broke down and something perchance true to the unconscious emerged from this word alchemy. I find the results very unsatisfying.
Sartre, besides surrealism, which had some icky hype men in its ranks, had to worry about another type of repulsive propaganda – political propaganda. According to Paulhan’s timescale, the “Terror” phenomenon started during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror in order to curb the French language – any language really – tendency to being used and debased for political ends. Sartre, tanks still trundling in his tympany, was convinced that post-war French society had inherited a language besmirched by Nazi propaganda; words had lost their meaning, been defaced in defending war crimes, impregnated with the double meanings of collaborators to justify themselves. Enduring World War II was like taking amphetamines for thinkers with a natural tendency to think language has exhausted itself. George Steiner, who was so infatuated with silence that he sang it serenades, pretty much believed that the German language was kaput and could never scent its syllables and syntax out of the Schutzstaffel stench ever again: “Languages are living organisms. Infinitely complex, but organisms nevertheless. They have in them a certain life force, and certain powers of absorption and growth. But they can decay and they can die” he half gloomily half happily informs us. Then a catastrophe happened to him called Günter Grass.
Sartre’s purpose was to heal a sick idiom: “The function of a writer is to call a spade a spade”, he declared in What is Literature? “If words are sick, it is up to us to cure them. Instead of that, many writers live off this sickness. In many cases modern literature is a cancer of words. It is perfectly all right to write ‘horse of butter’ but in a sense it amounts to doing the same thing as those who speak of a fascist United States or a Stalinist national socialism. There is nothing more deplorable than the literary practice which, I believe, is called poetic prose and which consists of using words for the obscure harmonics which resound about them and which are made up of vague meanings which are in contradiction with the clear meaning.” We begin to hear the by now familiar tone of Plato and the Cartesian at work: a spade is written s-p-a-d-e and not one modifier more; language should avoid excess, let’s bin “poetic prose”. Barthes picked up these uninspired injunctions and rebranded them as “writing degree zero”. An alternative name was the bleachy “blank writing”, not a very succulent one. In part one I showed how, if you want to spot a Cartesian, you do the Metaphor Test: “How does this person feel about metaphors?” Let’s test it on Barthes.
One of his adversaries was Roger Garaudy, a left-wing novelist with ties to the French Communist Party whose socialist realist novels belonged to the once popular genre of bourgeois-shaming. The predicament, Barthes sensibly argued, is that Garaudy and his ilk paradoxically affronted the bourgeoisie while using a language and style the bourgeoisie controlled and deemed elegant and pleasant. For him, one of the distinctive marks of bourgeoisie literary aesthetics was the wicked metaphor. After quoting a typical passage by Garaudy he stated: “We see that nothing here is given without metaphor, for it must be laboriously borne home to the reader that 'it is well written' (that is, that what he is consuming is Literature). These metaphors, which seize the very slightest verb, in no way indicate the intention of an individual Humour trying to convey the singularity of a sensation, but only a literary stamp which ‘places’ a language, just as a label tells us the price of an article.” To clarify, Barthes’ problem is not Garaudy’s use of bad, hackneyed phrases, of colorless, worn-out metaphors. In another author, one Andre Stil, “metaphors do not pretend to be more than a cliche, almost fully integrated to real language, and signifying Literature at no great cost: 'crystal clear', 'hands white as parchment with the cold', etc.” Barthes did not condemn lazy usage, in fact he savored it; he abhorred thousand-old tropes that to him were exclusively identifying signs of bourgeois mentality. The current reader won’t care because he doesn’t know who Garaudy and Stil are; but Barthes could just as easily have belittled Lolita: “Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” Barthesianly speaking, this is bourgeois. I think we should all be worried about a theory of literature which out of coherence must censure such a book.
Barthes didn’t want writers to exercise stricter vigilance about stale metaphors, he wasn’t made about their reliance on idées reçues, he genuinely believed that the knack for using abundant imagery and inventive language was a sort of mental debris from a bygone age that had to be cleared away from prose the same way Plato and the Cartesians had excised it from poetry. Barthes was aware of Paulhan’s book (even if he didn’t mention it; Sartre was more sportsmanlike in that regard), since he shared his impatience with the ill effects of “Terror”. Barthes borrowed his argument that fretting over a fully original language is foolish because it can never be created from scratch, you can only scratch a layer of a massive glacier covered with pinguin bands of clichés and stock phrases: “However hard he tries to create a free language, it comes back to him fabricated, for luxury is never innocent: and it is this stale language, closed by the immense pressure of all the men who do not speak it, which he must continue to use.” This is sensate enough and proceeds from Paulhan’s advice to chill out: “We had occasion earlier to remark that Terrorist writers, even though of all the authors they have the keenest desire to avoid the reproach to verbalism, are also the first to attract this reproach. We can now understand the reason for this. For Terror is above all dependent upon language in a general sense, in that it condemns a writer to say only what a certain state of language leaves him free to express: He is restricted to those areas of feeling and thought where language has not yet been overused. That is not all: No writer is more preoccupied with words than the one who at every point sets out to get rid of them, to get away from them, or to reinvent them. Even that is not all, since he sets out to prove that he has reinvented them, and to provide the evidence of his innocence.”
According to Paulhan, Terror happens because writers can’t help clamoring for novelty: “That’s all well and good. (And we can wisely assign literature the task of revealing a part of man and the world that science cannot reach.) What is more serious, though, is that they clamor for any kind of novelty: whether in a man or his passions and his instincts, or in terms of style itself and its images. Now only one of these demands can be acceptable: What is surprising is that anyone could formulate them all at the same time. For each of them is only satisfied if one renounces all the others. In order for the subject of a novel to appear to us as new, its language still has to be neutral enough not to draw attention to itself. In order for an image to appear to us as unexpected, the two objects it brings together still have to be familiar.” But since purity is past any possibility, since the author’s stuck with semantics, syntax, and spelling defined by past usage and conserved by a community; and since no sooner does he hit upon an original turn of phrase than it it’s already old, the writer may as well just relax and use the whole of language, clichés included, provided he do so consciously: “We could imagine a thousand other instances: irony, insistence, a slight distortion, a subtle displacement, a lowering of voice. By creating a kind of self-reflexive zone around clichés, they are sufficient to let us know that ‘it’s safe’, that we are in no danger of being fooled, and that we and the author are on the same side of the commonplace expression”. (I recently listened to novelist George Salis approve the tongue-in-cheek use of cliches as a creative technique.)
Barthes departed from Paulhan in extrapolating from this impossibility an attitude akin to quitting, sort of extending over the whole spectrum of language what Steiner restricted to German: “Writing therefore is a blind alley, and it is because society itself is a blind alley. The writers of today feel this; for them, the search for a non-style or an oral style, for a zero level or a spoken level of writing is, all things considered, the anticipation of a homogeneous social state; most of them understand that there can be no universal language outside a concrete, and no longer a mystical or merely nominal, universality of society.”
Neither approach – a rhetoric of austerity and a rhetoric of self-consciousness – belongs to either of them, they’ve surfed the wave of good taste and submerged to the depths of derision again and again in the history of fiction’s cyclical quandary regarding what style should be used for fiction and why. Austerity, for instance, tends to follow periods of turmoil, crisis, war, as if a language debased by politics required cleansing and rinsing. Hemingway’s sparseness came out of his experience as an ambulance driver in WWI. His trademark minimalism was, according to Hugh Kenner in A Homemade World, a stance against “big empty words” like “duty”, “sacrifice”, “fatherland”, that had directed millions to pointless death. Hemingway and his fellow American realists were widely read in France in the 1930s and 1940s thanks in part to the essays of Claude-Edmonde Magny, which she gathered in L’Âge du roman américain (1948). Magny’s writings about Hemingway, Faulkner, Caldwell, Steinbeck, helped to persuade the French literary milieu that the modern novel was veering toward objective realism; according to her, this new realism had been modified by cinema insofar as it trimmed literary prose to the limits of functionality like a film script, avoided authorial interference, and reported events objectively and externally like the lens of a camera. Magny also saw a connection with behaviorist psychology, associated with B. F. Skinner and John Watson, which attempted to explain human behavior without resorting to metaphysical putty like “soul”, “spirit”, “mind”, “intentions”. Objective realism, then, was a new stage in the search since naturalism for a fiction free of metaphysics. The influence of the ensuing potpourri can be seen all over the austerity package Sartre and Barthes enforced on the novel. In spite of Barthes’ bid to solve the Terror, his austere tenets make him no less a Terrorist for, as Paulhan remarked, purity is the Terrorist’s driving force: he’ll push language so far up to the surface he’ll let it die like a plant cut off its roots. Nothing will ultimately satisfy him save silence to which all verbal austerity points. But Barthes can state it better than me: “From an initial non-existence in which thought, by a happy miracle, seemed to stand out against the backcloth of words, writing thus passed through all the stages of a progressive solidification; it was first the object of a gaze, then of creative action, finally of murder, and has reached in our time a last metamorphosis, absence: in those neutral modes of writing. called here ‘the zero degree of writing’, we can easily discern a negative momentum, and an inability to maintain it within time's flow, as if Literature, having tended for a hundred years now to transmute its surface into a form with no antecedents, could no longer find purity anywhere but in the absence of all signs, finally proposing the realization of this Orphean dream: a writer without Literature. Colourless writing like Camus's, Blanchot's or Cayrol's, for example, or conversational writing like Queneau's, represents the last episode of a Passion of writing, which recounts stage by stage the disintegration of bourgeois consciousness.”
Absence, colorlessness, conversation – a style a reader could write himself if only he tried, as I quoted Pascal saying in part one. If we invert “a writer without Literature” (not by accident a subsection in Blanchot’s 1959 The Book to Come is called “Author Without a Book, Writer Without Writing”) we get what Plato and Descartes were after all along, a literature without an author, voiceless; a conduit of objective, timeless knowledge that has always existed, like arithmetic, or Forms, or laws of Nature, or geometrical shapes, or scientific “facts”, something that does not need the degrading, soiling nuisance of human voice to exist. A few years later Barthes would jubilantly announce the death of the author. Although he didn’t refrain from a few potshots at Descartes, since by then it was a planetary pastime with the discredit of reason and whatnot, he was stylistically nevertheless a Cartesian, which means he was a tiresome literary realist who rebranded old mind-numbing realism for a new age weaned on Henry James and James Joyce that was not yet ready to give up on realism, but preferred to continue to practice it under some other name. The recipe was essentially the one handed down to them from Magny: objective realism, absent narrator, narration of real-life events, exterior description, no psychology. The death of the author, I hope this is clear by now, was nothing new; it’s also a cyclical announcement in the history of style and rhetoric. Periods when voice feels free to roister are replaced by periods when it moves to a cloister and the majority writes as Pascal counseled, so invisibly any reader could fancy himself the author too. Consider the smugness someone would need to have to think he could have written Shakespeare’s plays, or Gargantua and Pantagruel, or Euphues, or Moby Dick, or Mrs. Dalloway. But should we chastise someone for thinking that, if he grabbed a pen, maybe the result would be The Stranger? “Mother died today.” Who won’t have to utter so trite a platitude sooner or later?
When Writing Degree Zero was published in the USA in 1968, Susan Sontag provided one of the most periphrastically pointless prefaces in the history of prefaces. Like so many American intellectuals, Sontag was ghastly afraid of standing at the platform watching the trend train depart from Parochsville without her. Her first legerdemain was to turn Barthes into a more innovative and complicated thinker than he was. The reader, she warned, should beware that “Writing Degree Zero probably isn't the easiest text with which to start an acquaintance with Barthes. The book is compact to the point of ellipsis, often arcane.” Is it though? Barthes, blessed be he, was laconic, but not Lacan-ic; he was as straightforward as pioneer caravans in the Old West. Evidently, Sontag had to justify the price of the preface.
In Barthes’s main tactic old words are done in by new ones: for instance, not content with “Literature”, which is ideologically charged by bourgeois usage, he replaces it with “writing” (écriture). The concept of “writer” annoyed him so much he had to create subdivisions: écrivant (bad, bad writer) and écrivain (good boy!). Like McLuhan said, the grammarian is concerned with connections; the dialecticians, with divisions. In The Pleasure of the Text (history’s most misleading title) he adds modifiers to “text”, so a text can be lisible (“readerly”, easy) or scriptible (“writerly”, challenging). Paulhan, predating the self-parodical mania for jargon that would come to characterize the Nouvelle Critique, mocked all of this way back in 1941: “Almost the only way we can manage to talk about novels, style, literature, or art is by using ruses, or new words, which do not yet seem offensive.” Paulhan was a member of that once-upon-a-time-very-common species, a literary critic who wrote brilliant essays in everyday language, until it went extinct circa 1970 and is now whispered in Departments of Literature hallways as half-mythical goblins that sneak into grad students’ dorms at night and sprinkle clarity dust over their abstruse theses.
Barthes rose to prominence in the early fifties not because of Writing Degree Zero but because he took Alain Robbe-Grillet’s side in a literary scandal. Craving for an ascetic, pure language, blankly devoid of features that we identify with “literature”, like metaphors, he found in Robbe-Grillet the embodiment of such style. Allegedly, he inaugurated a nouveau roman, a new novel, but his style is really just Magny’s recipe left to dry in the oven for a bit longer. His short novels made of simple declarative sentences painstakingly describe objects in detriment of narrative, plot, character; language for him fulfilled a rudimentary denotative role. One could call them the apotheosis of Cartesianism, his predictably French anti-rhetorical stance earns him a proud chair next to Stendhal. When The Voyeur (1955) earned a major prize, the subsequent scandal turned him into a cause célèbre and Barthes into a celebrity for standing up for him.
When Plato banned poetry, he was in fact advocating the abstract thinking that paved the way for rationalism; when Bacon and Descartes championed naturalness, their opposition to the Renaissance’s dependence on eloquence prepared the scientific method. Now, rationality had been the bulwark of the French intelligentsia since Descartes, remnants of positivism and naturalism still lingered in society, writers quickly absorbed old habits in their formative years. But Barthes belonged to a new breed of French communist thinkers dismayed at reason; perhaps he even considered himself an anti-Cartesian, he openly mocked the French’s infatuation with the national myth of clarté, clarity, which posited them as the world’s most rational nation. In fact he thought rationality was overrated. Strangely enough, in the course of his struggle with the ghost of the Cartesian tradition he didn’t realize Robbe-Grillet’s brand of super-realism was precisely the logical endpoint of Cartesianism.
Although Sontag devoted some lines to distinguishing Barthes from Sartre, she didn’t go past the superficial antinomy between the former who was against the politically-engaged writer and the latter was in favor of him. Dialecticians love divisions, so she overlooked the glaring similarity: they both thought literary style should be simple, natural, unassuming, lying low like a hitman after a job, and transparently transmit information. I suspect that Sontag, for all her credentials as a sophisticate, wasn’t that well-read in French literary history, otherwise she would have realized that Writing Degree Zero does not present a single original idea that, it’s a miscellany under a catchy name of anti-rhetorical prejudices dating uninterruptedly back to the 17th century. Let’s retrace it step by step.
Both Barthes and Sartre would have grown up listening, and agreeing, to a famous remark by Paul Bourget that novels should be badly written. It outlived its author so powerfully that Émile Henriot, in Le Monde on March 11, 1959, started an article with this sentence: “Paul Bourget assured that a novel should not be too well written, and he himself abused a bit too much of that recommendation.” (Paul Bourget assurait qu'un roman ne doit pas être bien écrit, et il a lui-même un peu abusé de la recommandation.) Incidentally, Henriot, besides having coined the “nouveau roman”, was the main culprit for the scandal that turned Robbe-Grillet and Barthes into national sensations.
Sadly I’ve never been able to locate the original source of Bourget’s sentence, but the French press constantly paraphrased it, and always in reference to Bourget: it’s in Franc Carco’s 1932 Paul Bourget (“Un roman, disait-il, ne doit pas être trop bien écrit.”); in a 1938 issue of La Revue universelle (“Bourget pensait qu'un roman ne doit pas être trop bien écrit.”); in Louis Bolle’s 1944 Paul Valéry ou conscience et poésie (“C'est ici que le paradoxe de Paul Bourget a sa place: qu'un roman ne doit pas être trop bien écrit...”). The oldest source I’ve been able to trace it back to was a 1903 Portuguese novel that uses it as epigraph. My point is that Sartre and Barthes grew up alike in an environment that inculcated this judicative criterion into their minds from a tender age. As such, “blank writing” and “writing degree zero”, far from being original, radical ideas, were standard French literary bon goût.
Bourget wasn’t a scary auroch. André Gide’s journal is studded with his bias against metaphors. In 1921 he wrote: “When I began to write my Nourritures, I realized that the very subject of my book was to banish all metaphor from it. There is not a movement of my style that does not correspond to a need of my mind; most often it is but a need of order. The writer's eloquence must be that of the soul itself, of the thought; artificial elegance is a burden to me; likewise all added poetry.” Then in 1923: “The good writing I admire is that which, without calling too much attention to itself, checks and delays the reader and forces his thought to proceed slowly. I want his attention to sink at every step into a rich soil that is deeply broken up. But what the reader generally looks for is a kind of endless belt that will carry him along.” Bit by bit blank writing was making its way into Barthes’ brain. As early as 1911 Gide wrote: “Not that I never knew how to enjoy metaphors, and even of the most romantic kind; but, loathing artifice, I forbade myself the right to use them. Even as early as my Cahiers d'Andre Walter I attempted a style that aimed toward a more secret and more essential beauty. ‘Rather poverty-stricken style,’ said the excellent Heredia, to whom I presented my first book and who was astonished not to find more images in it. That style, I wanted it even more poverty-stricken, more stringent, more purified, deeming that the only justification for ornamentation is to hide some defect and that only insufficiently beautiful thought need fear utter nudity.” I could just as easily have quoted from Camus’ journals. What was basically the default literary French style since the 17th century was misunderstood by Barthes’ foreign readers as a revolutionary break with tradition.
There’s no reason to stop at 1911. Flaubert is for me a fascinating, even tragic case-study because he was clearly a rhetoric-minded novelist who whipped himself into adhering to the precepts of his society. On December 27, 1852 he wrote to Louise Collet, “I am bothered by my metaphorical tendency which decidedly dominates me too much. I am devoured by comparisons as one is by lice, and I spend my time doing nothing but squashing them”. Flaubert was so embarrassed at his geyser-like gushing of metaphors that posterity – or at least Proust and Juan Benet – has often done him the favor of pretending that he sucked at them. Trivia time: Don-Louis Demorest estimated that Flaubert made some 10 000 metaphors.
Moving further back into the past, we arrive at Stendhal’s 16 October, 1840 letter to Balzac about how he read the Civil Code to temper his style, to tame it while writing The Charterhouse of Parma. Balzac, his pupil, would later try to compete with the Civil Registry.
Earlier still there was the mattoid Antoine Rivarol, who wore Cartesianism on his soul like a chain cilice, and whose chauvinistic Discours sur l'universalité de la langue française (1783) is an awesome peahen to the French language as the most perfect instrument ever put at the service of rationality. His views on word order are astonishing, but since we’re concerned with metaphors I’ll just skip to his opinion of them: “The man who’s more impoverished by imagination doesn’t talk for long without falling into metaphor. But it’s that perpetual lie of the word, that metaphorical style, which carries a germ of corruption.” During the Enlightenment this was a common inversion of tradition: metaphor, instead of being a sign of imagination, was evidence of its absence; it follows then that true imagination is sticking to straightforward, direct reportage of facts without embellishment – once again that type of colorless writing that according to Pascal anyone could fancy himself the author of. And on that depressing note let’s go back to Barthes and Robbe-Grillet.
Now we can ask this question: when they both championed objective, surface, literal writing, without metaphor, anthropomorphism, imagery, just a lens mechanically recording what’s visible, were they being avant-garde or were they just kowtowing to 300 years of French tradition? My money’s on the latter.
Although the French helped invented the philosophy of realism which led to what Ian Watts called formal realism, it was the English novel in the next century that applied its results to language. In The rise of the novel, Watts quotes several French besotted with the heightened realism of the English novel in comparison with the old-fashioned French romances. However, once they adopted it the philosophical tradition since Descartes and Pascal helped keep it in place. It’s not a question of looking for blame: the novel was born precisely to be the carrier of simple language since the 17th century sowed the idea that a representation of daily, dense, concrete reality is better transmitted by simplicity, by fewer demands upon artistic prose. Hermann Broch, not long after Sartre’s essay, agreed with this popular view; he even wrote in Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his Time: “And even here, precisely here, the novel remains in that curious hybrid state in which it is a work of art that is never able to rise to the rank of perfect art, the rank of style-creating ‘perfect poetry’ which is the property of lyric poetry, drama, and not last, precisely of the great epics. Contrary to these, the novel is not a producer but a consumer of style, not a subject but an object of style, and the symbolism it creates falls into utter triviality, becomes an accessory. In other words, the task which was assigned to the novel directs itself principally, now as always, to its duty to represent the totality of life, and with far less intensity toward its duty as an artistic creation. Balzac is more important for the novel than Stendhal, Zola more important than Flaubert, the formless Thomas Wolfe more important than the artist Thornton Wilder: the novel does not stand, as does true poetry, under the measure of art but under the measure of ‘writerliness’, and even the monumentality of the Russian epic is now as before implanted within the region – so utterly characteristic of the nineteenth century – of apoetical and at times almost antipoetical belles letres.”
However, after the war France was undoubtedly the main agent of this aesthetics’ transmission, which was finally beginning to find fertile ground in the quite barren cratered cities or war-torn Europe. The nouveau roman was France’s last successful attempt at exporting their fiction, and for a while it seemed to be everywhere. Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor made quite a splash in the Novel’s International Congress at Formentor (1959) and were invited by the Soviet Writer’s Union along with Nathalie Sarraute to attend a congress in Leningrad (1962); their newspaper articles espousing their theories were widely read outside France; Sarraute’s The age of suspicion (1956) was quickly translated into other languages and it became trendy to quote it; plus she won the International Literary Prize in 1964. Objective realism gained traction in Spain partially thanks to Magny’s book which was translated there; as early as 1957 the critic José María Castellet was advocating it in La hora del lector, an essay filled with quotes by Sartre and Robbe-Grillet. Castellet believed that the solution for the Spanish novel’s decadence involved mixing objective realism, the sparse cinema descriptive style, and Sartrian political engagement. His solution, if anyone adopted it, helped in fact to keep the Spanish novel stagnant in a swamp of style. The Spanish novelist was already an acolyte of realism and politically engaged in denouncing the sociopolitical conditions of Franco’s dictatorship; what he lacked was precisely familiarity with imagination and rich, playful language, basically the ingredients Barcelona editors went scouting for in South America thanks to which they started a so-called Boom.
Nevertheless, the nouveau roman, in spite of its short-lived success and some imitators in Italy, Spain, the UK, the USA and elsewhere (I collect Portuguese nouveaux romans – they’re quite a nightmarish albeit affordable experience), was considered a failure by the mid-1960s, even by previously ardent supporters like Barthes, who had devised even more sadistic ways of torturing the novel. So instead France started exporting its thinkers. This constitutes a curious phenomenon: whereas the 60s and 70s are remembered as great decades for fiction in some countries, in France they’re mostly remembered as a golden age of thinkers. This is another weird parallel with the 17th century: despite France’s efforts, its neoclassical poets and playwrights have never mattered much beyond borders; Racine, Corneille, and Fenelon are not considered anywhere else the geniuses the Frenchmen think they are; however, Descarte’s books, Pascal’s Pensées, Rochefoucauld’s Maxims have fared well.
In The Pleasure of Text, Barthes gives us access to his tastes, and boy they’re as predictable as a pyramid’s pointy shape: “In Bouvard and Pecuchet, I read this sentence, which gives me pleasure: ‘Cloths, sheets, napkins were hanging vertically, attached by wooden clothespins to taut lines.’ Here I enjoy an excess of precision, a kind of maniacal exactitude of language, a descriptive madness (encountered in texts by Robbe-Grillet).” Like the lady sings in “Everyday People”, different strokes for different folks, but still! “Cloths, sheets, napkins were hanging vertically, attached by wooden clothespins to taut lines”? Certainly this qualified him as a standard champion of bourgeois prose too.
This is no worse than the fluff that stuffs the dead teddy bears Robbe-Grillet called novels. Now this is one of the strangest, most bewildering paradoxes regarding one of the camps trying to move one camp, for all its shouting about a “new novel”, was just writing the same old prose. Bizarrely I never came across in the press at the time of the quibble that the nouveau roman’s biggest problem was how bad it was written:
In the dimness of the café, the manager is arranging the tables and chairs, the ashtrays, the siphons of soda water; it is six in the morning.
He has no need to see distinctly, he does not even know what he is doing. He is still asleep. Very ancient laws fuel every detail of his gestures, saved for once from the uncertainty of human intentions; each second marks a pure movement: a side-step, the chair eleven inches out from the table, three wipes of the rag, half-turn to the right, two steps forward, each second marks, perfect, even, unblurred. Thirty-one. Thirty-two. Thirty-three. Thirty-four. Thirty-five. Thirty-six. Thirty-seven. Each second in its exact place.
As fantastical as this may sound nowadays, a lot of intelligent people back in the 1960s’ believed that in the future all novels would be written like this. No one complained about this blandness because its detractors despised the exuberant style just as much. What upset them was the lack of plot, the dehumanization of characters, undoubtably important complaints, but few cared about this leper-like language, so fragile it seems on the verge of imminent collapse.
It is textbookly agreed that the postwar era saw an increasing suspicion and contempt regarding the conventional novel. They may be so; hell, I’ve read enough George Lukacs to know that was so! I’m not particularly interested in that version of facts. I can’t have anything against formal realism since I don’t have any better tag for most of my favorite novels, like Lolita, Wise Children, Fado Alexandrino, The Tunnel, Darconville’s Cat, Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, The Dick Gibson Show. I do have a lot against prose like “Mother died today”, “Cloths, sheets, napkins were hanging vertically, attached by wooden clothespins to taut lines” and 99% of everything written from Homer to right now, but I can’t pin that on realism. The story about post-war fiction that interests me concerns the choice novelists made regarding language: one that decided to impoverish it, and other that decided to enrichen it.
The paucity platoon recruited Barthes, Sartre, Broch, Blanchot, Robbe-Grillet, Steiner and others. It was mainly a European-based operation. They continued to promote the old Modernist belief that language had run out, and that since it was impossible to find an authentic, more direct language, mockery and silence was the solution. Myopia was one of their main characteristics, uncharitableness a strategy to win battles. Barthes, for instance, did not write to my knowledge a single line about Nabokov, Burgess, Gass, Grass. I’ve always been mystified by the sheer chauvinism, even knowing it’s a French specialty, in his essays, whether it be Critical Essays or The Pleasure of the Text, and by his inability to write about anyone outside French literature, which dampened his view of contemporary fiction; and it’s slightly repulsive to see the cronyist gusto with which he praised so highly fellow Tel Quel pals like Philippe Sollers and Severo Sarduy, who sometimes seem to exhaust the list of novelists he read after 1966. The same faults can be pointed at Towards a New Novel. The disparity is made clearer when their books are compared with the international generosity and curiosity irradiating from Gass’ essay collections, Burgess’ The Ink Trade, and Giorgio Manganelli’s La Letteratura come Menzogna.
As for Steiner, his book Language and Silence (1967) starts with a tell-tale title, equating both concepts. I’ve already quoted a bit from it about the dead German language. Another chapter is called “The retreat from the word”, originally an essay published in The Kenyon Review (Spring, 1961). Although it’s long and covers quite a lot with Steiner’s usual poise of making erudition look easy, its surprising connections are converging toward a main conclusion: “The writer of today tends to use far fewer and simpler words, both because mass culture has watered down the concept of literacy and because the sum of realities of which words can give a necessary and sufficient account has sharply diminished.” It’s hard to tell if this really upset him, or if it was just an excuse to develop his favorite plaint: “This diminution - the fact that the image of the world is receding from the communicative grasp of the word - has had its impact on the quality of language. As Western consciousness has become less dependent on the resources of language to order experience and conduct the business of the mind, the words themselves seem to have lost some of their precision and vitality. This is, I know, a controversial notion.” It certainly is, but Steiner rigged the game in order to get the cards he needed. Like Barthes, he was averse to contemporary fiction that opened a few holes in his theory through which he could perhaps glance at a brighter present. For a collection of essays between 1958 and 1966, and if we compound that with his legendary polyglotism, it’s worrying the omission of long examinations of or even more than passing references to Lolita, Pale Fire, A Clockwork Orange, just for English-language starters; but even the badly translated The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, or William Weaver’s decent rendition of That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, or Explosion in the Cathedral, or any Raymond Queneau novel which he’d have had no problem reading in French, would have helped to allay his fears. And yet Steiner straddles the sixties that saw the resurgence of rhetoric as if nothing of import had happened. There are people like Steiner and Blanchot who are enchanted with the end of literature; who even as they claim to love it can’t wait to see it gone so they can compose a bittersweet farewell to something too good to be appreciated by the philistines who took over.
This anti-rhetorical camp, emboldened by the end of language, contributed to a mental environment that fostered novelists like Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Claude Simon. To call what they produced a “nouveau roman” was misleading since none of their techniques were that new. A better moniker was found by Bernard Pingaud: “the school of refusal”, as he called them it in an essay. Pingaud saw that there were two trends within the so-called nouveau roman: there was Robbe-Grillet’s objective realism which denied language denotative meaning, a sort of behaviorist fiction, and in my view the natural endpoint of socialist realism; then there was Sarraute’s and Butor’s introspective, stream-of-consciousness flow of words. They opposed to varied degrees plot, character, and figurative language. They broke the chronology into pieces and expected the reader to “participate” in the reordering and interpretation of events. None of this was very new. Regarding plot, they were satisfied with ordinary events, perennially winning snaggles like adultery and infidelities as in Jealousy and The Modification. Jorge Luis Borges chastised in the preface to Bioy Casares’ The Invention of the Morel those novelists who since Modernism bragged about making plotless novels or with everyday events. Borges disagreed: “I think that no other era possesses novels of a subject as admirable as The Turn of the Screw, The Trial, or Le voyage sur la terre; or as the novel that, in Buenos Aires, Adolfo Bioy Casares has achieved”. This didn’t sit well at all with a professional sitter like Blanchot: “But what is a subject?” he asked. “To say that the novel is valuable because of the rigor of its plot, the attractive power of its motives-this assertion is not as reassuring for tradition as tradition would like ta think; it is saying, in fact, that it is not valuable because of the truth of its characters or for its realism, psychological or physical, that it should not count on imitation, either of the world or of society or of nature, ta retain interest. A story with a subject is thus a mysterious work, removed from all matter: a narrative without characters, a stary in which the storyless day-to-day and eventless intimacy, those resources always at hand, stop being a resource.” Blanchot was hardly alone in Europe in this matter. Curiously, when it came to imagination and plot, the left-wing realists and the so-called avant-garde novelists agreed that the novel needed to continue to tell the most possibly boring stories and just grow up and out of this nonsense about making stuff up. So Claude Mauriac’s Dinner in Town introduces us to a bunch of ordinary, indistinguishable people around a dinner table having cortex-killing table talk while we jump in and out of their minds. Sarraute’s The Planetarium concerns a young couple trying to get his aunt to vacate a luxurious apartment; all is told from within, with changing points of view, and canine loyalty to a character’s repetitive concerns about interior decoration and the color of wallpaper, a distressing dilemma narrated in takeaway leaflet prose. When I first read it last year I was astonished at her confidence in my putting up with this for more than a couple of pages:
“Good evening…delighted…Good evening…Why, not at all, come in…No, you’re not disturbing me…Certainly not, what an idea, you know quite well that I’m very glad…” His smile is edgy, constrained, he feels this, his voice is badly pitched… He offers them seats, clumsily displaces an easy chair, he all but knocks over a small center table which, calmly, skillfully, they catch just in time, set straight again, all his gestures are jerky, awkward, his eyes must have a feverish light in them…
Back in 1970 Anthony Burgess joked about how much mediocrity the stream of consciousness had been responsible for. He wrote a pastiche of it to illustrate his point in a neat essay called “The novel in 2000 a.d.”:
And if we want to essay those psychological depths that will fill up scores of easy pages, we only have to listen to ourselves: “She was a good kid, yeah, a good kid. The filling's loose in this right incisor, must see about that. Fellini? Schwarz? Schwarz is a good dentist. She had good teeth, poor kid. She was good all over. Something in me responded to the goodness, but in the wrong way. A loose filling in me, a rattling amalgam of good and evil.” Etc., etc., etc. After a day's work on post Joycean interior monologue (7,000 words and no trouble at all), the novelist slinks to his whisky sour in shame, knowing he will be praised for his fluency and candor.
Nabokov’s parodies of stream of consciousness in Lolita and Ada or Ardor are a reminder of how quickly it fell in disrepute when even some of Joyce’s greatest fans openly mocked it. When I read The Planetarium I realized that Burgess’ pastiche wasn’t a joke, it was a documentary. His point was simples: by 1959 the Joycean technique had been assimilated; but his ban on it was not because of popular usage, but because in hands other than Joyce’s it caused a lot of bad writing. It is alarmingly easy to scribble a bunch of half-eaten, disjointed declarative sentences to “simulate” consciousness, an otherwise futile goal since no one knows what “consciousness” looks like. But insofar as novelists thought it was a random seesaw of free-floating phenomena, it could give anyone a pass. Burgess loved Joyce, he wrote two books on him, but he knew that from him they had taken the psychological snoopiness that chimed in with 19th-century realism while overlooking his rhetorical prowess. “Joyce’s repertory of syntactic devices is not extensive. He is not, like Beckett, an Eiffel nor a Calder of the sentence”, observed Hugh Kenner in Joyce’s Voices. “The single word – ‘repaired’; ‘salubrious’ – is his normal means to his characteristic effects. His sentences, on the whole, suffice to get the words together, and when he is unsure of himself, in an early draft for instance or a bread-and-butter letter, entangled priorities will entangle his constructions as gracelessly as Gerty’s though less entertainingly.” The genius of Joyce, for a euphuist like Burgess, lies in pastiche and word control. There is something haunting about the fact that “stately” and “crossed” are the first and last words of Ulysses’ first paragraph: state and church, the two evils looming over Ireland. Your jaw has to drop when you casually learn that in an essay. That’s rhetoric, mastery, qualities wholly absent from so much nouveau roman novels.
These were valid concerns that didn’t bother the French that much. Don’t forget that France’s foremost critic received a swathe of pleasure from ‘Cloths, sheets, napkins were hanging vertically, attached by wooden clothespins to taut lines.’ Such indifference to the shape of a sentence, to diction and composition, gave laziness a free pass. At the same time the bar was so low the writing could be done in one and still seem impressive:
“I remember how the wind blew almost continuously for three months, so that when it did stop (a few hours or a few days--but never more than two or three) you thought you could still hear it, wild and wailing, not outdoors but somehow inside your own head: voices emptied of meaning, nothing but noise and, so it seemed, dust--the dust that penetrated everywhere, insinuated itself under your burning eyelids, in your mouth, communicating its taste to the things you ate, interposing between the skin of your fingertips and what they took hold of (papers left on the desk the day before, plates, napkins) that haunting, imperceptible, granular film.”
There are even longer sentences in Simon’s long-sentency novel The Wind, they run for miles like a sexual predator who set up a date with a victim in a distant city. Simon specialized in rather frugal, rather fake long sentences; speaking as someone who’s written a 25 000-word-long sentence for a novel I can assure you there’s nothing easier than swelling long sentences: you just keep adding adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, two points, parentheses, dashes, it’s elementary syntax, we’re raised from childhood with the know-how to do them. What’s praiseworthy is a 25 000-word-long alliterative or lipogramatic or palindromic sentence. Sadly I never come across those.
Postwar fiction was in an interesting crossroads; three paths for the novel were available, which curiously were the same three paths invented at the novel’s birth between 1719 and 1749. When Ian Watts restricted The rise of the novel to Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, he hit upon a pattern even he was maybe unaware of. Some people have complained that his omission of Swfit, Smollet and Sterne gave too much importance to realism, but Watts’ real reason was room: he did write chapters on the others but left them out because the book would be too voluminous. But what symmetry! From Defoe flowed naturalism, social realism, socialist realism, objective realism, any sort of realist fiction that seeks to represents the world from the outside, which summarizes, which observes things with a camera’s disdainful distance; his descendants are Balzac and Stendhal, Hemingway and Robbe-Grillet, whose choisisme is a mode of empiricism an positivism, an approach to depicting the world predicated on the gathering of raw data but barring a analytical, interpretive attempt at giving it meaning. Defoe, says Watts, was not very concerned with psychology, whose grasp was still rudimentary; now this makes me think of Auguste Comte, who wasn’t looking for ultimate causes, he just wanted to inventory and index every sensorial datum until there was none left outside his interrelated systems; and it makes me think of Skinner. The culmination of this path was Robbe-Grillet’s war on the myth of “profundity”, metaphysics, tragedy and transcendence.
Defoe gave action preference since the autobiographies he had at hand to model his novels on still had a shrunken conception of interior life. Not so with Richardson, whose use of letters made the epistolary novel into a remarkable device for examining inner life and expanding our vocabulary to talk about it. Instead of relying on a multitude of short episodes more summarized than dramatized, on constant shifts of location which for instance likened Moll Flanders to the Spanish picaro, on an inventive supply of contrivances for Robison Crusoe to apply his problem-solving skills, Richardson leaned plot into one ordinary event, morally crucial in someone’s life, the ramifications of which he pursued with increasing polyphonic complexity. This current led to interior monologue, stream of consciousness, the lyrical first-person narrator of Proust, Woolf’s tunneling and association technique, Joyce, and eventually Sarraute’s ambling characters fussing over interior decoration. Even though the first two currents essentially englobe the conventional novel so despised by the nouveaux romanciers, they were no less their offspring.
Finally, Henry Fielding’s theory of the “epic novel” was the attempt by a classically-educated man – Defoe and Richardson were not and in fact despised most literature previous to their time – at infusing the new novel genre with the romance tradition which was being superseded. Insofar as Tom Jones pays more attention to plot orchestration, reduces the characters to types rather than fully-formed creatures, takes us behind the curtain where the narrator’s masterfully manipulating the characters who have no life of their own, favors style and language over psychology, and overtly aims to entertain rather than to moralize like the Puritans Defoe and Richardson, it could be said that he’s the father of popular entertainment, the metafictional novel, convoluted plotting, fabulation, and a wallop of po-mo. But that’s part three.
Although they took Europe by storm between the dying ‘50s and the early ‘60s, the nouveaux romanciers were never that popular, not even by fellow novelists who also wanted to move past the conventional novel. Although Nabokov is on record as a fan of Robbe-Grillet’s novels, he also thought his theory was preposterous and didn’t care about the other names. Others were not that selective or forgiving. From Ernesto Sabato to Carlos Fuentes you can find disagreement for several reasons. Sometimes it’s hard to disentangle some reasons from others. Fuentes, for instance, did not object to techniques used by them, Aura (1962) is a very Butor-esque novella written in the second person that sort of became Butor’s shtick. In fact, Fuentes is a fascinating case because even as he publicly disparaged them he was becoming more and more like then, as seen in Change of Skin. For Sabato and Saul Bellow the problem was the underlying dehumanizing philosophy at the heart of objective realism, or choisisme. Bellow railed against it in a 1963 lecture called “Recent American Fiction”, and was still irate thirteen years later in his Nobel Prize lecture. Spanish novelists like Miguel Delibes and Gonzalo Torrente Ballester weren’t into them either. Italo Calvino is on record in The Uses of Literature as embracing the anthropomorphism Robbe-Grillet had placed a ban on, without which there wouldn’t have been the Cosmicomics. Haroldo de Campos thought that Robbe-Grillet and Butor had not, unlike the superior João Guimarães Rosa, followed Joyce into an alchemy of language, content as they were with ordinary syntax and vocabulary. Lawrence Durrell thought they despised their readers. Burgess’s entry on the “Novel” for the Britannica made it clear his main quarrel was over the dismissal of character-creating: “But the true novelists remain creators of characters—prehuman, such as those in William Golding’s Inheritors (1955); animal, as in Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter (1927) or Jack London’s Call of the Wild (1903); caricatures, as in much of Dickens; or complex and unpredictable entities, as in Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Henry James. The reader may be prepared to tolerate the most wanton-seeming stylistic tricks and formal difficulties because of the intense interest of the central characters in novels as diverse as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760–67).” In a 1973 interview he was blunter: "I think Nathalie Sarraute rejects characters because she can't create characters.”
For Barth Robbe-Grillet at least was an old-fashioned realist and so his claim to originally was shaky: “From what I know of Robbe-Grillet and his pals, their aesthetic is finally a more up-to-date kind of psychological realism; a higher fi to human consciousness and unconsciousness. Well, that's nice.” Barth was on the opposite spectrum, taking the novel back to fantastical, convoluted, over-the-top plots that had been absent from “artistic” novels for too long. Gabriel García Márquez told Luis Harss the nouveau roman was a mistake the Boom was going to erase. He was right: once France started backing Barcelona publishers in spreading the work of Latin-Americans, the nouveau roman’s tombstone was quickly put up.
Since then the nouveau roman has become a nostalgic item for some in the English-speaking world. Because most people learn about it from either The Age of Suspicion or Towards a New Novel, but not so much from its fiction, it’s easy to feel giddy about it; their pedagogical essays pull us in with its promise of purity, their discourse is very seductive especially nowadays when the novel seems to be synonymous with straightforward storytelling and market forces coerce the novelist into conformity or a cul-de-sac in some indie publisher. Until some six years ago, before society turned back to sociopolitical relevance (nothing to worry about, this is just the ‘30s and ‘40s making a comeback), you could still find passionate discussions between proponents of the conventional novel and defenders of something that went by names like experimental / avant-garde novel.
The timeline and bibliography are more or less like this: in 2000 James Wood coined “hysterical realism” in “Human, All Too Inhuman”, a sweeping blow at big books that relied on convoluted plots, showed off a lot of research but showed little humanity: DeLillo, Pynchon, Rushdie, Wallace, and Zadie Smith (a strange inclusion in my view, but whatever). Next year B. R: Myers’s “A Reader's Manifesto” crapped all over contemporary fiction that did not abide by conventional realism; and apropos of 9/11, Wood’s “Tell me how does it feel?” made an impassioned plea for fiction that returned to character and psychology, and fewer shenanigans. Mrs. Smith, shaken up by the topical terror, hastily composed under emotional duress “This is how it feels to me”, a reply endorsing Wood’s plea and promising to commit to new humanist fiction. In 2002 Jonathan Franzen, whom Wood greatly appreciates for personifying his brand of bread-&-butter realism, went after po-mo’s deadbeat dad, William Gaddis, aka “Mr. Difficult”. Because this was just Gaddis, shockwaves were slow in shaping into a controversy, but eventually Ben Marcus took noticed and avenged him in 2005 with “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It”. We could add subsidiary events to the ongoing feud between realists and anti-realists: Wood published How Fiction Works (2008), and Steven Moore The Novel (2010), whose Introduction contains rejoinders to several claims made by Wood, Myers and Franzen. These were fun times: there was even a guy who started a blog against Wood. In the UK Gabriel Josipovici used the publication of What Ever Happened to Modernism? As pretext to emit some nasty remarks about Rushdie, Amis, etc., who apparently had betrayed Modernism and were now churning out middlebrow pap. Before sociopoliticla relevance homogenized literary headlines into which woman was nominated for this or that prize this week, headlines had more juice: “Feted British authors are limited, arrogant and self-satisfied, says leading academic”. Yep, fun times.
For me no one wore the zeitgeist like a crown better than David Shields, whose Reality Hunger (remember it?) got some people scared because it predicated (once again) the death of fiction in the wake of a new supergenre that would replace it, that being nothing other than the personal essay (nothing to worry about, this is just a reprise of the panic caused by Oscar Lewi’s 1961 The Children of Sanchez).
Then there was Smith’s volte-face essay, “Two Paths for the Novel”, the most developed defense of the nouveau roman in the last 21 years by the novelist least likely to defend it. Smith’s passage from hysterical realism to Wooden realism didn’t last long because in 2008 she was quite hysterically worrying about what she called “lyrical realism” (99% of lit crit is just adding modifiers to “realism”: formal, social, socialist, dialectical, objective, critical, magical, dirty, hysterical, lyrical… the 1% is Robert Scholes), you know, like the White Teeth and On Beauty she was novelling even she was being called a hysterical realist. The essay is interesting to me at least because it starts with Smith in the same crossroads postwar fiction writers were. Her inquiry was simple: which model should modern novelists follow? Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland? Or Tom McCarthy’s allegedly avant-garde Remainder? I’m sure someone circa 1955 asked whether they should continue to write like Garaudy or instead just keel over the boat and drown in Mr. Robbe-Grillet’s sea of redundant meaninglessness. Smith in fact fishes Robbe-Grillet up from the depths very often, probably because McCarthy does too.
It takes only a few lines to find the Cartesian at work. Metaphors? Smith and McCarthy hate them! “But in practice Netherland colonizes all space by way of voracious image. This results in many beauties (“a static turnstile like a monster’s unearthed skeleton”) and some oddities (a cricket ball arrives “like a gigantic meteoritic cranberry”), though in both cases, there is an anxiety of excess. Everything must be made literary. Nothing escapes.” I certainly hope not! Why would I want literature not to be literary?
Her mentors? The same philosophers who mentored the suspicion of language; and I guess only a sense of propriety, of ridiculous anachronism stops her from calling O’Neill a “bourgeois writer”, although she can’t help leak midcentury noises about “twenty-first-century bourgeois existence”, as if she were inside a Sartre or Lukacs essay:
But Netherland is only superficially about September 11 or immigrants or cricket as a symbol of good citizenship. It certainly is about anxiety, but its worries are formal and revolve obsessively around the question of authenticity. Netherland sits at an anxiety crossroads where a community in recent crisis—the Anglo-American liberal middleclass—meets a literary form in long-term crisis, the nineteenth-century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert.
Critiques of this form by now amount to a long tradition in and of themselves. Beginning with what Alain Robbe-Grillet called “the destitution of the old myths of ‘depth,’” they blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. They all of them note the (often unexamined) credos upon which Realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.
At times she does behave and think as if she were stranded in the fifties. For instance, when she claims that the novel is a conservative genre that changes slower than painting, which got rid first of representation and figuration:
The received wisdom of literary history is that Finnegans Wake did not fundamentally disturb Realism’s course as Duchamp’s urinal disturbed Realism in the visual arts: the novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real. But if literary Realism survived the assault of Joyce, it retained the wound. Netherland bears this anxiety trace, it foregrounds its narrative nostalgia, asking us to note it, and look kindly upon it
I could quote Beckett (1937), Sarraute (1956), Castellet (1957) on this exact complaint. “Traditionally, we stick to archaic literary ideologies even while painting and music are in full cataclysmic bloom”, moaned Sollers in 1974. However, it seldom went unanswered. The shortest argument to this innate delay is that novels unlike paintings and music are made of words. Blots of paint mean nothing by themselves: blue is just blue, it’s up to the painter to choose if it’ll be a blue canvas, a blue sky or the Virgin Mary’s blue robe, which has a specific meaning all of its own thanks to tradition. The musical scale is just as silent: do re mi fa sol are not automatically associated to ideas or meanings or objects. (Although since musical notes can be written down a novelist can treat them as text: in Jô Soares’s comic detective novel A Samba for Sherlock, the killer leaves clues based on the names of the musical notes). But writers can’t words are just arbitrary ink signs: “love” by itself implies characters and a story: “love” must come from someone to someone or something else; that’s a basic plot. You can mix colors any way you want, but you do so with words at your own peril; anyone’s intitled to write: jar oasis car stuck fidget gas looming why not and forwith serendipity estrada sling at or of to abba mentira LOCUS SOLUS carica abandon song nit job wo wo wowow wow crepuscular, and keep at it for 200 pages and call it a novel, even an experimental novel, and feel himself good about it. Sollers did an ugly little book called Paradis (1981) like this, and last I checked the French still pretend he’s a great living writer – if only the rest of the world knew he existed.
Strangely enough, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, and nowadays their descendants Smith and McCarthy have consistently pussied out at this course of action. McCarthy, for all his hyper-hype, puts the comas in the right place with the attention of a guy filling out tax forms; his variety of novels couldn’t be more garden unless the garden gnomes came included. The best reply to those nutjobs who think the novel is behind other arts, as if they were made of the same stuff, was given by Stanley Elkin. “Is the writer tardy in coming to ideas because language is resistant to change?” someone once asked him. “No, it’s because, if the writer is doing his job, he is thinking only in terms of sentences and metaphor and syntax. These are the only things that are really real for him. That’s all I care to be admired for.”
Raymond Federman, who was very much into experimenting, gave a lengthier reply: “Many contemporary writers have wanted to go as far as we could go with this erasure, the same way that painters did when they went to the limits of abstraction. But finally writers cannot do this because they’re still dealing with language – unless they decide to give you the white page. If you look at Stein, Beckett, and many others (including myself), we were all at one point or another in our careers working our way toward the erasure of language. Like the painter wanting to erase the scene or the portrait, we wanted to erase the words, the story, the people, from our writing. But how far can one go with that? Beyond is the white canvas, the blank page. Some painters tried this, but you can’t fake it and give readers the white page. Beckett contemplated this: the Unnameable says, ‘I could simply say blahblahblahblahblah…’ But that’s not the blank page either.” Federman got to the insoluble dilemma: painters were not leaving paint out, they were leaving out things that can be done with paint, there’s no reason why paint must be shaped into scenes and figures; but language is different, we know from everyday usage that predicates follow subjects, that syntax exists, we can’t just pretend words are autonomous entities like blots of paint, thinking otherwise leads to the breakdown of communication and finally silence.
From time to time you still find it in writers from that period, specifically those who fought the realist novel. A few years ago William H. Gass was asked: “Writers, unlike painters, let’s say, often take the materials of their craft, words, for granted. What do you attribute this feeling or tendency to?” He replied: “It’s because that’s what language is for in the world. Mostly. And you’re going to be taught that and not the other. Eventually, you may go for another interpretation, and, just as in the case of the sonnet, there’s nothing that prevents the screwdriver from being beautiful. Some tools are beautiful, and we hang them on the wall.” I’ve always found Gass a fascinating case of schizophrenia. On the one hand, he often espoused views quite similar to those by Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet and Barthes; on the other hand, he was lousy at following his own advices. This was quite common at the time, there was a pressure on youngers novelists to very vocally reject the conventions of their predecessors. Another example is John Hawkes, whom most modern-day experimentalists don’t read but sure quote him a lot: “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained.” If they did read him they’d realize his novels made excellent use of plot, character, setting and theme; if they knew him at all they’d even know the later interview where he regretted this statement. Gass never gave up on psychology, character, representation and figuration, in Omensetter’s Luck, The Tunnel and Middle C, all of which are pretty conventional except for the gorgeous prose style out the 16th century. I don't recall Gass giving up on metaphors, but if he did the methadone treatment it must have gone bad because he relapsed really quick into his vicious old habit. Gass, like a real rhetorician, was in love with beauty.
Beauty is certainly a concern to Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, McCarthy, and Smith, who mocks it. “One of the very first symptoms of the loss of the soul is the loss of the sense of beauty”, George Russell warned. Sartre surely didn’t suggest it could alleviate existentialist angst. A thinker like Herbert Marcuse found it dangerous to the revolution: “Art itself appears as part and force of the tradition which perpetuates that which is, and prevents the realization of that which can and ought to be”, he said in 1972. Theodor W. Adorno thought the same: “The task of art today is to bring chaos into order.” You can find this attitude, straight out of post-war European pessimism, in Smith when she whines about Netherland’s excessive beauty: “The nineteenth-century flaneur’s ennui has been transplanted to the twenty-first-century bourgeois’s political apathy—and made beautiful.” She can’t get over it:
The surprise discovery of his wife’s lactose intolerance becomes “an unknown hinterland to our marriage”; a slightly unpleasant experience of American bureaucracy at the DMV brings Hans (metaphorically) close to the war on terror:
And so I was in a state of fuming helplessness when I stepped out into the inverted obscurity of the afternoon.... I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to the pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.
To which one wants to say, isn’t it hard to see the dark when it’s so lyrically presented?
And also: grapefruits?
As Roger Scruton says in Beauty: a very short introduction, “Works of beauty that are too beautiful when they should disturb”. What Smith was complaining was a lack of correspondence: if the subject is ugly, the language should follow suit. Scruton disagreed: “Our ability to tell the truth about our own condition, in measured words and touching melodies, offers a kind of redemption from it. The most influential work of twentieth-century English literature, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, describes the modern city as a soulless desert: but it does so with images and allusions that affirm what the city denies.” If language is but a pale reflection of the world, why do we need it? Gass gave a good reply to this forty years ago when the same questions were doing the rounds: “There is a view that some ideas are so obnoxious that they can’t be put into a form that would be rather beautiful. Some believe there is a conflict between, for example, moral value and aesthetic value, such that viciousness can’t be beautiful. I claim it can. One way of doing that is to demonstrate it. It is perfectly possible, it seems to me, for there to be a beautiful anti-Semitic speech.” I can’t see how he could have put up with The Tunnel for 35 years if he believed otherwise.
Writers like Gass, Elkin, Burgess, Nabokov above all of them, believed in beauty, that it is essential to mental health, a balm that augments existence. Even then the sirens of ugliness like Marcuse and Adorno were screeching the opposite, and sadly they won: “More recent art cultivates a posture of transgression, matching the ugliness of the things it portrays with an ugliness of its own”, lamented Scruton. “Beauty is downgraded as something too sweet, too escapist and too far from realities to deserve our undeceived attention. Qualities that previously denoted aesthetic failure are now cited as marks of success; while the pursuit of beauty is often regarded as a retreat from the real task of artistic creation, which is to challenge comforting illusions and to show life as it is.” This underlines the contempt Barthes and his ilk had over metaphors. They thought of art as a battlefield against bourgeois society, a step towards the revolution; art had to assault, affront, violate, desecrate, disgust – and if you think like me that a novel to be worthy should be a flux of word puns, they were certainly disgusting. Beauty’s tributaries, intricacy, pattern, elegance, complexity, shapeliness, structure, were very much a reason why fiction was so good sixty years ago. Between 2008 and now Smith may have gone back to lyrical realism, I recall she was even 180ºly praising Knausgård a few years back; but we’re stuck in the ‘30s and ‘40s more than ever, with novels once again being overpraised not for being excellent but because they’re “about” topical matters and because they smear our faces with the modern age’s excrements. Maybe not so many novelists are card-carrying members of their local Communist Party, but they once again think they have to indoctrinate us with despair. Beauty is dangerous to revolutionaries because it soothes and detaches: “To point to this feature of our condition is not to issue an invitation to despair”, said Scruton. “It is one mark of rational beings that they do not live only – or even at all – in the present. They have the freedom to despise the world that surrounds them and to live in another way. The art, literature and music of our civilization reminds them of this, and also point to the path that lies always before them: the path out of desecration towards the sacred and the sacrificial. And that, in a nutshell, is what beauty teaches us.”
Smith even quotes Robbe-Grillet’s famous jab at “profundity”. In 1957 Castellet also quoted it, except he still read it in essay form, off a magazine or newspaper, whereas Smith probably was just assigned it in book form in some college syllabus. There was a reason for critics to be up to date on theories like objective realism: it was a subreptitious way of salvaging a form of realism without ties to the Soviet Union, which was slowly showing its blood-dripping fangs at the West in the wake of Stalin’s death. It’s the same reason why Lukacs touted around this time “critical realism”, so one would confuse it with socialist realism. These were ruses for left-wing politically-compromised critics to continue to espouse the same aesthetic tenets that the I Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 had decreed were the only ones available to writers. In the race for survival, even the apolitical Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute could be made useful to solve a crisis of jargon that assaulted communist writers. Others, even more bizarrely, saw the nouveau roman as a remedy for to the much-announced Death of the Novel. Looking back, it’s truer to say that it almost killed it. The problems caused by the hegemony of realism could not be solved by more realism, a realer realism, a higher fi of realism as Barth joked.
I’ve read enough essays from the 1950s to the 1970s to know there was a time when intelligent people like Barthes, Goldmann, Blanchot, Wayne C. Booth, Castellet earnestly believed that in 2021 we’d all be reading novels according to the recipes from Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s Crotchety Curdled Crap Cookbooks. It's an interesting thought experiment to imagine which novels would never have existed if Barthes and Robbe-Grillet had gotten their way – it’s a matter of picking anything from 1953 onwards. Between Barthes’ infatuation with fifth-grade syntax and Robbe-Grillet’s objective realism, there would have been no room for Midnight’s Children, The Name of the Rose, Gravity’s Rainbow, Nights at the Circus, Portnoy’s Complaint, Inside Mr. Enderby, Terra Nostra, La Saga/Fuga de J. B.. If Sarraute’s deranged essays had become diktats, it was adieu to The Lost Steps, The Dick Gibson Show, Dog Years, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Not even, but perhaps such a fanatic like her wouldn’t regret such sacrifice, Miss Smith’s novels. An aesthetic theory that excludes so much can’t just be wrongheaded or false, it must be evil.
Let’s finish part two with one last quote from Smith’s essay: “Yet despite these theoretical assaults, the American metafiction that stood in opposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history, to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most famous public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart.” Although she’s correct in saying that that metafiction fought realism, she’s wrong to conflate it with the nouveau roman – they were pursuing opposite goals. It's funny that Gass, who coined the term “metafiction”, was a metaphor-lover who deplored the shenanigans about silence and language running out that McCarthy has been trying to revive for the past ten years: “I think I am perfectly aware of the dangers and limitations of language. But the people who are talking about language running out as if it were the oil supply, or of reaching beyond language, as if there were batter plate of peaches just beyond the pears – well, that’s just cheap romanticism,” he told Tom LeClair in 1976.
The other solution to the fearful Death of the Novel, the solution that did make possible books like Cosmicomics and Pale Fire and Midnight’s Children, was the opposite: more form, more fantasy, plot, character. It was Fielding’s “epic novel” turn. If the novel since Defoe and Richardson had been denuding itself in pursuit of an unreachable threshold of ultimate realism, maybe the real revolution was a return to the two things 17th-century empiricism and rationalism had killed: rhetoric and romance. It was a ballsy move: Castellet believed for instance that the novel was on a straight evolutionary path, to him first-person narratives and inner monologue “are nothing but stages, as revolutionary as the latter may be, between the 19th-century novel and art’s ‘new objectivity’, which in the novel shows itself in what we called objective narrations.” For him, the reader had gradually learned to expect more and more realism, a higher degree of illusion, and would not accept the narrator’s interference or “commentary”, as Booth called it in The rhetoric of fiction. Castellet illustrated with the first lines of Dom Quixote, in which the narrator famously omits the name of the place where the action takes place: “This sentence means subtracting from the reader the exact geographical place where the action of the work begins, a subtraction capriciously made by the author, Cervantes, for subjective reasons that, in fact, hold no interest whatsoever to the reader and which a reader from our time would not tolerate at all in a contemporary author.” Of course he would: that’s what metafiction is, the author intruding upon the action, making himself know, breaking the spell of mimesis and verisimilitude. We’ve all learned to tolerate, even appreciate, it in Italo Calvino and José Saramago, and it’s become such a commonplace technique we don’t even notice it anymore. And yet, in 1957 Castellet had just dismissed it as an impossibility, an ancient artefact that like walking on four limbs had been abandoned in our evolutionary march. Even Booth seemed nervous about the first stirrings of metafiction: for a scholar brought up on the gradual effacement of the narrator since Flaubert and James, it didn't check out. Those who were anxiously and earnestly afraid of the death of the novel just couldn’t conceive that it was going to survive precisely by devolving into something better.
(To Be Continued)