IN PARIS, a city old and rich in passing fancies, all it takes to plan a literary revolt is three disappointed writers and a sidewalk cafe. Most such uprisings are dissipated after the second apéritif, leaving nothing behind but the smile on the face of the waiter. Yet literary groups—if they persist long enough to draw serious attention—are occasionally to be reckoned with. Between about 1880 and 1895, for instance, the Symbolists, led by Mallarmé, reshaped the tone and temper of poetry, both English and French. In more recent times the Existentialists, though they produced no technical inventions, succeeded in making despair popular.
Now there are the Neo-Realists - la Nouvelle Vague ( Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Claude Mauriac, Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras, Marc Saporta, etc.). They are unlikely to be as great an influence on the novel as the Symbolists were on poetry, but for more than five years they have been stirring excitement, adulation, outrage and despair. Admirers hail them as bold innovators who are breaking ground for the fiction of the future. Alarmists warn that if Gallic logic is pursued to its usual extreme, Neo-Realists' views and practices may lead the novel to wither away entirely.
Plots v. Things
At first glance it is hard to see what all the fuss is about. The man who has done most to provoke it is Alain Robbe-Grillet. Today's novel, he insists, must not concern itself with plot, character, symbol, metaphor or message. Instead, it must deal with things—i.e., objects—and Robbe-Grillet has brought out four books that pretend to do just that. Grouped more or less willingly around him are about a dozen writers, of whom the most celebrated are Nathalie Sarraute (Portrait of a Man Unknown) and Michel Butor (A Change of Heart)
There is an element of timeliness in their revolution. Rarely before has a collection of serious writers experimented with the novel at precisely the time when the novel stands in need of revision. The Neo-Realists are in full rebellion against the weighty social comment, the accumulated enunciations of "eternal verities " the resounding statements about love and death and human commitment which, over recent decades, have been used to make the traditional novel seem more meaningful.
"The world is neither significant nor absurd," Robbe-Grillet says. "It simply is." No novelist can now add anything new to the understanding of today's world as a whole, or man's place in it. Instead, it is the event itself that the novelist wants to convey, not its meaning; human gestures—not the motive behind them, the actual state of mind of an individual, the exact curve of a particular experience, the exact look of a room, a painting, a city. Plot is a diversion. People are so used to wondering who gets the girl that they do not see the girl as girl at all. Themes and symbols are also suspect. Even the intricacies of the human consciousness as explored and exploited by the Freudian novel have gone stale as readers have become sophisticated.
The Cult of Chosisme
To re-educate the reflexes and the expectations of readers, Robbe-Grillet has established a writing credo which has been called chosisme ("thingishness"). In extreme moments, thingishness runs to steady repetition of precise, often geometrical descriptions of anything from a razor blade to a banana plantation. U.S. moviegoers have been subjected to the incantatory power of the Robbe-Grillet technique in the off-screen commentary he wrote for the narrator in Last Year at Marienbad (for some it had a soporific monotony). Objects are important to Robbe-Grillet in themselves, but also in relation to people. "A sofa cushion," he has explained, "may not be very exciting. But if you have a man and a woman in love at either end of the sofa, the cushion between them can take on all sorts of interest."
In Jealousy, Robbe-Grillet's most experimental book, there is no plot and no central character, only the watching eye of a husband who thinks his wife is unfaithful to him. The eye has no characteristics other than its barely controlled suspicion. It observes, for the most part without comment, a few uneventful scenes in which A .... the wife, and Franck, her presumed lover (and the eye itself), have drinks, dinner, coffee, and discuss a trip A ... and Franck are to take to town. At first the eye's abrupt switching from people to objects—a crushed centipede on the wall, the view out the window—seems arbitrary.
But for the reader who stays with the story long enough to become intrigued, these digressions to the object world are effective catalysts of suspense. Jealousy, as a portrait of a state of mind, a tense suspicion (which the reader shares with the eye), never offers either the joyful release of action or the final assurance that A ... (for adultery? ) has really been unfaithful. It is like a murder mystery in which the reader hungrily studies the clues but never learns who did it.
From "He" to "You"
In the interests of fictional reform, Michel Butor, 35, has rather expansively declared that an author should create a new technique for each new subject. Butor's latest technique produced Mobile, an indescribably dull account of 50 U.S. states, presented as weird collections of lists, and typographical eccentricities which owe something to both John Dos Passos and e.e cummings. One of his earliest books, Passing Time, was a Robbe-Grilletesque effort to scramble time sequences. The hero keeps a double-entry diary in which accounts of what happened as far back as seven months ago mingle with impressions of the present. Like many writers. Butor feels readers are weary of both "I" and "he." His solution in A Change of Heart: to substitute "you." The device is hardly revolutionary, as any reader of syndicated Sports Columnist Jimmy Cannon knows (You are Sugar Ray. Your legs are wobbly, etc.). But through it Butor gains a considerable advantage over non-you writers in achieving another aim of the Neo-Realists—to inspire in the reader not sympathy for the central character, but a kind of empathetic identification with him.
The "you"' of Butor's most celebrated book, A Change of Heart, which won the Prix Renaudot in 1957 and sold 100,000 copies (a runaway bestseller in France), is a French businessman on a train from Paris to Rome, where he is to meet his mistress. The novel's concerns could not be more conventional—the man's decision, as the trip progresses, to give up his mistress and return to his wife. But what Butor is trying to do, through the innumerable physical details and mental flashbacks of the trip, is to re-create the actual experience of coming to a decision.
Like other Neo-Realists, Nathalie Sarraute,62, cares almost nothing about place, name and massive characterization. Unlike the others, she has discarded these things less to change the novel than to say something subtle. What she seeks out and skillfully delineates is the normally imperceptible, always nameless emotional impulses, small human reachings-out and withdrawings, and wild inner disturbances, which occur in people before anything as formal as fear or greed or anger occurs. Psychologists have no name for these. Mme. Sarraute calls them tropisms—after the instinctive reactions of organisms. French literati, in deference to her,have come to refer to them as sarrauteries.
In place of traditional action, Nathalie Sarraute records the interplay of tropisms beneath the surface of very conventional scenes and situations—a family quarrel over money, the problems of finding and furnishing a new apartment. Readers who might expect Mme. Sarraute's probings to result in an insufferably precious Swann's Way in miniature will often be in for an ugly ducking in human anguish. An invitation to golf can mask a deadly personal threat in the sub-emotional world, and as the surface exchange between characters occurs, Mme. Sarraute records, in a kind of counterpoint, the progress of the hidden battle. The conflicts are presented in violent images—with people compared to giant beetles crashing against each other, or hunters cruelly probing a hole with sharp sticks to goad out a helpless creature.
Shuffle, Then Read
It may take a decade to disclose what, if anything, the Neo-Realist movement can or will accomplish. Their very doctrine cuts them off from the exploration of philosophic principles that might restore a conception of man heroic enough to lend their fictional creations, a larger meaning.
Many of their books, turgid with description, tormented by tricks, are all but unreadable. Most demand far more persistence than any reader (except, possibly, a fellow writer studying technique) will ever—or should ever—give. The plunging power of one outstanding Neo-Realist, Claude Simon, dissipates too often in Faulknerian tangles—1000-word sentences and sets-within-sets of parenthetical statements. Inevitably, too, as experimenters, Neo-Realists have wallowed in pretentious critical nonsense. Their mechanical techniques, almost inevitably, have allowed a number of non-novelists to masquerade as writers of fiction. Neo-Realist Marguerite Duras' pure conversational tour de force, The Square, has resulted in at least one non-novel of string-thin chitchat. The laudable Neo-Realist potion of engaging the reader directly in the action of the book has led another disciple, Marc Saporta, to try to enlist his readers as coauthor. His latest "novel." coming out this year, is an unbound stack of sparsely written pages. Buyers will be invited to shuffle them as they please and then read.
Nevertheless, the Neo-Realists are serving a purpose in trying to re-examine dreary literary habits, to rework the weary forms, the traditional plots, to stand time on its head and cut capers—as Ionesco, Beckett and Gelber have done in the theater. Whatever results finally, readers at least can be grateful that Neo-Realism's Big Three have discarded as outworn one increasingly obnoxious habit of the standard novelists. They do not bother to describe sex in morbid detail. That alone, if it catches on, could set the novel ahead ten years.