11 JANUARY 1963, Page 21

When is a Novel?

Afterthought : Pieces about Writing. By Elizabeth Bowen. (Longmans, 30s.)

SEARCHING, in Aspects of the Novel, for Some all-embracing definition of the form, the nearest thing E. M. Forster could find was the ironically vague: 'A fiction in prose of a cer- tain extent.' A fiction, the Oxford Dictionary says, is 'an invented statement or narrative.' The 'new' French novelists, members of the cole Robbe-Grillet, reject both statement and narrative. Chronology is out, characterisation is out, above all, plot is out. In the place of plot we have 'pattern' (what a visual artist sometimes calls 'form"); in the place of chronology, space; M the place of statement, observation from a limited viewpoint. The nouveau roman, in fact, is ideally not a novel at all.

And yet, of course, it is a novel. The first thing Mr. Le Sage must have discovered when he came to compile his notes on The French New Novel was that, whatever their declared intentions, most of these novelists have not suc- ceeded in leaving behind the basic ingredients of the form they set out to overthrow. Practice has never caught up with theory: while succeed- ing, perhaps, in substituting for the conventional 'hero' an anonymous recording consciousness living in a world shorn of meaning or meta- physic, the writer suddenly finds to his dismay that he has inadvertently told a story or, even worse, created a character—the recording con- Sciousness must, after all, record something, and even if the writer denies its meaning the reader (having no doubt read Goethe on the subject) Will draw his own conclusions; and, _though he may think it an odd one, will know that he has been reading a novel.

Mr. Le Sage, approaching the subject with a creditably open mind, has bad some difficulty in finding common ground among the writers who have been accepted into the canon. It is easy enough to show that Robbe-Grillet, in Le Voyeur, and Claude Oilier, in La Mise en scene, exemplify the `phenomenological' approach (re- actions without conceptual assumptions) advo- cated as a philosophical method by Edmund Husserl; but take two other books by the same authors, or two by other novelists of the school, and it becomes increasingly difficult to find any- thing significant in common between them. And Yet this is not the usual case of artists being Shepherded into a category against their wills (cf. the Movement,' RIP), for most of these novelists—Michel Butor, Robbe-Grillet, Mar- guerite Duras, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute —have not been slow to declare their aims, their rejection of the past, and their theoretical re- lationship to one another. They appear together M public, before the microphone, in print, and Many of them have a common publisher (P,ditions de Minuit). Their ex cathedra an- Uouncennents often suggest that one is speaking tor all. What is it, then, that justifies their being treated as a group? , The English are supposed by the French to 12e incapable of abstracting the common element trom two different objects. and no doubt the ecktivocal attitude of English critics so far to the ijouveau roman will be attributed to this failing.

would prefer to believe that it is a healthy English scepticism about 'art theories' which Prevents me from seeing these French novelists

as united by anything more substantial than an attitude of vague rejection. Significantly, the nouveau roman was at first called (by Sartre) the anti-roman; and Robbe-Grillet, the Found- ing Father, was clearly bent in the early days less on making something new than on destroy- ing something old—an attitude which in England we associate with adolescence. They admire Kafka, joyce, Proust and Faulkner and accept as their own any new novelist whose style defies convention, whatever (it seems to me) his atti- tude to his subject-matter. Like any group of angry young action painters, they have allowed a dense smog of unwieldy abstractions to ob- scure the difference between the talented and the untalented practitioners amongst them. so that the very real value of some of their experi- ments has, by elevation into a creed, lost much of its virtue. , On the subject of the novel Miss Elizabeth Bowen, at feast, is not torn by doubt. `What is a novel?' she asks, and answers plain: 'I say: an invented story. At the same time a story which, though invented, has the power to ring true.' And again, as unequivocally: 'the craft of the novelist does lie first of all in story- telling.' This quotation is from an unscripted broadcast reprinted in Afterthought, one of those collections of occasional journalism with which busy writers fill the gaps between their novels. Coming to this book after battling through the thicket of the nouveau roman is like waking up in London to find that the smog has lifted overnight: objects have become solid again, colours are what they say they are, dis- tances again confirm one's past experience of them. It is tempting to cry out in relief, 'Alt, this is the real world r—but it isn't, of course; no more real, anyway, than the object-filled labyrinths of Robbe-Grillet or the torture- chambers of Sartre. It is simply a different world, one with which we have been long familiar: 'Novelty in expression is by no means to be sought for its own sake: it may become a danger if too obtrusive. In general, showy, striking, ag- gressive words are to be avoided—they throw writing out of pitch, they distract the reader. Though words to the writer are of intense con- cern, it should be his object to make the reader as little aware of them as possible.'

Compare this with a quotation from Mr. Wiley's book about Ford Madox Ford. Writing, over half a century ago, of his collaboration with Conrad, Ford says: 'Our most constant preoccupation, then, was to avoid words that stuck out of sentences either by their brilliant Unusualness or their "amazing aptness." For either sort of word arrests the attention of a reader. . . . We wanted the Reader to forget the Writer—to forget he was reading. We wished him to be hypnotised into thinking that he v% as living what he read. . .

In their writings about writing, both Miss Bowen and Ford stress the craftsmanship aspect of novel-writing, to such an extent that the reader not acquainted with their creative work might suppose that neither could rise above a journeyman leyel, which is far from the truth. Miss Bowen would not have developed her ow n limpidly beautiful prose style without conscious attention to her craft, and it is not surprising that, tangling with the same problems, she should have reached exactly the same conclusions as a fellow-craftsman. Both are talking about style, and it is style, one finally discovers, that is the only thing one can talk 'about. It is what the 'new' French novelists are talking about, although they don't know it. What makes one write at all, the irritating little vision that pro- vides the continuing impulse of art, is inex- pressible except in the art itself (otherwise why write, why paint, why not all become philo- sophers?) and the style one develops is the instrument of that vision. Without the initial vision, nothing. To put style first, as the nouveau roman group do, is like building a cage to keep some air in. It is as foolish for Robbe-Grillet to reject the `Balzacian novel' as a form suitable for expressing 'reality' as it would be for Miss Bowen (or myself) to reject the whole nouveau roman school on the grounds that its theories have allowed—and will cer- tainly encourage—much nonsense to masquerade as art.