The New Novel
The single most important change in the novel after World War II was the degree to which it challenged and reacted against what the novel had been traditionally. Within a decade of the war’s end, signs were afoot that the modernist period of literature—a literary movement that had begun after World War I—had probably run its course. The watchword of the modernists had been “alienation.” As the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century had flowered at the beginning of the twentieth century, momentous changes had taken place that called for new ways of understanding the world and the people in it. A machine age was beginning. For the first time in the history of Western civilization, large numbers of people were abandoning the rural environment and agrarian life in favor of cities and a life of mercantilism premised upon the mass manufacture of material goods. If the literature of the period is to be trusted, this shift wrenched humankind from the most trusted human verities and demanded new ways of conceiving what it means to be human.
Within a decade of the end of World War II, modernism’s “alienation” seemed to be transmogrifying into something other. New watchwords such as “isolation” and “anxiety” were in the offing, and new, postmodern considerations came to the fore. With the development of the atomic bomb, humankind had in its hands enough power to destroy civilization. Fundamental concepts from the Enlightenment—attempts to understand the world through temporal and spatial coordinates as well as through cause-and-effect relationships, assumptions of the primacy of reason in the human experience, and assumptions of the primacy of the individual—were challenged, questioned, and defied by a new generation of novelists who appeared after 1945.
This change has been reflected in a wide variety of names, most of them suggesting reaction against the status quo or rebellion against constraint. American critics called it “antiliterature” or the “antinovel,” while in France experimental forms of fiction were variously labeled écriture blanche, chosisme, école du regard, or école de minuit. In both Europe and the United States, the form eventually came to be called the nouveau roman or, loosely translated, the New Novel.
Spearheaded by a number of authors—among them the French writers Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget, Marguerite Duras, and Jean Cayrol, and...
(The entire section is 1033 words.)