The French New Novel Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The French New Novel

The nouveau roman, or New Novel, in France was an avant-garde literary phenomenon that originated in the 1950s and emphasized fictional form over content. The New Novelists rejected what they considered the outmoded realist fiction of traditional novels—represented by the works of Honoré de Balzac and featuring tightly structured plots and a focus on psychological analysis—and instead aimed toward a narrative of scientific objectivity. Spearheading the movement were such figures as Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose Les Gommes (The Erasers; 1953) is considered one of its seminal works. Also included among the core New Novelists are Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, and Claude Simon. Critics point out, however, that the New Novelists were highly individualistic in their writing, and most are reluctant to categorize them as a cohesive school.

Several of the New Novelists offered theoretical justifications for their experimental works. Among these, Robbe-Grillet's Pour un nouveau roman (1963) explores the New Novel's stress on the discovery of new literary forms and argues that the works of Balzac and his contemporaries are relics to be discarded. The emphasis on innovation expressed by Robbe-Grillet and others led to a new focus in these works, with the New Novelists frequently endeavoring to capture characters objectively in a particular psychological instant. Many New Novelists also employed cinematic effects—montages, fade-outs, and the literary equivalent of camera close-ups—as well as obscured chronologies and repeated scenes presented from differing perspectives. The novels themselves often dramatize a puzzling search for meaning within an inscrutable reality, requiring that the reader play a significant role as a participant in the work itself in the absence of an intervening narrative voice. Thus, these stories are predominately told from a first-person point of view. Characters, as they exist in the works, are also generally outsiders who must confront their inability to truly know other people due to disruptive modes of perception.

The literary sources of the New Novel are quite clearly defined: the writings of James Joyce, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, and Jean-Paul Sartre being the principals. The stream-of-consciousness technique and narrative innovations of Joyce and Faulkner, as well as Joyce's concept of epiphanic realization, Kafka's enigmatic reality, and Proust's focus on and description of ordinary objects all figure prominently. Sartre's Nausea and his philosophical writings concerning authentic experience also provided much of the theoretical basis for the New Novel.