The French New Novel Essay - Critical Essays

The French New Novel


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.

Representative Works

Samuel Beckett
Molloy (novel) 1951

Michel Butor
Passage de Milan (novel) 1954
L'Emploi du Temps [Passing Time] (novel) 1956
La Modification [A Change of Heart] (novel) 1957
Degrés [Degrees] (novel) 1960
Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe: cappricio [Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice] (novel) 1967

Marguerite Duras
Un Barrage contre le Pacifique [The Sea Wall] (novel) 1950
Le Square [The Square] (novel) 1954
Moderato cantabile (novel) 1958
L'Après-midi de M. Andesmas [The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas] (novel) 1962
Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein (novel) 1964
L'Amant [The Lover] (novel) 1984
L'Amant de la Chine du nord [The North China Lover] (novel) 1992

Claude Mauriac
L'Agrandissement (novel) 1963

Robert Pinget
Graal Flibuste (novel) 1956
Baga (novel) 1958
Le Fiston [Monsieur Levert] (novel) 1959
Clope au dossier (novel) 1961

Raymond Queneau
Le Chiendent (novel) 1933
Le Vol d'Icare (novel) 1968

Alain Robbe-Grillet
Les Gommes [The Erasers] (novel) 1953
Le Voyeur [The Voyeur] (novel) 1955
La Jalousie [Jealousy] (novel) 1957)
Dans le labyrinthe [In the Labyrinth] (novel) 1959
L'année dernière à Marienbad [Last Year at Marienbad] (novel) 1961
Le Miroir qui revient [Ghosts in the Mirror] (novel) 1984

Nathalie Sarraute
Portrait d'un inconnu [Portrait of a Man Unknown] (novel) 1948
Le Planétarium [The Planetarium] (novel) 1959
Les Fruits d'or [The Golden Fruits] (novel) 1963

Claude Simon
L'Herbe [The Grass] (novel) 1958
La Route des Flandres [The Flanders Road] (novel) 1960
Les Corps conducteurs [Conducting Bodies] (novel) 1971

Further Reading


Mercier, Vivian. The New Novel From Queneau to Pinget. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, 432 p.

Features a summary introduction to the precursors to and achievements of the New Novel, followed by individual discussions of the prominent New Novelists.

Passias, Katherine K. “New Novel, New New Novel: An Interview with A. Robbe-Grillet.” SubStance 13 (1976): 130-35.

Robbe-Grillet speaks about his novels, the New Novel movement overall, and the critique of bourgeois ideology in his critical essays.

Sturrock, John. The French New Novel: Claude Simon, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet. London: Oxford University Press, 1969, 244 p.

Study of three New Novelists that emphasizes the differences among writers of the nouveau roman.


Babcock, Arthur E. The New Novel in France: Theory and Practice of the Nouveau Roman. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997, 162 p.

Offers a history of the New Novel by outlining its theoretical components and viewing the core writers of the movement—Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Butor, Simon, and Duras—as a cohesive group.

Bridgeman, Teresa. Negotiating the New in the French Novel: Building Contexts for Fictional Worlds. London: Routledge, 1998, 274 p....

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