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New Left Review I/29, January-February 1965


Jiri Hajek

The Condition of the Novel (Czechoslovakia)

A selection from a conference of European writers at Leningrad, Summer 1963.

One can talk about the crisis in the novel only when literature becomes charged with radical scepticism, the conviction that it is impossible to know reality and that human existence on earth has no meaning at all. And let me say too that literary tendencies which are in disagreement with this total scepticism, which in their programme are satisfied with descriptions of certain isolated and incomplete elements of life, which want to create their own relationships and to abandon all social and moral responsibility, these tendencies themselves represent one of the manifestations of the crisis in the novel. Of course, I have a great deal of respect for the contributions of the French nouveau roman; it offers us a thorough study of certain typical states of mental alienation in modern conditions of capitalist society. I appreciate their efforts to define and reveal the world, but at the same time I must draw attention to the objective result of this effort, due to the very fact that the novelists refuse a priori to consider the question of the relationship and the importance of different facts. According to Alain Robbe-Grillet, the meaning of things is only partial, temporary, contradictory and always debatable, because the causality of different facts is suspect and cannot be reduced to the traditional mechanical formulae of psychology and logic. The objective result of the different soundings by which the nouveau roman perceives reality is, as the Czech novelist Josef Felix showed in his brilliant essay on The nouveau roman in the light of the theory and practice of Alain Robbe-Griliet, to refuse reality all meaning and in consequence to cast a new light of irreality and metaphysics onto the representation of life. It is precisely for this renunciation of reality that Robert Kanters censures this school and he claims that the triumph of technocracy in the nouveau roman represents a certain scorn for flesh and blood. I think one must also accept the judgement of another French critic Pierre de Boisdeffre when he talks of writers with ‘abstractionist’ tendencies offering to a world they despise, strange works and faceless images which turn into obscure myths and weave a dance of prophetic signs. That is a swift statement of the reasons why I am convinced that the nouveau roman, far from resolving the crisis in the western novel, a consequence of radical scepticism and social and ethical nihilism, is itself a victim of that crisis.

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