There have been a number of very interesting speeches here. But I must express my astonishment at hearing the majority of Soviet writers expressing the same sharp criticism of modern literary pursuits as are made in Western bourgeois society. Here, as in the West, we are blamed for our ‘gratuitousness’, our ‘formalism’. Our art is judged to be ‘decadent’ and ‘inhuman’. We are asked: ‘why do you write? What purpose do you serve? What is your function in society?’
Naturally, these questions are absurd. The writer can no more know what function he serves than any other artist. Literature is not a means which the writer puts at the service of some cause. We hear praises sung to the 19th-century novel as a ‘good tool’—the tool which the nouveau roman is accused of rejecting when, with a few small improvements, of course, it could still be used to show people the evils of present-day life and the fashionable solutions, as though this were a matter of perfecting a hammer or a sickle. We have been told to repletion about the writer’s ‘responsibility’. In answer, we are truly forced to point out that the novel is not a tool and that, from society’s point of view, it indeed probably serves very little purpose at all.
The novelist is certainly engaged—he is bound to be, anyway, but no more or less than anyone else—in the sense that he is a citizen of a certain country, a time, an economic system, and lives within certain social customs and rules, among them religious and sexual prescriptions. He is engaged to the exact extent that he is unfree. And one of the particular, and very virulent, forms that this restriction of freedom takes at the moment is precisely the pressure brought to bear by society when it tries to make the writer believe that he is writing for it —or against it, which comes to the same thing. You have there a very interesting case of what today everyone agrees to call alienation.
Let us say these things clearly. The writer suffers, like everyone else, from the misfortunes of his fellow men. It is dishonest to pretend that he writes to cure them. The East German novelist, who got up here and said that he wrote novels to fight against fascism, makes me laugh; such a statement would give me cause to doubt his qualities as a writer if it were not for the fact that we are aware that he doesn’t know, anymore than anyone else, why he writes, and that his alibis are consequently quite unimportant.
This is why I prefer to say, at least for myself, that what interests me first and foremost is literature. The form of a novel seems much more important to me than the plot—even an anti-fascist plot. At the moment of creation I feel the necessity to use certain forms, but I don’t know what they mean and even less, consequently, what purpose they can serve.
The comparison which has been made during this conference between the novelist and the airline pilot is no more than a joke. The novel is not a means of transport, it is not even a means of expression—by which I mean that it knows in advance the truths or the questions which
But what seems most scandalous to us, is to find the socialist camp sharing the illusions of the bourgeois world, about the political power of art, sharing the same cult of obsolete artistic forms, the same language in which to couch its criticism, and in the end the same values.