Since I have not written a novel for 16 years, my interest in this discussion, though lively, has been dispassionate; it is this which encourages me to try to give a detached impression of what has happened. As you know, when a meeting of this kind is a failure, everyone says: ‘at least
At first, things were complicated by the great diversity of points of view, especially in the West. It is very hard to imagine anyone being able to reply to some of the Russians in the name of all Western novelists. Each participant here spoke only for a specific group. In the second place, some of our Soviet friends expressed themselves in a manner which amounted to a refusal to discuss at all. But such extreme positions were rare, and compensated for by many others. In this respect our friends from the peoples’ democracies took up positions which helped us all to understand better each other’s point of view, and to see how the same principles govern the changes and developments in our ideas, whatever our standpoint.
Above all, we were able, if not to agree, at least to isolate a certain number of problems which should now be subjected to serious discussion. Do not misunderstand me: all the individual contributions have been of interest; but a discussion is really serious only when someone whose doctrine has been under fire is able to reply immediately, which is impossible in a meeting such as this. I think therefore that the problems which I am going to raise should be dealt with in another way, in a smaller committee.
The first, which Nathalie Sarraute brought out so well, is that in the East as in the West we do not choose our situation. We do not decide to write for a minority public, while the writers from the socialist countries choose a mass one. It is an objective fact that a mass public is not yet available to Western writers, or if it is they have to pass by way of the bourgeoisie to reach it. We have in our countries admirable series of paperbacks, which cost extremely little and are read by an ever wider public. But these series only include books which have already been published at a price which excludes most readers, so that when it comes down to it we only have the right to address the masses when we have pleased the ruling elite. The obvious consequence of this contradictory situation is that, having to start off by addressing the bourgeoisie, our attitude cannot be the same as that of writers from the East, who address the masses directly, and share with them an entire conformity of ideas. Differences of structure must find expression. This does not mean, as one person said (I felt this was not so much a socialist criticizing the bourgeoisie as the East criticizing the West), that we have to introduce strip-tease scenes into our books, or sexual themes. It means for a Marxist that our publics are different in structure and that we have to reckon with them. Any serious discussion on the problem of the novel must keep this fact in mind.
The second problem which has also been rightly stressed is that of the relation between novel and reality. But first of all, if we wish to study it, we need a definition of reality. There is not a single writer in this hall who would not like to say something about reality. Nathalie Sarraute
A further problem is that of values. I think it was Robbe-Grillet who said, and I think he was right here, that many of those who are against the nouveau roman base themselves on established values, which they require the writer to reflect, as if the world were already made and all there was for us to do was to describe it. But for me this is not the problem of a true socialist realism. I am going to quote somebody who is not very well thought of by writers: Zhdanov. God knows how many objections can be made to what Zhdanov said! But when he writes: ‘For socialist realism the task is to interpret the present in the light of the future,’ he says something which is pregnant with consequence.
If one is to suppose that the future is as rigorously determined as the present, the statement is terrible; it binds the writer hand and foot, and I am afraid that this is how Zhdanov meant it. But if, as I think, the future, though it can no doubt be thought of with optimism, is nonetheless a development which is by definition unknown, uncertain, then to treat the existing world from the point of view of what it will become, of what others are going to make it, is precisely to contest the present in the name of the future. This is why literature must always retain a critical function, even if one’s perspective is optimistic as a matter of principle; perhaps there has precisely been too much insistence here on the positive rôle of literature and not enough on its function of discovery and as a critical mirror. In any case, this problem of the novelist’s discovery of his values should be discussed further.