Aselection 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.

The problems relating to the evolution of the contemporary novel in socialist countries are completely different. Here, we talked about the crisis in the novel when the ideological consequences of the personality cult became apparent. It was as if the novel had abandoned a priori its purpose of explaining life and had ceased to exist. The new interpretation of the novel brought with it set formulae; the inter-relating of the different elements of existence in the novel were set out rigidly like something perfectly clear and unchanging. The most detailed analysis of these deformations is to be found in the essay of Lukacs, Der Kritische Realismus in der Socialistchen Gesellshaft and I refer you to his work. I would simply like to add that if ever the socialist novel stops being a search after relationships between the different elements of life and an individual attempt to explain reality, starting from the writer’s consciousness and individual knowledge of society, then socialist society will have no further real importance.

The evolution of the socialist novel was held back for a longer or shorter time in several countries by the influence of the personality cult; the roots of the novel’s development today must not be sought only in the heroic period of the twenties and thirties but also in the character of socialist society and of the revolutionary movement in the whole world, which is still striving to free itself from the distortions caused by the personality cult. Today throughout the world, socialist literature is not only busy renewing its fundamental values which for some time have been lost or weakened, but it is also at the beginning of great changes and new enterprises. Even if for some years we have on the whole favoured the novella rather than the novel, as for instance in Czech literature, even if this does seem to prove the contrary, in all genres of prose writing the preliminary conditions for new developments in the novel are in preparation. These preliminary conditions have already ripened and given their first fruits in war novels, a type of novel growing in popularity practically everywhere.

The socialist novel, in fact socialist prose in general, is at the moment moving in two directions, as shown by Berezko in his easay Talent, tradition and the spirit of innovation in the symposium Ways of development in the Soviet novel (1961) which studies the extension and growing intensity of the image of the time, of society and of man. These two tendencies balance each other dialectically: a thorough psychological study or rather a vertical inquiry of all branches of knowledge and of the interior life of modern man is unthinkable without a constant analysis of his growing social relationships, direct or indirect, with the larger human groupings. It is completely natural and even necessary that after a period of false growth socialist literature should find itself in a period where the accent is placed more strongly on the vertical analysis of reality. The mutual relationships between vertical and horizontal analyses of reality and its general perspective have been transformed in socialist society because the individual no longer has only a simple collective function; he has become the result and at the same time the aim of all that society achieves. The destruction and expropriation of the individual in the interests of an abstract collectivity controlling everything has been replaced by a respect for the rights of the individual. In the representation of human destiny we still find the same tragic dimensions as expressed by Gorky and Sholokhov: this tragic side is not interpreted as an unchangeable fundamental but as a call to battle, a preliminary condition to and a real measure of true heroism, which is itself no longer a dirty word and now finds its proper place in the war novel in all its true and terrible human grandeur. You cannot separate these philosophic conditions from the new problems of expression: our problem is clearly not that of refusing the so-called traditional novel the right to express itself. We are in agreement with Joan Goytisolo who writes in his essay Realism, naturalism, fantasy that the more he sought for original forms the more he had to sacrifice the authenticity of his characters’ situations. He goes on to say that now he believes that the subject matter inevitably conditions the technique. The very fact that we accept this means that we cannot deny that the changing character of today’s reality and all the changes in human sensitivity in modern 20th century industrial society set the novel firmly before the problem of finding new ways of expression. Unless we wish to give up our reputation as men with world-wide vision we must fight against all kinds of conservatism, and against the modern dogmatism which thinks that all problems relating to new means of expression are solved as soon as the author starts writing in the first person and brings in an interior monologue—apparently a necessary concomitant of any piece of modern prose.

The development of prose as seen in Czechoslovakia during the last few years has come down neither on the side of the conservatives and the traditionalists nor of the modern dogmatists. The first great novels of recent years, both war novels, The Dead do not sing by Rudolf Jasik and The Living and the Dead by Vladimir Minac, make the interior monologue an integral part of the epic synthesis of objectivist reality. One of the first thorough analyses of the consequences of the personality cult, that is to say of the falsification of socialist relations between men, can be found in the novella of the Czech writer Ladislav Bublik, The Spinal Column, told throughout in the first person. His subjective presentation is blended from time to time with elements of documentary reportage: an almost verbatim reproduction of party discussions and extracts from letters, newspaper articles and political speeches, philosophical comments and lyrical flights of emotion. We find a great many examples of ‘objectivized’ use of these so-called ‘subjectivized’ narrative methods both in the new Soviet prose and in the new East German prose. One of the most discussed novellas of recent years, Description of a summer by Karl Heinz Jacobs, is firmly built around a very serious and characteristic social element: the ‘psychology of waiting’ of those whose early years were warped and twisted by an upbringing based on Nazi ideas and whom the fear of new disappointment and deceit holds back from accepting any kind of ideology.

Those are just a few examples of the situation today in socialist prose; the results themselves indicate the futility of asking if prose should or could limit itself to 19th century means of expression. These examples indicate at the same time that the problem of the real modernization of the socialist novel’s means of expression—that is its agreement with the novel’s content—is not solved either by the use of the first person or by the interior monologue. All the novel’s dimensions demand, as it continues to develop in these two directions, new and unremitting endeavours towards the undiscovered. The history of the novel up to now shows that not only will it turn towards the epic adaptation of certain forms of expression proper to other art forms, but that it will try to create for its own ends means linked to literary traditions much older than those of 19th century literature.