This is the first of the European Community of Writers’ meetings I have attended, but I was able to look at some brief notes taken by an observer at the last meeting in Edinburgh, and I felt the need to say a number of very unfashionable, even banal things. Everyone is free to draw his own conclusions.
Some of the speeches at that meeting concerned the fate of the novel in general. They stated that, as an outmoded form of narrative, the novel was not only ill, but had died a natural death, and it was now time to bury it. A qualitatively new novel, it was said, was now needed which
I did not like the categorical tone of these statements, all the more because 30 years ago extremists who proclaimed this sort of thing terrorized one of our brother writers in this country.
Allow me then to reflect aloud briefly on this theme which interests me particularly, as for a good number of years I have tried my hand at this literary form. We have from time to time in the past been regaled with a collection of such senile questions as: what is love, what is life, what is man for? Such questions demand not so much an answer, in my opinion, as compassion and even a diagnosis. They seem to me to attest to a certain degree of powerlessness in the face of our times, which is dangerous for world culture, to attest to a withdrawal from the present, to a certain spiritual erosion and an extinguishing of the creative élan.
Great artists of the past, among them the mighty Balzac, did not on the whole waste their time on such cogitations. They reached out with all their strength to what nourished their genius, they devoted themselves to their furious work without thought of the days and nights that passed, they fought unequal struggles with the most frightening brutes of their time. They lived their lives to the full, rowdily. And if they loved, then their love affairs produced a great number of children who were not always handsome to look at but who were of exceptionally healthy stock and who in their turn served humanity faithfully. Original thinkers, originators of ideas, do not waste the strength that has been granted them in cogitations which, when everything is considered, are sterile: what is life, what is the sun, what is man for? They haven’t the time to waste.
Where then do we get the idea, now that we have reached a particular moment of history, that both man and the novel are unconditionally done for? Has it really become useless to make new discoveries, is there no further reason for struggle, is the outlook for the future so dreary that, for pity’s sake, it is not even worth the while to be born any more.
Come now, I want to come to the novel’s defence. I respect beyond measure all kinds of normal tools: tools at the service of our creative will, tools that are an extension of man’s hand. I like the old sabres blunted in mortal duel, the handles of burins worn thin by use, or—yes—the coarse, almost schoolboy pen kept in the Dostoevsky museum in Moscow which served to write The Brothers Karamazov. . . In short, the novel is an excellent instrument which has been of enormous service in the history of culture. The only improvement that could be made to it over the coming half-century, would be to increase its capacity for expressing ideas and images in proportion to the actual increase in our intelligence and knowledge. We shall now, however, look at exactly what is promised us in its place.