Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


The Nouveau Roman and Writing in Britain after Modernism


Adam Guy


Oxford English Monographs

Oxford: University Press, 2019

Hardcover. xi+233 p. ISBN 978-0198850007. £60


Reviewed by Catherine Bernard

Université de Paris




A monograph on the influence of the nouveau roman on British literature was long overdue and Adam Guy’s study does more than merely reflect on the inter-cultural crosscurrents that carried the influence of Alain Robbe-Grillet or Nathalie Sarraute across the Channel. It offers a detailed and enlightening account of the history of the complex acculturation of the nouveau roman to the British literary scene. Reading this phenomenon from a dual cultural perspective – that of the French history of the modern novel and that of the history of post- or late-Modernist writing in Britain, it offers a truly trans-cultural interpretation of a literary phenomenon, its development and legacy. Delving into the history of the “movement” in France, from its inception to its dissolution, but also into the complex history of its translations into English, the misconstructions it elicited in England, as well as the paradoxical continuity the English avatars of the nouveau roman evinced with Modernism, it elaborates a multi-angled exploration of literary history, reminding the reader that literature should not be reduced to its sole aesthetic mutations. As Adam Guy – a Departmental Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford – amply shows, such mutations are themselves the products of complex interactions between the history of publishing, the economy of translation and that most intangible of material: the constructions and misconceptions each culture produces of other cultures, including in the field of literature. In that sense, The Nouveau Roman and Writing in Britain after Modernism also offers a stimulating case study of the infinitely ramifying logic of cross-cultural dialogue.

Adam Guy needed more than a firm grasp of the two literary contexts, on both sides of the Channel, and one can only be struck by the impeccable knowledge of both literary scenes, a knowledge grounded in thorough archival work done in publishers’ archives – Calder & Boyars’ or Jonathan Cape’s – as well as the Arts Council’s archive which all reveal how complex and intense the promotion and reception of the nouveau roman were in Britain. Such attentive archival work grants Guy’s analysis its attentiveness and scrupulous care for what makes the vibrancy of any literary scene, its contradictions and blind spots, its dynamics and organicity. Grounded in the exacting grammar of literary history, it also builds on the reconstruction of a context in order to inflect the established historiography of influences and reactions that has dominated our understanding of British literature’s development since Modernism. As Adam Guy explains in his introduction, the book’s aim is thus twofold:

By looking at the nouveau roman at its point of emergence in a foreign literary field, I try to understand the meanings and functions that the nouveau roman once had for a wide range of readers and writers. In the process, this book makes the case for the centrality of the nouveau roman to many histories of post-war literature. [2]

Guy thus offers a counter-literary history in which the so far dominant received logic of reaction and counter-reaction to Modernism is reassessed. The accepted history of Modernism’s inheritance has traditionally opposed experimentation and more conventional, counter-modernist modes of representation, this binary tension being best captured in Rubin Rabinovitz’s 1967 essay The Reaction against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950-1960, and, as stressed at the beginning of chapter 4 – “New Realism and ‘the times at hand’” – in the rise of the Angry Young Men and of the Movement in the 1950s. As acknowledged by Adam Guy, many prominent literary figures, among whom David Lodge and Iris Murdoch, did offer “more nuanced view[s]” [121] and many later critics also reread that binarism in order to defend a “less totalizing side to this story” (one may mention Andrzej Gasiorek, Patricia Waugh or Sebastien Groes [see 122]). Guy’s study offers a revaluation of their own displacement of the alleged dialectics of experimentation and reaction, by disclosing the, even now, less explored history of the nouveau roman’s dissemination and impact on British literature. Rather than, as might be expected, focus on the allegedly direct influence of the nouveau roman on B.S. Johnson, Christine Brooke-Rose, Ann Quinn or Alan Burns, the book broadens the perspective. “Beginning with the nouveau roman’s gradual appearance in the British public sphere in 1957, and ending in the early 1970s”, the book’s claim is “that, in Britain, the nouveau roman became a focal point for discussion of the numerous significations and modalities of the ‘new’” [19], a new that could not be understood as being exclusively indebted to Modernism.

One of the most remarkable achievements of the essay lies in its capacity to methodically map a specific field, at the point of articulation of literary history, the history of publishing and of translation, culture and aesthetics. The very structure of the book testifies to this desire to unhinge the established reading grid of Modernism’s legacy in order to delineate more complex and often contradictory cultural currents. Rather than opening on the well-charted literary debates whose terms were defined by the 1950s realists, and subsequently by Rabinovitz, Guy chooses to anchor his study in the history of the nouveau roman’s transfer and reception in the UK, thus showing to what extent the later reading of a neat dialectics between innovation and tradition has been an after-the-fact construction validating a certain history of literary practices and hierarchies. The introduction itself grounds the analysis in a wide international literary history in order to contradict the supposed insularity of the world of British letters in the second half of the 20th century. Retracing the “emergence of the nouveau roman” [2-8] with a great attention to the publishing history of Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon or Marguerite Duras, it identifies what also characterised the reception and influence of the nouveau roman in the UK, i.e. the at times self-contradictory nature of what was never a coherent group and even less of a movement. Reading Robbe-Grillet’s powerful “dictum” to be found in Pour un nouveau roman (1963): “the world is neither significant nor absurd. It is, quite simply”, Guy pits the conflicted emphasis on reality against the dominant vein of Sartrian Existentialism, thus, from the start, proposing an alternative take on the debate surrounding realism and its emphasis on a classically humanist conception of representation: “Such a precept [Robbe-Grillet’s “dictum”] results in the call for a fiction where the human is profoundly decentred, resulting in writing purged of anthropomorphism and metaphor” [11].

The ongoing reappraisal of fiction’s relation to reality remains one of the guiding threads of the essay, hence the importance of Robbe-Grillet’s chosisme and its emphasis on tangible reality since it brings literature to reinvent its own language and its grasp of the world of things, through description, among other literary strategies. As such, chosisme itself blurred the frontiers of experimentation and realism, of “the new” and tradition, and testified to the instability of the conventional categories structuring literature, and Britain’s culture at large, thus offering possibilities “for a reconfigured type of realism, decoupled from the aesthetic and political conservatism with which figures like Snow had imbued the concept in the years following the Second World War” [24].

Building on the recontextualisation achieved in the introduction, part I of the essay – “Circulation” – focuses on the “dissemination” and “reception” of the nouveau roman in Britain. Its two chapters bring under renewed light the strategic influence of the initial publishers of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, then of Michel Butor – Calder & Boyars – as well as the importance of the literary agents who were instrumental in the dissemination of French writing in the UK: Rosica Colin, who was Robbe-Grillet’s agent, and also represented Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, or Albert Camus, and Renée Spodheim who was Sarraute’s agent across the Anglophone world. Guy also traces the not so coherent history of the introduction of the works of the nouveau roman, also reminding us of the fact Claude Simon’s first five novels were published by Jonathan Cape [37]. A whole cultural, economic and political context is here reconstructed, in which the reception of the likes of Simon or Sarraute must also be read within a broader international context. For Adam Guy, Calder & Boyars’ decisive publication of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934, published in Britain in 1963) and of Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), that both challenged the British obscenity law and were prosecuted, also underlines the strategic place of the nouveau roman at the heart of a vibrant and highly politicised literary scene. Just as crucially, Calder & Boyars’ embrace of such controversial literary figures, alongside those of William Burroughs or Samuel Beckett, went with the staunch conviction that “an aesthetic based in ruptural ‘disbelief’ and ‘revolution’ [could] be relied upon to embed a ‘good life’ and a shared Arnoldian culture for an existing mass public” [33]. Chapter I provides a careful evocation of Calder & Boyars’ publishing strategies, from the choice of covers [41], to the organisation of promotional tours for Simon or Robbe-Grillet [57-63], the engineering of efficient advertising campaigns extolling the nouveau romanciers as already “literary classics,” belonging to the “eternal present of consecrated culture” [47], while positing their potential for reinventing the “avant-garde” novel as “a mass form” [50].

Just as enlightening is the study of the reception of the nouveau romanciers in chapter 2 and that of their translations in chapter 3, the first one of part II entitled “Impact”. Meticulously mapping the cultural and ideological context of the nouveau roman’s reception in the UK, Guy traces the misconstructions that also contributed to its reputation, and that are often of the essence of trans-cultural transfers: “not only were newly published nouveaux romans framed through inaccurate accounts of the nouveau roman itself, but they were also described through inaccurate analogies to an inaccurately understood Existentialism” [76]. Once again one can only be struck by Adam Guy’s attention to the complex granularity of ideological debate. Anyone interested in the intellectual history of Britain in the 1950s and 1960s will relish the text’s capacity to immerse us in the rich and agonistic debates that agitated the British cultural scene and to revive figures such as Maurice Cranston, writing for London Magazine, John Weightman, Rayner Heppenstall or John Sturrock, all crossing swords in the Times Literary Supplement [66-71]. Making a detour via the nouvelle vague and its associations with the nouveau roman, chapter 2 avails itself of the persistent associations traced at the time between the nouveau roman and cinema, and turns to Alain Resnais’ collaboration with Duras (Hiroshima mon amour, 1959) and Robbe-Grillet (L’année dernière à Marienbad, 1961), to once more probe the cultural make-up of the “new” as an aesthetic and ideological category, in turn flaunted and debunked by the custodians of and opponents to Modernism.

Corroborating the paradigm of cultural misprision developed in chapter 2, chapter 3 “Translation and transition” weaves the not so linear thread of the nouveau roman’s artistic bond with Modernism further. Steeped in the history of the translation into English of continental avant-garde writing and philosophy – Simon’s Les corps conducteurs (1971) and Triptyque (1977) were both translated by Helen R. Lane who, we learn, also translated Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Œdipus [103] – the chapter turns in detail to the impact of Maria Jolas’ translations of Sarraute’s works. The connection with Modernism comes here into sharpened focus, Maria Jolas having been a close associate of the modernist scene, via her husband Eugene Jolas, an association that may account for Sarraute’s modernist inflections in English [104-115] and that is contrasted [116-117] with Barbara Wright’s options in her translations of Raymond Queneau’s earlier Exercices de style (1947).

Chapter 4 – “New Realism and ‘the times at hand’” ­– embeds the nouveau roman in an even more complex and ramified intellectual and ideological context. Returning to the treatment and function of reality and of chosisme by the nouveaux romanciers, as well as to their distrust of conventional humanism, it reads their controversial reception in the UK as testifying to the violence of the war waged against Modernism by the likes of C.P. Snow in his 1958 essay “Challenge to the Intellect”. Snow’s rejection of the nouveau roman was in line with his aversion to Modernism, its 1950s avatar being, in his eyes, “simply the aberrant repetition of an already aberrant literary tendency” [125]. But for writers such as Muriel Spark or B.S. Johnson, the nouveau roman provided “a literary template for realism and a new realism” [146]. What was at stake in the capacity of fiction to imagine a “resinscribed realism” [146] was above all the potential of the novel to speak of and to the present and confront itself to its own historicity. Chapter 5 pits such self-reflexiveness against a historical background – “the End of Empire” – that required a rearming of formalism for a critical confrontation with history in the making. Taking the example of Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie (1957), Guy highlights the contrasting readings the novel elicited. If, for some critics, the novel’s apparent narcissism testified to a denial of the colonial context – the action being set in a banana plantation, for others – among whom Fredric Jameson, in the wake of Jacques Leenhardt – the novel’s referentiality cannot be ignored, its referent being “Africa, the colonial situation, imperialism and neo-imperialism, racism, wars of national liberation” [153]. The same complex realist inflexion is traced in Christine Brooke-Rose’s Out (1964), Brian W. Aldiss’s Report on Probability A (1968), or Denis Williams’ The Third Temptation (1968), Guy once again reading formalism against its apparent grain, in order to highlight its complex criticity and taking the novel’s self-awareness as opening onto a more profoundly historical awareness, the narrative being “written from the material of a set of political conditions that are still being negotiated” [170].

Chapter 6 – “The ‘tedium of interest’: Butorian Projects – more explicitly raises the question of readerly reception, wondering to what extent the nouveau roman and its rearticulation of writing “at the border between fiction and its theoretical metalanguage” [179] might be read as paving the way for new modes of reading that later characterised postmodernist fiction as defined by such critics as Brian McHale. The institutionalisation of “Paranoid” reading [185], or of what Paul Ricœur termed “the hermeneutics of suspicion” [186] somehow validated the nouveau roman’s aesthetic options. Turning to B.S. Johnson’s Trawl (1966), Alan Sheridan’s Vacation (1972) and Eva Figes’ B (1972), read in parallel with Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps (1956) and Degrés (1960), the final chapter anticipates on the conclusion’s powerful recapitulation of the productive contradictions of the nouveau roman and the way it “drew in a number of meaningful frames for the historical understanding of works of art, whether aesthetic (the nineteenth-century realist novel, modernism, postmodernism) or more broadly historical (the status of being “postwar,” the end of the empire) [196]. Closing the gap with the present period, by turning to Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (2012), Zadie Smith’s essay “Two Directions for the Novel” (2008) and Tom McCarthy’s essay Transmission and the Individual Remix (2012), Guy reasserts the nouveau roman’s relevance to our present exploration of fiction’s dual heritage in which the realist imperative is woven into an exacting understanding of “newness” [204]. With its capacity to find “a new equilibrium” [204], the nouveau roman still remains, for Guy, a powerful inspiration for “generations of writers to come” [204].

Erudite and passionate, grounded in a vibrant knowledge of French and British intellectual life, efficiently and elegantly poised at the juncture of the history of publishing, of literary history, and the aesthetics of reading, The Nouveau Roman and Writing in Britain after Modernism brings back to light a complex literary and intellectual landscape. It will be essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary literature and also in the critical debates that have shaped our understanding of the function of fiction and its relevance to an enlightened understanding of the historicity of reading.




Cercles © 2020

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.