Nouveau roman

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Nouveau roman

Nouveau roman: Literally “new novel,” the French term for a type of experimental novel, often referred to in English as the new novel or antinovel, that subverts and violates established literary conventions. French literary critic Émile Henriot coined the term in 1957 in the newspaper Le Monde to describe Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropismes (Tropisms) (1939) and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie (Jealousy) (1957), novels that featured detailed physical description and jettisoned standard narrative elements such as characterization and plot.

The nouveau roman arose in France in the mid-twentieth century, reaching its height in the 1950s and 1960s. Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet both played leading roles in theorizing the genre. In “L’ère du soupçon” (“The Age of Suspicion”) (1950), the title essay of her 1956 collection, Sarraute argued that the character had lost “the place of honor” in the novel; that authors and readers alike were “not only both wary of the character, but through him … wary of each other”; and that evolution of the protagonist to “a being devoid of outline, … an anonymous ’I’” enabled the author “to dispossess the reader and entice him … into the author’s territory.” In Pour un nouveau roman (For a New Novel) (1963), a collection of essays on the novel, Robbe-Grillet argued that the novel had “fallen into … a state of stagnation” and should “construct a world both more solid and more immediate,” focusing on the physical presence of gestures and objects rather than on psychological, social, or functional signification (“A Future for the Novel” [1956]); he also emphasized, however, that “each novelist, each novel must invent its own form” and asserted that the term nouveau roman served “not to designate a school” but merely as “a convenient label applicable to all those seeking new forms for the novel” (“The Use of Theory” [1955]). Other noted nouveaux romanciers, or new novelists, included Maurice Blanchot, Michel Butor, Marguerite Duras, Claude Ollier, Claude Simon, and Philippe Sollers.

Rejecting the realism of writers such as Honoré de Balzac, nouveaux romanciers experimented with dislocations of time and space, repetitive descriptions or situations, and shifts or uncertainty in point of view, reflecting what they saw as the ambiguity and incoherence of human experience. They also tended to focus on objects rather than events or characters and to avoid or minimize dialogue, figures of speech such as metaphor, and symbolism. As a result, their novels often appear to be little more than a loose association of perceptions and textual fragments, and readers must take an active role in making sense of their achronological and alogical narrative sequences.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Robbe-Grillet’s Les gommes (The Erasers) (1953), Butor’s La modification (Second Thoughts) (1957), Sarraute’s Le planétarium (The Planetarium) (1959), Simon’s La route des Flandres (The Flanders Road) (1960).