Paul Nizan 1937

The Ambition of the Modern Novel

First Published: Cahiers de la jeunesse no. 17;
Source: Paul Nizan, Intellectuel Communiste Maspero, Paris, 1967;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2009.

In general, in literature there exist two main categories of writings; those of escape and those of reality.

There are easy historical eras where reality isn’t imperative, where it is distant enough for the writer not to feel haunted by it.

There are several means of flight: into history or geographically: this becomes increasingly difficult. Even in Tahiti we run up against tragic stories. Travel literature, geographical escape, are no longer means of flight.

There remains the flight into the past, the flight outside of time, utopias.

Utopias allow us to say: nothing is going right and we’re going to invent a universe of an order rigorously different. It dispenses us from saying that this world doesn’t work for this or that reason and consequently we must change this or that thing. It’s pointless to confront the real world; our conscience is clean and we maintain a certain intellectual comfort. Utopia has never presented as reactionary character as today.

In France currently the most significant writer from this point of view is Jean Giono. He is a man who began by writing novels that were a kind of lyrical transposition of certain realties that surrounded him: the peasants of the high plateau, of Ventadour, of the valley of Durance.

Little by little, what was simply a lyrical transposition of reality became an escape, and Giono’s last book, “Le Poids du Ciel,” is a kind of utopian manifesto. The revolt against reality is expressed by the construction of a falsely philosophical peasant utopia which simply expresses the refusal of all of modern civilization, including peasant society as it currently exists.

A literature of this order, which comes from the prestige which is conferred on the writer because of his literary gifts, seems to me to be typically reactionary, similar to the refusal to think through the world as it is.

The true motor of this peasant utopia has a very simple name: racism. A certain perfectly legitimate and justified disgust for urban society as we live it leads the writer to justify in a theoretical manner his love for the countryside, upon which he bases a utopia, and the heart of this utopia is a racial cult of nature.

There is a third possible attitude; the determination to confront reality, however difficult and disagreeable it might be. The determination to make a disagreeable literature, as Bernard Shaw says concerning some of his plays. So there is, confronting the determination to flee, the determination to be faithful to reality. I must say in literature’s honor in general that writers have almost always wanted to remain faithful to reality.

Nothing is more difficult for a whole series of technical reasons that concern the production of the novel.

In certain eras the difficulty is less, for the writer has to deal with clearly marked out social classes, with social types as determined, as stable in certain times as a beetle or a fly. These eras are infinitely rare. Like the law of history, the law of literature is one of overturning.

Nevertheless, if you take the great writers of the nineteenth century, and I mean by this both playwrights as well as novelists: Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Zola among the novelists; Dumas fils, Augier and Eugene Labiche among the playwrights, you will note that they all define a certain stable social type for about fifty years; the type of the French bourgeois.

There is no bourgeois en soi; there are several types of bourgeois; it’s a social species infinitely ramified and very subtle. But between 1820 – 1870, for a period of fifty years, there was established in France, in the provinces as well as Paris, a social type of the French bourgeois, merchant or middle industrial or representative of the liberal professions, which only began to retreat under the Second Empire, epoch during which large scale capitalism began to bring down France’s old economic edifice.

This French bourgeois was in the first place the one who made the Revolution of 1830 and who later stabilized it; it’s the person who socially and politically supported the July Monarchy; it was he who brought down the Republic of 1848; it was he who was the strength of the authoritarian Empire, i.e., the first part of the Second Empire.

When a write has before him a reality stable enough to provide him social types for fifty years (Birotteau, or Joseph Prud’homme or M. Perrichon) he hardly poses the problem of what is current and what isn’t.

But what can the writer do when he doesn’t such well defined types have to deal with? Take the case of a novelist of 1939 who tries to suss out French reality, and compare his situation to that of a writer of 1845. The situation of 1845 is infinitely clearer, I mean in relation to possible heroes. Since the war – the war did nothing but accelerate a certain number of evolutions that had begun well before in French society – it has become extremely difficult to define types. Social types burst forth and die in the space of a few years, a few months. We can’t easily grasp them; we can no longer make of a social type the dominant figure of a novel as they still could in the Nineteenth century.

A French bourgeois could be a member of a board of directors or the notary of a city with a population of 3,000. From the point of view of the novelist these two characters have no relationship between them.

So there exists a certain technical difficulty for today’s novelist in grasping social types. He can then say to himself; all of this is too difficult, I’ll write a novel that took place forty years ago.

I think that this is a lazy solution; that one must, as Dostoevsky said, when we have the passion for the real: “foretell and err.” But one must run the greatest of risks.

This intellectual risk seems to me to be inseparable from literary activity.

There remains a difficulty invented by frivolous critics. It’s the idea that it is impossible to describe in fiction a strictly contemporary reality. There appears to be a mysterious law that the critics call the law of fictional distance, according to which it’s necessary that a certain X number of years pass between the event that the novelist describes and the moment at which the novelist writes.

When Walter Scott writes about the conquest of England by the Normans there is truly a historic distance; the author could consider that the era of the conquest of England by the Normans was truly over. But when it’s not a question of distant periods in history this law appears to me to be senseless. For every writer current events begin at a moment that corresponds to the beginning of his most intense experience. It is obvious that it is very difficult for writers of the present generation to not consider the pre-war period, for example, as an historic era. For them it is quite legendary an era, quite distant and in some ways, marvelous. For them current events began in 1918. They don’t at all have the impression, when dealing with 1918, of obeying the law of historic distance. They are right in the middle of it. History is much more cunning than the historians, and reality more cunning than the realists.

You know that Bernard Shaw distinguished in his plays between his pleasant and unpleasant pieces, with a marked weakness for the latter. This wasn’t simply a witticism; it expresses something deeper. Readers are people who, in general, have very bad instincts – much worse than those of novelists – in this that they hope to find in the novel a kind of complicity that will assist them in escaping from their troubles, their petty personal troubles as well as the great collective troubles. Many novelists are ready to go as far as degradation in this kind of complicity. It was Plato who distinguished, in the classification of arts, those of flattery. There are many writers whose ambition is simply to be flatterers, and it pleases me that Plato associated in the same intellectual category cooks and this kind of writer!

One should not be an accomplice of the readers’ bad instincts.

What seems to me to be essential for both the reader and for the novelist who form a couple – and a couple always means two accomplices – is to guide complicity in the most demanding direction. The true function of the reader is to want to learn to live and consequently to consider the novel, literature in general, not at all come a diversion in both the vulgar and Pascalian sense of the term, but as an instrument of knowledge.

This will give you the complementary ambition as a novelist of considering the novel above all as an instrument of diversion.

Everything seems to me to be summed up in a striking formula of Marx. Marx, questioning himself about the function of philosophy – he wasn’t speaking of its mission – summed himself up in this way: We must give people consciousness of themselves. And he adds this small proposition, which appears to me to be decisive and with which I want to end: even if they don’t want it.