Rise of the New Novel Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The New Novel movement began with the publication of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy in 1951. The “antinovel” content and styles of these works reflected the fact that the traditional novel form could not express the New Novelists’ views of the world or preoccupations with the role of writing.

Summary of Event

Although works by Nathalie Sarraute (Tropismes, 1938, 1957; Tropisms, 1963), Claude Simon Simon, Claude (Le Tricheur, 1945), and Marguerite Duras (Les Impudents, 1943) had appeared years earlier, the birth of the New Novel movement has been situated in 1951 with the publication of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy Molloy (Beckett) (English translation, 1955). Since the interwar period in France, writers had been expressing various aspects of their dissatisfaction with the style of the traditional novel. The “antinovel” style and content of Molloy made a jolting statement of the impossibility of communication in an incomprehensible and uncaring world. In a sense, this placed Beckett in a leader’s role, but unlike previous literary trends, this movement never constituted a homogeneous group from the point of view of either style or content of the works. The unifying factor was instead the preoccupation of all of its writers with the problems of literature and of reading. Literary movements;New Novel New Novel Literary movements;modernism Modernism;literature [kw]Rise of the New Novel (1951) [kw]New Novel, Rise of the (1951) [kw]Novel, Rise of the New (1951) Literary movements;New Novel New Novel Literary movements;modernism Modernism;literature [g]Europe;1951: Rise of the New Novel[03390] [g]France;1951: Rise of the New Novel[03390] [c]Literature;1951: Rise of the New Novel[03390] Beckett, Samuel Butor, Michel Robbe-Grillet, Alain Sarraute, Nathalie Duras, Marguerite

Beginning with Sarraute’s L’Ère du soupçon Age of Suspicion, The (Sarraute) (1956; The Age of Suspicion, 1963) and continuing in the writings of both Alain Robbe-Grillet (Pour un nouveau roman, For a New Novel (Robbe-Grillet) 1963; For a New Novel, 1965) and Michel Butor (Répertoire I, 1960; Répertoire II, 1964; Répertoire III, 1968) Répertoire (Butor) , these and other writers of their times expressed their doubts about the validity of writing when the author must suspect the words of his or her own characters. They believed that writing became an impossibility because the writer no longer believed in his or her characters, and so the reader would not. Thus Beckett’s universe of alienation and silence was the inheritance of the New Novelists.

The style of the New Novel is typified in two ways. The first is the “death of the character,” that is, presenting beings in their ultimate honesty, stripped of subjective descriptive qualities that would classify them traditionally as personae. Second is obsession with ambiguity and doubt in thematic development rather than chronological development of a plot from beginning to end.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Sartre, Jean-Paul essay Qu’est-ce que la littérature? What Is Literature? (Sartre) (1947; What Is Literature? 1949) expressed the ideas of the French avant-garde at the time and opened the way for the continued discussion of the disenchantment with literary forms that stifled rather than expanded the ability to express the life of the new age. The sense of dissatisfaction both with society and with the means of expressing that feeling arose with the existentialists but became more all-encompassing with those who immediately followed. Eugène Ionesco, Arthur Adamov, and Beckett, all of whom had matured in the influence of Dadaism, Surrealism, James Joyce, and the general literary aestheticism of Paris since the interwar years, gave voice to this angry feeling of alienation. They differed from the existentialists in believing that there was no possibility of personally bringing about change or of communicating. Thus it was with the “voices of silence,” the combined cacophony of the surrounding world and the absence of voice or communication, that the New Novelists wrote to their public.

The alienation of the hero seen in the existential novel continued as a thread in the New Novel, but the philosophy did not prevail. There is no exit, no salvation, for the character of the New Novel. The world is beyond his or her reach, and though some characters in the New Novel world strive for understanding of this world or for participation in it, it remains separated from them and continues its relentless grind.

What, then, was the purpose of writing or of reading? This question is the grist of the New Novel mill. All who wrote in the New Novel style were writing about style. They were analyzing for their public, who often remained mystified, the essence of writing as a process of communication and of reading as a means of reception. New Novel creations are often conglomerates of styles, including narrative, dialogue, music, encapsulated objects, and blank space. In this sense, they show a descent from Stéphane Mallarmé, the Symbolist poets, the Surrealist writers, and artists such as Marcel Duchamp, whose artworks contain various objects and bits of writing yet are presented as paintings on a canvas.

Writers of the New Novel movement sought the participation of readers in the act of creativity. Each writer in his or her own way involved readers and used readers’ personal knowledge and experiences to broaden the content and effect of a work. Novels, plays, films, and musical works such as Butor’s opera, Votre Faust: Fantaisie variable genre Ópera Votre Faust (Butor) (pb. 1962) were given alternative sequences or alternative endings from which an audience or readers could choose or draw conclusions. Some works essentially erased and rewrote themselves as they grew on paper.

The public’s reception of the New Novel was not immediately positive. Many readers found the New Novel incomprehensible or boring because there was no plot or action to follow in the traditional sense. Others found exhilarating the stimulation of the joint activity of reading and participating in the work’s creation. The movement continued to develop and to pose its questions to the reading and viewing public, with more works appearing in cinematic as well as book form.

The New Novel’s appearance formalized the fact that these writers were making statements about the form and reception of literature that needed to be heard and deserved to be considered. It is generally agreed that the movement became recognized as such in the early 1950’s. Its writers were sometimes called “le groupe de Minuit” (the Midnight Novelists) after the Paris firm Les Éditions de Minuit Éditions de Minuit , whose owner, Jérôme Lindon Lindon, Jérôme , took the risk of publishing their works.


In receiving the New Novel, the public split into two groups that saw the content of these works quite differently. Because the works did not describe characters or background or follow chronological sequencing, the public considered them difficult to read. Because of their desire to break with traditional form and identify their literature with their times, the writers treated subjects and created works that were not enthusiastically received in literary circles either.

Although they became well established as literary figures, these writers and their works were considered worthless or scandalous by those upholding the standards of literature. A quarter of a century passed before a public developed for the New Novel. Though never easy reading, the subject matter and forms became the norm of twentieth century literary production, and through the influence of these writers the public gained an awareness of the need for a literature that expressed the social, political, and very personal complications that constituted their world.

Butor’s novel La Modification Change of Heart, A (Butor) (1957; A Change of Heart, 1959) received the Prix Théophraste-Renaudot in 1957 and is esteemed for the precision of its narrative structure. His narrative reflects the earlier twentieth century masters Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Sartre in its attention to stylistic detail. His novels and essays on the art of writing demonstrate a profound level of erudition and the sincere desire that humanity share the pleasure of the creative experience. His early works Passage de Milan (1954), L’Emploi du temps (1956; Passing Time, 1959), and Degrés (1960; Degrees, 1963) share many of the technical aspects of Robbe-Grillet’s works of the same period.

Later works by Butor such as Mobile: Étude pour une représentation des États-Unis (1962; Mobile: Study for a Representation of the United States, 1963), Matiére de rêves (1975), and Boomerang (1978) illustrate the many-leveled thought and dream times of storytelling that echo the Surrealists’ attempts at automatic writing. Butor’s technique, however, tries to lead readers into parallel exploration of their own consciousness and experiences and thus to fuller appreciation through participation in the creativity of reading.

Robbe-Grillet achieved a level of general appreciation by the public as a result of his brilliant spokesmanship for the movement and his filmmaking. His screenplay for L’Année dernière à Marienbad Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais) (Last Year at Marienbad), filmed with director Alain Resnais, received the grand prize at the 1961 Venice Film Festival Venice Film Festival . Robbe-Grillet became the unifying force that fused into one school a great variety of writers who stood in agreement on what they were against in literary style. He founded two prizes (the Prix des Critiques and the Prix Médicis) to promote new literary talent, was for years a principal reader for Les Éditions de Minuit, and gave his time and support to younger writers in their efforts to publish.

Sarraute perhaps did the most to change the way readers were to look at characters in a story. Her fiction, such as Tropisms, Le Planétarium (1959; The Planetarium, 1960), and Les Fruits d’or (1963; The Golden Fruits, 1964), reports the unconscious mannerisms, attractions, aversions, and even perversions of human beings in social contact. Her behavioral studies show that, like plants, humans have tropisms that reveal their true feelings. Her special aptitude is that, like Proust, she makes relevant statements about love, affection, hypocrisy, and the failings of bourgeois society’s standards. In The Age of Suspicion, she was the first to state what the new literature was to be about. It was time to renew the idea of writing, because the character had become suspect. Readers would no longer believe in the traditional character, because the literary lie no longer applied to the new age. The effect that Robbe-Grillet later termed nouveau roman-homme nouveau (new novel-new man) had already made its appearance.

Duras expresses deep anger at social abuses past and present, yet all the personal stories she tells become universal through her technique of detached-voice story relation. The “voices” of Duras speak softly and monotonously in the background of her scenes. As though these speakers have seen and experienced all in some distant time or place, they soothe the pain or horror of the reality being enacted. Thus it becomes bearable to read or to view the indescribable abuses human beings inflict upon each other. It is also through this detachment that readers are moved beyond the level of sensual experience to know the depth of human love and become aware of the infinite possibilities for good that Duras finds at the core of a person’s being.

In the novels Moderato Cantabile (1958; English translation, 1960) and Le Vice-consul (1966; The Vice-Consul, 1968), the screenplay and film Hiroshima mon amour (1960), and the prose-play-film India Song (1973), Duras tells her life’s story in both real and fictionalized representations. The stark truth she tells about herself creates an intimacy and a universality that enable her to express the feelings of abused womankind and abused humanity.

An emphasis on language and the need to express every aspect in its minutest detail, seen particularly in the works of Robbe-Grillet and Butor, are elements of all the New Novelists’ works. The obsession with the description of things has been called an escape from reality, but Robbe-Grillet states that the things are just a means of proving that there is no objective reality. The minutiae of his descriptions in Last Year at Marienbad and La Jalousie (1957; Jealousy, 1959), for example, suggest that each person makes his or her own reality and that the will to choose happiness can be the source of hope for the new age. Literary movements;New Novel New Novel Literary movements;modernism Modernism;literature

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Babcock, Arthur E. The New Novel in France: Theory and Practice of the “Nouveau Roman.” New York: Twayne, 1997. Part of Twayne’s Critical History of the Novel series, this brief book discusses the work of Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Butor, Simon, and Duras. Includes chapters on the theory of the New Novel and the “place” of the New Novel. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fletcher, John, and John Calder, eds. The Nouveau Roman Reader. London: John Calder, 1986. Calder writes comprehensive and perceptive introductions to the postmodern situation, the New Novel, and the eight authors whose works are featured. Partial bibliography of each author’s works (English and French versions) and selected critical bibliography. The introduction on postmodernism is for readers with thorough knowledge of literary history and criticism; the remainder is for general readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heath, Stephen. The Nouveau Roman: A Study in the Practice of Writing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1972. Describes the importance of the practice of writing for the novelists and critics of the New Novel era. Each of four authors is treated in detail. Select bibliography of authors’ works, books and special numbers of periodicals dealing with the New Novel, and New Criticism on writing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Le Sage, Laurent. The French New Novel: An Introduction and a Sampler. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962. General résumé of the history and development of the movement. Discusses psychology, characterization, narrative structure, device, and style. Gives general bibliographical references for discussions of the New Novel. General introduction for each author and selection. A good introductory work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mercier, Vivian. The New Novel from Queneau to Pinget. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Introduction describes foundations of and people involved in the New Novel, then discusses precursors and finally achievements of the movement. In-depth discussion of the style and content of each author’s work, with ample examples. Selective bibliography of each author’s works (English and French versions) and of criticism for each author.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rahv, Betty T. From Sartre to the New Novel. National University Publications Series in Literary Criticism. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1974. Brief introduction to the New Novel, centered on the idea of narrative perspective. Select bibliography of general articles on the New Novel, special periodical issues dealing with the New Novel, and works on Sartre, Camus, and Robbe-Grillet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Anti-Novel of Nathalie Sarraute.” Yale French Studies 16 (1955): 40-44. Sartre lauds Sarraute’s work as a “new novelist.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sturrock, John. The French New Novel: Claude Simon, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Factual and practical introduction to the meaning of the New Novel. Sturrock explains where and when the term originated and what its writers stood for and against. Simon’s, Butor’s, and Robbe-Grillet’s concepts, works, and successes are explained clearly. Select bibliographies, most entries in French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Willoquet-Maricondi, Paula, and Mary Alemany-Galway, eds. Peter Greenaway’s Postmodern/Poststructuralist Cinema. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001. Discusses the influence of the New Novel, particularly the work of Robbe-Grillet, on the postmodern and experimental filmmaking of Peter Greenaway.

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Categories: History