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Reviewed by:
  • Fiction in the Historical Present: French Writers and the Thirties, and: Three Decades of the French New Novel, and: Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body
  • Laurence M. Porter
Mary Jean Green. Fiction in the Historical Present: French Writers and the Thirties. Hanover: UP of New England, 1986. 320 pp. $30.00.
Lois Oppenheim, ed. Three Decades of the French New Novel. Trans. Lois Oppenheim and Evelyne Costa de Beauregard. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986. 213 pp. $28.95.
Sharon Willis. Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. 191 pp. $19.95.

Mary Jean Green surveys ten novelists' representations of history. She covers the entire political spectrum. Over the last forty years, left-wing writers like Sartre, Camus, and Malraux have been oppressively fashionable owing to the United States's fascination with existentialism; more recently, previously shunned Fascist writers have received compensatory attention far exceeding the aesthetic merits of their work. For what may be the first time, Green studies these opposing tendencies together in detail. She innovates further by treating previously neglected figures, notably the Communist Nizan and the fine traditional novelist Roger Martin Du Gard.

Solidly documented, Green's book is the fruit of long reflection. Of particular interest are sections of Chapter Two, on how the exigencies of documentation conflict with those of psychological portrayal in Martin Du Gard's pacifist L'Eté 1914; Chapter Three, on how Aragon and Nizan exposed social corruption not by depicting an oppressed proletariat but rather by studying cadres (executives and managers) and victimized women, and how in both writers the initially Marxist perspective evolves into omniscient narration; Chapter Four, on how the French Fascists Brasillach and Céline were ideologically marginal, whereas Céline and Drieu de la Rochelle were unable to find their place in an organized group—Drieu's fictional fascism, in particular, seems mainly to betray involuntarily the poetic lure of self-destruction (the "pernicious euphoria of Fascism" tellingly characterized in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus ); Chapter Five, on how the demands of Malraux's political message in L'Espoir transform history and how he nevertheless presents a nuanced rather than a blindly admiring view of both anarchists and Communists; Chapter Six, on how Martin Du Gard's Epilogue and Malraux's [End Page 744] Les Noyers de l'Altenburg retrospectively sum up an era. As a whole, the book reveals how pervasive was the late 1930s' climate of decadence, despair, and anomie (formlessness) reflected in more famous novels like La Nausée or L'Etranger.

This serious, well-written book leaves a contradictory impression. Comprehensiveness militates against profundity. On the one hand, there is too much plot summary; translations are sometimes shaky (through inattentiveness rather than ignorance of French); the study lacks theoretical "bite." There is no analysis of the writers' concept of history per se. Green is vague on institutional communism and vaguer on organized fascism; she makes no explicit parallels between the writers' opinions and mainstream political dogma, although she does contrast parties' with writers' reactions to specific historical events such as the 1934 riots or the Hider-Stalin pact. On the other hand, from this study one can learn a good deal.

Lois Oppenheim's collection contains the proceedings of a colloquium on the French New Novel held in 1982 at New York University. It includes talks by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, and Robert Pinget, each followed by a response and a group discussion. In conclusion, John Barth, Jonathan Baumbach, Robert Coover, and John Hawkes evaluate their indebtedness to the French movement dominant since the late 1950s.

Oppenheim's questionable introduction adopts a critical stance influenced by phenomenology. She turns resolutely away from rhetorical, narratological, and structural questions (such as the "death" of plot and character; internal reduplication; enhanced emphasis on text production in the New New Novel)—turns away, in short, from the New Novelists' own militant positions of the 1950s—to emphasize instead "life experience." She treats the New Novel's literary revolution as a myth. A loss of focus results. Symptomatic of this is Oppenheim's choice of a final work to be discussed in her introduction, Marguerite Duras's...


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