“Flaubert, Dostoevski, Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, Beckett…” According to Alain Robbe-Grillet, this was the lineage of the Nouveau Roman, the literary branch of the French New Wave following World War II. “Far from making a tabula rasa of the past,” Robbe-Grillet wrote, “we have most readily reached an agreement on the names of our predecessors; and our ambition is merely to continue them. Not to do better, which has no meaning, but to situate ourselves in their wake, now, in our own time.”1 In 1961, the year this commentary was written, Beckett was widely considered to be at the forefront of the avant-garde: why, then, did Robbe-Grillet place Beckett in the company of past authors, when Beckett was so closely linked with what was happening “now”?
Robbe-Grillet’s presumption that Beckett’s time had passed was pronounced in an earlier essay he published in 1957, “Samuel Beckett, or Presence on the Stage.” Here he made the following prediction—one that now seems cannily accurate:
And if, after Godot and Endgame, there now comes a third play, it will probably be The Unnamable again, third panel of the trilogy of novels. Hamm already enables us to imagine its tone, by the novel he makes up as he goes along, creating sham situations and manipulating phantoms of characters into action. Since he is not there himself, there is nothing left for him now but to tell himself stories, to operate marionettes, in his place, to help pass the time.(NN, 125)
Robbe-Grillet’s comments reveal much about Beckett’s placement within the postwar generation. As early as the late 1950s [End Page 529] it seemed apparent that Beckett’s writing was set on a self-determined path, that there was (as Beckett himself often felt) “nothing left” but to “go on.”2 Beckett was not a modernist-turned-New-Novelist, nor was he expected to create a “new” aesthetic that would trump the experiments of the younger generation of writers. This image of Beckett, one that makes him seem slightly passé and out of touch with his contemporary moment, differs greatly from the forward-thinking, postmodern ethos with which he is normally associated.
The Nouveau Roman, also known as the New Novel, the Objective Novel, l’école du regard, or the School of Minuit, began with a group of experimental writers who published with Les Éditions de Minuit in the 1950s. Jérôme Lindon, who had taken over as manager of Minuit in 1948, commented in a 1962 interview that the New Novelists were “profoundly original and different each from the others.” “If they have anything in common,” he explained, “it is to be found more in their refusal of certain attitudes about literature than in any true program.”3 Although the Nouveau Roman was not a particularly cohesive avant-garde movement, the Minuit writers had a distinct collective identity within the politicized postwar climate. The heading of Lindon’s 1962 interview—“Littérature dégagée”—exemplifies how the Nouveau Roman group tended to place themselves against the example of Sartre’s littérature engagée. The New Novelists were, as a whole, on the political left, yet the Nouveau Roman was mainly considered an aesthetic rather than a political movement. During the 1950s and 1960s, Robbe-Grillet critiqued Sartre’s existentialism as well as the theater of the absurd, declaring that the Nouveau Roman stood in opposition to the metaphysical and social agendas of these contemporary movements. Having no perceptible agenda of its own outside of formal concerns, the New Novel came to be defined simply as “a radical departure” from the “nineteenth-century-novel type.”4 Despite its general lack of political engagement, the Nouveau Roman rapidly became a central force of avant-garde activity,5 due in large part to its close affiliation with New Wave cinema. Robble-Grillet, a successful novelist celebrated for his film Last Year at Marienbad, was a prominent example of the symbiosis between literature and film.6 From their early days with Cahiers du cinema, New Wave filmmakers defined their works through literary terminology. As Dorota Ostrowska explains, “The definition of pure...