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SubStance 35.3 (2006) 3-4

The French Novel Now
Warren Motte
University of Colorado

As many of us know to our chagrin, speculating about the "now" can be very perilous indeed, for that "now" is the most protean of terms, at once both dynamic and static, mutating into something quite different even as we struggle to come to terms with it, yet continually demanding that we account for it once and for all. In the essays included here, we have attempted to describe certain forms that the French novel takes in what passes—for the briefest of moments—as the "now." Rather than pretending to offer a fully detailed map of what has been called the "extreme contemporary," we have instead taken a series of soundings therein. Each is devoted to a single author, offering each contributor an opportunity to reflect in a substantive way on his or her subject.

Clearly enough, lots of other perfectly worthy novelists might have been considered here. People such as Linda Lê, Antoine Volodine, Amélie Nothomb, Eric Chevillard, Christian Gailly, Hélène Lenoir, Marie Darrieussecq, Pierre Michon, Iegor Gran, Eric Laurrent, Marie Redonnet, Caroline Lamarche, Jacques Serena, Christine Montalbetti, Christine Angot, Yann Apperry, and Isabelle Lévesque, to name just a very few, have helped to reshape the French novel's horizon of possibility in the last few years in significant ways. One could even imagine, I suppose, that we might have chosen to include something about Michel Houellebecq—but no, forget I said that.

Granted, then, that we have not pretended to speak exhaustively and definitively about the French novel now, the seven essays that follow provide an interesting sampling of new novelistic shapes, each of those shapes balancing precariously between tradition and innovation, between an affirmation of the novel's continued vitality as a cultural form and a subversion of some of that form's most venerable strategies. Each of the writers invoked in the following pages is in a sense the heir to a tradition of literary subversion, having been weaned on the New Novel and the writings of figures such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Marguerite Duras, Robert Pinget, and Claude Ollier. Moreover, most of them (with the exceptions of Lydie [End Page 3] Salvayre and Gérard Gavarry) have been affiliated for all or part of their careers with the Editions de Minuit, which of course provided the New Novel with all the comforts of home. They are deeply aware, then, that in order to make things new one must put previous models of literary practice on trial. Yet by the same token they realize that certain experiments in novelistic form carried out in the wake of the New Novel—I'm thinking here of the esoteric and studiously "illegible" texts of writers like Pierre Guyotat, Jean-Pierre Faye, Jean Ricardou, Maurice Roche, and the early Philippe Sollers—failed to confirm the promise implicit in their precursors, and thus served to amplify those death-of-the-novel wailings that have echoed through the critical world at various pitches during the last thirty-five years or so.

Each of these writers has taken that sobering lesson to heart in some fashion; and each affirms, either more explicitly or more subtly, that the novel still matters in our culture. The techniques upon which those affirmations rely differ dramatically, to be sure: a reinvigoration of the principle of narrativity here, an astonishing performance of formalist experimentation there; in some cases a return to the comic or the satiric voice, in others the suggestion that high adventure may be found in the apparently banal detail of the quotidian. Considering the multiplicity of those literary gestures, it strikes me that it might be useful to view contemporary French novels as characters in a far vaster fiction, one which speaks in the "now" but also well beyond it, in both directions, one which projects far into our cultural past, and which looks forward into a future we cannot yet imagine.

 Warren Motte is Professor of French...


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