Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference : Saint-Malo

Michel Le Bris “The future of the novel”

22 mai 2013.

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What is the future for the novel ? A very dark one, and perhaps none at all, a view expressed with grave concern by the most highly regarded critics at a time when we all sense that we are entering, with the new century, a period of momentous change. How could we fail to perceive that the new era brings with it a new sensibility and fundamental changes in our mental bearings ? Standing on the threshold of a new century…Fear not : I speak of course to the dying days of the 19th century and the start of the troubling 20th century. In 1891, Jules Romain had prophesised the ‘end of the novel form’. The same year Ludovic Halévy agreed, ‘All novel genres have been exhausted’. Edouard Rod then added, ‘The novel has no future’. In 1905 Jean Lorrain observed, ‘The French novel is dead ; killed by journalism.’ Maurice Leblond, the very same year, qualified the verdict, saying ‘the novel was in its death throes’, ‘a victim of these industrial times when the launch of a book is not dramatically different from, say, the launch a new cocktail, or quinine drink’. Or, as Lucien Maury was to claim in 1907, it had fallen victim to ‘parisianism ; snobbism, a mix of cruel and light irony, dryness of sentiment and moral scepticism’.

In short, as Camille Audigier railed in 1911, we have had enough of these ‘adulterous mondaines and swooning neurasthenics’, enough of this ‘agitation and theatricality’, chimed in Louis Bertrand in 1912. It seemed as if there was nothing left to rejoice over. Gide, when asked by a major newspaper in 1913 to name his ten favourite French novels, wondered if French letters could even lay claim to the novel as a form.

This long preamble is in fact intended to urge us all to take an optimistic view : all of this took place a century ago, and we are still here.
We continue to ponder, question and argue just as passionately as we did then, often in the same terms. So much so that one could hold that the novel form thrives in times of crisis, and that concern over its future is a sign of its good health... Indeed it was then that some new voices emerged : Marcel Schwob, discovering the work of Stevenson ‘in the flickering light of a railroad lamp’, found what was might be expected of the times : an adventure novel that wove together the ‘crisis of the inner and outer worlds’ ; Camille Mauclair saw in it the Novel of Tomorrow, free from social determinism à la Zola and individual psychology à la Barrès ; André Gide discovered Conrad and undertook to translate Typhoon, in 1913 Jacques Rivière published his spectacular ‘Adventure Novel’ in three instalments in NRF, in the form of a manifesto. Then came Plon’s ‘Feux croisés’ collection, Stock’s ‘Cosmopolitan Cabinet’ and ‘Scandinavian Library’. So that just when many were lamenting the novel as a lost cause, French readers were able to discover, in rapid succession, the likes of Dostoyevsky, Melville, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Hamsun, Kafka, Henry James, Kipling, James Joyce, Pirandello, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Conrad – in other words, proof of the amazing ability of fiction to relate the world in the very process of becoming. A new generation of French writers followed, many of them travel writers, keen to take to the road.

One might wonder if it is not precisely in periods of crisis and profound change that fiction deploys its full power. Suffice it to think of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Journey to the End of the Night by Celine. The debates and controversies are strangely familiar ; they took place a century ago, but ring just as true today. So there are grounds for optimism.

But what precisely can we be optimistic about ? If the talk is about the Internet, digitisation or the programmed obsolescence of paper, it is always predicated on the assumption that the globalised market leads to fatal outcomes. There are writers who, having initiated these debates in other festivals, have gotten bogged down in them. I know that the digital revolution will have an impact on the form of works through the new opportunities it creates – in terms of images, sound, branching, interactive media just to name a few - not to mention the huge potential it holds for places like Africa where books struggle to survive.

As we know, new literary forms are emerging, notwithstanding the medium of production, whether paper or digital ; these are made up of a blending of previously separate genres – fiction, storytelling, essays –in a shifting and dynamic balance, as if the ability to switch between genres compensated for the ever-present risk of the others failing to deliver. Back in 1992, when I was director of the ‘Voyageurs’ (Travellers) collection with the Payot publishing house, we published John MacPhee, the pioneer of a new genre that would become known as ‘creative nonfiction’, and that has finally, it seems, been discovered in France. There was an extensive session dedicated to creative non-fiction yesterday. This, I believe, shows just how important these developments are. However, and this might come as a surprise, as important as they may be, I believe they are secondary, in that they come after what is essential. What I mean by essential is the ability to perceive what is at stake in novel writing, therefore, to understand why the novel form is more necessary today than ever before.

In 1990, when I created the Etonnants Voyageurs Festival, which owes its name to a well-known Baudelaire poem, it was survival instinct on my part : I opened a space in which I, as a writer, could breathe freely, standing in resolute opposition to the literary fashions that were then ruling over the French literary scene : both an avant-garde ideology that postulated that literature had but one object : itself, thus reducing it to nothing but formal play – a play on words, and also the other vogue of marvelling in the contemplation of one’s own navel as the one and only centre of the world. As for me, I wanted to assert that never has literature been as strong, as alive and as necessary as when it has taken on relating the world.

A world was disappearing, this I felt with great intensity, as my generation had dreamed of ‘doing away with the old world’. I lived very intensely through the lovely days of May 1968 in Paris. The shock waves of this movement, that took various forms and acquired a global dimension, had shaken the whole edifice, toppling the ideologies that the reigning thinking gurus claimed covered ‘the whole range of thought’. It carried our most trusted reference points and most of our certainties away– save for one that led to the birth of Etonnants Voyageurs : that only artists and writers can delve into the unknown and give it a voice. Thus it always is. The pundits had failed to foresee the events of May 1968 – remember the infamous words of the most famous editorialist from Le Monde, ‘France is bored’, a pronouncement made just 13days before the start of the events - yet the movement had already been in the works for a decade, through music, comics, science fiction and everything we call “counter-culture”. All the worthy pundits, be they specialists in politics, economy, and sociology et al. had been deaf and blind to it, as they are again today. Pundits are by definition specialists of what is already known, and are thus the least competent in perceiving novelty and breaks. Better to listen to Bob Dylan that to read editorials in Le Monde if one wanted to understand the rising tide of the 60s ! The only specialists of the unknown that I am aware of are precisely artists and writers. As a result, they are needed with a renewed and special urgency in this period of momentous change of ours. Thus it is that the novel form is critical to our times.

Possibly even more than one imagines. For the change we are undergoing is completely singular. We have thought for centuries in terms of stable categories : nation-states, territories, borders, foreign/domestic oppositions, families, communities, identities but also concepts. It may well be that the world to come very quickly forces us to ditch stable categories and to risk ourselves into moving thought, in other words, as the Indian philosopher Arjun Appadurai puts it, in Modernity at Large, forces us into thinking in terms of flows and no longer in terms of structures.

Flows of population, whether voluntary or imposed, greater than ever the world has known, flows of capital, flows of images, flows of sounds, flows of information : we must acknowledge the fact that they have overwhelmed all the structures which up to now attempted to contain or regulate them. They are followed by fantastic cultural collisions : a veritable maelstrom in which an old world expires while a new one is being born, the outlines of which we can hardly perceive, even though we know it will force us to rethink our mental coordinates. It is becoming vital for individual and collective imaginations both to get back to centre stage, in terms of power of creation.

We are entering a world in which it is not exaggerated to say that someone born into a culture will be led to live in another, or that a second generation immigrant will be torn apart between two worlds or two cultures. In fact this can occur within one’s own country, thanks to the acceleration of transfers of rural populations with traditional cultures to tradition-crushing, family-rending megalopolises, which in their turn are also sources of new social behaviours and new cultures- in short a world in which imaginary, flowing, perpetually renewed plural communities will be born, will constantly change and will disappear. But it is also a world in which everyone, standing at a crossroads of multiple identities, will find themselves forced to invent a “personal story” in order to make sense of themselves, which will make a coherent whole of this multiplicity.

It is a dangerous world in which the imagination will be challenged, at the risk of hankering after nostalgic roots, be they real or fantasised, after illusory homelands, all the more murderous as they are disconnected from reality, after dreamt-of undivided communities, in which we can be “among ourselves”, delivered from the tragedy of history, when one wants to reject the new world with all one’s might, which, not far from us, is what they call ethnic cleansing or delusional identity wishes or genocidal mania.

But it is also a fascinating world in which creative fiction will play a central part, something that Arjun Appadurai appears to overlook in his essay, perhaps because of his perspective as a sociologist. For what is literature if not the creation of worlds, the crisscrossing of multiple voices, the questioning, in its very movement, of the certainties of identity ? Of course, it is form, but contrary to conceptual thought, it is open, and therefore at the origin of “togetherness”. It stands at the crossroads of uniqueness and multiplicity and stubbornly tries to take up the gamble of nomadic thought- it is, in action, the very thought of flow. It explores a flowing space in which the inside and the outside become interchangeable and in which the self can deconstruct and reconstruct itself. Thus literature- and particularly the novel- stand more than ever at the core of what the world to come holds at stake.

Fiction is once again centre stage. It is striking that the social sciences and literature are tackling similar issues, after a period during which these disciplines attempted to displace literature, to take its place and place it behind bars. Do we learn less from Conrad and Stevenson about the tropics than we do from Malinowski or about man in society from Proust and Chateaubriand than from Lévi-Strauss ? Why do writers do a better job of telling us about the world than recognized anthropologists ? Alan Bensa and François Pouillon, both anthropologists, raise this question in their collective work titled Terrains d’écrivains (‘Land of writers’). Sylvie Laurent, a historian fascinated by the TV series The Wire, writing for the magazine Esprit, asks : ’What if fiction were closer to the truth than the social sciences ?’ An idea apparently appealing to sociologists, since David Simon, the author of the series, gets invited to lecture at Harvard. Why do psychoanalysts, whose knowledge is often tinged with arrogance, quote so liberally from literary works, although they are not writers ? This is the question that the psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard asks in his book ‘Peut-on appliquer la littérature à la psychanalyse’ ? (Can literature be applied to psychoanalysis ?) It is almost as though literature holds a form of knowledge that psychoanalysis is eternally searching for but unable to reach – the very topic of another recent book on Freud and writers. In a book that just came out, fifteen young historians ponder the question ‘What are historians thinking about ?’, working under the guidance of Christophe Granger. Well, about literature, of course, ‘to the point of obsession’, expresses with dismay a critic from Le Monde. It has taken on an obsessional dimension : through various colloquia - ‘History and Literature’ in Lyon, at the Collège de France, at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, at the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) - while the journal Sciences humaines devoted a special issue to ‘Literature, window on the world’. Not to mention all the philosophers who have reflected on the power of literature, such as Pierre Cassou-Noguès, who takes it quite far, positing that philosophy is fiction. Why is everybody all of a sudden so intent on the power of literature ?

The fact that the social sciences, thrown into crisis as a result of the general state of upheaval in the world, are looking to the powers of literature is especially meaningful. We should head this, as it shows that the arrogant theories that allowed the social sciences to exist self-referentially, excluding the outside of world, are truly dead. And this brings us back to literature’s ability to relate the world. I have no complaint : this has been my position since the Festival was created, and this is what led me to espouse the concept of world literature in 1993.
This is what led, in 2008, to the drafting, along with Jean Rouaud, Alain Mabanckou, Anna Moï, and Abdourahman Waberi, of a Manifesto for a French-language World Literature, signed by 44 writers. This is what I have fought for since my first book came out in 1977, L’homme aux semelles de vent. This is what I have been fighting for starting as far back as I can remember…

It is not all about signs or systems of signs, contrary to what the gurus of structuralism tried so forcefully to drum into us. The unutterable exists. And literature exists precisely because the unutterable exists, as does humanity, with its acceptance of the other. If everything could be uttered – if everything were transparent, translatable, and exchangeable - everything would already have been told, and nobody would make a fuss about it. But the fact is : we have never stopped, wherever, whenever, in all places, in all cultures, from the beginning of times, to tell stories, to write stories. Such obstinacy makes one suppose that there must be some imperious necessity to this compulsion to approach the unutterable, to make it rise to the surface, to take us to the core of its mystery. We are, to quote Nancy Huston’s beautiful expression a “story-telling species”.

How strange is fiction. It is not truth, obviously. But neither is it untruth. Evidently, it says something – otherwise we would be indifferent, but not so, we read, voraciously, we cannot be stopped, we are enthralled – something which cannot be said in any other way. Its figurative meaning cannot be reduced to literal meaning. If it could, fiction would be but an ornament, kid’s play, a waste of time. But we hold it as essential. When we finish reading a great novel, do we not have the feeling that it was delivering something unique about the world and about human beings ? Perhaps even more : the feeling that it allows the perception of the unknown world to come, it gives it a face, it makes it inhabitable. It makes us discover the other in our selves.

Fiction is not truth. Neither is it untruth. Thus, it forces us to suggest there is another way of knowledge than the discursive : that of imagination : it forces us to think in terms of creative imagination. Science is deployed in the space of sameness, indeed it rests on the assumption that from a founding rule one can replicate experience perfectly. But how can we think of ‘the Other’, without reducing it to the likeness of ourselves, to the Same ? The other is unknowable, but otherness can be met and embraced, and in so doing we discover the otherness within ourselves. And this we do through our imagination and the shifting interplay of fiction, and that is momentous indeed. This is where the secret of our becoming human can be found ; from here springs and grows our ability to ‘be together’, an infinitely richer path than the one established by a rule or law, for this is the very essence of common rules accepted by all.

If a work written several centuries ago in another culture can still move me, when the times that saw it come to life are long gone, and its context – of which I know nothing – has been abolished, it must mean that there is something in it which cannot be reduced to the conditions of its enunciation, something that is capable of overcoming death and the passing of time, and beyond the narrow confines of cultures, is capable of talking still to our present. Has it not been said that a true work of art can be recognised in that it has “passed the test of time” ? But if there is transcendence in a work of art, it becomes obvious that it is due to a dimension of transcendence in its creator, due to a power in him – and therefore in his readers, that is to say in every man – that crosses over time and culture. And the power of works of literature is to continuously bring us back to this dimension within us that we tend to forget, caught up as we are in everyday life.

Perhaps our questioning about literature will appear futile to today’s great minds : they would have us believe that the time is now for ‘serious matters’. In their shadow theatres, they have attempted to bring back to life the old illusory recipes and tired slogans : in turn, let us not be afraid to assert that the ‘human poem’ we carry within ourselves and the richness of fiction is what brings us back to the essential in these chaotic times : this greatness in each one of us which producing and consuming have not yet exhausted ; a power of creation, a verticality that is the very essence of being human. Our need for the novel is therefore as imperious and real as it has ever been !

We believe that no thought of the new times, no policy, and no philosophy will be worth anything if it not built on an idea which is vaster than mankind and which artists and poets invariably take us back to. In 1981 in an essay titled Le Paradis Perdu (‘Lost Paradise’), I wagered that ‘out of the ruins of the Theoretical Age a new Age of Fiction will be reborn’. These words may not have been heard, but thirty years later I do not believe that I was wrong in making such a statement.

Michel Le Bris




Pour l’amour des livres

Grasset - 2019

« Nous naissons, nous grandissons, le plus souvent sans même en prendre la mesure, dans le bruissement des milliers de récits, de romans, de poèmes, qui nous ont précédés. Sans eux, sans leur musique en nous pour nous guider, nous resterions tels des enfants perdus dans les forêts obscures. N’étaient-ils pas déjà là qui nous attendaient, jalons laissés par d’autres en chemin, dessinant peu à peu un visage à l’inconnu du monde, jusqu’à le rendre habitable  ? Ils nous sont, si l’on y réfléchit, notre première et notre véritable demeure. Notre miroir, aussi. Car dans le foisonnement de ces histoires, il en est une, à nous seuls destinée, de cela, nous serions prêt à en jurer dans l’instant où nous nous y sommes reconnus – et c’était comme si, par privilège, s’ouvrait alors la porte des merveilles.

Pour moi, ce fut la Guerre du feu, « roman des âges farouches  » aujourd’hui quelque peu oublié. En récompense de mon examen réussi d’entrée en sixième ma mère m’avait promis un livre. Que nous étions allés choisir solennellement à Morlaix. Pourquoi celui-là  ? La couverture en était plutôt laide, qui montrait un homme aux traits simiesques fuyant, une torche à la main. Mais dès la première page tournée… Je fus comme foudroyé. Un monde s’ouvrait devant moi…

Mon enfance fut pauvre et solitaire entre deux hameaux du Finistère, même si ma mère sut faire de notre maison sans eau ni électricité un paradis, à force de tendresse et de travail. J’y ai découvert la puissance de libération des livres, par la grâce d’une rencontre miraculeuse avec un instituteur, engagé, sensible, qui m’ouvrit sans retenue sa bibliothèque.

J’ai voulu ce livre comme un acte de remerciement. Pour dire simplement ce que je dois au livre. Ce que, tous, nous devons au livre. Plus nécessaire que jamais, face au brouhaha du monde, au temps chaque jour un peu plus refusé, à l’oubli de soi, et des autres. Pour le plus précieux des messages, dans le temps silencieux de la lecture  : qu’il est en chacun de nous un royaume, une dimension d’éternité, qui nous fait humains et libres. »