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Athabasca University

Nancy  Huston  Meets  le Nouveau Roman

Joseph  Pivato

In Nord perdu (1999) Nancy Huston describes her impressions of Paris shortly after she arrived there in 1973, “Throughout the 1970s, French literary theory was still in thrall to the ‘Age of Suspicion’ brilliantly analyzed by Nathalie Sarraute in the post-war years.” (36)  Huston found herself immersed in the theoretical and literary circles of the Nouveau Roman, a new style of writing that her graduate supervisor, Roland Barthes described as “the writerly text which encourages re-reading.” (S/Z 4-5)

Those of us who studied French language and literature in the 1960s were also introduced to the Nouveau Roman with such novels as Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Le Voyeur (1955), Michel Butor’s La Modification (1957), and Nathalie Sarraute’s Le Planétarium (1959). The writers of the Nouveau Roman rejected the conventions of realism which focused on plot, action, character motivation and middle class values. Instead this new style of writing focused on objects, giving the reader particular versions of the objects surrounding the characters. An example of this can be found in Robbe-Grillet’s novel, La Jalousie (1957) in which the jealous husband observes his wife through the Venetian blinds installed in all the windows of their house. Jalousie is the French term for Venetian blinds as well as for the passion of jealousy. Just as the field of vision is limited because of the window blinds, so too is the husband’s jealousy partially blinding him as he keeps gazing at his wife while she goes about her daily chores. In this bare writing style we note that the husband has no name and the wife is only identified as A.

The writing style on the Nouveau Roman is, in general, is deceptively simple in sentence structure, vocabulary and  straight forward narrative content with few characters and minimal dialogue. Some short paragraphs are of the type found in French language texts for second or third year college courses. Many novels are short, for example La Jalouise  is a mere 100 pages and could be called a novella by some readers. In retrospect, I can now understand why the Nouveau Roman novels were so often found in university courses in North America. They appeared to be very teachable, to use a pedagogical term. And I suppose many French teachers were also getting tired of reading the about nihilism in existentialist novels such as Albert Camus’ L’étranger (1942) and Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée (1939). The Nouveau Roman provided a refreshing approach to French writing. I do recall that my French professor at York University was quite enthusiastic about the Nouveau Roman authors.

In reaction against the old rigid conventions of literary realism and also against the absurdist hollowness of the existential novels, the writers of the Nouveau Roman developed clear theories about writing as an art form. These ideas were articulated in literary manifestos: primarily Natalie Sarraute in L’Ere du soupçon (1956) and Robbe-Grillet in Pour un Nouveau Roman (1956). As a group, these young writers  deliberately set out to make fiction writing a serious form of artistic expression. In addition to Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute and Butor there was also Marguerite Duras, Claude Simon, Claude Ollier and Phillipe Sollers. This is the cultural environment that the young Nancy Huston found in the Paris of the 1970s. The writers of the Nouveau Roman were at the height of their power. The controversial Marguerite Duras also worked on film scripts such as Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and was directing her own experimental films. Robbe-Grillet wrote the screenplay for L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961). Like his novels, here too the main characters have no names, but are merely A, M and X. Both films were directed by Alain Resnais. Some of the short novels by the Nouveau Roman authors were written in a bare style in the mode of screenplays.

As mentioned, the young Nancy Huston worked under the direction of Roland Barthes whose book on language theory, Le Degré Zéro de l’écriture (1953), argues that,

Style at point zero is basically an indicative style, or, if one prefers, an amodal style….The new neutral style stands in the midst of all these shouts and judgements without participating in any of them; it implies no refuge, no secret; it cannot be said therefore that it is an impassable style; it is rather an innocent style. (in Nadeau, 168)

For many readers several works from the authors of the Nouveau Roman epitomized this styleless style advocated by Barthes ‘degree zero’ theory of language. In fact, Barthes wrote the first positive reviews of the early novels of Robbe-Grillet in the 1950s.

This suspicion of stylistic language as a medium that hid political assumptions and bourgeois values influenced Huston’s M.A. thesis, a critical analysis of the use of French swear words. It was later published as Dire e interdire: éléments de jurologie (1980), and included a bilingual glossary of French swear words with English translations. Huston met many of the writes discussed here, both socially and professionally since they were friends and associates of Barthes.

Given the strong personalities and opinions of these and other French authors it is understandable why Roland Barthes would call for the death of the author in his 1967 essay “La mort de l’auteur.”  He wanted readers and critics to move away from interpreting texts with the intentions of the author front and center in their minds. The texts should stand on its own before the reader unmediated by all the celebrity data surrounding the writer and the media. 

Birth of the Author

Huston spend the 1970s writing articles on women’s issues for French journals and magazines such as Histoires d’Elles  and Sorcières and helping Barthes translate some of his writing into English. In 1980 he died suddenly at age 65 in a traffic accident.  In a revealing passage in Nord perdu  she writes:

Not by chance did I make the leap in 1980—daring to embark on fiction-writing at last just a few short months after the death of Roland Barthes. My first efforts at fiction  still tried to be savvy; they gave away their own tricks and discouraged readers from believing too naively in their plots and characters…This is probably one of the reasons for which, some ten years later, I decided to return to writing in English. I was starved for theoretical innocence. I longed to write long, free, wild, gorgeous sentences that explored all the registers of emotion….I wanted to tell stories whole-heartedly, fervently, passionately—and to believe in them without dreading the derisive comments of the theoreticians. (38-39)

To me Huston is influenced by the writers of the Nouveau Roman, but is also reacting against the bare mechanical writing that rejects style as decadent. An example of her “gorgeous sentences” is the first long one in Plainsong which takes up most of the paragraph on page one.  

Huston’s first French novel, Les variations Goldberg (1981), won the Prix Countrepoint and was on the Prix Femina short list. After publishing two other French novels and three books of French essays Huston returned to writing in English with her novel, Plainsong, but the manuscript was rejected by English publishers and so she decided to translate it into French. Cantique des plaines was published first in a French edition and then the English version was printed. Huston explains that this self-translation process helped her to improve the original English text and for this reason she began to adopt a practice of double writing in the composition of all her novels. Most often the French text is written first and then is followed by the English version one or two years later. Is this practice of self-translation a conscious artistic choice for Huston, or due to the limitations and challenges of language problems, or is it both: turning a handicap into a productive creative practice that satisfies her search for the best medium for each writing project?

In Nord perdu she explains her language problems,

I discovered that I was faced with the same stylistic dilemma in English as in French. I’d turned my back on my mother tongue for too long, and it no longer recognized me as its daughter….The problem, of course, is that languages are not just languages. They’re also worldviews—and therefore, to some extent, untranslatable…And in a way, if you have more than one worldview, you really have none. (38)

In Nord perdu and other essays Huston often refers to herself as a stranger or outsider to the French language and culture of Paris. It is ironic that after living for thirty years in the City of Light, writing in French and wining literary awards she still feels at a disadvantage. Maybe that outsider perspective gives her an edge both in her critique of French culture and society and in her use of the French language in some original ways.

Strangers in Paris

The cultural circles in Paris that she associated with had many other outsiders who were very successful artists or academics in the French language.  Huston married  Tzvetan Todorov in 1979, a Bulgarian-French historian, philosopher and literary theorist who published 20 books on these and related topics. They divorced in 2014.

Nathalie Sarraute was born Natalia Tcherniak in Russia. Sarraute is her married name.
Another avant garde writer of the Nouveau Roman circle, Philippe Sollers  is married to Julia Kristeva for over 50 years. The Bulgarian-French Kristeva, a former student of Barthes, is a psychoanalyst and language theorist who has published books influential in the feminist discourse such as Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (1980). Marguerite Duras was born and raised in Saigon, in what was then French Indo-China, now Viet Nam, moved to France, the homeland of her parents, when she was 17 to study in Paris. Two other foreigners are of note. Eugène Ionesco was a Romanian-French playwright  who published many works in the Theatre of the Absurd style such as  Rhinoceros (1959) and Exit the King (1962). And there was also the Irish-French playwright, Samuel Beckett  who was very active in the 1970s and 1980s in Paris.  Huston devoted her only bilingual book to him, Limbes/Limbo: Un homage à Samuel Beckett (2000). Huston recognizes the writing practice that she shares with Beckett, well-known for his methods of self-translation. His En attendant Godot (1952) became Waiting for Godot (1954).

Mother Tongue

The authors of the Nouveau Roman and their experiments with style made both readers and writers more conscious about their use of language. For Nancy Huston their example made her question her relationship to language; both her adopted language, French and her mother tongue, English. In Nord Perdu she makes these observations about the nature-nurture question and the French intellectuals of the mid-war generation,

Of course, the illusion of self-engendering, solitude and sovereignty is far easier to maintain if one does not have a father. Because of World War I, an entire generation of French thinkers—including Sartre, Camus, Barthes, Bataille and others—grew up fatherless and thus, to some extent, weightless, free and indeterminate, without a superego. Not being obliged to drag along the heavy baggage of the past, they could entertain the pleasant fancy of living in a perpetual present, reborn each day and destined to immortality. (53)

Does Huston see here a parallel with her own life history? When she was five her mother left the family and after her parents divorced she only saw her occasionally on holidays. In interviews and in her essays Huston makes different comments on this experience: sometimes defending her mother, sometimes not. Here I want to raise the question about Huston abandoning English after she decided to live in Paris. It was one way to totally immerse herself in the French language and culture and to become a proficient writer in French. But was it also a way to re-make herself into a different person from the one abandoned by her mother?  In the final essays in Nord Perdu she discusses the many different selves that we all become at different stages in our lives and in different places that we may live. And throughout this collection of essays she often complains about her lack of proficiency in French and the fear of losing it as she ages.

Is the trauma of being abandoned by her mother related to Huston’s use of English, the mother tongue? The mother-daughter relationship does appear prominently in her novels. In La Virevolte (1994), in English, Slow Emergencies (1996), the mother, Lin, leaves her daughters, Angela and Marina, in order to pursue her passion for classical dance. After she becomes a successful director of a dance company in Mexico she is tortured by guilt every time she sees a street child in Mexico City. Huston convincingly captures the internal conflict between Lin’s love for her daughters and her passion for her art. 

In the novella, Prodige (1999), Prodigy (2000), Huston explores a mother’s obsession with nurturing and protecting her gifted daughter, Maya. Is this a literary response to the trauma of the being abandoned? The narrative is viewed from the mother, Lara’s perspective and from alternating points of view. The style reminds us of the Nouveau Roman and of a screenplay. In 2002 it was adapted into a French stage play by Gabriel Garran and in 2006 Huston translated the play for an English production in Montreal.

When I came to the University of Alberta in 1970 for graduate studies in the Department of Comparative Literature, I continued my reading of French novels. In Canadian Literature there was the new phenomenon of Quebec novels which imitated the style of the Nouveau Roman. These experimental novels by Jacques Godbout, Hubert Aquin and Victor-Levy Beaulieu were also dealing with the conflicts over Quebec separatism developing through the 1960s and into the 1970s with the 1976 election of the Parti Québécois as the government of the Province of Quebec. In partial response to agitations in Quebec I wrote an essay on Jacques Godbout’s novel Le Couteau sur la table (1965) which was published as “Nouveau Roman Canadien” in Canadian Literature in 1973. As a graduate student I thus published my first academic article in an important literary journal. I now realize that I share with Nancy Huston the coincidence that we both began our writing careers, in part, because of our first encounters with the French Nouveau Roman.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “La mort de l’auteur.” Manteia, no. 5 (1968), in English translation, Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press, 1977. Trans. Stephen Heath.

---. S/Z. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.

---. Le degré zéro de l’écriture. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1953.

Huston, Nancy. Losing North: Musings on Land, Tongue and Self. Toronto: McArthur and Company, 2002. All references are to this edition.

---. Nord Perdu, suivi de Douze France. Actes Sud, 1999.

---. Dire et interdire: éléments de jurologie. Payot & Rivages, 1980.

---. Cantique des plaines. Actes Sud, 1993.

---. Plainsong. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993.

---. La Virevolte. Actes Sud, 1994.

---. Slow Emergencies.  New York, Little Brown, 1996.

---. Prodige. Actes Sud, 1999.

---. Prodigy : A Novella. Toronto : McArthur & Company, 2000.

Nadeau, Maurice. The French Novel Since the War. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Pivato, Joseph. “Nouveau Roman Canadien.” Canadian Literature 58 (1973) 51-60.

Robbe-Grillet, Alain. La Jalousie. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.

Sarraute, Nathalie. L’Ere du soupçon: essais sure le roman. Paris: Gallimard, 1959.

Updated November 30 2016 by Student & Academic Services

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