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For a realist literature.

Georges Perec isn't typically associated with anything we might call "realism," but from 1959 to 1963, before joining the Oulipo, he belonged to a group of leftist writers who called themselves La ligne generale--after the film by Sergei Eisenstein--and with whom he collaborated on a program for a new realist literature. At a moment when disillusion with the French Communist Party (PCF) was intensifying, La ligne generale deployed a Marxian aesthetic and a revolutionary critique of contemporary literature that positioned itself against both a shifting party line and an uncritical cultural pluralism.

"For a Realist Literature" first appeared in the fourth issue of Partisans--an unorthodox leftist journal committed less to art and culture than to social struggle and geopolitical analysis--where it kept world-historical company beside Fidel Castro's "Je suis marxiste-leniniste" and Francis Jeanson's "Problemes deformation dans l'Algerie nouvelle." The essay's hard line may seem at odds with Perec's reputation as a writer of lipograms, palindromes, and puzzles--or as a practitioner of an apolitical "potential literature" often characterized, if not caricatured, by its abjuration of semantic intention and its use of procedural constraints. "For a Realist Literature" may even sound doctrinaire, with its sometimes wooden application of categories and formulas derived from the criticism of Georg Lukdcs, whose Meaning of Contemporary Realism had just been translated into French. Yet it is by way of its rhetorical strain and polemical pitch that the essay registers a real political crisis for the left, which was then struggling to grasp, represent, and transform a postcolonial France unable to comprehend its recent history: occupation by Germany, occupation of Algeria, and postwar modernization in general.

In relation to this crisis, Perec radicalized the question "what does it mean to be a writer on the left?" and sustained a response in a suite of essays that grew out of his early collaboration with La ligne generale. These essays address a range of cultural figures, movements, and works, including Robert Antelme's L'Espece humaine, Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour, and Alban Bergs Wozzek. One edge of Perec's position cut against an attitude of cultural pluralism and its indiscriminating tolerance toward incompatible aesthetic trends, a tolerance arguably mirroring that of the market itself. This was an attitude tacitly suggested by the PCF's own fickle, if not contradictory, position on art and literature during the years following Stalin's death (1953) and the suppression of the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary (1956), as French intellectual life turned toward softer Marxisms and new language-centered forms of critique.

In "For a Realist Literature" Perec ruthlessly scrutinizes two irreconcilable literary forms, both of which aligned themselves, however differently, with leftist critical practices: Robbe-Grillet's nouveau roman, and Jean-Paul Sartre's "engaged" novel. Robbe-Grillet's "revolution" of high French literary production aimed to purge meaningful human relations from the representation of the world of things. As the fully realized form of a new literary tendency, the nouveau roman was curiously mimetic insofar as its appearance imitated the petrified world of the commodity and its depthless elision of social life. By contrast, Sartre's "engaged novel," to which Perec was more partial, presumed literature's responsibility to represent the social world and the individual's position in it. Sartre ascribed a certain agency to literature: to write was to act, and to act was to choose freedom, not only for oneself but for the world. Consequently, to privilege literature as a form of communicative action required Sartre to minimize the attention literature draws to itself as art. So while Robbe-Grillet sought to minimize the human, Sartre felt obliged to minimize the aesthetic.

These were exemplary figures and objects for Perec's critique insofar as they represented the most advanced programs within the literary field at the time. From opposed positions, both Robbe-Grillet and Sartre created self-styled "revolutionary" forms and highly articulated theories to support them. For Perec, however, these theories amounted to bad social alibis, tendencies embedded in an incoherent present, which only further mystified that incoherence by suspending literature's promise of social clarity between false alternatives.

While opposition to the "engaged" novel and to the nouveau roman was not uncommon, Perec's stance was original insofar as it shared neither the reactionary desire to preserve traditional forms nor the avant-garde's determination to defy them. "For a Realist Literature" remains equally notable for its militant stance regarding literature's real potential not to reflect the world as it is but "to make the radical transformation of our world appear obvious and necessary." More than just a fugitive text from an inert literary past, the essay continues to insist on the value of an ongoing realist project. Despite its occasional recourse to outdated socialist bromides, "For a Realist Literature" may even be timely now, if not useful, as it defamiliarizes and reactivates an all-too-familiar question: what does it mean to be a writer on the left? What might it mean today to respond to that question by drawing "the general line" under the unlikely sign of "realism"?

The history of French literature since the Liberation, if we agree to consider it in the most general sense--while still refusing the "panoramic" view, which legitimizes everything in the name of a supposed objectivity by cutting up literary production into so many rubrics existing independently as such, without hierarchy, without perspective, without any guide other than a total pluralism (1)--appears to us as the history of two great failures: on the one hand, the failure of "engaged" literature, and on the other, that of the nouveau roman. These two tendencies have shared the past twenty years almost equally: the "engaged" novel, born with the Liberation, affected the quasi-totality of production for several years, then became less and less representative until becoming in 1953 a minority tendency surviving with more difficulty; the nouveau roman, which until then only existed by way of isolated and almost exceptional products (which moreover didn't sell), appeared in full form around this same date: opposing itself to "engaged" literature, the nouveau roman claims to be revolutionary; it imagines itself to be demystifying, unalienating. But it doesn't take long for its fundamentally reactionary aspect to appear, and if it still prevails today, it has become increasingly difficult to believe that it represents a possible future for literature.

We don't really know what revolutionary literature is. We don't know if it's even possible today to reconcile these two words: literature, revolution. We don't know if it wouldn't be preferable to begin by speaking rather of "pre-revolutionary" literature, or of "progressive" literature. All we know is that such a literature doesn't exist right now in France: it isn't the "engaged" novel, it isn't the nouveau roman, and it's still less the traditional literature of popular consumption. But such a thing once existed, and it is necessary again today. We feel the need for this: a place is empty where a new literature is to be born.

The aim of this article, however, is to go a bit further than this first proposition. We don't mean to decree the laws for a future novel (besides, we'd be incapable of this), but we do want to show that such a novel is possible, and to define precisely, while untangling the confused notions that actually govern the literary aesthetic (and the aesthetic in general), what its function might be, as well as the platform of demands and requirements from which it might begin to develop.

The relations between literature and revolution have never been simple. The fault of "engaged" literature is to have believed that they were. Its failure can't be imputed to the authors' talent, nor even to their vision of the world, but to the conception they formed of literature: their work bears witness to an obvious and vain desire to gain immediate support, to sweep away prejudices, to generate convictions: literature was a continuation of politics; one wanted to convince and only to convince. Politics didn't have anything great to gain from this, and literature had everything to lose. One forgot that the novel is a specific genre, and that it has to express something other than what tracts and pamphlets can express. "Engaged" literature ends, in fact, as Pierre Daix puts it, in paternalism, or as Aragon says, in a "photographic arrangement that releases a populist art from naturalism, for example, which one believes is adequate to place beside an apparently communist morality; or in the framework where the 'good worker' will have his party card, or will get it in the final chapter" ("One Must Call Things by Their Name," in J'abats mon jeu).

Literature, by definition, is the creation of an artwork. It is nothing more. But this doesn't mean that it's a gratuitous activity, or that it's the formal and abstract search for Beauty for Beauty's sake (which implies an eternal Beauty and assigns to art the impossible role of expressing a transcendental value, or even an inherent human "nature," at once metaphysical and immutable). What we call an artwork isn't just the rootless creation that the aestheticist work is; on the contrary, it is the most total expression of concrete realities: if literature is a work of art, it is because it organizes and unmasks the world, because it makes the world appear in its coherence beyond its everyday anarchy, while integrating and surpassing the contingencies that render it in the form of the immediate system, with its necessity and its movement.

This unmasking and ordering of the world is what we call realism. It may not be the orthodox and literal definition, but as far as our understanding goes, it's the most convincing expression of it, the only one in our view that can clarify the situation a bit so that we might advance through this philosophico-literary mess by way of which the whole ensemble of literary production justifies itself, for better or worse: realism is the description of reality, but to describe reality is to plunge into it and to give it form in order to bring to light the essence of the world: its movement and its history.

It is from this perspective alone that the relation between literature and revolution, without ceasing to be complex, at least begins to appear obvious: literature is no longer a tactical instrument--immediate, ephemeral, and finally inadequate--but it forms with the revolution an alliance at once organic and profound: to express the world in the totality of its becoming; to make the laws that govern its development perceptible with respect to each event and phenomenon, no matter what their level of reality; and to set down as its foundational premise that the world is not as it is, that things are not what they are, that there is nothing eternal, nothing inexplicable, nothing inaccessible that we can't one day master. A means of knowledge, a means of grasping the world: literature thus becomes one of the most adequate tools, which in the long run enables us to struggle against the myths that our society secretes, while also enabling us to pose the problems, to elucidate the contradictions, and to make the radical transformation of our world appear obvious and necessary. All realist literature is revolutionary, all revolutionary literature is realist. It is not about a school, a technique or a tradition: the function of literature is to be realist; when it's realist, it's literature; only when it separates itself from this function do flaws, deficiencies, and failures arise.

First of all, realism is the will to master the real, to understand and explain it. As such, it opposes all those for whom writing is an activity without any obligatory relation to the world: for example, those for whom to write is to dialogue with oneself, those attached to a poetic reality, lovers of beautiful language, or proponents of self-analysis. Yet at the same time, we'd be wrong to think that realism fulfills itself only by way of the epic evocation of collective events, be they historical, political, or social. Being before anything else an individual activity (collective creation is, at least in our circles, a utopia only worthy of the surrealists) literature is first of all the realization of a personal experience, and to write is to write in order to know oneself, or to understand oneself. (2) But because the particular only appears as a function of the general, and because the general can only be grasped as a function of the particular, this self-conscious effort that remains the point of departure for all creation (literary or not) can only be a point of departure, and remains useless if it doesn't integrate itself into a larger project involving reality in its entirety. The first requirement of realism, the first distinction that allows it to oppose the rest of literature, is thus the will to totality.

An example will help us to clarify our position: L'invitation chez les Stirl by Paul Gadenne, Les Vainqueurs du jaloux by Jean Lagrolet, and The Conscience of Zeno by Italo Svevo are three books very close to our purpose: what is most essential in these novels is what does not get said; everything is a mask or a lie; the words conceal something: these are books one has to read between the lines (we can comment that this tendency has been consecrated by Jean Paulhan and Maurice Blanchot and that it constitutes one of the essential features of the nouveau roman). But whereas the work of Paul Gadenne and Jean Lagrolet remains at the most arbitrary and the most contingent level of meaning (resolving itself finally in a flat psychologism), Italo Svevo achieves, however imperfectly, more general meanings without limiting himself to the psychic comportment of his character, while referring always to an ensemble of economic, social, and ideological determinants (the society of Trieste on the eve of the 1914 war). This is what gives his character his significance, thereby integrating the individual adventure (or misadventure) of the hero in a social history where that adventure ceases to be arbitrary and becomes meaningful: the relationships of Olivier Lerins and of Stirl (in Paul Gadenne's book) only refer to themselves (or to the irremediable solitude of man, which is hardly any better), but the relationships Zeno has with himself, with his father, with his wife, and with the business world, refer to a total image of society.

But The Conscience of Zeno is still not a realist book: if the failures of Zeno exist in constant relation to the collapse of social and economic structures under the Austrian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, this collapse is conceived without limits: the social contradictions that resound around Zeno even appear to be natural to society, rather than historical and transformable features: Zeno has no future, and no possibility: the novel resolves itself by way of a cosmic cataclysm coinciding with the first days of the war, which alone appears capable of unknotting all the contradictions: the world is stuck, and hopeless; Zeno, who failed his life, abandons himself to anxiety and complacency.

It thus appears that this way of relating the particular and the general (humanity and the society that surrounds it, the individual's contradictions and the contradictions of social life), if this constitutes a necessary and irreplaceable process, is insufficient for bringing forth a realist work: but the vision of the world that emerges here is truncated; it remains at the level of an eternal present; it restores the world as it appears without organizing it truthfully. What is lacking is the temporal dimension: the historical perspective, which alone enables the realization of a vision whereby the world might finally appear coherent and verifiable because it ceaselessly confronts the present with the past and with the future. Zeno limits himself to a fragmented reality: he thinks he can understand the world and describe it as it is. But this is impossible: for to describe the world as it is one must describe the world as it moves.

This difference is at the center of the problem. Misinterpretations arise from it, like those which for a long time made people believe that the nouveau roman was realist. After the article "The Trial of Robbe-Grillet" appeared, one reader wrote in Clarte (expressing rather simply one of the most frequent judgments of Robbe-Grillet): "How can you not see that this world is precisely the reflection of our own, such as bourgeois society has fashioned it? Consequently, the work of Robbe-Grillet, far from being an escape from the real, proposes an uncompromising vision of the world such as it has become." But this reader confuses the absence of compromise and the presence of organization: Robbe-Grillet in no way masters a vision of the world "such as it has become"; rather, he restores it to its most elementary and immediate level, without distancing himself from it at all, without any will to overcome it. He confuses a description of the "dehumanized" world (the expression is Lucien Goldman's) with a dehumanized description of the world, almost as if he were confusing a description of boredom with a boring description. At no moment does he seek to understand and to surmount it. It is difficult to deepen our examination of the world because such an examination demands that we challenge everything: but it is easier to decree that all depth is a myth, and that the world signifies nothing, that "it is quite simply" (this is not our emphasis here: the expression, Robbe-Grillet's most famous, is from "A Future for the Novel," which appeared in July 1956 in Nouvelle NRF). But it's this is that signifies nothing: deprived of everything that makes it what it is, the world is indecipherable; deprived of perspective, reality is chaotic, the role of humanity annihilated: absurdity and anxiety triumph.

It seems to us that this historical perspective, in a very general manner, can define itself at any historically given moment as a form of class consciousness: a lucid apprehension of the historical situation linked with a projection toward what is possible for a particular class.

As it happens, it is correct to say that the socialist perspective isn't fundamentally necessary for the elaboration of a realist work. Thus Lukacs (in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism) demonstrates that Garcia Lorca arrives at realism in Bernarda Alba's House even while aligning the work with a perspective "whose level remains that of accession to the bourgeois system" due to the sole fact that the contemporary Spanish society described by this novel remains at the feudal stage in so many sectors. Similarly, Lukacs shows how for most realist writers of the first half of the twentieth century, the necessary foundation for any vision of the world capable of generating a realist work is "the non-refusal of socialism," which doesn't necessarily imply its acceptance: rather, a realist work requires something we might call an "open consciousness," refusing myth and bias while having above all else the will to make manifest in fiction the possibility and the necessity of society's transformation, which alone is capable of unknotting the contradictions inherent in the bourgeoisie.

Nevertheless, it is becoming more and more difficult to create a realist work without explicitly accepting socialism--no longer remaining content simply not to refuse it--and it may even be impossible in a society such as ours where the bourgeoisie can't evolve any further, and where socialism represents the only possible hope. For socialism is no longer just a possible image of the world, it is a concrete reality by whose light all the contradictions that we experience find a clear and irrefutable solution.

This socialist perspective, insofar as it assumes responsibility for the will to totality, enables authentic expression of the historical and social reality, but it's not sufficient in itself to assure the realist dimension of a work; it is a requirement; it is not a guarantee: political engagement and party affiliation don't serve as criteria, and even if a writer becomes, thanks to these things, conscious of the contradictions that inform social life, it would be silly to believe that this knowledge, entirely theoretical in itself, could be of any help in the creation of a work: realism is, in fact, a problem of creation before it is anything else: "No theory, no knowledge can ever have any other function than to help the writer to discover a more profound way of reflecting the real, even at the level of art; it's a matter of an indirect relation, a dialectical order, whereby the decisive element is always, finally, the proper value of artistic representation" (Lukacs, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism). This value is so important that it alone can actualize the author's vision of the world, which, however coherent it may be, remains virtual so long as it isn't entirely incorporated into a specifically literary vision.

This last requirement, which subordinates every totalizing expression of the world to the aesthetic value of the creation, ought not to be conceived too mechanistically; more specifically, we don't think it's necessary to have recourse to "genius" in order to respond adequately to this requirement, nor is it necessary to consider it by means of a distinction between form and content, a distinction that ought to be contested as a matter of principle. We believe rather that the socialist perspective is not only a level of consciousness necessary for the complete conception of a work, but that technically, at the level of creation, it is one of the surest guarantees that one's apprehension of reality will be correct: because it allows us to see the hierarchical organization of phenomena and their reciprocal implications, it allows us to select the most typical feature from the immediate morass of perceptible reality. The main problem governing the creation of a work would thus involve placing feeling and lucidity in a reciprocal relation: the author is not someone to whom everything is given in advance (if that were so, why write?) but someone who, searching above all to understand oneself and to understand the world, endeavors, in a double movement that is also contradictory, to translate a perception of the real into a vision of the world by constantly surpassing feeling by way of lucidity, choosing and organizing the perceptible material that is given (for example, what one sees), while at the same time translating the theoretical consciousness, or the experience, one has of social reality into perceptible images (for example: what one wants to see). This double movement seems to characterize the work of creation, this back and forth between enthusiasm and labor, between inspiration and research, just as it seems to realize the unfolding of the work in its entirety, its progressive development, which from image to image accompanies the reader who can now participate in the creation, pose questions, and integrate into a vaster field the fundamental signs of a reality finally mastered.

Realism is simply what literature is when it succeeds in showing us how the world works, and when it makes the necessity and the inevitability of our society's transformation tangible. What we expect from such a literature is clear: it is the understanding of our time, the elucidation of our contradictions, and the surpassing of our limits.

The society in which we live refuses realism: bourgeois ideology hasn't had anything to offer us for some thirty years, and the values it has created, which for two centuries allowed it to conquer the world, have been exhausted one by one, and they no longer function as anything but alibis, which are themselves becoming ever more imperfect and fragile. Western humanism collapsed in 1914, and this collapse became the preponderant image of a literature that before long was only able to open onto cataclysm or silence (in order to convince oneself of this, it's enough to consider what initially related the works of Kafka, Joyce, Svevo, Musil, Woolf, Thomas Mann, Martin du Gard, Fitzgerald, etc.). Then, very quickly, under the image of cataclysm, there appeared a certain complacency in anxiety, and little by little this became the sole determinant of bourgeois literary production, which superimposed itself on that image. Today, with the nouveau roman, France is at the avant-garde of this tendency: critics and authors, editors and readers have elevated despair as a primary criterion, together with absurdity and silence: humanity devoured, humanity demolished, humanity baffled, humanity blinded, these are the most evocative reflections of a bourgeoisie incapable of superseding its ultimate contradictions.

Given this, it isn't surprising that the idea of realism has been forgotten, and above all falsified: even when one insisted on it, since it was in a certain sense necessary to objectify the irrational vision of the world one wanted to impose, it was a matter either of naturalism (a leveled world where everything inscribes itself upon an eternal and immutable order), or subjectivism (in Natalie Sarraute, for example, where realism describes what one believes reality to be). But these notions obscured themselves in poorly posed and insoluble problems, and the words no longer meant anything.

But realism has always been possible, and it remains so. There is no period, no condition, no crisis about which we can't become conscious; there is no anarchy we can't organize; no situation we can't master; no phenomenon that language, feeling, and rationality can't conquer. Out of the collapse of Germany came Doctor Faustus; and it was on his return from the concentration camps that Robert Antelme wrote L'Espece humaine, one of the finest books ever written, confirming humanity's brilliance.

A new realism is possible today because the horizon of socialism is approaching, and because this perspective allows us more and more to understand the world while making it our own. We want this realism to describe our reality without compromising any of its richness, or its complexity, while maintaining its distance in relation to that reality, and avoiding the traps it sets for us.

Realism is not a magic word, it is an eventuality; every situation leads us to it when described in its entirety; it suffices to refuse the myths and the simple explanations, the arbitrary and the inexplicable.

We live in a world that only appears to be incomprehensible: bourgeois ideology confuses every path and confounds the maps. We read newspapers that lie, we see films that tell us nothing, and we read books that conceal what's most essential. We suffer from what's fashionable, and above all from despair, which feels good: one finds it everywhere, in shop windows, in objects and in paintings, under every sound and behind every word. But all this is only appearance: we don't have to reflect the image of a society that wants to drag humankind along with it as it heads toward its ruin; we have to outline the leap forward, which is already beginning to reveal itself from beneath the ruin, indeed it is quickening it. Beneath the agonizing bourgeoisie, a new world is emerging, a new force. It is hidden from us; we can't readily see it. We must look for it beneath gestures, beneath words and beneath facts. It exists, it is in the distance. But to describe the struggling world in this light is to help it to triumph more quickly.

The absence of realist works in our contemporary literature indicates as much as anything that all this isn't simple. But because neither the world nor humanity pursues a blind road, realism is possible. Because this road is complex, realism is necessary.

Translated & Introduced by Rob Halpern

This essay first appeared in French as "Pour une litterature realiste" in Partisans 4 (April-May 1962). The translation follows the text in L.G. Une aventure des annees soixante (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1992). Perec's sentences in this essay are often idiosyncratically constructed and at times they read like a string of independent clauses loosely linked by semi-colons and colons. In my translation, I've tried to remain faithful to such stylistic choices. All footnotes are Perec's. Thank you to Ela Bienenfeld and Editions du Seuil for their permission to publish this essay.

1 / One discovers in the books devoted to contemporary literature a literary reality cut up for sale into pieces of identical value: "the humanist tradition," "the historical epic," "the existential novel," "the exotic colonial novel," "the woman's novel," etc.

2 / In other words, there isn't any problem with the subject in particular.
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Author:Perec, Georges
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Reprint
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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