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Existentialism and the American Novel Author(s): Jean Bruneau Source: Yale French Studies, No.

1, Existentialism (1948), pp. 66-72 Published by: Yale University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2928860 . Accessed: 26/12/2013 09:00
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JEAN BRUNEAU

Existentialism and the American Novel


Existentialismis the first French literary movementon which the modern American novel has exercised a strongand' acknowledgedinfluence.Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir have enrolled in the school of Faulkner, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Caldwell and Steinbeck; they have gone so far as to canonize even Dashiel Hammett and James M. Cain in the Temple of Taste of the Cafe de Flore. In the wake of Sartreand de Beauvoir, Camus, Moloudji, Magnane, Desforkts, J.-L Bory . . . have in their turn borrowed attacks and devices from the New World writersthanks to whom the Existentialists have "a revolutionin French novelistictechnique".effected It is no accident that the Existentialists are responsible for what Sartre calls "the passage [of the novel] from Newtonian dynamics to generalized He and Simone de Beauvoir, thinkers relativity".2 primarily, became novelists because their philosophy was "an attempt to reconcile the objective and the subjective,the absolute and the relative, the timelessand the historical",and because "only in the novel is it possible to evoke the primordialgushing-forth of life in all its concrete,particular and temporal verity".8Such a position abolishes the distinction between philosophical treatise and literary work; certain pages of La Naust.e read like excerpts from L'Etre ct le ndant, and be certain abstractanalyses,such as that of the caress, might with all fitness of Marcelle and Mathieu. The traditionalFrench insertedinto the love-story is an unsatisfactory instrumentfor the Existentialistwriter; "the novel-form writes Sartre'. novelist's technique is always a referenceto his metaphysics", How indeed could Sartreand de Beauvoir workwithin an estheticcreated hero cannot reveal out of philosophiestheyhad leftbehind? The Existentialist

Monthly, 1 Cf. Sartre,"American Novelists in French Eyes", The Atlamtic August 1946. I, Les Temps Modernes,June 1947, 2 Sartre,"Qu'est-ce que la littmrature?" p. i6318 S. de Beauvoir, "Litt~rature et m~taphysique", Les Temps Moderner, April 1946, p. ii6a. 4 "A propos de Le Bruit et la fureur:la temporality chez Faulkner", NRF, 1 June, 1939.

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JEANBRUNEAU
himself through the devices used to present the realist or naturalist hero. Flaubert and Zola, Duhamel, Romains, Martin du Gard and Mauriac-all these describeonly hollow men, men who die in the mind of the author before they are born in the pages of the novel. In such a novel it matters littlewhetherthe hero is presentedfromwithin or without,analyzed as an entityor studied in his existenceis no longer a life,but a fate,oriented relation to his environment; as it is by the omnipotentnovelist towarda logical and ineluctable end. Things happen in a certain order; when we recount them,we reverse the order. It seems as though we were beginning at the beginning'It was one fine fall evening in 1922. I was a notarypublic's clerk at Marommes'-and actually we have begun at the end.5 The author who does this sets himselftoo easy a task; his novel is then only an account,the storyof a lived, ratherthan a living life. in the unpredictability6 But the Existentialist believes in freedom, of men's actions; human life, for him, cannot, must not be degraded into automatism. A characterin a novel must vibrate with the same anxieties and "anguish" as the "man-in-the-world", must be, in the present tense, and not have been, in the past. Since the only novels we could write were novels of situation . . . consciouswe had to people oux books with half-lucid,half-obscure nesses, present creatureswhose realities resided in the muddled and fabric of the judgmentsthat each creature made of all contradictory (including itself)and all of each . . . in short,we had to leave doubts, in our work.7 hesitations,and uncrystallized mattereverywhere The Existentialistcannot, then, accept either the sentimentalfinalismof the determinism. romantic,or the naturalist'sscientific The novel must no longer be a game (no matterhow serious) between authorsand characters. Life cannot be sliced up; it must pass whole into literature. But this has been one of the chief aims of the modern Americannovelist: to fill his books with life in its unmutilated,primitivecomplexityand even confusion. As Malraux says: "The essential characteristicof contemporary American writing is that it is the only literature whose writers are not intellectuals".8Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir found in this writingfirstof to tell all a fundamentalemphasis on action. French and English novels seenm storiesonly to analyze them and to explain their meaning. The basic unit of constitutes the unity the Americannovel is the act, which for the Existentialist . . . the world and man are into action must life. of "We plunge Things ; La Nausie (ed. NRF), p. 59. (an interviewwith Aury, Dominique, "Qu'est-ce que 1'existentialisme?" 24 Nov. 1945. Sartre) Lettresfranvaises, 7 "Qu'est-ceque la litterature" V, Les Temps Modernes,June 1947,p. i6pi. 8 Horizon, January1945.
5 6

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Yale FrenchStudies
revealedthrough enterprises".9 Analysis is not a valid meansof knowledge, as Bergsonhas alreadypointedout, nor is it a valid approachin literature. literature] presented its characters to us synthetically. It made them [American perform beforeour eyes acts whichwere complete in themselves, impossible to explain, actswhich it was necessary to graspcompletely, withall theobscure powers of our souls".'9For theExistentialists theheroes of The Sun AlsoRises, synthetic characters. Gide and Malrauxhad already felt thisyearning foraction, and thelatter had evenpartly abandonedanalysis fordescription, in La Condition humaineand L'Espbor.Instead of carefully preparing everyaction psychologically (as had Stendhal and the psychological novelists) or materially (as was thecase withBalzac and his tradition), Existentialist novelists choseto imitate the rapidmultiplication of actions whichDos Passoshad so effectively utilizedin his U.S.A. Camus'snovel L'Etranger is the best exampleof this in Frenchliterature. technique dranka glassof wineand gotup. He pushedawaythe He [Raymond] platesand thelittlebit of cold sausagethatwe had left.He carefully wiped offthe waxed table-cloth. He took a sheetof paper,ruledin out of a drawer of his night-table." squares, Camus'shero is shownto us just the wayotherhumanbeingsappear to us: by act after act which we are leftto interpret. The secondfeature of theAmerican novelwhich appealsto theExistentialist is the pure objectivity of the authortowardhis characters and of the toward of irrational characters each other.If humanlife is a string deeds,it cannotafford to understand the followsthat the writer them.Furthermore and each other."The heroesof Hemingway characters mustnot understand do not allow themselves to be dissected: Caldwellneverexplain themselves; wouldbe to kill them".12 This not onlymeans act only.To analyzethem they thatthe critic to treatthe heroin A Farewellto Armsor shouldnot attempt or PhMdre; thewholeact of in Tobacco Roa4 as he does Polyeucte the family that Sartreis convinced creation is transformed literary by such an attitude. as mysterious and a truenovelis to leave thecharacters theonlywayto write must obscure as they are. Intellectual really understanding givewayto freedom. In whatcategory forinstance? or Marcelle, Whatdo we knowaboutRoquentin thesemere can we put them? What do theyteachus? If Sartreis successful, shouldattainuniversality of humanity specimens by their veryconcreteness.
9 Sartre,"Qu'est-ce que la littdrature" V, Les Temps Modernes,June 1947, p. 1640. 10 Sartre,"American Novelistsin French Eyes", op. cit., p. 117. 11 L'Etbanger,P. 49. 12 Sartre, in French "American Novelists Eyes", op. cit.,p. 117. of Of Mice and Men, of God's Little Acre, of Light in August were just such

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JEANBRUNEAU
Thirdly,Faulkner and Dos Passos have evolved new techniquesfordealing with one of the most importantproblemswith which the novelistis faced: that of representingtime. The habitual story was purely chronological,thus unfaithfulto the real nature of time for the individual. Moreover the writer and could on one characteror a group of characters, could only centerhis story of time throughtheseverynarrowchannels.Faulkner only describe the flowing abandons chronological order in The Sound and the Fury, and Simone de Beauvoir uses his new, more sensitivemethod in her Le Sang des autres. Dos Passos attemptedto describe a whole epoch in his trilogyU.S.A. by using his the "profile technique" which enables him to vary and multiply indefinitely charactersof his novels. It was after reading a book by Dos Passos that I thought for the firsttime of weaving a novel out of various simultaneouslives, with characterswho pass each other by withoutknowing one another and who all contribute to the atmosphere of a moment or a historical period.'8 Thus the classic concept of unity of action is destroyed.In Le Sursis Sartre depicts the birth of war in the lives of various people: Frenchmen,Czechs, Mathieu, Brunet, Jacques, etc.-In one way Sartre workers,prime ministers, has not gone as far as Dos Passos: he uses neither the "Camera eye" nor the newsreel, which contribute at least as much as the stories to creating the atmosphereof the period. But he does try to express the idea of group-con. such as, for instance,the Autoventionalitythroughthe individual characters, didacte of La Nausee, the charactersof L'Enfance d'un chef or the couple Jacques and Odette: She [Odette] had learned very quickly to wear mourning veils with jaunty sadness,to gaze into people's eyes with a certain innocentwarorphan look."4 in the beginning and in the end of Le Sursis,Sartrehas compliFurthermore cated Dos Passos's patternof storiesinto a patternof sentences: Chamberlain,Hitler and Schmittwere waiting for the war in silence, it was going to come in a moment. . . Mathieu was eating, Marcelle was eating, Daniel was eating . . . theyhad little instantaneoussouls and it would full to the brimwith small gooey pleasures; in a moment, come in, fully armed, feared by Pierre, accepted by Boris, desired by Daniel, war, the great war of Men Standing Erect, the mad war of the whites.15 It would not be difficult to find other resemblancesbetween American and Existentialistnovels. An emphasis on sex, for instance, dominates both
18 i5

14 Sartre,Le Sursis (ed. NRF),

Sartre, "American Novelists in French Eyes", op. cit., p. p. 25.


Ibid., p. 59.

115.

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Yale FrenchStudies
literatures.But this emphasis is a characteristic of the whole historyof the modern novel since the naturalisticperiod, and American and French writers alike have simply followed a more general trend. More strikingseems to be the tragic element which runs through the works of Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos and throughthose of Sartre,Simone de Beauvoir and Camus. But the similarity thereis verysuperficial. In Faulkner'sworks,forinstance,tragedy is a consequence of fate: "man is a problem of impure properties carried tediouslyto an unvaryingend: the stalemate of dust and desire'6 Anguish comes fromthe realizationof helplessness, of hopelessness:man does not carry within himself the means of the solution of his life's problems. But this is obviously not true of Sartre's Existentialism,where anguish is linked with freedom."I am free, he thoughtsuddenly, and his joy immediatelychanged into an overpoweringanguish".'7 Sartre has criticizedFaulkner's "mutilation of time", the fact that "he has taken away from time its future,that is, the dimensionsof actions and freedom'8 Dos Passos goes even further, by suppressingthe present as well, thus making time "a dead and closed memory"'9 of the past, Existentialistthoughtbelieves in the existence,in different forms, the present and the future,the last not less importantbecause it is unpredictable; Sartre'sconception of time differs widely fromthat of the American novelists. But if, as Sartresays,a technique is always the revelationof a metaphysics, borrow American devices, as they have done, without how can Existentialists We have seen the incompatibility of Faulkner's some danger of contradiction? and Dos Passos's conceptions of time with Sartre's own ideas. Does not their stresson situation?The emphasis on action also clash with the Existentialist's of is of little use to action after action technique of the continual unfolding in the importanceof the presentand the future. who believe so strongly writers Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir want to describe situations: the Existentialist will not tell a story; it will choose a particularlyimportant novel, therefore, relationshipbetween a characterand the world,or society,or other characters, and develop all its possibilities.La Nausie, La Chambre,Le Mur, are worked on this pattern,as is Simone de Beauvoir's L'Invitee. The only evolution in of the hero. Progressive the book will be provided by the growingconsciousness of the Existentialist realizationof the human condition is the vital machinery conscioushero. As Sartre puts it at the end of L'Etre et le niant, "purifying between ness" is the only way out of "viscosity".The metaphysicaldifference Faulkner, The Sound and the Fuiy. Sartre,Le Sursis,p. 276. 18 Sartre"A propos de Le Bruit et la fureur.La Temporalithchez William Faulkner." NRF, 1 July 1939, p. 148. 19 Ibid.
18 17

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JEAN BRUNEAU
Orestes and the inhabitantsof Argos will be reflected in the respectivetechniques used to describethem. As for the author's objectivity,it can only be partly retained by the If the leading characters Existentialist writer. are to grow more and more aware of their existence,theymust be lucid, they must know theirown minds. The chief interestof Les Chemins de la liberte'seems to be in the characterof Mathieu, whose situation is objectivelyvery much the same at the beginning of L'Age de raison and at the end of Le Sursis. True, he has come to understand what human life really is, but he can only expresshis growingknowledge throughself-analysis. Sartre is thus condemned to describing thoughtsrather than actions, to using the techniquesof the psychologicalnovel, including the monologue20, where he follows Flaubert, Proust, and Joyce much more than American novelists. In the end, the epoch described in Les Chemvins de lea Ulebrtd is seen in two different and entirelyseparate ways: throughthe "profile technique", to be sure, but also throughthe leading characters. A recognitionof the differences between Existentialistthought and the philosophyof the Americanwriters contributes greatlyto explaining the somewhat incoherentaspect presented by some of the later novels of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. They use in the same book devices which theyhave found in several writers attached to divergentphilosophies.L'Age de raison is on the whole a traditional,realistic and psychologicalnovel, and a verygood one at that; but Le Sursis combines this approach with devices borrowed from Dos Passos. The welding of the two is attempted in the last pages of the novel, of one which alternatelyrelate the Munich conferenceand the firstlove-affair a historical event Ivich. But the opposition between of the main characters, of world importanceand a moment of an individual life seems very artificial. So does the non-chronological storyof Le Sang des autres. On the other hand, La Nausde, Le Mur, L'Etranger and L'Invitde, where only one technique (L'Etranger generally differingfrom the others mentioned here) is used froman estheticpoint of view. throughout the novel, are more effective that Existentialistwritershave solved the It does not seem, therefore, problem with which they were confrontedwhen they started to use literary expression for their philosophy. Their thought has many points in common but the differences with that of Americanwriters, appear as even greater.The Sartreand Simone de Beauvoir; nor can the traditionalnovel could not satisfy Americannovel. Camus seems to have sensed this,since his last novel, La Peste, owes nothing to Faulkner, Hemingway or Dos Passos. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are still tryingto evolve a technique of their own, which will arise
20 See the remarkable monologues of Mathieu, Daniel, Brunet in Les Cheminsde la libertd.

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Yale FrenchStudies
naturally, as it should, out of theirown philosophy.Esthetically speaking,they have been more successfulwith the other medium they use: the stage. But Les Chemins de la libertd is not yet finished: the search for new novelistic devices is not over.

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