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Dark Matter: Modernism and the Anti-Novel

By David Rose.

Tom McCarthy‘s Booker shortlisting in 2010 gave a new boost to the ongoing ‘anti-novel’ debate, and a good thing too. Unfortunately, his proffered antecedents — Post-structuralist thought in general and Derrida in particular — will strengthen the assumption that the anti-novel idea is both recent and French.

Now it is true that the term was coined by Sartre, and that it is most often applied to the Nouveau Roman group — Robbe-Grillet, Simon, Sarraute et al. But if we take the standard definition — ‘Any experimental work of fiction that avoids the familiar conventions of the novel’ — it can be as well applied to Tristram Shandy as to Nausea or In The Labyrinth. The anti-novel was in fact born with the novel, like Siamese twins, and has shadowed the novel through its history; matter and anti-matter.

But the anti-novel is not only coeval with the novel, but with Modernism too. Gabriel Josipovici, in his bracing book What Ever Happened To Modernism? (just reissued in paperback) pushes the birth of Modernism back from the late Nineteenth century to the Sixteenth, to what, he reminds us, Weber described as ‘the disenchantment of the world,’ the loss of all authority except Reason in the Humanist revolution. Thus the first Modernist novelists, in Josipovici’s view, were Rabelais and Cervantes. But these were also anti-novelists in their use of distortion and evasion, their parodying of the whole problematic nature of authority and authorship. So on this argument, the terms Modernism and anti-novel become virtually interchangeable, with Modernism too becoming, not a development or period, but a permanent trend, a strand.

To understand both, we have to examine, as in all criminal activity, the matter of motive. For the motive in avoiding or distorting familiar conventions is that of epistemology. That is central to the Modernist endeavour. What can we know of the world? How do we experience it? And how can that knowledge, that felt experience, be rendered in the novel? For in a disenchanted world, all authority, including and especially the authority of the author, is problematic. So the Modernists’ concern is not ‘subversion’ or mystification (Robbe-Grillet firmly believed he was writing for the man in the street) but clarification, an honest appraisal of that problematic nature.

That Modernist concern, then, has been carried on throughout the Realist period, shadowing it. War and Peace is the classic anti-novel. Tolstoy himself described it as an experimental novel, an entirely new approach, one he wasn’t even sure could be described as a novel (an experiment I have always found a failure; for I defy anyone to say, hand on heart, that they haven’t skipped whole chunks of the historical disquisitions, even though they were central to Tolstoy’s aims).

Where does all this leave us today? With, as Josipovici reminds us, the assertion of Barthes’ that ‘to be modern is to know that which is not possible anymore.’ But what is not possible is still being done, and rightly so.

I want to make my position clear here. My (self-)education consisted in reading steadily through the Penguin Modern Classics list. I have always been firmly convinced of Modernism’s importance. The trouble is that people like Barthes and Josipovici, and fellow-travellers like McCarthy, tend to assume that Modernism somehow discredits, renders obsolete, everything prior to or outside its canon. (And Josipovici’s dismissal of Némirovsky is just petty and plain silly.) But to all intents and purposes, we live our daily lives in a Newtonian universe. (Schönberg: There is still plenty of good music to be written in the key of C Major; though not, sadly, by him.) Novels continue to be written, and the anti-novel needs them to exist.

There are, however, glaring omissions in Josipovici’s examination of Modernism, and they strike me as symptomatic: he makes no mention of Joyce or Lawrence. Now a Modernism that ignores both is partial. For Modernism was itself always double-stranded, both Pessimistic and Optimistic. Josipovici espouses only the former, the negative approach to the problematic, ‘the burden of expression with nothing to express’ strand. Joyce and Lawrence both believed in an optimistic view of the novel (‘the bright book of Life’), in the possibility of the novel as a means of exploring, illuminating and enhancing life, as at least worth the effort of commitment.

More recently, the OULIPO group, and Perec in particular, have taken the view that radical constraints are worth the experiment for the sudden illuminations they may throw up. (Life A User’s Manual – what more optimistic a title could there be?)

Life and life go on, however problematic. Novels will continue to be written and read. And every so often, the anti-novel, the Siamese twin, will kick or nudge us into reappraisal, refresh us with its astringency; liberate us with its doubts and tentative solutions.

To paraphrase Kafka: there may be salvation, even for us.


David Rose was Fiction Editor of Main Street Journal. His first novel, Vault, was published last April by Salt; it was the subject of a 3:AM Magazine interview with Gavin James Bower and a later review by Paul Kavanagh.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 6th, 2012.