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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
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JEAN BRUNEAU

Existentialism
and
the AmericanNovel
Existentialismis the firstFrench literarymovementon 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 Existentialistshave
effected"a revolutionin French novelistictechnique".It is no accident that the Existentialistsare responsible for what Sartre
calls "the passage [of the novel] from Newtonian dynamics to generalized
relativity".2He and Simone de Beauvoir, thinkersprimarily,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
certain abstractanalyses,such as that of the caress, might with all fitnessbe
insertedinto the love-storyof Marcelle and Mathieu. The traditionalFrench
novel-formis an unsatisfactoryinstrumentfor the Existentialistwriter; "the
novelist's technique is always a referenceto his metaphysics",writes Sartre'.
How indeed could Sartreand de Beauvoir workwithin an estheticcreated
out of philosophiestheyhad leftbehind? The Existentialisthero cannot reveal

1 Cf. Sartre,"American Novelists in French Eyes", The AtlamticMonthly,


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 matterslittlewhetherthe
hero is presentedfromwithin or without,analyzed as an entityor studied in
relation to his environment;his existenceis no longer a life,but a fate,oriented
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.
But the Existentialistbelieves in freedom,in the unpredictability6
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 . . .
we had to people oux books with half-lucid,half-obscureconsciousnesses, present creatureswhose realities resided in the muddled and
contradictoryfabric of the judgmentsthat each creature made of all
(including itself)and all of each . . . in short,we had to leave doubts,
hesitations,and uncrystallizedmattereverywherein our work.7
The Existentialistcannot, then, accept either the sentimentalfinalismof the
romantic,or the naturalist'sscientificdeterminism.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
all a fundamentalemphasis on action. French and English novels seenmto tell
storiesonly to analyze them and to explain their meaning. The basic unit of
the Americannovel is the act, which for the Existentialistconstitutesthe unity
of life. "We must plunge Things into action . . . ; the world and man are
La Nausie (ed. NRF), p. 59.
(an interviewwith
Aury, Dominique, "Qu'est-ce que 1'existentialisme?"
Sartre) Lettresfranvaises,24 Nov. 1945.
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
revealedthroughenterprises".9
Analysisis not a valid meansof knowledge,
as
Bergsonhas alreadypointedout, nor is it a valid approachin literature.
presented
its characters
to us synthetically.
It made them
[Americanliterature]
performbeforeour eyes acts whichwere completein themselves,
impossible
to explain,actswhichit was necessary
to graspcompletely,
withall theobscure
powersof our souls".'9For theExistentialists
theheroesof The Sun AlsoRises,
of Of Mice and Men, of God's Little Acre, of Light in August were just such

synthetic
characters.
Gide and Malrauxhad alreadyfeltthisyearning
foraction,
and thelatterhad evenpartlyabandonedanalysisfordescription,
in La Condition humaineand L'Espbor.Instead of carefullypreparingeveryaction
psychologically
(as had Stendhaland the psychological
novelists)or materially
(as was thecase withBalzac and his tradition),Existentialist
novelists
choseto
imitatethe rapidmultiplication
of actionswhichDos Passoshad so effectively
utilizedin his U.S.A. Camus'snovel L'Etrangeris the best exampleof this
techniquein Frenchliterature.
He [Raymond]dranka glassof wineand gotup. He pushedawaythe
platesand thelittlebit of cold sausagethatwe had left.He carefully
wiped offthe waxed table-cloth.
He took a sheetof paper,ruledin
squares,out of a drawerof his night-table."
Camus'shero is shownto us just the wayotherhumanbeingsappear to us:
by act afteract whichwe are leftto interpret.
The secondfeatureof theAmerican
novelwhichappealsto theExistentialist is the pure objectivity
of the authortowardhis charactersand of the
towardeach other.If humanlife is a stringof irrationaldeeds,it
characters
the
followsthat the writercannotaffordto understandthem.Furthermore
characters
mustnot understandeach other."The heroesof Hemingwayand
do not allow themselves
to be dissected:
Caldwellneverexplain themselves;
theyact only.To analyzethemwouldbe to kill them".12This not onlymeans
thatthe criticshouldnot attemptto treatthe heroin A Farewellto Armsor
thewholeact of
the familyin Tobacco Roa4 as he does Polyeucteor PhMdre;
literarycreationis transformed
by such an attitude.Sartreis convincedthat
as mysterious
and
theonlywayto writea truenovelis to leave thecharacters
mustgivewayto freedom.
obscureas theyreallyare. Intellectual
understanding
In whatcategory
Whatdo we knowaboutRoquentinor Marcelle,forinstance?
thesemere
can we put them?What do theyteachus? If Sartreis successful,
shouldattainuniversality
specimensof humanity
by theirveryconcreteness.
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,
"AmericanNovelistsin FrenchEyes",op. cit.,p. 117.

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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
could only centerhis storyon one characteror a group of characters,and could
only describe the flowingof time throughtheseverynarrowchannels.Faulkner
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
"profile technique" which enables him to vary and multiply indefinitelythe
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,
workers,prime ministers,Mathieu, Brunet, Jacques, etc.-In one way Sartre
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.
ventionalitythroughthe individual characters,such as, for instance,the Autodidacte 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
Furthermorein the beginning and in the end of Le Sursis,Sartrehas complicated 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
full to the brimwith small gooey pleasures; in a moment,and it would
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 difficultto find other resemblancesbetween American
and Existentialistnovels. An emphasis on sex, for instance, dominates both
18

Sartre,"AmericanNovelistsin FrenchEyes",op. cit., p.


p. 25.

14 Sartre,Le Sursis (ed. NRF),


i5

115.

Ibid., p. 59.

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Yale FrenchStudies
literatures.But this emphasis is a characteristicof 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 similaritythereis 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
Existentialistthoughtbelieves in the existence,in differentforms,of the past,
the present and the future,the last not less importantbecause it is unpredictable; Sartre'sconception of time differswidely fromthat of the American
novelists.
But if, as Sartresays,a technique is always the revelationof a metaphysics,
how can Existentialistsborrow American devices, as they have done, without
some danger of contradiction?We have seen the incompatibilityof Faulkner's
and Dos Passos's conceptions of time with Sartre's own ideas. Does not their
emphasis on action also clash with the Existentialist'sstresson situation?The
technique of the continual unfolding of action after action is of little use to
writerswho believe so stronglyin the importanceof the presentand the future.
Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir want to describe situations: the Existentialist
novel, therefore,will not tell a story; it will choose a particularlyimportant
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
the book will be provided by the growingconsciousnessof the hero. Progressive
realizationof the human condition is the vital machineryof the Existentialist
hero. As Sartre puts it at the end of L'Etre et le niant, "purifyingconsciousness" is the only way out of "viscosity".The metaphysicaldifferencebetween
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 reflectedin the respectivetechniques used to describethem.
As for the author's objectivity,it can only be partly retained by the
Existentialistwriter.If the leading charactersare 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 Chemvinsde lea
Ulebrtdis seen in two differentand entirelyseparate ways: throughthe "profile
technique", to be sure, but also throughthe leading characters.
A recognitionof the differencesbetween Existentialistthought and the
philosophyof the Americanwriterscontributesgreatlyto 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 writersattached 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
of the main characters,Ivich. But the opposition between
of world importanceand a moment of an individual life seems very artificial.
So does the non-chronologicalstoryof 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
throughoutthe novel, are more effectivefroman estheticpoint of view.
It does not seem, therefore,that Existentialistwritershave solved the
problem with which they were confrontedwhen they started to use literary
expression for their philosophy. Their thought has many points in common
with that of Americanwriters,but the differences
appear as even greater.The
traditionalnovel could not satisfySartreand Simone de Beauvoir; nor can the
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.Estheticallyspeaking,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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