It seems hardly reasonable at first glance to suppose that an entirely new literature might one day—now, for instance—be possible. The many attempts made these last thirty years to drag literature out of its ruts have resulted at best, in no more than isolated works. And—we are often told—none of these works, whatever its interest, has gained the adherence of a public comparable to that of the bourgeois novel. The only conception of the novel to have currency today is, in fact, that of Dickens.
Or that of Charlotte Brontë. Already sacrosanct in her day, psychological analysis constituted the basis of all prose: it governed the conception of the book, the description of the characters, the development of its plot. A “good” novel, ever since, has remained the study of a passion—or of a conflict of passions, or of an absence of passion—in a given milieu. Most of our contemporary novelists of the traditional sort—those, that is, who manage to gain the approval of their readers—could insert long passages from Jane Eyre or Great Expectations into their own books without awakening the suspicions of the enormous public which devours whatever they turn out. They would merely need to change a phrase here and there, simplify certain constructions, afford an occasional glimpse of their own “manner” by means of a word, a daring image, the rhythm of a sentence …. But all acknowledge, without seeing anything peculiar about it, that their own preoccupations as writers date back several centuries.
What is so surprising about this, after all? The raw material—the English language—has undergone only very slight modifications for three hundred years; and if society has been gradually transformed, if industrial techniques have made considerable progress, our intellectual civilization has remained much the same. We live by essentially the same habits and the same prohibitions—moral, alimentary, religious, sexual, hygienic, etc. And of course there is always the human “heart,” which as everyone knows is eternal. There’s nothing new under the sun, it’s all been said before, we’ve come on the scene too late, etc., etc.
The risk of such rebuffs is merely increased if one dares claim that this new literature is not only possible in the future, but is already being written, and that it will represent—in its fulfillment—a revolution more complete than those which in the past produced such movements as romanticism or naturalism.
There is, of course, something ridiculous about such a promise as “Now things are going to be different!” How will they be different? In what direction will they change? And, especially, why are they going to change now?
The art of literature, however, has fallen into such a state of stagnation—a lassitude acknowledged and discussed by the whole of critical opinion—that it is hard to imagine such an art can survive for long without some radical change. To many, the solution seems simple enough: such a change being impossible, the art of the literature is dying. This is far from certain. History will reveal, in a few decades, whether the various fits and starts which have been recorded are signs of a death agony or of a rebirth.