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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le roman, quand le verbe se fait chair

by Patrick Apel-Muller

The Novel Or the Word Made Flesh

Translated Wednesday 20 June 2007, by Isabelle Métral

The first international conference on the novel was held in Lyon (France) from May 30 to June 3, on the initiative of one of the town’s leading cultural institutions and Le Monde des livres, the daily’s weekly literary supplement. Dozens of writers have debated on "the Power of Words" and the nature of a writer’s commitment to his or her work.

Is commitment the worst of evils for novelists? The theme chosen for the first international conference on the novel, “The Power of Words”, goes straight to the heart of the matter, namely literature. To Guy Walter, in charge both of the Maison Gillet and Subsistances, Lyon’s contemporary culture and arts centres, himself a novelist, the question is central to “what takes place in the territories of art and thought.” Some years ago, noted Raphaëlle Rérolle, literay critic for Le Monde des livres, as a preliminary remark, the question was deemed shockingly dated. Yet it carries in its train an impressive line of historic figures, from Voltaire to Hugo, from Zola to Sartre. It lies at the heart of the act of writing itself, Lydie Salvayre, author of La Méthode Mila, claimed, the question, she ventured, being :”What part of myself am I ready to pawn when I write?” The answer, she said, is: “All of myself, and more. (…) All true writers aim at producing some meaning, none can be content with simply talking for the sake of talking.” In her experience, success depends on her capacity to reconcile her “voluptuous abandonment to the flesh of the sentence and her commitmen the meaning that the sentence espresses. It feels like walking on a tight rope. But sometimes it can be done.”

Before an audience of several hundred who had gathered under the high glass-roof of the historical building on the bank of the river Saône(1), Russel Banks took his turn, and drew a clear line between his commitment as an American leftwing citizen (and we all know the pluck that takes) on the one hand, and the act of writing itself. “The novelist is certainly no politician, nor is he a political activist who works towards bringing about changes, and writes in support of a particular measure, or policy, or candidate. A novelist, when he writes, is simply an individual who sits alone in a room, alone with his sentences, of which he composes thousands, one sentence coming after another and telling him what sentence to write next.” Erri de Luca further illustrated the distinction by means of an analogy, drawing a parallel between the president’s morning jogs and the demands made upon him by political representation. “Granted that literature always originates in personal experience and that a text can become a pretext for political side-effects,” he is careful when he writes to keep aloof from any direct political commitment. Russel Banks gives the word commitment another meaning. “The novelist’s real task consists in conveying in dramatic form, for his own benefit and ultimately for the public’s, what it means to be a human being in our time and in all times, in the place where we live as in all places.”

Precisely, one thread runs through Tarik Ali’s novels, whether American Darling (set in Liberia) or A Sultan in Palermo (set in the Middle-Ages) and the thread is the history of man. A Pakistani who settled in London, Tarik Ali takes to task those postmodernist writers who ‘shamelessly peddle their works on the market and thus promote a disgraceful consumerist cult of literature. And why should they have scruples about doing this when Lyotard himself, one of their high priests, declared that capitalism was orgasmic? Ha, don’t they wriggle with pleasure, those people of Mogadicio, La Paz, Djenin, Bagdad, Calcutta, Karachi, as they deconstruct Europe’s “special offer”? (…) Why do we write? For whom?’ he insisted. “Our answers to these questions vary, as each one of us lays stress on distinctive aspects. But for those like me who refuse to keep world politics and world history at a distance, the answer is simple enough: writers should not turn away from reality. In the face of the old or of the new horrors, we writers must use our fists, and our fists are our words.”

The reason why the novel’s relation to the real was the theme chosen for this first conference probably lies in that rabid, and to all appearances, chaotic world of ours in which the question of language is brought up. This first row of stones had to be laid down as a foundation, so as to give the enterprise a chance. In one of the succeeding debates, Leslie Kaplan (a French novelist born in New York) held the audience captive, saying how she would select a detail or “a splinter of reality” as one would take samples, from which questions would emerge. “The whole is reflected in them, but not exhausted by them.” Against the trivialization of thought through the cult of anecdote, or of words through their indiscriminate use, against rosy-coloured clichés, and commonplaces, the author of Fever seeks “a vibrant relation to language,” in order to be able to “leap out of the murderers’ row.”

And so the novel opens up a full awareness of the world and of human beings, whether by accident or in a flash of inspiration that fans out in a fresco or brings out a detail. It is all the more universal and free as its natural course follows individual imaginings. For these will not take so readily the bar-codes of merchandising.

The novel is definitely not dead. The Lyon conference has proven it.

(1) The 17th-century building, first a convent, then a dockyard for army supplies, was turned into a cultural centre by the City about ten years ago.

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