Claude Simon

Nobel Lecture


Nobel Lecture 9 December 1985


Ladies and gentlemen.

The feelings of a laureate honoured by the Swedish Academy have been perfectly expressed by one of my “Nobel colleagues”, to use Dr. André Lwoffs expression in a letter he has been so kind as to write to me:

“Research being a game or a gamble,” he writes in his letter of thanks, “it matters little, at least in theory, whether one wins or loses. Yet scientists” (and I would add, authors), “are in some respects like children. Like them, they love to win and, like them, they love rewards”. Whereto André adds: “In the bottom of his heart, every scientist,” (every author, I should add, again) “longs to be recognized”.

Were I to try and analyse this kind of satisfaction’s many components in point of some of their puerile aspects, I should say a certain pride is involved. Quite apart from my own person, attention is directed to the country which, for better or for worse, is mine. It is by no means a bad thing that people should be reminded that, despite all that is “worse” about it, a certain life of the intellect, although denigrated, laughed to scorn and sometimes even hypocritically persecuted, still, like a stubborn protest, makes my country one of the places where some of our most currently menaced values still survive, indifferent to the inertia or sometimes even the hostility of the powers that be.

Further, if I, addressing as I now do the members of your Academy, say how sensible I am of your goodness in choosing me and thank you for doing so, it is no mere ritual act of submission to custom and good manners.

It is no mere chance, namely, or so it seems to me, that this institution has its seat and deliberates its choices here in Sweden, more precisely in Stockholm, at more or less the geographical centre or, if you prefer it, the crossroads of four nations whose populations, though small, by virtue of their culture, their traditions, their civility and their laws, have made Scandinavia so great that it is a kind of privileged and exemplary islet on the fringe of the iron world of violence we today inhabit.

Thus it is not by chance, either, that the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish translations of Les Géorgiques, my latest work, should have been the first to appear; nor that it was already possible last winter to come across another translation on the shelves of a stationer’s shop in a remote hamlet among the lakes and forests of Finland. Yet when this latest Nobel award was announced, the New York Times (to mention only one of the two giants whose monstrous weight today is crushing us) vainly asked American critics for their opinion, my own country’s media meanwhile searching feverishly for information about this virtually unknown author and while its popular press, for lack of any critical analyses of my works, published completely fanciful items about my life and activities as a writer – that is, when not deploring your decision as a national catastraphe for France.

Admittedly, I am not so presumptuous or even so stupid I do not realise that every choice in the realms of art and literature is contestable and, to some extent, arbitrary; and I am the first to regard several other writers for whom I have the greatest respect, in France and elsewhere, as equally eligible.

If I refer to the scandalized amazement (amounting at times even to terror – one French mass-circulation weekly has even suspected your Academy of having been infiltrated by the Soviet’s KGB!), the amazement, I say, echoed by the big newspapers, I hope no one will think it is in a spirit of mockery or malignancy, or of facile triumph. But because the terms in which these protests, this indignation, this terror even, are formulated confront within the realm of literature and art the forces of conservatism with those others, I will not call them “of progress” (a word devoid of meaning in relation to art) but anyway of movement, thus to spotlight the much bruited and ever more aggravated divorce between living art and the great public, held timidly in a state of backwardness by all kinds of powers terrified above all of change.

Leaving aside the complaints that I am a “difficult”, “boring”, “unreadable” or “confused” writer, and recalling that the same reproaches have always been levelled at any artist who even to the slightest degree upsets acquired habits and the established order of things, let us wonder, instead, at the way in which the grandchildren of those people who in impressionist paintings once saw nothing but shapeless (i.e., illegible) daubs today form endless queues outside exhibitions and museums to admire the works of those very same daubers.

Likewise, let us leave aside the insinuation that you have chosen me at the instigation of agents of a certain political police, seated among you – however curious it may be to note that, even today, the Soviet Union remains in certain circles the symbol of redoubtable forces hostile to social stability; forces with which I, a simple writer, flatter myself I am associated. For indeed, the egoistic and vain gratuity of what some people call “art for art’s sake” has been so reviled that it is no small recompense for me to see my writings, which have had no greater ambition than to raise themselves to that level, ranked among the instruments of revolutionary and upsetting action.

What do seem to me more interesting, worth taking into account and worth pausing over, are certain other judgements on my work which, by their nature and their vocabulary, reveal, not so much a misunderstanding which may exist between the supporters of a certain tradition and of what I would call living literature, as what would seem to be a reversed (or, if you like, inverted) situation, all the terms used pejoratively having been most judiciously chosen, the only difference being that, in my eyes and oppositely to what my critics intend, they possess a positive value.

I will come back to those who reproach my novels for having “neither a beginning nor an end”, which is perfectly correct. Here I would like to dwell on two adjectives regarded as defamatory, and which are always naturally or, one could say, correlatively associated, and which serve precisely to pin-point the nature of this problem; namely those which denounce my works as a product of “labour”, and thus necessarily “artificial”.

The dictionary defines this last word as follows: “Made with art”. Further: “Anything which is the product of human activity and not of nature”, – a definition so pertinent that one would be happy to accept it, if it were not for its connotations, which, commonly loaded with pejorative meaning, paradoxically turn out under scrutiny to be highly instructive. For if, as the dictionary adds, “artificial” also implies something “factitious, fabricated, false, imitated, invented, supererogatory”, the thought immediately occurs that art, which is the acme of invention, and likewise factitious (from the Latin facere, “to make”) and thus “fabricated” (another word which should be reinstated) is par excellence imitation (something which also obviously postulates falsity). Nevertheless it is necessary to define the exact nature of this imitation, inasmuch as it is by imitating itself, so to speak, that art generates itself: even to a point where it is not the desire to reproduce nature that makes the painter, but the fascination exerted by museums, just as it is the fascination of the written word that makes the author. As for Nature, she (as Oscar Wilde so wittily put it) contents herself with “imitating art …”

And certainly the language spoken by the greatest writers and musicians during the centuries before, during, and after the Renaissance – some of whom were treated like domestic servants, working to order – was an artisan’s language. They referred to the fruits of their labours (here I’m thinking of Johann Sebastian Bach, of Nicolas Poussin …) as works most laboriously and conscientiously executed. How to explain that today, for a certain school of criticism, the very notion of labour, of work, should have fallen into such discredit that to say of any writer that he finds writing difficult is just about the most scathing thing one could say about him? Perhaps we should dwell a moment on this problem, for it opens vistas on to horizons much vaster than derive from mere pique.

“Use-value or the value of any article,” Marx writes in the first chapter of Das Kapital, “only has value insofar as it embodies and materializes human labour.” And in fact, that is any value’s laborious point of departure. I am neither a philosopher nor a sociologist; yet I am struck by the fact that it should be during the 19th Century that, parallel with the development of machinery and of a ferocious industrialism, we on the one hand see the growth of a certain bad conscience and, on the other, the whole concept of work (the ill-paid work of transmutation) being devalued. In this way the writer is denied the virtue of his efforts, in favour of what some people call “inspiration”, and is turned into a simple intermediary, a spokesman of goodness knows what supernatural power, in such fashion that he, the whilom domestic servant or conscientious artisan, now sees himself, as a person, put out of court, negated. At best he becomes a copyist, the translator of a book already written somewhere else, a kind of decoding machine, whose job it is to deliver, in plain language, messages dictated to him from a mysterious “beyond”.

The strategy, at once élitist and annihilating, is obvious. Honoured in his role of inebriated Python or oracle, precisely because he is in himself nobody, the writer now nevertheless belongs to an exclusive caste, to which no one thereafter can expect to be admitted on grounds of his own merit or labour. On the contrary, work is regarded, as formerly by the aristocracy, as something infamous and degrading. From now on a work of art will be judged with a word drawn, quite naturally, from religion: namely, “grace”, that divine grace to which, as everyone knows, no virtue, not even self-denial, can ever attain.

By grace of this knowing (“What have you got to say?” Sartre used to say – or, in other words: “What knowledge do you possess?”), the writer becomes a despositary or retainer, someone who, even before he puts pen to paper, possesses within himself a knowledge refused to other mortal men. This means that the writer sees himself as assigned the mission of teaching it to other people, so that the novel, quite logically, becomes imagistic in form, in the same way as religious instruction is done by parable and fable. The writer’s own person being abolished (it becomes his business to “efface” himself behind his characters), so is his work, and likewise its product, namely the piece of writing. “The best style is an unnoticeable style”, we are in the habit of saying, remembering the famous formula of someone who wanted a novel should be nothing but “a mirror walking along a road”: a flat, uniform surface, free of all asperities, and behind its thin polished metal plate containing nothing but these virtual images that he indifferently and objectively, one after another, places on it. In other words: “the world as if I were not there to give it tongue”, in Baudelaire’s ironical formula with which he defined “realism”.

“Have they given Claude Simon the Nobel Prize to confirm the rumour that the novel is finally dead?” asks one critic. What he does not yet seem to have noticed is that, if by “novel” he means the literary model which established itself in the 19th Century, then it is certainly dead, no matter how many copies of amiable or terrifying tales of adventure, with their happy or desperate endings, railway station and other bookstalls are still buying and selling, and for a long time to come will go on selling, and whose titles announce such revealed truths as La Condition Humaine, L’Espoir, or Les Chemins de la Liberté

* * *
More interesting to me, it seems, is that when, at the beginning of our century, two giants, Proust and Joyce, opened up quite new paths, they were only sanctioning a slow evolution, in the course of which the so-called realistic novel had slowly committed suicide.

“I endeavoured,” writes Marcel Proust, “to find beauty where I had never imagined it could be: in the most everyday objects, in the profound life of natures mortes.” And in an article published in Leningrad in 1927, entitled On the Evolution of Literature, the Russian essayist Tynianov wrote: “Taken as a whole, the descriptions of nature in older novels which, from the point of view of one literary system, one would be tempted to reduce to the ancillary role of link-passages or of slowing up the action (and thus almost negating it), from the point of view of another literary system should be regarded as a principal element; the fable may be only a motive, a pretext for accumulating static descriptions”. This text which, in certain respects, can be regarded as prophetic, also seems to deserve a few observations.

First and foremost, we should note that the chief dictionary sense of the word “fable” is: “A short tale from which a moral can be extracted”. Immediately, an objection occurs: namely, that in reality the process of fabricating a fable unfolds in exactly the opposite direction: that it is the fable which is extracted from the moral, not vice versa. For the writer of fables, the moral – “The strongest reason is always best”, or “Every flatterer lives at the expense of his listener” – is there first; only thereafter the story which he makes up, as an imagistic demonstration illustrating some maxim, precept, or thesis which he tries by means of it to render more striking.

It is this tradition which, in France, via the mediaeval fabliaux, the fablewriters and the so-called comedy of manners or character of the 17th Century, and then of the philosophical tale of the 18th Century, led up to the l9th Century’s allegedly “realistic” novel, such as aspired to a didactic virtue: “You and a few beautiful souls, beautiful as your own”, Balzac wrote, “will understand my thought as you read La Maison Nucingen immediately after César Birotteau. Does not this contrast contain a whole social doctrine?”

In its day and age a bold innovation (a point overlooked by latter-day epigones who, a century and a half later, would set it up as exemplary), and supported by a certain “flight of the pen” and by a certain larger-than-life quality which raised it above the level of its own intentions, the Balzac-type novel afterwards degenerated and gave birth to works retaining only its purely demonstrative element.

Seen through such a lens, all description would seem not merely supererogatory but, as Tynianov stresses, impertinent, since it parasitically attaches itself to the action, whose course it interrupts, merely putting off the moment when the reader at long last shall tumble to the sense of the tale. “When I come to a description in a novel”, wrote Henri de Montherlant, “I skip a page”. And André Breton (who had nothing else in common with Montherlant) declared he could die of boredom at the description of Raskolnikov’s room, exclaiming furiously: “What right has the author to fob us off with his postcards?” …

* * *
Figures in the traditional novel are social or psychological types “in situation”, simplified to the point of caricature, at least in one French tradition. “Harpagon is a miser, pure and simple”, Strindberg remarks, in his preface to Miss Julie. “Yet he could also have been an excellent town councillor, a paterfamilias or indeed anything else. But no, he’s a miser, pure and simple!” The traditional novel’s characters are caught up in a series of adventures, where chain reactions follow one another in accordance with some supposedly implacable law of causes and effects, such as gradually leads them to the dénouement which has been called the “novel’s logical climax”, and which serves to substantiate the author’s thesis and tell his readers what view they should take of men and women, of society or History …

The tedium of it all is that these supposedly determined and determining events depend only on the goodwill of him who relates them. It is at his good pleasure that one character meets another (or fails to), that they fall in love (or hate each other), die (or survive); and equally well these events, whilst of course perfectly possible, might not happen. As Conrad emphasizes in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, all the author appeals to is our credulity; as to the “logic” of the characters, as of the situations, they could be discussed ad infinitum. On the one hand Henri Martineau, that eminent Stendhalian, assures us that from the outset of Le Rouge et le Noir Julien Sorel is predestined to fire his fatal pistol shot at Madame de Rénal. Whilst, on the other, Emile Faguet, for his part, finds this dénouement “impermissibly false”.

No doubt this is one of the reasons for the paradox which, from the very moment of its birth, caused the realistic novel to work for its own destruction. Indeed, it was as if these authors, aware of the feebleness of the means they have recourse to in order to transmit their didactic message, felt a confused need, if their fables were to be convincing, to endue them with material density. Up to then, whether in La Princesse de Clèves, Candide, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or even in La Nouvelle Héloise, a work of so great a nature-lover as Rousseau, description, in a novel or a philosophical tale, had been as it were non-existent, or only appeared in stereotypes: all pretty women’s complexions are those “of the lily and the rose”. They have “a fine figure”. All old women are “hideous”, all shadows are “cool”, all deserts “monstrous”, and so forth … Not until Balzac (perhaps it was there his genius lay) do we come across minute and lengthy descriptions of place or character. As the century wore on, such descriptions would not only become steadily more numerous, but, no longer confined to the beginning of a story or the first appearances of its characters, progressively break up the action or, in more or less massive doses, are infused in it, even in the end becoming a kind of Trojan horse, quite simply ousting the fable which it had been their purpose to lend body to. Julien Sorel’s tragic end on the scaffold, Emma Bovary’s death by arsenic, or Anna Karenina throwing herself under a train may seem the logical climaxes of their adventures, whose sens moral they serve to underline. But none can surely be drawn from Albertine’s end. Proust quite simply makes her disappear (one could be tempted to say “gets rid of her”) as a result of a banal riding accident …

* * *
An interesting parallel, it seems to me, could be drawn between the novel’s evolution during the l9th Century and the evolution of painting, which had started so much earlier: “The end (the goal) of Christian art”, Ernest Gombrich writes, “consists in making the sacred personage and, above all, sacred History convincing and moving in the eyes of the spectator”. In its very earliest form, with the Byzantines, “the happening is described by means of clear and simple hieroglyphics that enable it to be understood, rather than seen”. A tree, a mountain, a stream or some rocks are indicated by pictographic “signs”.

“However, little by little, a new requirement makes itself felt: to proceed in such a fashion that the spectator as it were becomes a witness to the event (…) which is intended to be the object of his meditation.” This leads gradually at the advent of naturalism, one of whose first artisans was Giotto, an evolution which pursued its course until, Gombrich tells us, “the naturalistic landscape of the backgrounds, hitherto designed according to the notions of mediaeval art about how proverbs should be illustrated or moral lessons inculcated, and which had filled up areas devoid of characters or actions (…), in the 16th Century this landscape as it were eats up the foregrounds, even to a point where the work is so well done by specialists like Joachim Pantinir that what the painter is creating no longer acquires its pertinence from some association with an important subject, but by reflecting, like music, the very harmony of the universe”.

* * *
After a long evolution the painter’s function found itself, in a manner of speaking, inverted, and the knowing, or, if one prefers, the sense, had passed from one side of the action to the other, thereafter becoming the action’s fruit, no longer expressing content but producing it.

The same thing has happened to literature, and this makes it seem legitimate, today, to demand for (or of) the novel a credibility more reliable than the credibility, always open to discussion, that can be attributed to a fiction; the credibility a text acquires when its components stand in a right relationship to each other and to their overall arrangement; where sequence and composition are no longer subordinate to a causality lying outside the “literary phenomenon”, as does the psycho-social causality which is normally the rule in the so-called realistic novel; but an interior causality, in the sense that such or such an event, described and no longer reported, will follow or precede such or such another event, simply by virtue of their inherent qualities.

If I can lend no credence to the deus ex machina who altogether too opportunely causes the characters in a story to meet, it seems to me on the other hand altogether credible, simply because it lies in the intelligible order of things, that Proust should suddenly be transported from the courtyard of the Guermantes’ townhouse to the parvis of St. Mark’s in Venice by a sensation of having two pavings underfoot; equally credible that Molly Bloom, in her erotic reveries, should be carried away by the thought of some juicy fruits she intends to buy the next day at market; and equally credible that Faulkner’s unfortunate Benjy should always howl with pain at the golfers’ shout of “caddie!”. And why? Because there exists an obvious communion of qualities, or, in other words, a certain harmony between these objects, these reminiscences, these sensations; a harmony which, in these examples, is the upshot of associations or assonances, but which can also arise, as in painting or music, from contrasts, clashes or dissonances.

* * *
And at once we glimpse an answer to the everlasting questions: “Why do you write? What have you to say?”

“If (…) someone were to ask me”, wrote Paul Valéry, “if someone were to worry himself (as happens, and sometimes intensely) about what I’ve meant to say (…), I reply that I haven’t wanted to say anything, but wanted to make something, and that it’s this intention of making which has wanted what l’ve said.” I could take up this reply by point. If the writer’s array of motivations is like a wide-open fan, the need to be recognized, which André Lwoff speaks of, is perhaps not the most futile, demanding as it in the first place does a self-recognition, which in turn implies a “making”, a “doing” (I make – I produce – therefore I am), whether it is a question of building a bridge, a ship, of bringing in a harvest or of composing a string quartet. And if we restrict ourselves to the realm of literature we should bear in mind that the Greek word for”make” or “do” is Word in Greek which is also the origin of the word poem, whose nature we should perhaps plumb even deeper. For if we are agreed in allowing some freedom of language to the kind of writer usually called a poet, on what grounds do we refuse it to the prose-writer, to whom we assign only one task: to tell apologetic tales, ignoring meanwhile all other aspects of the nature of this language, which he also has to use as a simple means of communication? Isn’t this to forget, as Mallarmé says, that “each time a stylistic effort is made, there is versification”, and to forget Flaubert’s question in a letter to George Sand: “How come there is a necessary link between the exact word and the musical word?”

* * *
I am an old man now. Like the lives of many others who inhabit our old Europe, my early life was no little disturbed. I witnessed a revolution. I went to war in singularly murderous circumstances (my regiment was one of those the general-staffs coldly sacrificed in advance, so that a week later almost nothing remained of it). I have been taken prisoner. I’ve known hunger. Have been forced to exhaust myself with physical labour. Escaped. Been gravely ill, several times at the point of a violent or natural death. I’ve rubbed shoulders with all sorts and conditions of men, both clergy and incendiaries of churches, peaceable bourgeois and anarchists, philosophers and illiterates. I’ve shared my bread with tramps, in a word, I’ve been about the world … all, however, without finding any sense to all this, unless it should be the one assigned to it, I believe, by Barthe, following Shakespeare: that “if the world signifies anything, it is that it signifies nothing” – except that it exists.

As you see, I’ve nothing, in Sartre’s sense, to say. Even if some important truth of a social, historical, or sacred nature had been revealed to me, it would have seemed to me a burlesque proceeding, at the very least, to have invented fictions to express it, rather than by a reasoned philosophical, sociological, or theological thesis.

So – to return to Valéry’s word – what’s to be “done” or “made”: which in turn leads straight to the question: “made out of what?”

Well, in front of my blank sheet of paper, two things confront me: on the one hand, the troublesome muddle of emotions, memories, images inside myself. On the other, the language, the words I’m going to look for in order to express it, and the syntax which will determine their arrangement and in whose womb they in some sense are going to take form.

And immediately I find that, first: what one writes (or describes) is never something which has happened prior to the work of writing. On the contrary it produces itself (in every sense of the term) in the course of working, within its own present. It is the upshot, not of the conflict between the very vague initial project and the language, but, on the contrary, of their symbiosis, so that, at least in my case, the result is infinitely richer than the intention.

Stendhal experienced this phenomenon of the literary present. In his La Vie de Henri Brulard he undertook to describe the Army of Italy going over the Great St. Bernard. While doing his very best to give his tale all possible veridicality, he says, he suddenly realized he was perhaps describing, not so much the event itself, as an engraving of it, seen subsequently. This engraving, (he writes) “had (in me) replaced the reality”. If Stendhal had meditated further on the matter, he would have realized – anyone can imagine the numbers of objects represented in the engraving: guns, wagons, horses, glaciers, rocks, etc., but their enumeration would fill several pages, whilst Stendhal’s account fills exactly one, he would have realized, I say, that it was not even this engraving he was describing, but an image just then forming itself inside him, and which, in its turn, was replacing the engraving he thought he was describing.

More or less consciously, as a result of the imperfections, first of his perception and then of his memory, the author not only subjectively selects, chooses, eliminates, but also valorizes some few of the hundreds or thousands of elements in a scene: and immediately we are very far indeed from the impartial mirror walking along beside a road, to which this same Stendhal pretended …

If a breaking point occurred, a radical change in the history of art, it was when painters, soon followed by writers, gave up pretending to represent the visible world, and contented themselves with the impressions it produced on them.

“A man in good health”, writes Tolstoy, “is all the time thinking, feeling, and recalling an incalculable number of things at once”. This observation should be set beside Flaubert’s apropos Madame Bovary: “Everything she had in her, of reminiscences, images, combinations, escaped at once, in a single movement, like the thousand sparks of a firework. Sharply, in separate pictures, she saw her father, Léon, Lhereux’ office, their own room downstairs, another landscape, unknown figures …”

If Flaubert here speaks of a sick woman, the prey of a kind of delirium, Tolstoy, for his part, when he says “any man in good health”, goes further and generalizes. Where they agree is in saying that all these reminiscences, all these emotions, and all these thoughts present themselves simultaneously. Only Flaubert is specific about it being a matter of “separate pictures”, fragments, in other words; and that the aspect under which they present themselves to us is that of “combinations”. And this exposes for us the weak side of Tynianov’s timid proposition which, while regarding the traditional novel as passe, failed to conceive of a future type of novel, where the fable would merely be a pretext for an “accumulation” of “static” descriptions.

And here we come across one of the paradoxes of literature. A description of what one might call an apparently static “interior landscape”, whose main characteristic is that nothing in it is near or remote, turns out itself, not to be static, but, on the contrary, dynamic. Forced by the linear configuration of language to enumerate successively such a landscape’s components (which in itself involves priorities, thus a subjective valorization of certain objects in relation to others), the author, as soon as he begins to write down a word on paper, immediately touches on this prodigious whole, this astounding network of relationships established in and by this language which, as someone has said, “speaks before we do” by means of what one calls “figures of speech”; in other words tropes, metonymies, and metaphors. Nothing of this is the result of chance but, quite the contrary, a constitutive part of man’s gradually acquired knowledge of the world and of objects.

And if, following Chlovski, we agree on defining the “literary act” as “the transfer of an object of habitual perception into the sphere of a new perception”, how can the author hope to reveal the mechanisms which cause this “incalculable number” of apparently “separate pictures” within him to form associations which are his very self as a conscious being, if not in this language which is his very self qua thinking and speaking being, and in whose bosom, in its wisdom, and its logic, innumerable transfers or implied senses already occur to him? According to Lacan, words, so far from merely being “signs”, are nodes of meaning; or even, as I have written in my brief preface to Orion Aveugle, crossroads of sense, so that language, by its mere vocabulary, offers potential “combinations” in “innumerable numbers”. And it is thanks to this that this “adventure of narration” in which the writer, at his own risk and peril, involves himself, finally can seem more believable than the more or less arbitrary tales which the naturalistic novel, with a self-assurance the more imperious for knowing how fragile and utterly controversial are its methods, proposes to us.

Not demonstrate, but show; not reproduce, but produce; no longer express, but discover. Like painting, the novel no longer claims to draw its pertinence from its association with some important topic; but from the fact that it, like music, struggles to reflect a certain harmony. Asking “what is ‘realism’?”, Roman Jakobson remarks that a novel’s realism is not usually assessed in terms of actual “reality” (one object with a thousand aspects), but in terms of a literary genre, developed during the last century. This is to forget that the characters in these tales have no other reality than the writing which brings them into being: how therefore can this piece of writing “efface itself” behind a story and events which have no existence except within itself? And indeed, just as painting once took as its pretext some Biblical scene, mythological, or historical (who can seriously believe in the “reality” of a Crucifixion, a Suzanna and the Elders or a Rape of the Sabine Women?), what a writer even the most naturalistic of novelists, relates is his own adventure, his own magical incantations. If the adventure is null and void, if his incantations fail of their effect, then his novel, whatever other didactic or moral pretensions it may have, is also null and void.

* * *
Sometimes people talk, only too volubly and ex cathedra, of a writer’s function and duties. Some years ago, using a formula that contains within itself its own contradiction, some people, not altogether undemagogically, even went so far as to declare that “a book is worth nothing compared with the death of a little child in Biafra”. But why is such a death, unlike a baby monkey’s, such an insufferable scandal? Surely because the child is a human infant, i.e., gifted with intelligence, a conscience (however embryonic), who, if he survives, will one day be capable of thinking and talking about his sufferings, of reading about the sufferings of others, and of in his turn being moved and, with a little luck, of writing about it.

Before the end of the century of the Enlightenment, before the myth of “realism” was forged, Novalis enunciated with astonishing lucidity this apparent paradox: “with language it is as with mathematical formulae: each contains a world of its own, for itself alone. Their play is exclusive and internal, expresses nothing except their own marvellous nature, and it is precisely this which makes them so expressive that it is within them, precisely, that the interplay of objects is so singularly reflected.”

It is in its search for this interplay that one perhaps could conceive an involvement for the act of writing which, in all modesty, contributes to changing the world every time it, even in the tiniest degree, changes the way in which man, by his language, relates to it. Questionless, the path then followed will be very different from that of the novelist who, starting out from a “beginning”, reaches an “ending”. This other way, which it costs an explorer of an unknown country such pains to find (losing himself, retracing his steps, guided or led astray by resemblances between different places, the same place’s different aspects) will constantly call for rechecks, pass across crossroads already crossed. As for the end of this investigation into the “present” of images and emotions none closer or more distant than any other (word, namely, having a prodigious power to bring nearer and juxtapose objects which for lack of them would remain scattered in clock-time or in measurable space), this journey’s end may well be that he comes back to his point of departure, the richer only for having indicated certain directions, thrown a few footbridges, and by obstinately penetrating particularities without laying claim to say everything that could be said, may even attain to that “common sense” where to some greater or smaller extent everyone can recognize some part of himself.

To this path there can thus be no other term except the exhaustion of him who, exploring this inexhaustible countryside as he travels through it, contemplates the rough map he has drawn up in the course of his march, never quite sure he has done his best to follow certain enthusiasms, obey certain impulses. Nothing is sure, nor does it offer any other guarantees than those Flaubert, following Novalis, speaks of: a harmony, a music. Searching for it, the writer makes only laborious progress. Feeling his way forward like a blind man, he goes up culs-de-sac, gets bogged down and starts out anew. If we at all costs must find some edification in his efforts, one could say it lies in seeing that always we are advancing across sands which shift under our feet.

Thank you for your attention.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1985

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Coming up

This year’s Nobel Prize announcements will take place 2–9 October. All announcements will be streamed live here on

See the full schedule
Announcement dates

Explore prizes and laureates

Look for popular awards and laureates in different fields, and discover the history of the Nobel Prize.