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Thursday, March 30, 2023

Novel Injustices: Whither The Contemporary Novel?

By Ardain Isma, Ph.D.It has been more than forty years since Jacques Stephen Alexis, Haitian novelist and revolutionary, raised a similar question in a lengthy article titled Où Va Le Roman? (Where is The Novel Headed?) published in Présence Africaine, and it is fair to say that today the answer remains as evasive as ever. The novel, still considered by many to be the most practical of all literary genres, is facing a serious crisis of identity, or may even be on the verge of losing its original sense of raison d’ être. Too often, one tends to forget that this artistic literary style of genius was created in the first place to bring to light – using modern art – an old desire of mankind: that is to address an affability to recreate, in prose, the reality of one’s life and one’s dreams.“The novel,” wrote Jacques Stephen Alexis, “is the conciliation between the imaginary and the real.” Who can refute this obviously irrefutable truism? As a novelist, that is precisely how I have come to understand the true meaning of this wonderful art and the role of those who practice it. To me, a novelist practitioner is an artist who has the ability to blend – in artistic format – the reality of one’s everyday life, joy and pain, hope and despair, passion, emotion and one’s constant search for everyday wonders. This exotic form of literary practice must live on, for it is, as Alexis puts it, as “eternal as our taste for beautiful histories and our incorrigible propensity for fairy tales.”Today, under pressure from the book industry, this fashionable style of contemporary novel appears to have lost its original uniqueness, or is at least on the brink of losing it to a deliberate quest to find who or what is publishable or saleable, but not what is artistic. “Saleable” is, by definition, who or what can sell more books; and more than fifty percent of the time, selling books has nothing to do with the fineness of the art. It has a lot more to do with name association.To be able to write and influence lives, in whatever shape or form it may take, is like having the power to shake mountains, or to turn valleys into plateaus. This could be interpreted as metaphorical, but it is a metaphor that underscores an important symbiosis: the tight relationship between the heart and the soul when it comes to reading and writing. When a reader or listener is moved and sometimes visibly shaken while reading or listening to a script, it is when the story itself is able to shake the person’s inner self to energize the symbiotic relationship between one’s heart and one’s soul. Whoever has the magic touch to make it happen is a gifted artist. No one sheds tears of joy while reading, unless he or she can see his or her own self-interest in the story being read.The number of gifted writers, and especially novelists, is countless. Yet, only a small handful of writers is allowed to join the club of “credible authors” each year. The rest, and therefore the vast majority, are forced to swallow their works or make them available to only a few friends or family members via self-publishing.For all practical intellectual honesty, it would be irresponsible to say that every written document is a piece of art, which in itself has its own characteristics. To embrace everything that is written as a work of art would be a gross invitation to mediocrity. On the other hand, to keep the many wonderful works of art that are out there from reaching their targeted audience is to do great harm to humanity.“You don’t have a name. You can’t sell books,” editors, agents and publishers alike will say. It is a logic that can only be understood by those who hold the monopoly of the book industry, and who stand to make the most profit – lucratively, that is. Society, here, is being dealt a major disservice, if this can be interpreted as the defeat of artistic values against strategic interests.Equally disturbing is the pressure to publish at a “reasonable” pace, put in place as “acceptable,” and for published writers to publish in order to remain in the spotlight so their writing career can be preserved. If remaining in the spotlight is the key, why bother creating truthful art? Publishing is what is important – whatever that might be, and regardless of what the public gets.The Influence of Western Cultures over the Contemporary NovelDespite its characteristic as a universal genre, no one can deny the influence of western cultures over the current form of contemporary novels. However, this influence, corollary to a well-established artistic genre, cannot be used as the basis by which novels should be judged. Nor can it be allowed to hold a monopoly over what is artistic and what is not. Notwithstanding the existence of certain general norms in social behavior, every society has its own standards for the interpretation of social values.From China to the Baltic, from Alaska to the Fire Land, from France to the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, the potential for producing authentic novelistic art is, without a doubt, emblematic and awesomely real. Experts agree that once the narrative creativity of a people is established, developed, systematized and has reached the critical point where the tales are organized in continuous sequences, able to cross the final bridge from oral literature to written, it is fair to say that the maturity for authentic novels has been achieved. This literary discipline, where the artist is finally able to put into scene all the syntheses that represent life, is the direct result of an accumulation of the many short stories put together in order to give birth to this qualitative change that we happily call the novel.It is important to reiterate that novels from industrialized nations have played a pivotal role in the realization of novelistic potentials of other cultures – just like colonization and other forms of foreign domination have left tremendous influences on colonized or dominated nations.Equally undeniable is that novels from all societies are also authentic, carrying with them their unique traits that cannot be overlooked, ignored or pushed aside. Whether they are from Asians, Africans, African-Americans, Europeans or Amerindians, they all maintain a specific objective: preserving their respective identity and the autonomy of their cultures. So, inclusion should be the norm, not the exception.An inclusion of all novels from each type of culture is quintessential to achieving, through novelistic prose, this kaleidoscope of cultures, this dazzling mosaic and this marvelous or magic realism so defended by Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jacques Stephen Alexis, Jorge Luis Borges, Gunter Grass and John Fowles.”Lo Real Maravilloso,” or Marvelous Realism in Contemporary NovelsInitially practiced at a school of painters in the 1920s, “marvelous realism” is today one of the most brilliant styles in contemporary novels, intending to take this already fabulous artistic genre to a new height, to the final frontier where the “real” is incorporated with all dimensions of the imagination, mixing myth, magic and religion. In other words, it is where fantasy and reality intermarry, to give birth to a world where everything is possible.Ever since Alejo Carpentier, the unforgettable Cuban novelist, presented to the public this expression in 1949 in his introduction to El Reino De Este Mundo (The Kingdom of This World), many prominent writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia, John Fowles of England, Gunter Grass of Germany and Jacques Stephen of Haiti have picked up on the theme. These contemporary novelists, according to many experts, possess the “magic” touch that creates a feeling of awe in the hearts of their readers. This awesomeness, according to Robert Scholes, is the direct result of the writers’ ability to interweave their adventure tales into an ever-lasting inexplicable move-back-and-forth pattern. Their ability is, without a shred of any doubt, one that allows them to blend “a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details together with fantastic dreamlike elements.”Scholes uses two terms to summarize this new phenomenon in fictional literature: metafiction and fabulation. To Scholes, metafiction represents a dramatic move from the traditional categories, either of realism or romance, by a large, growing class of novels. Fabulation is the new taste of what he calls “the current mode of freewheeling narrative description.”In the new novel, critics agree that, in diverse fashion, basic novelistic standards are being violated or replaced by a breathtaking admiration and conviction to blend all that is nightmarish, mythical and fantastic in an amazing quest to simplify, purify or clarify what Alexis calls traits “that blur traditional distinctions between what is serious or trivial, horrible or ludicrous, tragic or comic.”The Marvelous Realism of Jacques Stephen AlexisIt is important here to focus on Jacques S. Alexis, for he is perhaps one of the most fervent proponents of “magic” realism. In 1943, Alejo Carpentier visited Haiti and delivered a dramatic speech entitled “The Cultural Evolution of Latin America,” where he introduced to a Haitian elite of intellectuals, hungry for new ideas, his broad concept aimed at intertwining both the struggle of everyday life and the exotic nature of Latin American geography and history. A young twenty-one-years-old Alexis, present at that time, immediately embraced the theme and held onto it until his tragic disappearance in November of 1961. He was reportedly assassinated by the Creole fascists of the Duvalier regime.According to Carrol Coates, who translated Alexis’s first published novel, Compère Général Soleil (General Sun, My Brother), it was while in Port-au-Prince that Carpentier was inspired to write El Reino De Este Mundo, one of his great novels focusing on Haitian history – a prologue that clearly gave the world the explicit meaning or true definition of his “magic realism.” Becoming very well aware of the “Americanization” of Haiti’s social landscape as a result of nineteen years of U.S. occupation (1915-1934), Carpentier’s idea of “marvelous American realism,” Coates notes, “foregrounded a very personal vision of historical reality from the standpoint of slaves for whom the supernatural was as much a part of everyday experience as were social and other existential realities.”If Alejo Carpentier inspired Alexis’s “marvelous realism,” French novelist and father of surrealism André Breton may have been the catalysis behind Alexis’s sentimentalism and revolutionary romanticism. According to Alexis’s revolutionary comrade and best friend, Gérald Bloncourt, who has just published his memoirs, entitled Le Regard Engagé (The Profound Gaze), it was in December of 1945, when Breton made his first visit to Haiti, that René Dépestre (another world-acclaimed Haitian novelist and poet) and Jacques Stephen Alexis became convinced that young people really always have the power to make changes in society. All three were co-founders of a youth newspaper named La Ruche (The Hive), of which the main purpose was to ignite the revolutionary conscience of the people, especially the masses.On December 14th, 1945, in a meeting at Hotel Savoy with the Haitian writers and artists, Breton delivered a dramatic lecture where he urged the Haitian youth to free themselves from what he called “the fear of inferiority.” He concluded his lecture, notes Bloncourt, by affirming that “lucidity as well as real power has always been rested into the hands of the youth.”The next day’s edition of La Ruche was terrifying to the government of President Ely Lescot. Its headline that he himself choreographed, Boncourt notes, entitled Poetry and Revolution, was where Dépestre, in a profound editorial, explained, “Andre Breton has conquered our hearts and has captured our sympathy for the surrealism that is not only an enterprise for liberation of psychological potentials of the human brain, but also an antifascist movement that has never missed an opportunity to affirm its faith in the legitimate aspirations of all mankind for freedom and social justice.”On January 1st, Haiti’s Independence Day, Jacques Stephen Alexis, using the sobriquet of Jacques-La-Colère, launched a powerful warning to the men in power in an article entitled Lettre Aux Hommes Vieux (Letter to The Old Men), in which he declared, “Listen, old men, there are times in history where the people, tired of being repressed by corrupt bourgeoisies and reactionary governments, use certain means; you know what they are. So, be careful.” The old men clearly got the message. The next day, Bloncourt notes, La Ruche was shut down by the government. Theodore Baker, another important member of the paper, and René Dépestre were arrested. Bloncourt and Alexis went into hiding, but not for long, because the heroic courage of these young revolutionaries triggered a massive civil disobedience that shortly forced Lescot to resign.The events of 1946, despite their limitations, radicalized Alexis’s conviction to work tirelessly for the liberation of the Haitian people, using his “marvelous realism” as his main weapon to improve the Haitian literature and educate the youth.Far from romanticizing the Haitian masses’ deplorable conditions, Alexis saw in his “marvelous realism” the best if not a unique way to beautify the Haitian literature, and with it, the “marvelous symbiosis,” connecting the mind, body and soul of every Haitian in order to bring to light a new and true Haitian nation – one that would be based on justice for all. Alexis saw in the people’s daily life an artistic treasure, one not only to preserve and cherish, but also to be put at the forefront of the struggle to bring humanity together within the framework of democratic governance and the rule of law.Alexis’s internationalist humanism is obvious in many of his great works.In Où Va Le Roman? published in May of 1957 in Presence Africaine, the monthly African review that came to be the voice of the literary Francophone as opposed to French literature, he takes a stand in favor of the “immense armies of workers” in industrialized societies, “slaves of gigantic enterprises” and “slaves of the day-to-day life.” He deplores this sad existence that intends to destroy “the undeniable collective life, the parties in the city, the carnivals, the many plays, the songs, the dances” that are in essence the “genie artistic of the people.”He strongly criticizes the middle class for its refusal to relinquish its bourgeois aspiration and for “losing touch with the source of all grand art: the people in action.” He denounces the “petty-bourgeois arrogance intellectualism” that is too quick to embrace western capitalist values, confuses the national and popular art with the traditional one and systematically ignores “the folklore, the last fire of popular creation.” Alexis takes great pain in calling artistic creation tainted with bourgeois taste as “metaphysic intellectualism” or “artistic masturbation and inversion of taste.”To Alexis, no one should overlook the fact that “great works of art are born out of a dialectic junction of the individual talent and the collective ‘genie’ of the people.” Sadly, Jacques Stephen Alexis didn’t live long enough to realize his dream of making the world gentler and more human. He mysteriously disappeared in November of 1961, somewhere in the northwest province of Haiti, as he reportedly entered the country clandestinely in an attempt to mobilize the population against Papa Doc Duvalier’s monstrous regime.Many of Alexis’s critics admitted that his death was the direct result of his desperate search to conquer his true self, his inner self, the final frontier and the soul of his beloved Haiti for which he died, and for which he will forever be remembered. Lost too deep in the “imaginary,” Alexis missed the train of the “real,” along with his dream-like reality, for a fantastic tomorrow he so desired for humanity.“Jacques is, without question, one of the most brilliant intellectuals Haiti has ever produced,” said Louis Aragon, the well-known French writer and philosopher. He was truly one of her most admired and most respected citizens, both nationally and internationally, as the news of his disappearance sent shockwaves to all corners of the world.While some critics dare to associate Alexis’s disappearance with the failure of “marvelous realism,” this new term in literature that has in many ways revolutionized contemporary novels remains, beyond any doubt, the most dazzling of all literary genres. One may say, however, that it fails so far to reach the perfection for which it is so desperately searching. Arguably, this may be interpreted as more of a setback than a failure, for the quest to reach perfection always proves to be a daunting and monumental task, one that may easily be lost in the ocean of hope.But for the purpose of all dialectic realism and intellectual probity, one must agree that nothing is “absolute,” for everything is “relative.” Maybe only the “relative” is absolute. While analyzing the role of “marvelous realism,” specifically the perfect case of Alexis, one can certainly understand why some novelistic genres could make it hard, if not impossible in today’s literary market, for some authors to break new ground and ultimately carry their messages to the right audience. But that should not be a reason to give up, or to move away from this noble art. Novelists everywhere, proponents of “marvelous realism” in particular, should keep on writing until the chain, put in place by special interests, is broken, and at last the artistic global village so many of us dream of is created under the direct guidance of love, honesty and cross-cultural awareness.ReferencesAlexis, S. Jacques (1958). Où Va Le Roman? Présence Africaine. Paris, April-May (1958).Alexis, S. Jacques (1955). Compère Général Soleil. Paris, Gallimard.Bloncourt, Gérald (2004). Le Regard Engagé: Parcours d’Un Franc-Tireur de l’Image. Paris, Édition Burin. (ISBN: 2-84941-006-3)Note: This article was first published by JUST Response on June 30 2004

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