The Return of the Narrative: the Call for the Novel- Le retour à la narration : le désir du roman

by Sabine van Wesemael (Volume editor) Suze van der Poll (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 226 Pages


This study focuses on the return of the narrative as applied by literary historians. Through the 1980s, criticism on the hermetic nature of many postmodern texts grew louder and louder: novelists expressed the wish to restore the bonds between the reader and the texts as well as between the texts and the extra-literary reality. Many fiction writers have grown tired of formalism and restore the conventions of realism, though not using them in a passive manner. Literary historians dealing with the post-postmodern or late postmodern European novel agree that conventional techniques are being adopted in new manners, and that all 20th century tendencies that criticized and tried to overcome 19th century realism do leave their traces on the contemporary novel: it might be a matter of hybrid forms combining realism and postmodernism.
Cette étude porte sur la notion, souvent avancée par des commentateurs du roman contemporain, du retour à la narration. Le romancier contemporain s’opposerait à l’hermétisme du roman postmoderne et désirerait rétablir le lien entre le texte et son lecteur et entre la littérature et la réalité extralittéraire. Les écrivains se lassent du formalisme et reprennent les conventions du réalisme sans toutefois les appliquer passivement ; l’auteur actuel n’envisage pas de restaurer une forme traditionnelle, mais de réécrire au second degré certains modèles romanesques afin de mieux représenter le monde contemporain. Le roman contemporain serait donc une forme hybride qui combine des tendances réalistes et postmodernes.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • The Return of the Narrative? An introduction
  • Jean Echenoz et le retour à la narration : un phénomène paratextuel ?
  • Bibliographie
  • Pre-dug trenches? Debates about Realism vs. Postmodernism in contemporary Anglophone literature: Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith
  • 1. Humiliation: The Problem of Hard-to-Read Books
  • 2. Disdain: The Modernist and Postmodernist Fight against ‘Character’ and ‘Story’
  • 3. Guilty Pleasures: Jonathan Franzen’s conversion to the ‘Contract model’
  • 4. Changing her mind: Zadie Smith reconsiders Postmodernism
  • 5. Conclusion: “A slightly embarrassed yawn”?
  • Bibliography
  • Sebastiano Vassalli : Vers le retour du roman historique
  • Le réemploi des expérimentations «postmodernistes» : La notte della cometa
  • Bibliographie
  • L’Art français de la Guerre : une fresque en morceaux ?
  • Bibliographie
  • Penser et réécrire l’Histoire : un (nouveau) défi pour le roman contemporain. Sur Peste & Choléra de Patrick Deville et 14 de Jean Echenoz
  • 1. Écrire après le repli minimaliste…
  • 2. De nouveaux savoirs pour un nouveau réalisme ?
  • 3. Une nouvelle tentation romanesque historique, joueuse et décalée
  • Bibliographie
  • Re-visiting the Empire: Christoph Ransmayr’s The Terrors of Ice and Darkness. A paradigmatic example of German historiographic metafiction
  • I. Literature, historiography, postmodernism: New types of the postmodern historical novel in German literature
  • II. “I do not know”– Explicit metafiction and critical engagement with traditional academic historiography
  • III. Reality references, narrative association, and subversion of heroics
  • IV. “Mazzini became my downfall” – hybridity, myth and obsession
  • Bibliography
  • Is the ‘return of the narrative’ the departure from postmodernism? Christian Kracht’s parahistorical novel Imperium between realist and postmodernist storytelling techniques
  • 1. The return of narrative
  • 1.1 Introduction and thesis
  • 1.2 Postmodernism and the return of narrative
  • 1.2.1 Förster’s Wiederkehr des Erzählens
  • 1.2.2 Postmodernist vs. contemporary literature?
  • 1.3 Are there differences between postmodernist and ‘contemporary’ texts?
  • 2. Imperium and postmodernism
  • 2.1 Imperium as a realist text
  • 2.2 Imperium as a paradigmatic postmodernist text
  • 3. Conclusion
  • 3.1 Exclusionist vs. inclusionist totalitarianism?
  • Bibliography
  • Sincerity and Engagement
  • Politics of Contemporary Narration. Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005) as a Postmodern Realistic Novel
  • Bibliography
  • A Return of the Narrative in The Lair by Norman Manea
  • Bibliography
  • Sincerity in Recent Second World War Narrative. Authorial ethos, postmemory and re-enactment in the writings of Mendelsohn, Binet, Muñoz Molina and Lewinsky
  • Theoretical outline
  • The Lost. A Search for six of six million. Daniel Mendelsohn
  • HHhH - Laurent Binet
  • Sepharad - Antonio Muñoz Molina
  • Gerron - Charles Lewinsky
  • Concluding remarks
  • Bibliography
  • Dit violent de Mohamed Razane : le retour à la narration à travers l’engagement ?
  • La littérature de banlieue existe-t-elle ?
  • Dit Violent : le retour à la narration se fait à travers le social
  • Une volonté d’engagement entre souci du réel et volonté dénonciatrice
  • Bibliographie
  • “Life narrative. Karl Ove Knausgård’s Min Kamp - a move from fiction to reality?”
  • Bibliography
  • “La menace à la lisière de la fiction : trois personnages périphériques dans l’œuvre de Patrick Modiano”
  • La critique du personnage
  • Les personnages de Modiano
  • Trois personnages périphériques
  • Fonctions des personnages périphériques
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliographie
  • «Ecrire la fable du réel». Les Belles Âmes de Lydie Salvayre comme poétique d’un nouveau réalisme
  • Les Belles Âmes – roman réaliste ?
  • La voix narrative
  • Caractérisation des personnages par le discours
  • Flauchet – un auteur en quête de poétique
  • Commentaire et métadiscours : la poétique de la narratrice
  • Conclusion : écriture d’une aventure ou aventure de l’écriture ?
  • Bibliographie
  • Michel Houellebecq : un auteur post-postmoderne ?
  • Bibliographie

| 7 →

Suze van der Poll & Sabine van Wesemael (University of Amsterdam)


In The Map and the Territory (La Carte et le territoire, 2010), the novel that won Houellebecq the Prix Goncourt, the author presented both himself and Jed Martin, a fictional visual artist. When during their first meeting Jed asks the French novelist how an artist would approach a trivial object such as a central heating boiler, Houellebecq replies that a postmodern writer like Robbe-Grillet would have restricted himself to a detailed description of the boiler without paying attention to its narrative function. Houellebecq himself opposes such a dehumanized and formalist approach to literature, and emphasizes that a novel can be meaningful only when it is about recognizable characters and is based on an appealing story. He would have written a novel, a kind of thriller, about the illicit trade in boilers, a story where criminals accept bribes and are seduced by a sexy secretary - after all it still is a Houellebecqian novel. Houellebecq’s novels express the wish to restore the central position of the literary subject and the narrative plot, something which explains why many critics see him as an exponent of the contemporary neo-realist tendency that typifies literature worldwide.

Indeed the plot, causal, chronological and determinist, central in 19th century realist fiction but reviled by many a postmodern author, has justified its existence in a vast number of contemporary novels. Furthermore present-day fiction shows a penchant for characters described in a realist, detailed manner in a quotidian style, and once again makes sure that the story’s development and character development are imbued with references to contemporary society where mass media play an important role. Logically enough, ‘naturalism’ and ‘realism’ have become common denominators in reviews of today’s literature, but at the same time it is hard to ignore the fact that modernisms that have seen daylight in 20th century literature have left their marks. Realism is seen by many as postmodernism’s opposite, but even so postmodernist ideology and conception of art are, in one way or another, still incorporated in neo-realist texts. Writers like Houellebecq, Knausgård, Kracht portray alienated characters, they play with popular genres like travel literature, autobiography, the detective novel, to create a hybrid novel form that is frequently highly intertextual, both openly and covertly, making the contemporary novel an eclectic form of expression. Most of them are dystopian and seem to undermine political, philosophical or religious ← 7 | 8 → convictions. In short they are seen as examples of the Lyotardian ‘fin des grands récits’, and – perhaps as an illustration of the persistent tendency of critics to connect realism to 19th century sociocritical writing - are regularly criticized as lacking engagement. It might be added that there can be no doubt that reflection on the novel’s form, and its performative character, are central to many authors. Equally important is discussion of the relationship between fiction and reality, and the possibility of rendering reality – especially when reality seems to be difficult to render or when it is traumatic -.

The ambivalent relation to both the 19th century realist and naturalist traditions, and to the 20th century modern and post-modern tradition is most probably one of the reasons why there is no consensus over the designation of contemporary literature. It is in a way telling that terms like post-postmodernism, postrealism or late-postmodernism and even postmodern realism have been adopted to describe the hybridization of styles and genres. More interesting than trying to ‘solve’ the controversy, is the fact that early in the 21st century realism and postmodernism are still seen as central paradigms for the positioning and discussion of literature.

An important theme within the current literary debate is the central position of the ‘narrative’, more particularly, of the alleged ‘return of the narrative’. One could certainly argue whether it is a matter of ‘return’, or rather a continuum. Many a present-day author seems to endorse the view that old forms, provided they are examined critically, deserve to be restored. Hardly any writer of literature will disregard reflections on genre, style, the position of the literary subject, literary engagement, the importance of referentiality, all of which seem to be used to oppose pure experimental formalism. That doesn’t mean however, that they naively fall back on well-tried and tested recipes. The contributions to this volume illustrate the ambivalent attitude to modernism and post-modernism and realism or naturalism from different angles. The volume’s main intention is to illustrate that ‘the return of the narrative’ is a rather broad phenomenon in modern literature, to be considered in different ways. Rather than aiming to draw final conclusions, we prefer to exhibit the versatility of the notion of the ‘return of the narrative’, and to show how closely linked are tendencies like engagement, the historical, the biographical or auto-biographical, and the longing for authenticity. Although these tendencies in most narratives are coexistent, many of them seem to draw special attention to one or two of these. The contributions in the first part of the volume investigate how notions about the historical, and about engagement and sincerity are being discussed on a metatextual level. The case studies in the second part of the volume are less explicitly considered with these notions, the novels discussed all ponder over ← 8 | 9 → the dilemmas caused by longing for engagement and sincerity, and the (im)possibilities of employing the historical, the biographical or autobiographical.

The ambition to reinstate contact with the reader and with extra-textual reality can be seen as one of the main indicators of this alleged ‘return of the narrative’. Authors dwell upon social-political context, disassociate themselves from postmodern ironic relativism, and hail authenticity and sincerity. The essence of Karl Ove Knausgård’s project – which is doomed to fail - is to write ‘as it is’. Ian McEwan likewise tries to grasp reality. Although in his novel Saturday he is forced to acknowledge that literature might not be able to solve the world’s social and political issues, McEwan believes it can offer a reflection on various viewpoints and possibilities. In his Dit violent Mohamed Razane portrays in a realist manner the tremendous problems encountered by young immigrants in the Parisian banlieues. The author wishes to rail against the dead-end situations of the youngsters, often unemployed and doomed to finish up on the wrong side of the law, and appeals to the audience’s moral consciousness and responsibility. Lydie Salvaire chooses a similar ideological framework in Les belles âmes, in which a group of privileged French people have registered for an ‘instructive journey to the most dilapidated European suburbs’. By showing how the participants react to the deprived inhabitants of these slum areas, Salvaire criticizes the hypocrisy of the municipality. Norman Manea is clearly influenced by modernists like Proust, Joyce and Mann, by the French Nouveau Roman and Tel Quel movement, and he paints a shocking picture of recent Rumanian history in his novel The Lair. Manea’s work likewise serves to illustrate the tendency in contemporary prose fiction to engage with contemporary social-political reality and incite the audience to react. That approach might remind the reader of realist novels of the 19th century, but as Manea’s novel illustrates modern novelists simultaneously make use of modern and post-modern techniques such as metatextuality, intertextuality, and the hybridization of genres. They further distance themselves from the 19th century realist novels - often criticized for being too monosemetical - by refusing to provide simple solutions to the problems they touch on. Even in Manea’s critical novel metatextual remarks and intertextual digressions seem to outshine the plot.

The desire for authenticity and sincerity, combined with the resolve to write contemporary and socially engaged texts seems to account too for the fact that a vast amount of writers began to write down their own life stories, a tendency that manifested itself after 1980 in French literature and has since spread. Rather than being guided by inclusive ideologies, authors are inclined to describe ‘a small reality’, often narrowed down to their personal lives. These life stories are often characterized as ‘autobiographical’, but many authors of ‘autobiographical ← 9 | 10 → fiction’ play with or repudiate the personality cult that is central to many a traditional autobiography, illustrated by La Carte et le territoire where Houellebecq draws a hilarious, unedifying self-portrait, comparing himself with an old, sick turtle which spends its days watching television, drinks away his dissatisfaction, and is finally brutally killed. In a way it is significant that even representatives of the French Nouveau Roman, who once aimed to eliminate the literary subject, from the 1980s onwards began to publish autobiographical texts, although they were far from traditional. Texts like Nathalie Sarraute’s Enfance, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Le miroir qui revient and Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant demonstrate that the individual again has been accepted in literature.

Where Houellebecq ironically criticizes the popularity of the contemporary vanity document, Karl Ove Knausgård’s series illustrates that mediocrity is no longer taboo in this genre. The narrative of the anti-heroic author and family man can be read as a literary variant of the reality TV shows that have gained enormous popularity in recent years. Knausgård’s often banal account seems to dovetail with the ‘esthétique du laid’ of the 19th century realists, where everything can be seen as an subject for literary fiction although it must be acknowledged that Knausgård’s project aiming at ‘rendering reality as it is’ gradually forces him to think through the moral-ethical consequences of exposing real people, so that he must rethink the function of literature in society.

Socially engaged novels and novels with an autobiographical bias both refer emphatically to an external reality, something which explains the creation of novels that address not only personal stories but world history too, especially those dealing with the atrocities committed during the First and Second World Wars. The first witnesses of the Holocaust like Primo Levi and George Semprun were of the opinion that fiction could not be permitted in Holocaust literature, but subsequent generations have made such a radical viewpoint untenable. When only a few witnesses are left, authors are forced to resort to the so called ‘mentir/vrai’ strategy. That however doesn’t alter the fact that writers of Holocaust literature generally come out well-documented in order to render the historical facts authentically and with sincerity. Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, Laurent Binet’s HHhH and Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad all are based on a thorough study of historical sources, and simultaneously underline the fact that the process of establishing the truth can never be completed. The ethical dilemma of Holocaust literature, whether or not fiction is allowed, is still under discussion and all previously mentioned authors show their awareness of the point.

As pure realism is beyond the bounds of what is possible, the use of modern and post-modern literary techniques has become inevitable, while the distinction ← 10 | 11 → between literary fiction and historiography has become blurred. What is more, even here the effect of the biographical turn shows, illustrating not only the subjective character of historiography but also apparently offering a critical alternative to the notion of historiography as a ‘grand récit’. Alexis Jenni’s LArt français de la Guerre is a good illustration of that, being a fictional biography of a historical but unknown figure, the painter Victorien Salagnon. Salagnon’s life story serves as a point of departure for bringing together in the reader’s mind the French involvement in WWII, the Algerian War and the Gulf War. The extremely ironical text is fragmentary and contains several alternating plot lines, leaving the confused reader far behind when it comes to trying to decipher the novel’s ideological message. With his Imperium, a novel which is centred around the German idealistic colonist August Engelhardt, the Swiss novelist Christian Kracht shows how easily anti-modern and antidemocratic imperialistic philosophy becomes the subject matter of the entertainment industry while he simultaneously lays open that same industry to criticism. The genre of the historical novel is currently marked by the idea that historiography cannot be anything but hypothetical. Christoph Ransmayr’s The Terrors of Ice and Darkness gives an account of a historical polar expedition. Ransmayr makes use of historical documents like diaries, letters and drawings, but his novel is also peppered with metadiscursive commentaries, where the author confesses that he is forced to break with the conventions of the historical novel, needing to resort to strategies that undermine realism, such as intertextuality and the deconstruction of myths like the glorification of imperialism and the heroic ideal of Enlightenment, myths that have long defined historiography.

The shortcomings of traditional historiography explain why authors concentrate on less heroic, even marginal figures like the Italian poet Dino Campana who was ignored during his life. Sebastiano Vassalli invokes Campana, who suffered insanity, and allows himself to write a modern legend based on historical documents, but which also discusses the process of establishing truth. The text is a pastiche consisting of fragments from the writings of Campana. Patrick Delville too choses to centre his novel Peste & Choléra on a little known historical figure, the scientist Alexandre Yersin who developed a vaccine against pestilence. Like Vassalli, Delville carried out extensive research, but Yersin’s life story is above all a pretext to shed a critical light on all 20th century utopias. Yersin travels to Indochina and his sojourn there inspired Delville to chastise colonialism, meaning that like many a postmodern writer he is obliged to deconstruct reality in a highly ironic way.

The contemporary historical novel shares its hybrid character and its fusion of realist and postmodern traits with present-day autobiographical narratives. One of the most telling examples is the novel 54 by Wu Ming, a writers collective. ← 11 | 12 → 54 popularizes recent Italian history by incorporating archive material alongside oral testimonies and manifestations from popular culture. In a rewriting of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale the novel has Gary Grant adopting a new identity, as fact and fiction once again change places.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (January)
Postmoderne europäischer Roman Literaturgeschichrte Hermeneutik
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 226 pp.

Biographical notes

Sabine van Wesemael (Volume editor) Suze van der Poll (Volume editor)

Sabine van Wesemael is Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam where she teaches European literature. She has published several studies on the contemporary French novel, more precisely on the novels written by Michel Houellebecq. Sabine van Wesemael est maître de conférences à l’Université d’Amsterdam où elle enseigne la littérature européenne. Elle a publié des études sur le roman français contemporain, plus particulièrement sur l’œuvre de Michel Houellebecq. Suze van der Poll is Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam where she teaches European literature. Her main fields of research and publication are modern and 19th century Scandinavian literature as well as late-postmodern Norwegian literature. Suze van der Poll est maître de conférences à l’Université d’Amsterdam où elle enseigne la littérature européenne. Ses activités de recherche et de publication se concentrent sur la littérature scandinave moderne et du XIXe siècle ainsi que sur la littérature norvégienne du post-modernisme tardif.


Title: The Return of the Narrative: the Call for the Novel- Le retour à la narration : le désir du roman