Between the beginning of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century, a few literary inventions became predominant and grammaticalized. This transformation had two effects: it opened up new possibilities and sidelined others, pushing them “out of the pale of History.” This approach would be codified by the artists and critics of the twentieth century, but the phenomenon existed before the 1900s, since the modernist and avant-garde perception of aesthetic becoming was the extreme version of an attitude whose essential traits date back to Romanticism—in other words, to the time when the idea of a linear, irreversible transformation of forms entered into the discourse of European aesthetics. When Balzac talks about the new possibilities that Sir Walter Scott introduced into European narrative, he adopts the same mental schemas that the culture of the early twentieth century would revive.
By 1850 the European novel had already grammaticalized some of its innovations: the theatrical plot, the transparent writing style, and the new conceptual ether sensitive to historical dynamics had become part of the narrative field, one of the possibilities always available for use. In the same process, a few of the devices dear to eighteenth-century taste had become obsolete and were marginalized. The insularity that a substantial part of British fiction suffered from in the first half of the nineteenth century was partly due to the survival of techniques in English narrative that the continental novel, prevalently French, considered outdated but that Dickens or Thackeray continued to use as a matter of course: the comic mimesis of everyday life, poetic justice, and a philosophical ether composed of static, moralistic categories. Then, between the 1850s and the 1930s, the European novel absorbed into its grammar other groundbreaking devices: disjointed plots, new ways of imagining the psychic life, and new narrative mediations. These techniques were collectively accepted, altering the range of possibilities available to high-culture writers. At the same time, a few older possibilities (melodramatic plots, personages marked by a rigid charakter) passed into disuse: Balzac, writes Ortega y Gasset, sounds artificial and à-peu-près in 1925.
In the 1930s this evolutionary schema began to crack: innovations continued to exist, of course, but they no longer became part of the narrative grammar in the way they used to. Even when the new avant-garde movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s reintroduced extremely experimental narrative, the new approaches no longer had the force to change the repertoire of shared manners and failed to become institutions. Proust, Kafka, Woolf, Joyce, and Musil transformed European narrative far more deeply than Sarraute, Beckett, Claude Simon, Uwe Johnson, or Perec. This is not because their innovations were more radical, but because these earlier techniques came to be part of the shared narrative vocabulary. At the same time, the ability to expel, exclude, push out of the pale of history forms that were considered outdated seems to have diminished. As we noted, Western narrative written between the late 1930s and the 1950s, if viewed from a distance like a faraway landscape, appears to be less revolutionary than the narrative written during the three previous decades. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we can say that the innovations put forward by the second phase of the twentieth-century avant-gardes have remained confined to a big historical enclave. Furthermore, the imperative, binding character of novelty itself has dissolved: the idea spread that there exists a tradition of the new, a repertoire of experimentation that is equal and opposite to the repertoire of preservation, and that the art from the avant-garde belongs to a family, extends a genealogy, and is just as filled with epigones as art from the non-avant-garde. As a result, the new has lost prestige as a criterion of judgment, and works that might have been criticized for their technical backwardness at the time they were published, such as Buddenbrooks, Dr. Zhivago, and Grossman’s Life and Fate (or, in Italy, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Elsa Morante’s History), were less and less prone to these kinds of attacks. Contemporary arts form a disjointed region cohabited by diverse factions that evolves without following any telos.
Only during the past four decades has this perception become widespread, but the first signs of the discontinuity were perceptible as early as the late 1930s. They became fully visible at the same time that thought on the dialectic of enlightenment emerged—in other words when the crisis of the idea of progress became a theme of con temporary philosophical discussion. It became common currency during the years when tensions internal to mass societies, the development of totalitarianisms, and World War II transformed the way elite intellectuals in the West looked at history. The search for the new in the world of narrative already began to wane during the 1930s. But for the perception of this threshold to enter into common sense, the literary domain had to pass through another phase, one that was both artistic and political. This happened a few decades later, when the second wave of twentieth- century avant-gardes had become exhausted and mass trust in the future as progress or redemption had become tarnished. At this point, the understanding that arts in the West had entered a postmodernist period became pervasive. At the same time, discourses on the dwindling hope for a future radically different from the present extended from artistic domains into the form of life that incorporates these domains, and thought on artistic postmodernism became thought on the surpassing of the modern era, which is to say, on postmodernity.
Extracted from Theory of the Novel by Guido Mazzoni (translated by Zakiya Hanafi), published by Harvard University Press, £29.95. Copyright © 2017 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.