Experimental Champions: Three European Masterworks Worth Reconsidering

March 9, 2011 | 15 books mentioned 8 8 min read

Not many readers are in doubt that more than cold water separates America and the UK from Europe. Rediscovery of three European masterworks of the relatively recent past demonstrates one of the key aspects of this perennial cultural divide-the ability (perhaps freedom) of writers on the Continent to be applauded as experimentalists, while also being championed by the literary establishment. There are very few American or British writers who have managed this feat.

“The rocks do not need my memory or not.”

coverMan in the Holocene by Max Frisch: We begin with the German-writing Swiss author Max Frisch.  Born in Zurich, the son of an architect, he worked as an architect himself (winning a commission for a major public swimming pool) before a meeting with Bertolt Brecht sparked a change of direction.

Like his countryman Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Frisch initially achieved national and indeed international fame as a dramatist, but today he’s best remembered by English readers as a novelist.  In books such as I’m Not Stiller, Homo Faber and Montauk, he explores his signature themes of the crisis of personal identity, the inescapability of guilt, the possibility of innocence, and the inevitable disintegration of self—or what one reviewer describes as, “The tragedy of the Swiss penchant for precision colliding with the organic chaos of life and love, which it so desperately, secretly seeks.”

His most significant creation, however, may be the finely faceted gem Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän, Man in the Holocene.  Published in its entirety as a piece in The New Yorker (to my mind the most interesting thing they’ve ever done), it was counted by the New York Review of Books as the single most important work of 1980.

covercoverIn an age of epic fat books frantic to spin out multiple plotlines to demonstrate recommended retail value, we often forget the crystalline beauty of the tight, short novel… the apparently quiet story… the genius of simplicity.  And, in terms of plot, nothing could be simpler than this architecturally refined parable (which I liken to a mutation of James Purdy’s elegiac In a Shallow Grave and the elegant cytoplasmic wisdom of Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell).

Herr Geiser is an old man (or at least a man who’s old in habits and mind) who lives alone, which is to say in a hermetic state of intimacy with his total detachment from others, in a scenic but socially sterile Swiss valley inundated with rain and threatened with being cut off from all transportation and communication.  So, what does he do to pass the time?  He meticulously categorizes the nuances of the thunder and builds an infantile but intricate pagoda of crisp bread, while taking his scissors to his encyclopedias and reference library, pasting the pages on the walls around him like an externalized inventory of his own brain—the paper thin structure of beliefs his delicate grasp on truth and sanity has been.  These scrapbook images and excerpts are actually reproduced within the text, drawing us deeper into Geiser’s obsessive solipsism, while at the same time, calling us to search with him for our own place in the “grand scheme of things.”

The novel thus has an immediate graphic design interest that rivals anything William Burroughs ever did with his cut-up methods.  But the compulsive, kaleidoscopic anxiety of Geiser has a poignant degenerative end point.  As the storm intensifies, and the valley becomes more remote from the outside world, Geiser’s memory begins to fail.  Eventually, cerebral apoplexy strikes like the lightning outside, and his surgical quantification of data loses all coherence.

What he’s built with his slicings of store bought information is just another kind of crisp bread edifice… a jigsaw shrine of relics of human knowledge, which are supposed to be a tribute to man’s understanding of the world—an expression of security—some platform of factual certainty.  But how fragile this house of cards seems in the barren isolation of age and physical / mental infirmity.  Man in the Holocene, with its exacting line drawings of hypothetical dinosaurs and recitations of empty materialist schoolbook facts, is in the end a clinically lyrical poem about the futile heroism of our cultural narratives of evolution and history.  It’s also, and more importantly, an eloquently forensic portrait of profound personal loneliness and our hopeless dependence on memory to shape experience and to define meaning.  The result is a uniquely compelling fragment—a shred of the much-too-tiny shadow we’re all afraid we cast in time.

(For instructors in the field of 20th century literature, or for book clubs interested in this work, I highly recommend pairing with it Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper, which is available from New Directions.)

“On the polished wood of the table, the dust has marked the places occupied for a while—for a few hours, several days, minutes, weeks—by small objects subsequently removed, whose outlines are still distinct for some time, a circle, a square, a rectangle, other less simple shapes, some partly overlapping, already blurred or half obliterated as though by a rag.  When the outline is distinct enough to permit the shape to be identified with certainty, it is easy to find the original object again not far away.”

coverIn the Labyrinth by Alain Robbe-Grillet: There was a period (in fact about two decades) when Alain Robbe-Grillet wasn’t only one of the most famous writers in France, but in the whole world.  Born into a family with a technical and scientific background, he trained as a chemical engineer, until like Frisch, he found his true calling, writing Les Gommes (The Erasers).  On the surface, and surface is the key word with this author, The Erasers is a mystery story, where a police agent named Wallas stalks an unknown assassin through a nameless puzzleboard Flemish town—although it may be that like Winnie the Pooh and the Woozle that wasn’t, he’s really tracking himself.  Nothing is certain.  The only thing the reader can be sure of is the laser precise detail in which all that isn’t clear is described, catalogued and analyzed.

covercovercoverRobbe-Grillet would go on to write such works as The Voyeur and Jealousy, along with the script to the notoriously formless avant garde film Last Year at Marienbad (which draws on the haunted novella The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, referenced tellingly in the television show Lost).

But perhaps his greatest influence was as a scientist of the nouveau roman in For a New Novel:  Essays on Fiction.  It’s here that he articulates his “theory of pure surfaces,” a radical rejection of conventional characterization that emphasizes instead an obsessive phenomenological objectivity.  As Roland Barthes put it, “Imagine the motionless changes of orientation produced by a mirror-image as being somehow decomposed and distributed throughout a certain period of time and you have the art of Alain Robbe-Grillet.”

The impact was powerful in both the world of literature and popular culture.  On national radio, sections of Robbe-Grillet’s seemingly manically fastidious descriptions of apparently banal objects and scenes were recited for humorous effect.  Yet, no one could deny the hypnotic nature of his language or the sincerity of his assault on traditional narration, and its distorting (or revealing) effect on our sense of time and animacy.

I find the best introduction to his work (and therefore his distinctive point of view) to be In the Labyrinth, which picks up on several of the themes as well as the fraught mood of The Erasers.

It’s the story of an anonymous soldier who wanders wearily after a lost battle through a shadowy unnamed city on a mission given to him by a dying friend to deliver a package whose contents he doesn’t know.  Plagued by fever and the imminent arrival of enemy forces, disoriented and alone, the soldier’s confrontation with the maze of the city becomes the structure of the book, and the city takes on a sense of ominous character of its own.

As readers will perceive, there are more than a few echoes of Kafka, Beckett, Camus and Borges…but what distinguishes Robbe-Grillet’s story is his style and vision, with its relentless examination and prosecution of minutiae.  This short, disarmingly seductive novel is a remarkable example of suspense created while defying all its usual mechanisms, and a crispness of prose that crackles and rings while blatantly opposing all the assumed notions of poetic writing.

(I recommend reading Robbe-Grillet in conjunction with Harold Pinter’s early, career-building plays and some of his extremely lucid remarks on his process of writing—a philosophical approach to character and the nature of drama arising from all that is unsaid and only partially seen.  Both writers are published by Grove Press.)

“He does not know any more about the rules of the game than they do, but he feels they are in the process of being born from every one of the players, as on an infinite chessboard between mute opponents, where bishops and queens turn into dolphins and toy satyrs.”

coverThe Winners (Or the Biggest Losers) by Julio Cortázar: Julio Cortázar, the polymath hipster, should’ve won the Nobel Prize in my view, but he was always too cool for school.  Some will argue with me for including this Argentinean author in the European category, and insist on classifying him as part of the Latin American revolution in literature.  I defend my position by pointing out that Cortázar was born in Brussels, spent his early childhood in Switzerland and produced all his major works in Paris, where he finally died.  What’s more, although he wrote about South America, his key influences were surrealism, the nouveau roman, American jazz and Lawrence Durrell—and he was deeply admired in Spain.

covercovercoverLater renowned for the novels Hopscotch, 62: A Model Kit, and the collection of short stories Blow-Up (which inspired the Michelangelo Antonioni film), his first work translated into English was Los Premios (The Winners).

I found this book at a garage sale and I earnestly encourage you, if you don’t know it, not to leave your discovery of it to such random circumstance.  (Although, as the story gives sinister suggestion to, just how random is anything?)

This wasn’t Cortázar’s first novel, but it was his first novel translated into English, and it has some of the sprawling ambition of the young writer.  The amazing thing is the degree of polish and confidence it displays in the face of its own complexity.  To quote from the book’s jacket:  “A luxury cruise ship sets sail from Buenos Aires.  The passengers are a lively and unlikely mix who have all won their trips in a national lottery.  At first the mood is festive.  But all is not well on board the Malcolm.  No one will reveal the boat’s destination; the crew barricades itself behind locked doors in the stern and a looming sense of menace gradually builds to an explosion.”

The Hospital Ship… Das Narrenschiff or the Ship of Fools, has been a staple allegory of Western literature for a long time.  The dramatic potential of a group of strangers in a confined space cut off from the rest of the world is rich.  But Cortázar more than exploits the obvious, and insinuates that which is decidedly not obvious.  Consider this suspiciously graceful remark from not quite the half-way point in the book:  “I don’t think there’s really any joke being played, but that we’re simply the victims of a swindle.  Not just an ordinary swindle of course, but something more…metaphysical, if you don’t mind that awful word.”  Indeed.  The passengers of the Malcolm may not have any choice in the matter.

Just as Frisch’s work captures our contemporary fixation on trivia, and Robbe-Grillet the almost brutally democratic indifference of the camera eye and the paranoia of surveillance, Cortázar shows us the sweepstakes frenzy of reality TV well ahead of his time.  Imagine The Poseidon Adventure written by a first rate mind, or Lost without the grievously disappointing finale… and you have some idea.

(For readers with a musical background, I can’t recommend highly enough some of Cortázar’s journalistic pieces on jazz.  Some of what may seem elusive or obscure in his fiction has an immediate clarity of intent and delivery when seen from this vantage point.)

Summing Up
There are certainly many other European (and world) writers who have managed to earn reputations within the literary establishment while innovatively pushing the boundaries of style and structure.  To some extent my larger point here is that we rather expect this of European authors and do a great deal to inhibit it in Americans.

In singling out the particular (or peculiar) writers above, I don’t mean to elevate their work over others, merely to highlight three decisive, accessible and accomplished novels of exploration that deserve rediscovery.

is the author of the novels Zanesville and Private Midnight, and a collection of short stories Sinister Miniatures. His latest novel Enigmatic Pilot comes out on March 22 from Del Rey Books.


  1. As a European, it’s kind of sad to know on how much fun you Americans are missing out. (though i tend to read a lot of novels that originate in the US or the UK)

  2. This essay has a curious premise. I guess it depends first what you mean by “experimental” writing. Recyclings of the 100 year-old avant-garde? Surrealism, which has been done into the ground? The much-applauded David Foster Wallace? (See the icon of the U.S. literary establishment, The New Yorker.) You cite the execrable Robbe-Grillet. His feckless experiments were 50 years ago. They’re applauded by intellectuals everywhere– not just by you.
    One reason that literature is in such feeble shape in America, compared to other cultural forms like movies, popular music, sports, even AM radio!, is that the premises of the lit establishment remain embedded in the dead-end intellectual mold of what is generally grouped together and called postmodernism.
    For examople, n + 1 posits itself as publishing experimental/cutting edge fiction. The guys behind it, Columbia and Harvard grads, are from and of the intellectual establishment. Everything they produce is aimed at the tastes and assumptions of the literary elite– which is why the editors often write for pillars of the establishment like The New Yorker, New York Times, New York Review of Books et.al.
    The only true experimenting which has taken place in American literature in the last fifteen years has occurred in the print underground– the zine scene mostly, which pioneered new ways of looking at and presenting the art. Art done by true outsiders scorned by anything and everything smacking of the establishment.
    Experimenting does NOT mean recycling what you learned in a college classroom. Once an art starts to be taught in universities– jazz, rock n roll– its energy and relevance, its radicalism, has dissipated. It’s become institutionalized. One looks for change and newness elsewhere.
    We’re in a new century, my man. It’s time for truly new art and new ideas.
    Just my inflation-adjusted 0.02 cents worth.

  3. Karl, I’m not sure what YOUR premise is. I totally agree with you about the crisis of experimentation in American writing–and the implied causative problem of the creative writing programs or simply academia at large. But I very much disagree with your assessment of Robbe-Grillet, as “feckless,” which is just a subjective toss-off that’s not supported by the wide range of critical response his work has received–and I certainly don’t think he’s been as embraced as widely by intellectuals as you state. I don’t see any evidence for that claim in the current curricula of major US universities or colleges, and the recent reviews or reconsiderations of his work echo my position that further review is deserved.

    None of the three writers I examine recycled anything that they didn’t also reinvent. Besides, all art in any form is a recycling, and Picasso and Joyce, who both pushed boundaries well beyond most artists, couldn’t have agreed more.

    In the end, I think my premise is anything but curious, and more likely to be criticized as obvious–European publishers and audiences allow for more lateral and diagonal work in their popular culture. I don’t see you actually disagreeing with that–more with the examples I’ve selected. I couldn’t agree more with you in that it’s time for new art and new ideas. It always is. I for one am willing to look anywhere I can for that.

  4. My premise is that there’s nothing any longer remotely “cutting edge” about Robbe-Grillet (“one of France’s most important avant-garde writers of the 1950’s” per an obituary) or the others you cite.
    You contradict yourself in a single sentence when you refer me to the “wide range of critical response” to RG’s work, then state you “don’t think he’s embraced as widely by intellectuals as you state.”
    Not taught? Not embraced? Compared to who? To say, James Gould Cozzens, whose Guard of Honor is a hundred times more relevant to explaining our civilization, who runs that civilization and how it operates?
    Robbe-Grillet is in fact a staple of modern fiction and world literature courses. Probably where I first encountered him a couple decades ago, and likely where you did as well.
    A quick check finds him being taught in universities far and wide recently, in places like Yale, Rutgers, Brown, Temple, Fairleigh Dickinson, ad infinitum.
    As you suggest, scores of books of criticism have been published about him. He’s been the subject of colloquiums and symposiums. He’s been interviewed by Paris Review, and reviewed by the New York Times (“Jealousy is a technical masterpiece.”) Robbe-Grillet is about as accepted by the intellectual elite as one can get.
    Please understand what I’m saying. I’m not saying the Three you discuss recycled anything. I’m referring to writers of today, who wish to recycle the Three’s ideas.
    There’s something heroically dogged about fans of Robbe-Grillet. They so much want to believe! RG stripped his fiction of anything of interest to an intelligent reader– plot, character depth, knowledge, history, insight, the greater world; notably, of ideas. Every reason that a person will read and enjoy and learn from “War and Peace” or “The Octopus” is missing from Robbe-Grillet. He gives the reader instead, with “laser precise detail,” the observations of an undiscriminating house cat. Reading his fiction is an act of faith. A determination to accept that what the tailors wove for the ruler is visible for all to see.
    When the literary establishment raises Robbe-Grillet to a place of high value, it sends potential readers fleeing from literature. Especially intelligent readers without the patience to appreciate boredom and nothingness.
    The typical Robbe-Grillet classroom: No one will speak up and say, “Uh, this isn’t very good.” A minority of ambitious students like yourself will accept everything the professor tells you. The rest tune out, making mental notes not to take another “Literature” course.
    That’s the reality, my friend.
    My premise is that the only reason you’re discussing these from-another-era authors is exactly because they were and are taught in academe That they ARE accepted by the intellectual establishment, as, say, a current experimental writer like James Nowlan surely is not.
    I’m not intentionally being confrontational. I’m asking for objectivity; to see things as they are and not how we pretend them to be.
    Thank you for your time.
    Have a good day.

  5. Karl, I think your complaint with this is merely with the authors I’ve chosen and your assertion of a different and better definition of experimentalism–an unsubstantiated position that you are of course welcome to. I’m pleased though you consider me an “ambitious student.” That’s very kind.

  6. For anyone interested in Frisch: Seagull Books, an imprint of U of Chicago, has just come out with a newly translated work (at least I can’t find any listing for the book in any previous form on Bookfinder) titled “An Answer from the Silence.”

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