Experimental Literature Today

This post was contributed by Madelaine Bowman, writer, and soon-to-be student on Birkbeck’s MA Modern and Contemporary Literature

Experimental-Literature-TodayOver 40 years after its original publication, Philippe Sollers’ groundbreaking novel H has now been published in English for the very first time.

As part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week, Dr David Vichnar and Professor Luis Armand – editors of Prague-based literary magazine VLAK – visited the college to give a talk on this innovative novel, now considered one of the most important literary works of the twentieth century.

As a soon-to-be postgraduate student of modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck, it was with great intrigue and excitement that I listened to Dr Vichnar and Professor Armand discuss the ways in which H, published in 1973, continues to challenge preconceived notions of literature in the twenty-first century.

Challenging traditional literary forms

Written as a continuous stream of consciousness with no plotline, characters or punctuation to speak of, H explores the limitations of language, posing a challenge to traditional literary forms as well as the notion of readability as we know it.

Supporting Roland Barthes’ assertion in his 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’ that literary works should be decoded according to the reader’s subjective interpretation as opposed to the author’s intentions or biographic history, H disassociates itself from its author and effortlessly reinvents itself with every new reading.

Like all things avant-garde, it confidently ignores traditional formal and intellectual expectations, taking each reader out of their comfort zone and transporting them into a new way of reading and thinking about literature.

A musical text

During the first half of the talk Dr Vichnar reiterated Julia Kristeva’s insights on H, describing it as a musical text more akin to poetry than prose in form and content. Offering no other way of decoding meaning than through subjective interpretation, H, he told us, recognises each reader as a vital and active part of its own existence.

In the words of Sollers himself, “A work exists by itself only potentially, and its actualization (or production) depends on its readings and on the moments at which these readings actively take place.”

Professor Armand in the second half made a connection between Sollers’ experimental writing style and the rise of the free jazz movement in the mid-twentieth century, delivering his talk with the noodly rhythms of Anthony Braxton’s For Alto playing in the background throughout.

Where traditionally punctuated novels, like more structured forms of jazz, offer at least some kind of narrative cohesion, H provides nothing more than language and therefore forces the reader to independently decide how each of the words relate to one another. In this sense, any meaning that is derived from the novel must take stock of the present moment and relate in some way to the personal experience of the reader.

Experimental literature today

Clear from the beginning of the talk was the passion of both speakers, not only for H, but for the avant-garde in general, as they each conveyed a deep appreciation for the significant role that writers such as Sollers have played in terms of the production of experimental literature today.

Providing fascinating insights into H as a highly creative and influential text, both Dr Vichnar and Professor Armand are to be commended for the depth of their research and for the enthusiasm with which they communicated to the audience. Having gone into the talk with next to no knowledge of Sollers or his work, I am now looking forward to embarking upon my own interpretative journey through H.

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