Alain Robbe-Grillet Essay - Robbe-Grillet, Alain (Vol. 1)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain (Vol. 1)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain 1922–

A French novelist and critic, Robbe-Grillet is associated with the New Novelists and is the author of The Voyeur, In the Labyrinth, and Last Year at Marienbad. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)

Robbe-Grillet's narrative technique, which focuses on a description of objects in space, has frequently provoked hostility and incomprehension in readers and critics. Abstract, geometric descriptions, however, represent an oblique authorial intrusion into a narrative from which the author seems to have been refined out of existence. The intent of geometric and arithmetic descriptions, then, is to communicate distance—that necessary "distance" between man and Nature—whereas the more conventional descriptions (there are gradations) are to communicate the type and intensity of a particular character's "complicity." Robbe-Grillet has, therefore, written novels from which he, as an author, appears to be absent (insomuch as he does not openly intrude to comment on the story as so many traditional novelists would) but which, nevertheless, communicate his point of view. Almost everything "seen" in the novel depends on the particular selectivity of the protagonist's eye. This selectivity communicates his psychological state of mind which is not analysed—Robbe-Grillet rejects this kind of authorial intrusion—but seen. Robbe-Grillet has, therefore, masterfully combined Editorial Omniscience (the author's oblique comment) and Selective Omniscience (what the main character sees) into one simultaneous narrative technique—a new and important artistic achievement. (pp. xvi-xvii)

Robbe-Grillet's novels, though they might seem antipodal to Sarraute's, also reveal an extreme fascination and preoccupation with the workings of the mind and the subconscious…. Thus Robbe-Grillet in Le Voyeur will describe bits of string, a rusty piton, figure eight shapes, and a very young girl as seen through the eyes of the watch salesman, Mathias. These apparently unconnected objects will, in the course of the novel, reveal Mathias' sexuality and the nature of his crime. (p. 10)

Robbe-Grillet traces the inner psychological world of his protagonists as it registers on environmental objects and stimuli. Here is manifest on Robbe-Grillet … the influence of the movies…. Flashbacks in his novels have the same function and are described in the same way that a flashback occurs on the screen: it is seen in the present and the viewer or reader reacts to the film on the screen or to the "inner film" of the protagonist's memory (when it is being described) as though it were happening now rather than in the past or in an imaginary future. The identity [of] technique between Last Year at Marienbad and his novels is evident. This emphasis on events occurring in the present is, along with the limitation of the point of view, the most interesting phenomenon of the "new novel." (pp. 11-12)

[Robbe-Grillet] can write what seem to be "technique" novels and at the same time make a significant statement about the human situation. His novels are not pure form, as many critics affirm, but the perfect artistic fusion of content and meaning which is its form. This is no small achievement and I would venture to say that Robbe-Grillet is one of the most important French novelists since Camus. (p. 15)

Though Robbe-Grillet's technique as a novelist differs from Sartre's it is, nevertheless, strongly dependent on his thought as philosopher and theoretician. Robbe-Grillet admits that he was never able to finish or understand L'Etre et le néant (Being and Nothingness), yet his novels, by stressing the distance between man and things, suggest the void, the "nothingness," which is the basis for so much of Sartre's theoretical writing. (pp. 30-1)

There are virtually no tactile or olfactory sensations in Robbe-Grillet's novels. Perception is primarily visual, less frequently auditory. This is due to the fact that sight not only includes many degrees of perception, but is, according to Robbe-Grillet, the most efficient way of recording the separation between man and objects. An optical description, he says, is the best device with which to record the inherent neutrality of things since the human glance, devoid of tactile sensations, or uncontaminated by color, allows them to remain in their respective places. (p. 33)

Robbe-Grillet's heroes are the victims and not the masters of the world they inhabit. His novels to date indicate that man is subservient to his own sense of tragic complicity. Insomuch as man does not seem to have evolved beyond this stage Robbe-Grillet's novels are a reflection of and a statement on the human condition. (p. 41)

Robbe-Grillet has been criticized for his undue preoccupation with technique—for the absence of content in his novels. But since the form of his novels is its content, Robbe-Grillet emerges as an oblique moralist who is trying, within the context of Labyrinthe to give his reader an historical as well as a personal self-consciousness. (p. 89)

[Tragedy], which stresses the fact that the tragic element in man is to be found within himself, though not new, has found a new means of expression. La Jalousie, for instance, represents a heightened intensity of emotion verging on the poetic. The "new man" Robbe-Grillet refers to in his essay "nouveau roman—homme nouveau" will be, unlike the jealous husband, an integrated being. Robbe-Grillet's characters are all schizoids. Their conscious and subconscious lives operate on different levels and it is precisely this separation which leads Wallas and Mathias to murder. The alienation of self stems from the fact that man can and does infuse objects with human meaning. This process is inevitable, no doubt, and all of us use it. The danger, however, derives from any subservience to such objects…. The novel, as Robbe-Grillet envisages it, is a demonstration of what happens to those who refuse to accept the "distance" between themselves and the external world. This complicity is a prison which, due to unresolved psychological complexes, makes people project human meaning into "neutral" objects. These objects, in turn, influence behavior; they are the mirrors of subsconscious desire, fear, anxiety which act cumulatively, heighten tension, and exercise reciprocal action. The novel of the future, as Robbe-Grillet defines it, is one which will explore all the possible facets and manifestations of such "tragic complicity." (p. 140)

Ben F. Stoltzfus, in his Alain Robbe-Grillet and the New French Novel (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press; "Crosscurrents/Modern Critiques" Series), Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.

Alain Robbe-Grillet is best known to the wider public by his ciné-roman Last Year at Marienbad, in which he used the camera as he does point of view—much to the bewilderment of the spectators. The cinema has in certain ways robbed the subjective novel of some of its novelty: it can achieve with great ease what the novelist must struggle to do within the straitjacket of language. Sound and sight can be conveyed to the spectator in actual—not approximate—simultaneity; the rapid succession of images, as well as the focusing upon minute and concrete detail, gives the cinema the power to "show" reality, not merely evoke it. Moreover, the camera-eye itself, constantly shifts the angles of vision. Out of such devices Marienbad was created. By these same means, Robbe-Grillet has built such novels as La Jalousie and Le Voyeur.

To say this however—to recognize the properties of the camera—is not to deny the power of words…. [There] are two realisms. The realism of the photograph and the realism of language. The photograph is life, sharp, focused, real. And it feels just about as large as life, even though everything in it is reduced in size. The verbal realism is larger than life. The picture is fact. The words are feeling.

Robbe-Grillet would like very much to achieve naked "fact" in his prose. He addresses himself constantly to this end. He recognizes that the novel is a meeting of two experiences—the writer's and the reader's. He also insists that the work of fiction is itself an object, isolated, condensed, a package of words, a statement only of its own reality, enduring only so long as it is read. In a literal sense, this is true; save that the novel endures also within the felt sense of time within the reader: and this is what Robbe-Grillet seeks…. But his wish to render an "impermeable world," we suspect will never be achieved. For no such world exists. Everything is in the eye of the beholder, even the camera eye, which takes its being from the eye of the photographer. Admirable perhaps in his desire to achieve super-objectivity, Robbe-Grillet ends in the subjective camp.

Leon Edel, in his The Modern Psychological Novel, Grosset & Dunlap-Universal Library, 1964 (© 1964 by Leon Edel; reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, Inc.), pp. 183-85.

Robbe-Grillet's entire creative work, as in the case of a Picasso or a Stravinsky, may be seen as a basic unity evolving through distinct stylistic phases. "Stylistic" is used here, of course, not in the rhetorical sense, but in the sense of organized forms. For, the idea that form is essential to the novel is a fundamental tenet of Robbe-Grillet. "What is important for me in the novel," he remarked to me recently, "is structure, or form. This is why I appreciate a 'bad' novel like The Postman Always Rings Twice. It is structured. The accident happens twice, in the same way but with different results." One could point out that in his own novels, Robbe-Grillet has employed the doubling of events in circular structures not dissimilar to that of Cain's Postman: the two "identical" murders of The Erasers, the apparent repetition of events in Last Year at Marienbad, even two "identical" automobile accidents, as in Cain's novel, in the film L'Immortelle. But form in Robbe-Grillet is a far more complicated matter than mere over-all or general patterns. Form for him involves serial arrangements of objects having specific designs (figures-of-eight, V's, Y's, and other patterns), interior duplications of themes and characters, restructured chronology, and many more devices. (p. 5)

It is also possible to point out certain obviously pathological aspects of Robbe-Grillet's fiction. These have led some critics, like Otto Hahn, to attempt to psychoanalyze the author: the sadism of The Voyeur, the paranoia of Jealousy, the hypersuggestibility and folie à deux of Marienbad becomes a pretext for engaging in speculations concerning Robbe-Grillet's attitude toward his mother and other aspects of his psyche. Robbe-Grillet is, of course, quite aware of the pathological elements in his work. "I feel like the most normal of men," he said one evening in Paris, "yet most of my main characters are mad." (p. 6)

Robbe-Grillet's importance is already intensely felt. Literary criticism of his works is currently proliferating. Robbe-Grillet has recently placed himself frankly in the Stendhal-Balzac-Flaubert-Proust-Gide tradition. Is this too ambitious? For the moment, it would seem that it is not. To moderns, Robbe-Grillet is a master creator. (p. 45)

Bruce Morrissette, in his Alain Robbe-Grillet ("Columbia Essays on Modern Writers," No. 11), Columbia University Press, 1965.

From the publication of his first novel, Robbe-Grillet became the center of an unusually engaging critical dialogue; his works have been preferred objects of analysis for several of the most interesting contemporary French critics…. In retrospect, it seems clear that his novels immediately coincided with some of the central preoccupations of an important segment of "new criticism" in France: a renewed attention to the structures of literature, to rhetoric, to écriture—writing itself. When Robbe-Grillet himself turned to criticism, it was evident that his formulations owed as much to his critics (especially Barthes) as to extrapolation from his own novelistic practice; his criticism is really the scene of a dialectic between his fictional manner and a critical language in the process of formation, and this confers considerable interest on the essays (written between 1953 and 1963) of For a New Novel. Incomplete, occasionally polemical and sometimes illogical, they are important gropings toward a new rhetoric of the novel….

Robbe-Grillet's use of time, his creation of an eternal present of the indicative which gives equal status to what is "happening" and what is only imagined or desired, is designed … to counter our natural reaction to rewrite certain pages in the conditional, others in the subjunctive, and so on. Robbe-Grillet's rhetoric both prevents us from allegorizing and reading content into reality, and charges reality with a creative emotional potentiality. He succeeds in giving us a sense of presence (a word he uses to describe the effect of Beckett's plays) which is nonsymbolic and nonutilitarian, but not at all nonaffective….

Robbe-Grillet's collage of images has a certain shiny beauty, and his narrative is rapid and supple…. And in its play of excitements and disappointments, La Maison de Rendez-vous is entertaining (as most of Robbe-Grillet's novels indeed are). But it never really gets beyond collage: it remains too captive to the artificiality and banality of its materials. It does not possess the strong necessity felt in The Voyeur and Jealousy, where the rigorous exclusions and insistences of the chosen glance forced a radical renewal of vision.

Peter Brooks, "A La Carte," in Partisan Review, Winter, 1967, pp. 128-31.

Robbe-Grillet's highest purpose is to find freedom (in a somewhat Sartrian sense) by putting things back out in reality where they belong. "Les choses sont les choses, et l'homme n'est que l'homme." He deplores the Greco-Christian tradition of man as the measure of all things. This tradition implies a superior order common to all men and things—in short, a metaphysical order. He asserts that the universe outside man has no meaning, metaphysics being only the result of a false complicity between it and man. Man is free to break this "pact" at any time. By purging the universe of gratuitous meaning man regains his freedom.

Jack Murray, "Mind and Reality in Robbe-Grillet and Proust," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1967 (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 407-20.

In his novels Robbe-Grillet has attempted to provide the first examples of this 'objective' literature. The town in Les Gommes, with its streets, its houses and its canal, is the dominant 'presence' of the novel. On the other hand, the characters enjoy no more than a shadowy existence, silhouettes that move at the will of mechanisms we do not understand. What strikes the reader more than anything is the perfection of the mechanism, which operates like a piece of clockwork, and by which, in the course of a moment-by-moment annotation of gestures and actions, the author succeeds in creating a continuum which itself acts as an interrogation of the narrative. It is neither the chronology of human actions, nor that of clocks, but the chronology of Robbe-Grillet himself. And the action plays so great a role that the work turns into a sort of detective novel. Les Gommes signalled the presence of a new and vigorous talent, but not a new novel-form….

With La Jalousie, 1957, Robbe-Grillet abandons altogether both story and coherent, or even clearly recognizable characters. He presents us with a kaleidoscope of actions, or rather visions of actions (real or imaginary) which are jumbled together with no sense of passing time…. The solid world of objects seems to be the result of a vision, or a hallucination, and if the facts and events lack that 'depth' that the author denies to them, they also lack qualities that would make their existence credible. The extreme pursuit of objectivity is confused with the worst subjectivity: we see the world through the eyes of a jealous husband. This might even be its entire construction.

We must not conclude from this that Robbe-Grillet does not know what he is about, or that he has failed to create the world that he set out to create, or that his instrument has proved inadequate. The conquest of objectivity is an illusion, in so far as we use a language which cannot be that of things, which are by definition dumb. It is a human language: moreover, it is the novelist's language…. The full world of which Robbe-Grillet draws up his inventory is, in fact, an empty world, devoid of meaning until man brings to it the complex relationships and dialectics that make of it a human world, even at the point at which an individual wishes to be absorbed into the world of things and objects. This wish to disappear, to be absorbed, also springs from subjectivity….

In confining himself to creating images, and nothing but images, which, instead of succeeding each other, associate, combine, collide, jostle and merge together, the author blurs the reality that these images are supposed to be expressing, knocks away the support that reality was providing for them. What is the role here of the objective inventory, of dream and of hallucination? The reader is placed before a complex of mirrors, no doubt real in themselves, which project images but do not produce them. Robbe-Grillet achieves a result which is the exact opposite of the one that his theory set out to produce. This defeat of a controversial theoretician is the victory of a novelist. Robbe-Grillet has finally admitted that objectivity and subjectivity form the two complementary sides of his apprehension of the world and that the excess of one could be transformed into the other.

Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A. M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; © 1967 by Methuen and Co., Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, pp. 129-32 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).

The novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet—especially his best-known, Jealousy—are interested in solid objects, not in vague flights of metaphysical or religious or psychological or political speculation. They represent the end of the old pathetic fallacy, in which objects threw back a radar echo of man's own emotions: the world of man and the world of things have lost the fanciful, even sentimental, link that was forged by human egoism. In Jealousy (which is a thrilling enough 'human' story if we are bold enough to skip) Robbe-Grillet is almost geometrical in his approach to the exterior world. Things are themselves, not symbols or metaphors, and Robbe-Grillet is devoted enough to things to be called a chosiste.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, p. 186.

Contrary to Robbe-Grillet's pronouncements that characters no longer exist in fiction, he has created as fully as most authors are capable characters who may be spoken of as real and full people; one learns about them as they expose their consciousnesses to the reader. And they are each sufficiently conscious to display themselves not only in the functioning of their minds, but also in their ability to watch themselves as they act out given situations….

Robbe-Grillet is not telling stories as much as he is creating characters; and then, not really creating characters either as much as creating an atmosphere for a character. An atmosphere remains only for a limited period of time; therefore, Robbe-Grillet's novels never take place over a period of more than a day or two.

George H. Szanto, "The Internalized Reality of Robbe-Grillet," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 1, 1970, pp. 28-42.

[The] interpretive trap in Jealousy is not only a potential threat to our sanity; it's also a test of our literary sophistication. With brilliant perversity, Robbe-Grillet has written a work which plunges us into chaos and stifles criticism by the very strategy used to lure us into trying to make critical sense of the work….

A… and Franck [protagonists of Jealousy], so to speak, are moving ahead in literary history—toward a Robbe-Grillet novel—with their multiple versions of a story. We, on the other hand, may be longing to regress to the clear and trustworthy plot and characters of the fiction they treat with so little respect. But we are of course punished for giving in to this temptation. A… and Franck can perhaps enjoy their imaginary adventures because they can always return to the unchangeable "reality" of their novel. But our relation to whatever story there may be in Jealousy isn't the same as theirs to the novel they are reading; rather, it's similar to the husband's relation to that novel. He apparently would like to know what's in the novel in the hope that it will tell him something about A… and Franck; but, instead of ending up with an unattackable version of the story, he tries out contradictory versions of the novel which lead nowhere and which could go on endlessly….

The recurrent spot—la tache—in Robbe-Grillet's fiction has obvious psychological meanings. It is the crime in The Voyeur, and in Jealousy the outlines of the centipede's crushed body on the wall evoke Franck's sexual power and finally even A…'s existence. In their guilt, panic, and anger, the Robbe-Grilletian heroes seek to erase the source of their guilt, or to blot out the object of their sadistic desires. More generally, we might think of the spot in Robbe-Grillet's work as the very allowance he makes for such extreme psychological adventures. In a sense, the obsessional content of these fantasies is less important than the literary safety which they guarantee. Robbe-Grillet's narrators often attempt to describe a world of sharply delineated forms, a world "sans faille," "sans bavures." Psychologically, the "fault" or "smudge" may be a crime; esthetically, it suggests, on the contrary, the open-ended, non-purposeful proliferation of fantasy which the criminal imagination transforms into an elaborate but predictable and decipherable system of psychological symbolism. And Robbe-Grillet's most convincing novelistic freedoms have been achieved to the extent that he has been able to dispense with the peculiar comfort and security which such systems provide for art.

Leo Bersani, "Narrative Murder" (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Yale Review, Spring, 1970, pp. 376-90.

[Robbe-Grillet] achieved in the mid-fifties a reputation as a kind of enfant terrible …, whilst obscuring the fact that as a creator of fiction he was highly original and ingenious and much more of a poet than he liked to admit.

His first two published novels, The Erasers and The Voyeur, are his most conventional, but throughout them there are hints at the direction he would take in his more mature work—both make use of nonlinear chronology, melodrama, 'sensational' subject matter, both present imaginary scenes as if they were 'real', feature as hero obsessive and pathological characters, and contain those long and quasi-scientific descriptions of inanimate objects which have become his 'trademark'….

Falsely and immodestly Robbe-Grillet makes the same claim for In the Labyrinth as he does for Kafka's novels—that it has no allegorical significance. To state that In the Labyrinth is allegorical isn't to suggest that it's some sort of veiled tract on the quest for grace, God, grail or some other great unknown, but simply to point out that a completely self-sufficient book is impossible to make, that a work which sets out to do that becomes, as it does in this case, allegorical of the process of writing such a book. In the Labyrinth is not Kafkaesque, whereas the Czech set out to make us believe that K really was banging his head against a brick wall, Robbe-Grillet is content to convince no one, preferring to give us his unknown soldier (I've granted him semi-mythical stature) as nothing more or less than a figment of his imagination. Of course, every character in every other novel ever written, including those bastard books, fictionalised non-novels, non-fiction novels, documentary … etc., is a figment of an author's imagination, but very few of them, authors or characters, admit it as they proceed across the page. However, the imagination of which In the Labyrinth is a product is not quite as unsullied as at first it might appear; without prior knowledge of the outside world, of course, it could not have come into being. Furthermore, the consistently ritualistic tone implies a kind of universality, a legend perhaps (which need not necessarily be allegorical) that the narrator has known and forgotten and is trying to recall. It is certainly, in its bizarre and original way, a rather romantic novel, and not the least considerable achievement of Robbe-Grillet in writing it was to convey with some degree of authenticity a feeling of déjà vu, one of the oddest of all experiences….

Though he makes great use of those elements that Borges has defined as being the basics of fantastic literature—the double, the work within the work, the journey in time and the contamination of reality by dream—he is not exclusively a fantasist, for he recognises that art, as well as being a game and a supreme entertainment, is also concerned with the creation of truths which may have some bearing on our lives and with the imposition of new patterns on the world; if to this end he has replaced one set of conventions with another equally strict and has taken to mimicking himself (his latest film Eden and After looks like the bastard offspring of Cola Advert and Skin Flick), he has produced two notable films, has had a big influence on a wide variety of writers (Vidal, Fowles, Wittig, Brooke-Rose and the cartoonist Guido Crepax), and most important has written fictions which have nothing to do with social realism or 'ideas' (best left to TV and journalism) but stand as independent edifices signifying nothing other than a highly original mind working with relish.

Jonathan Meades, "Robbe-Grillet: A Precise Impressionist," in Books and Bookmen, September, 1971, pp. 8, 10, 12-13.

Robbe-Grillet has been accused of boring his readers by his lengthy spatial descriptions quite as effectively as Balzac. But the hypertrophy of locale in his novels is used for entirely un-Balzacian reasons: not to underline the continuity of his created world with the world as we know it, but rather the discontinuity. And this discontinuity offers a … striking analogy with Kafka. Though their fictional spaces are by no means other-worldly, in the sense of the fantastic or the surreal, they border on no geographic spaces known to man; for even when their hermetic sites are linked to neighboring regions by bridges, roads, or traversable oceans, on the other side of the crossings lie further no-man's-lands….

What seems certain is that Robbe-Grillet can obtain spatial effects so similar to Kafka's only because his settings, like Kafka's, are filtered through the obsessions of the protagonists, if not entirely determined by them. After his first novel (The Erasers)—which plays parodistic games with omniscience—Robbe-Grillet altogether dismissed omniscient narrators from his fictional world, allowing only for subjectivized and often pathologically flawed narrative perspectives. Three of the later novels (Jealousy, In the Labyrinth, and La Maison de Rendez-Vous) work bold and entirely original variations on this restriction of viewpoint….

The process of discontinuing the flow of time is … carried much further by Robbe-Grillet than by Kafka. Where Kafka still progresses from event to event with a semblance of chronology, Robbe-Grillet deliberately fractures time sequences. In this realm he undoubtedly learned far more from Faulkner than from Kafka, though even Faulkner's games with time seem tame when compared to Robbe-Grillet's. The chronology of events in The Sound and the Fury, for example, can be studiously reconstructed from its dismantled presentation, whereas the scrambled episodes of some Robbe-Grillet novels refuse to yield to even the most stubborn assault….

Robbe-Grillet's protagonists, resigned to the "pure and simple observation" that no one is there to give an answer, ask no questions about ultimate meaning, but at most punctuate the text with their resigned "je ne sais pas." And while Kafka's novels are so contrived that the silent interlocutor remains shrouded in mystery, Robbe-Grillet's novels starkly block out the possibility of his existence. Where Kafka throws up a veil, Robbe-Grillet builds a wall: a wall of words, compulsively repetitive, hermetically concrete, deliberately built to block off all semblance of transcendence.

Dorrit Cohn, "Castles and Anti-Castles, or Kafka and Robbe-Grillet," in Novel, Fall, 1971, pp. 19-31.