Alain Robbe-Grillet Essay - Robbe-Grillet, Alain (Vol. 6)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain (Vol. 6)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain 1922–

A French novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and critic, Robbe-Grillet is a principal theoretician and practitioner of the "new novel." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Robbe-Grillet [is] far more interested in than interesting about his inventions; [on the other hand, his] peculiar involvement in them, and the oddity of the inventions themselves, doesn't always leave one cold…. One can in fact find oneself positively choosing to fret about what's going on in these novels, wanting to ponder and plunder (as it were) their poverty, for signs, significantions, symbols, anything that might yield a mote of interest or a beam of light from the slit-like purview of their voids. And it's possible to come off not completely empty-handed. One could say, for example, that here is a writer who teaches us something about the fine art of literary boredom, the kind of anxiety it implies, and the latest twist to the psychopathology of everyday life—the novel, let's say, as Schadenfreudian slip. His best and weirdest novels, The Voyeur and Jealousy, might be seen as projections of a musclebound imagination whose psychic blots add up to a new kind of Rorschach test: there is a hole at the center of each of them, lurid, dim, amorphous, and from the changing shapes of that hole and what he is able to discern inside of it the reader constructs plot, counter-plot, actions, passions, motives, everything, in short, that humanly interests him. And this he must do if he is to make of these novels anything at all. The amount of fantasy generated will of course vary from reader to reader, but its variety is fairly circumscribed, for the real paradox of Robbe-Grillet is that he leaves very little to the imagination: the burden of his sense of mystery is heavily weighted on the sado-pornographic side…. [These] novels are as obsessive in their asceticism as in their solipsism, as assiduous to put things out of reach as to keep an eye on their surface and design. (pp. 27-8)

Gene Ballif, in Salmagundi (copyright © 1970 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1970.

The surface dislocations of the story in M. Robbe-Grillet's novels, as it is first launched and then frustrated, or led into casual contradiction of itself, are a distraction from the much jollier games being played beneath: there is a whole lot more to the antinovel as M. Robbe-Grillet continues to exploit it than the mere starvation of his audience's supposed craving for the solid and unequivocal. It is unexpected to find that this polemical man keeps his most sardonic effects in concealment, accessible only to advanced students of his methods who are prepared to work harder for their satisfactions.

Projet pour une révolution à New York is … every bit as caustic and ingenious as the earlier [novels], and it restates the familiar propositions of M. Robbe-Grillet's theory of fiction.

As good an image as any with which to inaugurate the decoding of a book which, read simply as it comes, is quite anarchic, is one introduced towards the end: of a greatly magnified electric iron on a street hoarding. The representation of this homely object is so large that it is described as "gros comme une locomotive", and the lecteur who ingests a Robbe-Grillet novel without gagging on its similes or metaphors is less than fully averti, he is passing up both the clues and the jokes. The giant iron, so helpfully likened to a means of propulsion, is in fact one of the proliferating stand-ins, in the text itself, for M. Robbe-Grillet's notorious conception of the novel form: as a deranged inflation and betrayal of reality.

The iron in question is only one term in a lengthy metallic series generated on the first page of Projet pour une révolution à New York. Here, the eye of the narrator is solicited by the ironwork masking a pane of glass in a door. It is bad enough that the obstruction should stop him seeing through the glass, but worse still that its pattern is too complicated to be neutralized by an accurate description of it; the imagination is at once freed for take-off. Sure enough, within a line or two we are being invited to savour the "courbes sinueuses" and "formes rondes" of the iron scrolls, and the first of a good many naked female bodies is only a smack of the lips away.

Thereafter iron, in different embodiments, remains a handy indicator to the origins of Projet pour une révolution à New York….

M. Robbe-Grillet exemplifies, for his own delight, the illegitimacy of fictions. An iron with a defective thermostat is soon recognizable as the human imagination, which also malfunctions when it becomes overheated and starts subverting the proper objective order of things. Novels so constructed as to institute an apparently definitive but actually fallacious subjective order among phenomena are, for M. Robbe-Grillet, a crime against reason or against science, and the reprehensible creation of essentialists aiming to maintain kinship with an indifferent universe.

Hence the revolution in the title of his novel. There is, needless to say, nothing remotely political about it; the revolution is the conspiracy of more conventional novelists to achieve the sort of fiction which M. Robbe-Grillet rejects. Projet pour une révolution à New York, like his other novels, shows how such ontological knavery can be confounded, but without the plotters themselves being eliminated; they must be left to ride again so that M. Robbe-Grillet can renew his quarrel with them.

The scrappy and incongruent episodes allowed to take shape in Projet pour une révolution à New York are excessively improper. The sado-eroticism is laid on thick because M. Robbe-Grillet patently accepts that this is the predominant mode of the contemporary imagination….

[By-play] about a conflict between "blacks" and "whites"… is not M. Robbe-Grillet backsliding negligently into sociology but the novelist alluding yet again to his methods of composition, since black and white are the colours of print and paper and also of the squares on a chessboard. Projet pour une révolution à New York is well supplied with these and other give-aways of its ludic manufacture, with the novelist disposing and redisposing his pieces about the board in accordance with rigorous but subterranean rules which it is up to the reader to uncover.

It would be possible to complain of this new novel that M. Robbe-Grillet has done it all before, that there is really nowhere for this uncompromising Saint-Just of the anti-novel to go. Projet pour une révolution à New York is, indeed, a rehearsal of a by now well-known tune, but it has been put together with an intellectual self-discipline which is uncommon. It is more than worth the strain which the penetration of its double identity imposes.

"Turning on the Heat," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 27, 1970, p. 1378.

Jealousy (published in French as La Jalousie in 1957) gives an extraordinary impression of arbitrariness to the unprepared reader at first encounter, yet it is probably, on further acquaintance, the author's most appealing book for general reader and critic alike. At any rate, it is undoubtedly the classic example to date of Robbe-Grillet's characteristic narrative technique. His two earlier novels, The Erasers and The Voyeur, show that technique in process of development; his two later novels, In the Labyrinth and La Maison de Rendez-vous, largely adhere to the technique already developed in Jealousy, while adding some refinements. (p. 166)

In his previous novel, The Voyeur, Robbe-Grillet had laid great stress on what his protagonist Mathias sees, but the reader was also allowed to know some part at least of what the character thinks and a little of what he feels. In Jealousy, however, we are confined almost entirely to what the protagonist sees. True, his observations are put into words, and the choice of words will sometimes hint at his attitude toward what he sees, but he never comments directly on it. Not only do we never learn his name, but he never even refers to himself as "I."… If we want to know what goes on behind his eyes, we have to construct it, imagine it, for ourselves. In the process, we may come gradually to identify ourselves with him, in a more intimate way than we are accustomed to identify with much more appealing fictional heroes.

In applying the verb "to see" to the protagonists of both The Voyeur and Jealousy, one becomes guilty of ambiguity. Both these characters, like all of us, see not only what is objectively present to the open eye but what memory, dream, imagination, or even hallucination present to the "mind's eye." To that extent, we are allowed to penetrate the mind of the jealous husband, but we can never be entirely sure just which scenes are observed by his outer eye and which by the inner eye, since both types of vision are treated as identical. Furthermore, everything that either "eye" sees is described in the present tense, so that we cannot distinguish what is happening "now" from what is being remembered from the past or anticipated in the future.

In effect, Robbe-Grillet is transferring to the novel a technique that is more appropriate to the cinema. (pp. 166-67)

In Last Year at Marienbad and in the films he has directed himself, Robbe-Grillet has employed a variety of techniques to indicate shifts in time, in authenticity, etc. Changes in lighting or in camera speed and the use of still shots are examples. But in Jealousy the reader is granted the pleasure—some feel it a chore—of deciding for himself whether a shift has been made or not. (pp. 168-69)

[Most] of the time he is looking at objects, at things rather than people. Robbe-Grillet has received a great deal of both praise and blame for this feature of his work, sometimes called chosisme ("thingism") and sometimes confused with objectivity. (p. 169)

Jealousy … contains virtually no narration, its place being supplied by a montage of descriptions and snatches of conversation. (p. 174)

Inevitably, the conscientious reader will attempt to construct a chronological sequence for himself…. Unfortunately, Robbe-Grillet himself assures us that

The narrative was … made in such a way that any attempt to reconstruct an external chronology would lead, sooner or later, to a series of contradictions, hence to an impasse. And this not with the stupid intention of disconcerting the Academy, but precisely because there existed for me no possible order outside that of the book….

No reader who does not skim or skip need fail to separate from each other the brief scenes, descriptions, and dialogues of which the book consists, or to recognize them when they are repeated. They are like musical themes—to be developed, dropped, given a reprise, at the will of the composer. As far as one can see, the resulting structure is neither completely random nor completely in accordance with a preordained plan. (p. 175)

Something has been said earlier of the repetition-with-slight-variations which seems a basic device in Jealousy. The question now arises: why the variations? Is the author varying the wording to avoid monotony? Most unlikely! Does the variation indicate that an imperfect memory of the original scene is being presented? Very likely. Is life on the banana plantation so monotonous that the characters do the same things day after day with only minimal variations? Equally likely. (p. 176)

What exactly does happen in Jealousy? Well, it depends on what one means by "happen." The devotee of action-filled plots would say that exactly nothing happens. On the other hand, one is forced to conclude that a good deal happens to the emotions of the jealous husband, while much else happens in his imagination. (p. 179)

A reader is entitled to protest that, although he has never confused events in a novel with events in real life, he has always thought of the novel as a prose narrative; furthermore, his definition of a narrative requires the presence of a chronological sequence, whether stated or merely implied. As far as he is concerned, Jealousy is closer to being a lyric poem or a musical composition than a novel. To which this would be the only possible reply: if one concedes that the movie camera "narrates" in an eternal present tense, then Jealousy too is a narrative; if one denies that premise, then Jealousy is not a narrative and consequently not a novel, by definition. (p. 183-84)

L'Immortelle fully vindicates the Robbe-Grillet technique of refusing to distinguish between what is seen by the outer eye and what is seen by the eye of memory…. Often, too, he seems not to know where to draw the line between a mystery and a mystification—French for a hoax. (p. 202)

[Does] Robbe-Grillet simply want us to plague ourselves with stupid questions … to which there can be no verifiable answer in relation to a work of fiction? (p. 203)

[A] conflict between cynicism and exoticism, realism and romanticism, is to be found everywhere in the creative work of Robbe-Grillet. Reading his critical essays, one thinks of him as an icy-brained rationalist, a logician and technician of the novel, but just try to summarize a Robbe-Grillet film or novel in a single paragraph without making the plot or situation sound melodramatic! (p. 204)

The subtitle "A Novel That Invents Itself" might be applied to La Maison de Rendez-vous, but a better explanation of the book's peculiarities is that it is a novel in process of composition. The author—not necessarily to be identified with Robbe-Grillet—may be mentally running over a series of groups of alternative scenes. In each group he can choose only one of the alternative actions or motivations. Each of these will then have to be made logically and chronologically consistent with the choices made from the other groups. (p. 208)

[Although] Robbe-Grillet has made a very ingenious attempt to show us a novel in process of composition, if the novel were in fact completed it would be a piece of trash not worth reading. Whereas Jealousy, In the Labyrinth, and even The Voyeur—not to mention, of course, the two great films, Last Year at Marienbad and L'Immortelle—forced us to undergo experiences that enlarged our imaginations and therefore made us more aware of certain aspects of reality, both The Erasers and La Maison de Rendezvous—and doubtless Trans-Europ-Express too—are tiresome bits of trickery. Why? Because they are mere pastiche or parody of mass-appeal (and mass-produced) "literature." They may to some extent expose to ridicule the falsities of kitsch and thus obliquely illuminate the truth, but they never confront the reader with authentic experience as Robbe-Grillet's best novels and films do. Jealousy admittedly is a tissue of illusions, but then the "truth" about this peculiarly human emotion—as Shakespeare knew—is that it feeds on illusion and deliberate false-hood….

Robbe-Grillet has denied that form and content can be separated and that content is the more important of the two. (p. 213)

I would assert rather that any writer with something genuinely new to say finds a new form in which to say it; also, as Butor contends, to create a new form is to make a tool for the discovery of new content. I think that Robbe-Grillet has done this over and over again in the novels and films just cited with approval. In La Maison de Rendez-vous, however, he has developed the method of Jealousy to a point of no return. He has evolved a form, a tool, so refined that it altogether fails to get a purchase on reality. Paradoxically, this avant-garde instrument fastens instead upon those most philistine, traditional, and formula-ridden of artistic manifestations, the works that cater to the fantasies of the common man. The great writers, on the other hand, like Robbe-Grillet at his best, are "masters of reality."… Robbe-Grillet created once for all in Jealousy a narrative/descriptive method that novelists will be making use of for at least the next generation. (pp. 213-14)

Vivian Mercier, "Alain Robbe-Grillet: Description and Narration," in his The New Novel: From Queneau to Pinget (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1966, 1967, 1968, 1971 by Vivian Mercier), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 165-214.

A novelist can sacrifice story, character, a distinguished style, various forms of analysis—a number of traditional fictional elements—provided he supplies some compensatory qualities in the purged work. The medium is the message; but in Robbe-Grillet's work the message—at least for most people—seems not to amount to very much and the medium is too often employed in a repetitious, boring way. Although a subjective world is indirectly presented through perception in Robbe-Grillet's fiction, there is really very little in that world that could not be captured on celluloid. When a novelist decides to limit his approach solely to description of external objects and bodies in motion, he would appear to be writing not from strength but from weakness—regardless of the theory advanced to justify the method. After all, a theory is no better than the kind of work it inspires or rationalizes. And in this case the work in question reveals a basic confusion in the author about the nature of fiction.

Compared to the novel,… film is a medium limited in its ability to probe complex interior states and complicated themes. Similarly, character is generally not as fully developed in the film (which resembles a short story in this respect) as in the average novel. Sight and sound being so important to Robbe-Grillet, then, I would venture to say … that the author is not "essentially a creator of fiction" and that his increasing preoccupation with moviemaking is not without its wisdom. (p. 290)

Edward Murray, in his The Cinematic Imagination: Writers and the Motion Pictures (copyright © 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1972.

Robbe-Grillet, fascinated by objects and obsessed by time, has the attitude of a land surveyor interested in stark contours and geometrical patterns. He has great technical skill but a conspicuous absence of sensitivity. If we link Nathalie Sarraute to the impressionist painters, we have to associate Robbe-Grillet with the cubists. To be sure, his scientific training as an agronomist shaped his literary concepts. (p. 47)

New new novelists Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Ricardou, Claude Ollier, Claude Simon and Robert Pinget choose the production of a text over personal expression, the construction of the fictional fabric where words are "generators" over representation of reality. They consider everything—the world, life of the writer, texts by others, their own former works—as materials for the construction of their texts. Without pre-established sense, their scription is inseparable from the contemporary cultural scene and generates new meaning. In this sense it is, according to Robbe-Grillet, a revolution, a "transformation dans l'écriture par l'écriture." What Ricardou and Robbe-Grillet are trying to accomplish is not only a revolution in writing techniques; they also wish to bring about ideological changes in society by the destruction of the cultural heritage and the creation of something radically new. Robbe-Grillet stresses particularly that constant movement away from traditional values is necessary. He states that whenever bourgeois society interprets one of his books on its own terms (as happened for instance with Dans le labyrinthe, which received a metaphysical interpretation), he must also destroy the values embedded in that book. This is, he stated, the reason why he writes, and he foresees the coming of a "new new novel." (pp. 47-8)

Anna Otten, in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1974.

Viewpoint, particularly in the modern novel, bears an important relationship to setting. Writers such as James, Faulkner, Joyce, and Dos Passos broadened the possibilities of viewpoint in a number of ways. But with Robbe-Grillet …, the point of view is not located in a protagonist's perspective on reality, nor within his stream of consciousness, nor outside, in the arena of history and journalism, where Dos Passos endeavors to place it—but rather in the eye itself. The typical Robbe-Grillet scene is presented as though picked up by the scanning eye, from a precise location in space, while bypassing, or attempting to bypass, the interpretative functions of the mind. The eye in a Robbe-Grillet novel does not uncover or evaluate, but only registers data. (p. 269)

[Though] all novels must have some setting, and some novels even emphasize it, no novelist before Robbe-Grillet had focused so intensively, and almost to the exclusion of everything else, on purely graphic descriptions of spatial phenomena. And it is this, rather than any difficulty of comprehension as such, that makes Robbe-Grillet's novels seem so strange and taxing to the reader's attention. For his language is simple and direct, and by his own avowals there is nothing "there" but what is described, no hidden meanings to interpret, no psychological "depths" to the characters.

At all events, Robbe-Grillet has attempted, and achieved, what many previous novelists had merely aspired to: the unqualified rendering of setting. But in the process he has forfeited (or deliberately avoided) those romantic aspects—anthropomorphic, if you will—of place, and of the visible world, that had preeminently characterized the conventional novelist's appropriation of setting. The equation is precise: in fictional narration, setting, in the form of purely spatial contents, can achieve autonomy only to the degree that it forfeits those qualities of mood, metaphor, and parallelism by which it has conventionally been linked with character and action.

If prose fiction has indeed condescended to sacrifice spatiality by virtue of an ulterior project for reclaiming the space of the actual world, then Robbe-Grillet has undermined this aim by claiming for the novel a spatiality as hard and absolute as that of reality: thus a fiction that is hermetic and self-sufficient, having relinquished its metaphorical connections as well as its metaphysical claims. In the author's own words, it does not even aspire to be conventionally realistic. Accepting its circumscribed finitude, it places itself on the line, as it were, and thus expends itself, leaving nothing extraneous to exact a subsequent claim upon reality. As Roland Barthes expresses it, referring to Robbe-Grillet's manner of presenting the object, it becomes "drained," "consumed," "used up." Thus we end up with a form of fiction that has succumbed entirely to its fictionality.

But can fiction ever achieve a genuine autonomy in this sense? There is of course a question of degree here. We cannot properly speak of the ultimate autonomy of anything in the world, unless, perhaps, we are to speak of Kantian noumena. "Autonomous" is a relative term. We think of objects, for example, as autonomous insofar as we presume an enduring physical world, but in the sense of things perceived and conditioned by the understanding they cannot be strictly autonomous. With this consideration any work of fiction can be called autonomous in a sense. Certainly Robbe-Grillet has produced novels which uphold an autonomy of a sort—in their focus on spatiality, the elimination of metaphor, and so forth. But this does not preclude the possibility of considering their "autonomous" status from another angle. The specific areas in which any prose fiction, including Le Voyeur and Dans le labyrinthe, falls short of autonomy are revealed by the nature of the mental image itself, through which all prose fiction makes its presentation. And even Robbe-Grillet, no matter how geometrical and precise his descriptions of objects and environments, cannot carry the hard space of the world over into the "theater" of the reader's mind. The body is left out, and where this concerns the reader's physical human body, which must be excluded from any participation in the fiction, but which, nevertheless, must act to sustain it (i.e., in holding the book in the hands, turning the pages, and scanning the sentences with the eyes), the situation amounts to a sustained lack, an exclusion.

Setting remains that most ambiguous part of the novelist's art, attesting to his unquenchable yearning to seize and incorporate landscape, to achieve the ideal fusion of the spatial and the schematic. In certain arts, such as painting, where the object is set before us in space, we speak of contemplation as the ideal relationship between the perceiver and the work. But it would be spurious to designate our mode of participation in a fictional narrative as contemplative. There is nothing, strictly speaking, to contemplate. Certainly we do not contemplate the words on the page, for, as already suggested, they disappear into their meaning. Fiction, in the final analysis, presents us with strictly verbal information, and in spite of the popular saying, no amount of words will ever add up to a picture. (pp. 270-72)

Edward Marcotte, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 2, 1974.

In Robbe-Grillet's world, characters are defined solely in terms of their actions: they exist as one more visual surface identified only by the events in which they participate. Each character, therefore, is synonymous with the visual actions that he undertakes: there is no other dimension to him than that of the action or event in which he performs. He exists in a perpetual present, an endless "now," and in a precise setting, an endless "here"; both time and space are visually present. These together form Robbe-Grillet's "essential theme of presence." "This is a world without a past, a world which is self-sufficient at every moment and which obliterates itself as it proceeds…. There can be no reality outside the images we see, the words we hear"…. Such a world occupies that perpetual present on the film, "which makes all recourse to memory impossible"…. The characters within this world are simply there, locked into that cinematic present time. As a result, as Claude-Edmonde Magny in The Age of the American Novel suggests, "events are to be described only from the outside, with neither commentary nor psychological interpretation." "Psychological reality is to be reduced to a succession of acts," and these acts can only be perceived "by a purely external observer"…. Such a fictional process, which Robert Richardson [in Literature and Film] perceptively calls Robbe-Grillet's "drifting cinemism," encourages a deterministic and pessimistic point of view, allied closely as it seems to be to a grim form of neo-Calvinism and a rigidly controlled form of psychological behaviorism. (p. 361)

Samuel Coale, in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1974.

Robbe-Grillet's cinematic use of the present indicative, together with his constant shuffling of versions of each narrative incident in order to destroy all sense of causal sequence and of time, is a technical tour de force precisely because it goes so strenuously against the grain of the medium, which is, after all, prose fiction, not film. As a result the virtuosity of his achievement is inseparable from its marked limitations. (p. 220)

[The] one really striking success among his novels is the book in which his ubiquitous technique of suppressing temporal progression has a powerful psychological justification. Jealousy is a compelling novel because its imprisonment in a present indicative that circles back on itself again and again is the perfect narrative mode for a man whose consuming obsession has robbed him of any time in which things can unfold. The jealous husband, always the excluded observer peering at his wife and her supposed lover from oblique angles through a hatchwork of screens and obstacles, can only go over and over the same scanty data, reordering them and surrounding them with conjecture, describing them with a seemingly scientific objectivity that is actually quite maniacal. Consequently what is often felt else where in Robbe-Grillet as an anomalous mannerism is here firmly grounded in the novel's peculiar facts of character and fictional situation. (pp. 220-21)

Robert Alter, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1975.