Robbe-Grillet, Alain 1922–
Robbe-Grillet is a French novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and critic. In 1964 he published Pour un nouveau roman, a work which established the precepts of the New Novel movement. Rejecting traditional literary devices and theories as dishonest and misleading in their representation of the natural world, Robbe-Grillet proclaimed in his brilliant manifesto: "The world is neither significant nor absurd. It just is." He strives for complete objectivity in his writing and leaves the meaning intentionally ambiguous, for Robbe-Grillet wishes each reader to bring his own perceptive powers and life experiences to bear on his interpretation. Robbe-Grillet's theories and subsequent fictional works continue to be a center of controversy in literary circles. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
In his first novel, Les Gommes, Robbe-Grillet deliberately exploits the potency of the Oedipus myth, while simultaneously undermining its pretensions to significance. Once the myth is planted in the text, a sculpture of a Greek chariot becomes fraught with meaning: station announcements become oracular, and snippets of news in the newspaper take on Delphic profundity. It is not only the central figure, Wallas, who is trapped, but readers too are caught in the snare of words. Readers determined to make sense of the latent symbolism of the Tarot cards, of the rue de Corinthe, the picture of Thebes, and so on, are likely to make of the novel a reworking of the Oedipus myth. But the fact that the image of the Sphinx, seen in a canal, is only a momentary configuration of bits of paper and orange peel should give us pause…. [The] inclusion of a report on the state of the potato crop in the newspaper "oracle" is discouraging to symbolic interpretation. The famous riddle of the Oedipus myth is here presented only as a muddled conundrum on the lips of a drunk. Robbe-Grillet is in fact both exploiting the myth, and simultaneously undermining the mythologising impulse. He draws attention to the insidious patterns of association as they arise, and from time to time renders them ludicrous by giving them an ironic pat on the head.
We seem here to observe language in the very act of generating associative series and systems: a mention of swollen feet or a whisper of Corinth generates a whole mythical infrastructure; a reference to espionage and the Café des Alliés evokes passages crediting Fabius with an exciting wartime past…. The repetitive and associative forces that are apt to influence narration are not here discarded or concealed but exhibited and exploited with considerable wit. Despite his explicit disengagement from moralism, Robbe-Grillet's aesthetic concerns lead him in fact to examine the processes of a kind of linguistic determinism from which only awareness can free us. (pp. 37-8)
He presents men in the grip of passions which disturb their perception and make them the victims of their imagination…. The unfortunate Wallas is everywhere tripped and trapped by the insidious patterns that interpose themselves between him and the world. Sadistic fantasies seem to leap—from iron rings,...
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Mathias, in Robbe-Grillet's Le Voyeur, sees and/or creates figure-eights wherever he goes. Seagulls form the pattern overhead, bits of string fall into it underfoot, iron rings on docks form it before his eyes, even his bicycle trip around the island falls naturally into two joined loops, a figure-eight. The murder which he may or may not have committed takes place on a blank page between Section 1 and Section 2; in the spatial context of the island and his trip around it, it takes place at the point where the line drawn in forming a figure-eight crosses itself, and in the first French edition that page is numbered 88. Mathias is of course an obsessed figure; what he is pre-programmed to see and do he sees and does. But some of these figure-eights never impinge on his consciousness at all, and most of those that he does notice don't tell us anything about his surroundings or him, except that there are a lot of free-floating figure-eights in the vicinity of both. In the classical economy of the novel, this kind of distraction would destroy a variety of author-reader relations, a shared trust which the author's proceedings and the reader's learned responses aimed to build. The new-style novel implies a measure of antagonism and mistrust to begin with; a fixed relation between author and reader is avoided, and the grid or pattern is a kind of pseudo-structure, serving to unsettle and complicate that relation. It is pseudo, not in terms of the...
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Robbe-Grillet is a filmmaker and [Topology of a Phantom City] addresses itself to the eye almost exclusively. There is not a line of dialogue in the book. But there is endless scene setting—the same scene presented over and over again. In the opening pages we are asked to gaze upon the nude body of a young girl who lies in a spreading pool of blood. With a technique that is hard to differentiate from standard stream-of-consciousness, Robbe-Grillet brings us back to this scene again and again…. Eras change. We move from the mythic past, to the now, to the hereafter. But the story is the same. We move round and round the event like a camera dollying circularly. We discover the book's real merit in this technique. We see things with an artist's eye. After a while, you may think you are Paul Signac ready to embark on a career of pointillism. Yet the imagery is, at times, as stark as Colette's, e.g., "When she got home next morning she was fit only to be thrown with the dirty rags, if that."
Robbe-Grillet's theatrical world is a narcissistic world, a world of mirrors endlessly casting back an image of itself, and of vampires ceaselessly seeking replenishment. As a film, Topology might stir our sense of wonder. As a novel, it is better calculated to induce vertigo. (pp. 373-74)
John J. McAleer, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), March, 1978.