Robbe-Grillet, Alain (Vol. 14)
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, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
From the outset, the proliferation of game structures in the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet identifies this writer as a notable example of artifex ludens. Almost all the tendencies that were later to be termed "aspects ludiques" in his novels and films may be uncovered by careful scrutiny of his earliest productions. It is even possible to reduce the numerous game structures to a few basic models, such as the circular or winding path of individual cases or rectangles (like those usually found on board games played with dice), the maze or labyrinth, and the multiple-solution type of game, such as Clue, in which shuffling the cards representing characters and places allows each separate partie, although created out of identical elements, to lead to a totally different outcome.
The conception of a fundamentally game-like structure of the novel would make of specific games mentioned in the works, or played by the characters therein, examples of interior duplication, functioning with respect to the over-all structure in somewhat the same way as an "inner novel" (cf. Jealousy) or play (cf. Last Year at Marienbad) that duplicates, at the level of the characters, and within the fictional field, the general pattern of the novel or film. This integrative principle constitutes one type of "justification" of an actual game (as in Marienbad) as coherently incorporated into the esthetic structure. The literal...
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Robbe-Grillet, for all his disavowals, writes novels and films that are simultaneously useful and useless. Like the Tel Quel group, he rejects Sartre's insistence that the artist be committed to a cause beyond art. Art for the "nouveaux romanciers" is, in and of itself, a sufficient cause, and the artist, they feel, need not search for political or social involvement beyond his work. But unlike that of the "nouveaux nouveaux romanciers" Robbe-Grillet's art, even though it is reflexive and does explore the ramifications of the creative process, is, in spite of itself, rooted in reality. It is not a pure exercise in language or optics or structure. While the proponents of non-objective art may claim him, death and eroticism, as two of Robbe-Grillet's main themes, relate too strongly to the world (even though they may not be intended to mirror it), not to involve us in a relationship which postulates interaction. Robbe-Grillet's art occupies a middle ground somewhere between Sartre's extreme commitment of words to reality and the equally extreme linguistic hermeticism of the Tel Quel group….
In Le Voyeur Robbe-Grillet imagines Mathias; Mathias imagines the seduction of Jacqueline. Robbe-Grillet imagines the doctor in Dans le labyrinthe; the doctor imagines the city maze of Reichenfels through which the soldier endlessly walks. Robbe-Grillet imagines Marienbad and his male lead invents a meeting "last year."...
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Alwin L. Baum
In the fictional context of the nouveau roman, the problem of critical analysis is … compounded by the mediation of the object in language and its concomitant over-determination in the superimposed itineraries of narrative events, along with the necessity of demystifying the relation between subject and object, the signifier and the signified….
Robbe-Grillet's first two novels, Les Gommes (1953) and Le Voyeur (1955), presented to the reading public a surface ambiguous enough to provide grounds for the most sardonic condemnations and the most elaborate apologetics. [Roland] Barthes was quick to recognize that the nouveau roman represented not merely a novel aesthetic, but that it attempted to revolutionize the hermeneutics of traditional fiction through its fidelity to the ethos of the world-as-object, a "degree zero" of extratextual signification. (p. 558)
That Robbe-Grillet had anticipated the value of a phenomenal poétique, even before the publication of his first novel, is evident in an essay on Beckett's Waiting for Godot [see CLC, Vol. 10], which he reads as a parable of Heideggerian Dasein, the dilemma of simply being there. And in his subsequent reflections on his own novels, Robbe-Grillet argues for a decontamination of the image from all psychological or cultural associations and for a consequent liberation of the text from critical...
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In his first novel in almost seven years [Topology of a Phantom City], Alain Robbe-Grillet, spokesman and practitioner of the new novel (nouveau roman), conjures up the destroyed city of Vanadium. Using old and new tools "the city once more rears up …"—a city of both old and startlingly new forms. An archeologist (David G.? the narrator? the reader?) digs through abandoned rooms and endless corridors, "unrecognizable fragments of what were palatial homes, public buildings … houses of prostitution…." (p. 11)
Topology begins with a section entitled "Incipit" (Latin, "It begins") and ends with a "Coda." Except for similar moves in The Erasers …, with its Prologue and Epilogue, and in Jealousy …, where, on the first page, we find "titles" for the eight sections, this is Robbe-Grillet's first novel whose text is stopped again and again with individually named chapters. Apropos of archeology, however, we are not given chapters but, instead, five "spaces." (pp. 11-12)
There are probably more V's in Topology than any single piece of writing to date. Most of the buildings we uncover are triangular—three V's at once! (One has to wonder why the author made no use of vector.)…
If Robbe-Grillet is digging through the rubble of his past work, what can be salvaged? What can be conjured up? Simply a topology of old structures?…
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It is possibly (a key word here) significant that Robbe-Grillet's phantom city [in Topology of a Phantom City] should have a topology and not a topography and that the reader should be required to accept the arbitrariness of the writer's perceptions and imaginings, while being expected to attend scrupulously to the single bar of a prison window which would be rectangular rather than spherical in cross-section. No doubt (another key phrase), we are wrong to rely on the author/voyeur, who may see variously or inaccurately, misunderstand what he sees, and wish, as well, to deceive us…. The invitation to participate in the construction and construing of the "text" may be genuine, but as soon as we accept it we find ourselves to be flailing amateurs, dangerously prone to confusing genres and predicting outcomes from internal evidence. The novel is certainly not, according to the famous Barthesian distinction, culpably lisible. What about illisible?…
As a technical exercise designed to demonstrate what a dodgy business reading is, especially if we've been schooled to depend on some notion of a writerly purpose, the novel is predictably (prediction, like expectation, being discouraged, of course) adroit. It is unlikely that the allusions to artefacts: painting, forms of script, mirror images, will be lost on the alert reader, whose wish that the Piranesi townscape might remain static long enough for its features to be...
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