Critical Context

The first responses to Robbe-Grillet’s novels were mixed. His detractors condemned the purposelessness they saw in the disorder of events, the randomness of detail, and the failure to engross the reader in some emotional or even intellectual way. They pointed to the cinematic techniques, especially the camera-like perspective of the unreliable narrator, as a bastardization of the novel form which allows for multiple perspectives. Other critics praised this “demystification” of the novel, however, and saw Robbe-Grillet as bringing the art of fiction writing into the twentieth century. Several other writers were already dealing with perspectivism, the retelling of the same story from the perspective of several characters. The most successful of these experimenters was William Faulkner in such novels as The Sound and the Fury (1929). Samuel Beckett’s novels, which move forward without benefit of narrator, as an internalized voice recounts and retells the story of the immobile narrative figure, bear some resemblance to Robbe-Grillet’s work, but the physical details, the measurable shapes and so forth, are usually absent in Beckett, replaced by a denuded gray landscape almost antithetical to Robbe-Grillet’s meticulously detailed world.

Robbe-Grillet has been accepted in the literary world as a representative of a group of writers seeking to objectify the experiences of their narrators in a reaction against the romantic or emotional novels of the popular culture. His films, notably L’Annee derniere a Marienbad (1961; Last Year at Marienbad, 1962), have also enhanced his reputation, despite some critics’ objections that the cinematic techniques of the novel are diluted by the overly obvious camera’s eye. In the wake of the postmodernist movement and the postmodern novel, Robbe-Grillet’s experiments with the narrative objectifier are seen as the forerunner to the personalized narrator/writer in the novels of William Gass and Raymond Federman.

It is ironic that, despite Robbe-Grillet’s insistence that his novels bear no signification, they should be dissected by scholars seeking hidden patterns of “symbols” and “codes.” Before choosing a literary career, Robbe-Grillet was a naturalist; the detailed descriptions in his novels have often been compared to the botanist’s minute description of specimens found in nature. Perhaps the best way to understand his work is to see him as a careful observer in the field of human activity, neither drawing conclusions nor interpreting findings but rather reporting exactly what he sees.