Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081
Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writing is best described as experimental narrative. Believing that the novel as a genre was doomed to die from stagnation, he set about reinventing the novel. To achieve this goal, he rejected the conventions of traditional realism and permitted himself to subvert the narrative structure.
The traditional novel relies heavily on plots that, although they may digress or lead to surprise endings, are logical. Robbe-Grillet’s plots not only lack logic but often evaporate as the novel unfolds. A murder is mentioned, or the possibility that a murder was committed is suggested, but it may be simply left at that, or a number of conclusions may be proposed, or the character who is dead or is not really dead may appear again. This occurs in slightly different fashion in both The Erasers and La Maison de Rendez-vous.
The characters in novels traditionally have pasts and usually futures. The author provides the reader with psychological insights into the characters’ behavior. Robbe-Grillet’s characters exist only within the immediate reality of the novel. He portrays his characters through their perception of objects and events that they see. The characters may have multiple names such as the spy in Repetition, or may be identified by only an initial.
Traditional narrators are for the most part reliable, although they may be biased or opinionated. Robbe-Grillet’s narrators are not reliable. Robbe-Grillet moves at times from one narrator to another without indicating the change. He shifts his narrative from first person to third or from third person to first without any identifiable transition. By doing this, he leaves the reader unsure if there is one narrator or multiple narrators.
In the traditional novel, description creates a cultural, social, or historical milieu in which the story unfolds. Objects often add an emotive aspect to the story; for example, an old abandoned house may have a sinister appearance. Robbe-Grillet insists on the elimination of all descriptions of objects that invest them with human characteristics or attributes or any mythic symbolism. He uses description only to describe exactly what is perceived. Meticulous, repetitive, at times even tedious, descriptions of objects create the reality of the novel, which is a reality of things.
In the traditional novel, the story unfolds in a chronological order. It may contain flashbacks or dream sequences, but they are presented in such a way that the reader does not lose track of the chronology of the story. Robbe-Grillet totally subverts chronological order in his novels as he folds his story back on itself, shifts the narrative from the past to the present to dreams, and changes how the story happens or may have happened. The mystery and detective genre, which traditionally has relied so very much on plot and characters as well as other traditional elements of narrative structure, provides an excellent opportunity for the subversion of that structure.
In Jealousy, Robbe-Grillet fully explores the subversion of characterization. Set on a banana plantation in the tropics, it is a story of suspicion and jealousy. A husband suspects his wife of being involved in a love affair with their neighbor.
There are three characters in the novel. The jealous husband has no name, no physical description, and no physical presence except for that indicated by the description of the number of chairs on the verandah or the number of place settings on the table. The wife is referred to only by the initial A. She is frightened of centipedes. The description of the centipede on the wall is constantly repeated in the novel. The description of the neighbor, Franck, killing the centipede is also repeated with minor variations. It is this centipede, not the characters, that remains in the reader’s mind.
The husband, in the manner of a detective, observes A and Franck through the window blinds (in French jalousie). Robbe-Grillet uses the double meaning of the word to confuse the sense of the novel. Is it the story of jealousy caused by knowledge of a real love affair and observed through the window blinds? Or is it the story of a man’s jealousy based on his perception of events observed through a window blind? Is the story real or is it a fantasy? The story itself remains an unsolved mystery.
La Maison de Rendez-vous
La Maison de Rendez-vous opens with a first-person narration about women’s flesh and its importance in the narrator’s dreams. Moving through a number of sadomasochistic-erotic images, the narrative becomes a description of the events, places, and characters who will be involved in the murder of Edouard Manneret or in the play about the death of Edouard Manneret. Set in Hong Kong, the novel shifts back and forth from images of a Eurasian girl in a clinging satin dress leading or being led by a large black dog, to images of the city’s filthy streets and the illiterate sweepers who clean them, to images of the garden statuary, the buffet, and the clientele at the Blue Villa owned by Lady Ava.
The novel contains what could be termed multiple plots except none of the so-called plots continue to a logical conclusion. They rather remain descriptions repeated over and over again, sometimes in exactly the same way, sometimes with minor changes. Many of the characters have a multiplicity of names or means of identity. Sir Ralph is also referred to as the American, as Johnson, as the tall man talking to the red-faced man, and as Jonstone. The happenings that make up the events of the novel are also the fictional events of the plays presented by Lady Ava at the Blue Villa.
With its repeated descriptions of characters, events, objects, and places, the “story” of the novel continually folds back on itself to start off in a different direction, only to once again fold back and begin again. Near the end of the book, Lady Ava and Sir Ralph discuss the murder of Edouard Manneret. At first the reader believes that they will explain and solve the murder, but as the discussion continues it becomes obvious that what is taking place is a discussion of numerous ways that a writer might create a story about a murder.
By distorting the components of the narrative structure of the novel, particularly of the mystery novel, Robbe-Grillet denies the reader entry into an orderly prefabricated reality. The reader is led into an interactive participation with the author in the creation of the reality of the novel.
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