Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1313
In the 1950’s and 1960’s Alain Robbe-Grillet was the spokesperson for a group known as the New Novelists, writers who were reacting against traditional French literature. Even such novelists as André Malraux and André Gide were rejected by the New Novelists, particularly Robbe-Grillet, in their explorations of the inner movements of the mind and the outer, objective realities of the world.
In the style of the New Novel, Robbe-Grillet’s collection of short stories, Instantanés, is a kind of “objective literature,” to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes, one of the critics who championed the New Novelists. At the same time the collection rejects traditional realism. Characters, for example, are stick figures and have no development; the stories are about pure, precise, and repetitive description, and there is no plot. Themes are simple and include a coffeepot on a table with a dressmaker’s dummy nearby, a walk on an island about to be engulfed by the rising tide, and an escalator in the Paris subway. The descriptions of these scenes or objects are repetitive and at the same time minimalist, and at no time does the reader enter into the private thoughts of the characters. Robbe-Grillet had a horror of sentiment, and his stories are clearly objective and meant to show an expressionless world.
Only one story, “La chambre secrète” (“The Secret Room”), breaks somewhat with the others. It has the element of a pornographic mystery: a nude body, murder, violence, and a mysterious caped man, all of this in a darkened, dungeonlike room.
“The Dressmaker’s Dummy”
One of the most famous lines in New Novel fiction begins the first story of the collection Instantanés: “The coffeepot is on the table.” The story is typical of Robbe-Grillet in this collection; in fact, “story” is a misnomer for most of his short pieces of fiction, as there is no plot. Robbe-Grillet starts by describing the coffeepot on the table, the square ceramic tile beneath it, then moves to the reflection of the window in the mirror. The whole effect is of a room, silent, waiting for something to begin.
The story is like the panning of a camera through the field of vision of an anonymous viewer. The eye of the omniscient narrator moves from coffeepot to mirrored reflection to dressmaker’s dummy, of which there is at first one, then three. There are no human figures in this setting, no human presence, except perhaps toward the end of the extended description, when the narrator mentions the smell of freshly brewed coffee, thus implying a character who brewed it. In sum, this short piece of fiction, which cannot really be called a story, summarizes and epitomizes Robbe-Grillet’s style: no plot, little human figuration, no character development, pure description.
“The Way Back”
This story adds several elements to the pure description of the first story: first-person narration, characters, dialogue, and tension. There is still no plot, but there are the stirrings of one: Three men, Legrand, Franz, and the narrator, are stuck on an island, entrapped by the rising tide. In fact, nearly the only lines of dialogue are “We won’t be able to get back” and “It’s not rising so fast.” The story starts with a description of the mainland as seen from the island. Numerous elements of this first description are repeated, notably the mossy algae on the stones and the swirling dust in the eddies of water that move through the rocks as the tide rises. Other repeated elements in the scene include the roadway parallel to the shore, the parapet, and the water rising in eddies to cover the roadway.
The element of tension comes from the three men’s realization that they may not be able to get back to the shore of the mainland. At the end of the story, they come upon a boatman who offers to take them across. Here again, Robbe-Grillet chooses to focus on repetition and sameness as the boatman appears to be rowing always in the same place. Everything in the description contributes to the sense of tension, which is underplayed by the repeated motifs of eddies of dust and other elements of the landscape, which change only slightly as they are repeated. “Le chemin du retour” (“The Way Back”) is more like a short story than other short selections in that it does have characters and dialogue, as well as description. The story clearly has no resolution, no conclusion—at the end, the three men in the boat are being rowed to shore but the boatman appears to be making no progress against the current. The reader will see the same lack of resolution in other stories.
This story is written with mathematical precision. More than in the other stories, in “La plage” (“The Shore”) the reader sees the careful, symmetrical addition of descriptive elements. The description is of three children, blond, tan, and with serious expressions, walking abreast on a sandy beach. To their left a cliff rises high; to their right, there is the ocean, where a small wave unfurls in a milky foam. The three children progress along the beach in an unbroken line, their steps unvarying and their feet making parallel tracks behind them.
In this story, Robbe-Grillet uses a third-person narrator, and the only elements of the description that are not visual are the sounds of the little wave, the brief dialogue of the children, the sound of a distant bell, and the flapping of wings, as a flock of gulls, which the children startle as they approach, takes flight.
Compared to “The Way Back” or “The Secret Room,” this brief piece displays none of the tension that is sometimes present in other stories. The scene is absolutely calm; the weather is beautiful, and there is only the steady progress of the children, the wave, and the birds. Robbe-Grillet has developed in this story a cinematic technique, mathematical and precise, for creating a movement in space-time of complete peacefulness.
“The Secret Room”
This short story is often anthologized, chosen for its craft and careful technique. The last word of the story gives a clue to what the reader is seeing: a kind of canvas that becomes animated as the reader watches it. “The Secret Room” has all the elements of a pornographic, sadistic murder mystery. There is a dead female nude (whose murder is seen in flashback or retrospect), a dark and cavernous room (“a dungeon, a sunken room, or a cathedral”), a mysterious male figure wrapped in a cloak, who commits the murder or sacrificial act, and the presence of dark colors—purple, black, and blood red.
At the beginning of the story the reader sees a red stain in close-up on a pearly white globe, which, as the viewer moves back, proves to be the wounded or stabbed breast of the sacrificial victim, a beautiful black-haired woman lying on her back. The man is on the top stair, poised to leave, but as this story progresses the reader realizes that he or she is being drawn into the events of the action about five minutes too late, that the murder or sacrifice has just taken place. The whole scene begins to unfurl in reverse. The murder takes place before the reader’s eyes, as the reader moves backward in time; the victim hurls herself from side to side, chained by the limbs to columns. The cape-wearing killer flees up the stairs.
The key element of the story is suspense. Who is the victim? Who is the killer? Where are they? Even the title of the story leads the reader to believe that he or she is witnessing some kind of sadistic, secret ritual. Robbe-Grillet’s technique reaches its highest point in this story, which stands as the best example of the experiments of the New Novelists.
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