Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4875
The newcomer to the New Novel should read Alain Robbe-Grillet’s books in the sequence in which they were written, because each work employs new elements developed in its predecessor. The temporal device of a stopped wristwatch in The Erasers, for example, parallels the suppression of a political investigator’s childhood memory; the main character of The Voyeur is a wristwatch salesman who is obsessed with liquidating his timepieces while escaping apprehension for his crime; the narrator of Jealousy almost destroys his own and the reader’s concept of time through his suspicion and obsessive fear.
Robbe-Grillet’s narrators are characterized by their obsessions, ranging from an obsession to discover, to an obsession to remain undiscovered, to an obsession to disassemble time, and finally to suppressed and then blatant sexual obsessions. Aligning himself with Jean-Paul Sartre, who advised against the objective and the omniscient point of view, Robbe-Grillet’s pronounced intention has been to produce a viewpoint that—like real, immediate experience—is entirely subjective, always taking place in the mind of an obsessive narrator. Thus, events from an overimaginative, sometimes delirious point of view can be shaped into a highly structured narration. Again, form is all-important.
Robbe-Grillet wrote a brief synopsis for the dust jacket of his first novel, The Erasers. He called the novel a conventional detective story involving a murder and a solution of the crime, but one in which the relationship between victim and detective becomes clear only as the story ends. Because of thenarrative’s symmetrical time structure—twenty-four hours, beginning and ending with a gunshot—everything that the detective realizes has happened takes place, the author explains, during the flight of the bullet. To reinforce this structure, the detective’s wristwatch stops ticking for the same twenty-four-hour period and begins again when he kills the very man whose murderer he was supposed to find.
Prior to this moment of discovery, immediate recollection of past events and anticipation of future ones—as well as imagined scenes that are, in fact, hypothetical reconstructions of a falsely reported crime—combine to form the circular plot. During this time, the detective attempts to deal with his faltering mind by buying gum erasers from attractive female stationers. His inexplicable behavior eventually, at the final moment, brings to the surface of his subconscious mind a significant memory. The thoughts and views of the investigator are not the only ones the reader shares; the viewpoint shifts from detective to assassin, to the assassin’s superior, to the local police chief, to the would-be victim. These shifting viewpoints create a severe narrative weakness: The reader is thus kept aware that whatever the psychological state of the detective may be, he is but one of several characters under the control of an omniscient intelligence.
The plot structure of The Erasers is a departure from the conventional dramatic form of Greek tragedy; Robbe-Grillet reshapes the familiar dramatic curve into a closed loop. Critics have identified elements common to both The Erasers and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (c. 420 b.c.e.). Among them are the novel’s five-act structure, the significance of the riddle of the sphinx, connective images, and most obviously the themes of patricide and incest. Yet this dramatic understructure also calls attention to the author’s presence and fixed plan. Early critics suggested that the author had rejected plot in favor of the depiction of objects by aprotagonist whose view the reader shares. In fact, however, plot is very important to Robbe-Grillet. Plot is a formal element, and circular plot is more intricate than linear plot. With all the cycles observable in nature and human experience, it is the traditional plot line that appears unnatural and fragmented—an arc without closure.
While in The Erasers a detective gropes toward discovery of a suppressed childhood memory, the lone viewpoint character of The Voyeur, Mathias, struggles to suppress the memory of his recent crime and thus his guilt. The viewpoint character is now on the other side of the law and normal thought. Eventually, the reader is able to determine what has taken place from the reappearances of objects that Mathias sees, remembers, or imagines.
The character Mathias has been compared to William Faulkner’s Mink Snopes, but while Faulkner elevates the bad man Snopes, Robbe-Grillet coolly treats Mathias as a devious criminal whose furtive thoughts are also the reader’s thoughts. Ultimately, the result of Mathias’s suppression is what Robbe-Grillet labels “a void” in the narrative, a void that represents the unspeakable missing segment of the action that becomes obvious simply by its absence. Also, the void represents the obscenity that the reader may be unwilling to imagine, yet will imagine, thanks to meaningful objects observed.
Skulking about, the psychotic salesman supplies the novel’s plot in the form of his movement, thinking ahead as he goes. He repeatedly anticipates his approaching business call at the home of the girl for whom he lusts. Having learned earlier that she is rumored to be promiscuous, he anticipates his reception—as a good salesman will—and the family’s possible responses to his pitch; when near the end of part 1 he actually enters the house, the reader knows he is planning to do much more than pitch his wristwatches. Meanwhile, the suggestive objects he sees (knives, film posters depicting violence) and hears (sirens, the repeated slapping of water against rock), as well as his preparations (he buys candy to lure the girl and cigarettes with which to torture her), build toward the criminal acts the reader will not see but will know to have happened. These plot fragments, the views of a distorted, obsessive mind, gradually align until the sequence of events as they have really occurred becomes clear.
The title of the novel presents the reader with a puzzle: Which of the characters is the voyeur? Most analysts agree that it is not Mathias—he commits crimes separate from and in excess of Peeping Tomism. A more likely voyeur is young Julien Marek; Julien witnesses the rape and murder, but he seems willing to condone it, even to help cover it up by not reporting what he has seen and knows to be true, as if he is either ashamed to admit that he watched the crime without trying to stop it or is—through the guilt of his passivity—a collaborator. That the reader is the voyeur is a stronger possibility, and most likely the author’s design, for the reader could not be involved more intimately. This participation of the reader operates through the narrator’s view of certain objects and his repeated description of these objects. The reader-voyeur, then, collaborates both with Mathias and with his creator.
In Jealousy, events first imagined overlie events later realized, and objects seen overlie objects remembered. Driven by suspicion and fear, the narrator sees a montage of objects that represent recent, then immediate, then imagined future events. This use of montage in fiction comes directly from Gustave Flaubert, who compared his work to that of a composer of music, especially orchestrations, which are vast, complex montages of individual sounds. In such music and in Jealousy, form is part of the content. Jealousy’s narrator is not incoherent; the novel derives its dramatic energy from the narrator’s attempts to restructure his experience. The narrator’s stress provides the mainspring that powers his mental clock and the reader’s sense of the time that constitutes the narrative.
Three characters form a typical love triangle: The narrator is the husband, who is jealous of “A.” (his wife) and Franck, the neighboring husband whose own wife remains ill at home. The story takes place on a tropical plantation; that is, the story takes place in the mind of the jealous husband, who remains in the plantation house to sulk and suspect the worst, while A. and Franck take a trip together into town, returning very late, their relationship apparently less intimate than it had been. Within the story is a parallel text (the plot of a novel Franck has given A.) and several clockless time coordinates: various stages of a bridge that is being built near the house, the pruning and harvesting of banana trees, and shadows cast by columns of the veranda. A logistical reference point inside the house is the outline of a centipede squashed by Franck on the wall of the dining room. The image of the centipede forms a thematic and physical centrality to which the narrator repeatedly returns; it becomes the narrative’s most visible objective correlative.
In Jealousy more than in his previous two novels, Robbe-Grillet places the reader in the narrator-observer’s mind to see exactly what he sees. The story is what is seen. The story’s closure results from increased distance between the narrator and the reader as his worst fears recede. As the narrator’s stress decreases, plot-related tension decreases. There has been no final resolution, only an end, however temporary, to the narrator’s jealousy.
In the Labyrinth
Unique among Robbe-Grillet’s early novels, In the Labyrinth makes visible a narrator in the process of creating a narrative. He identifies himself by framing his narrative with personal pronouns: “I” is the first word of the story and “me” the last. The story’s main events are as follows: A soldier has come to a strange city following a disorienting and controversial military retreat; determined to return the personal effects of a comrade in arms to an unidentified member of his family, the ill and feverish soldier tries unsuccessfully to find the meeting place, is helped on his way by a young boy and his mother, and is treated by a physician who later identifies himself as the narrator; but the soldier leaves the barracks to keep his rendezvous, is wounded by a motorcycle patrol, and eventually dies.
For the viewpoint character, the soldier, this city in which he finds himself is the labyrinth. Two other labyrinths are evident: the labyrinth of the novel-in-formation, through which the narrator progresses, imagining the experience of the soldier, and the labyrinth of the completed story, through which the reader must progress with object-related authorial guidance. The novel’s form is at once all three labyrinths.
The narrator’s methods of guiding the reader are also three: clockless time references, objects that interconnect events, and parallel scenes. Time references are established through description of snow accumulated on the street, the presence of darkness or daylight, and the growth of the soldier’s beard. The reader is thereby able to locate linear events in nonlinear time. The second method of guiding the reader is the description, in precise geometric detail, of objects that interconnect events so that the reader can recognize these objects in the narrator’s room and in the scenes the narrator imagines: Circles of light are cast by the narrator’s lamp and by exterior street lamps, while marks in the surface dust of the room suggest marks in the snow outside, and the shape of a cross appears as a souvenir bayonet, a string tied around a box, the intersections of streets, hallways, and so forth.
The third way in which the narrator guides the reader through the labyrinth shows the narrator’s imagination at work. One wall of his room is entirely curtained, suggesting a proscenium arch beyond which could be a stage or an audience. Also, an engraving hung on one wall of the narrator’s room depicts a one-room café and shows three walls, the fourth being open to the viewer—the narrator, an audience of one, and all his readers. Present in the pictured café are doubles of objects and characters that will appear in the narrative: the boy who guides the soldier through the snow to his barrack room, the box tied with string that the soldier carries, the soldier seated at a table similar to a table in the narrator’s room, the boy’s mother working in the café as a waitress, and nondescript figures who will question the legitimacy of the soldier’s retreat from battle. Thus, the reader in the labyrinth shares both the soldier’s disoriented wandering and the narrator’s creative exploration.
Although In the Labyrinth retains key elements of the author’s continually evolving style, this novel is most striking in the visibility of its formation. In The Voyeur, imagined scenes occur in the mind of only one character but are related to his compulsion to escape, both mentally and physically. In Jealousy, the viewpoint character and the narrator are the same, and his obsessive emotions trigger imagined scenes. In In the Labyrinth, the narrator imagines everything except the room in which he sits, creating scenes deductively from objects at hand and a picture on the wall. These works represent Robbe-Grillet’s early novels, and In the Labyrinth is the most important in terms of narrative invention and form.
La Maison de rendez-vous
The setting of La Maison de rendez-vous is the Blue Villa of Lady Ava in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. One of two principal characters, Lady Ava is the purveyor of entertainment, drugs, and women for a nebulous group of people, a sensual elite. Lady Ava’s bordello replaces the solitary room of the narrator of In the Labyrinth; as the story’s physical center, Blue Villa houses stage properties that are used to create narrative links with objects and events elsewhere.
Three principal devices are used to construct these links: statuary, the “freeze-frame,” and the stage-curtain motif from In the Labyrinth. The statuary in the garden of Blue Villa is painted and life-size, and a variant of that statuary is a mannequin seen in a downtown store window; mannequins become a frequent device of Robbe-Grillet from this point on, allowing scene-doubling as well as character-doubling. The cinematic freeze-frame is used frequently in all Robbe-Grillet’s fiction. This technique is used not merely to emphasize, as it usually is used in films, but also to signal the beginning of a new sequence of events, just as the onset of a new sequence of thoughts, in ordinary experience, often appears to be triggered by a personal gesture—stopping short and turning around, for example, or reaching for some object and seeing in startling detail for a frozen instant one’s own outstretched hand. Robbe-Grillet uses street signs, posters, photographs, and engravings as thematic two-dimensional objects that trigger turns of thought in a similar manner.
The third device, at first the curtain covering the wall of the room of In the Labyrinth’s narrator, becomes in La Maison de rendez-vous a real curtain and stage at Blue Villa, a stage on which are performed erotic tableaux whose actions connect via statuary and freeze-frames to scenes elsewhere in Hong Kong or on the mainland. Additional doublings are derived from two characters who are twins and from other characters who have alternate identities with similar names.
Analysts have balked at this novel because its plot has no clear purpose save the display of cinematic motifs that seem to have evolved from Robbe-Grillet’s early novels and film work. Indeed, if one looks beyond this novel’s sensual imagery and erotic content, beyond its visual structure and descriptive techniques, only the simplest story remains: In a locale of mystery and intrigue, an American client of Lady Ava wants to buy one of her employees—a young Eurasian woman whose fiancé either kills himself or is killed. Meanwhile, the American murders the drug vendor, who refuses to lend him money to buy the object of his lust, and when he returns to Blue Villa to steal his prize, he finds Lady Ava dying and the police awaiting him. The plot has been doubled too; a second story is to be found, parallel to the first.
To make appropriate an object-oriented narration of their subjective views, Robbe-Grillet employs characters who experience great physical stress and mental disunity: suppression, perversion, obsession, and feverish imaginings. In La Maison de rendez-vous, he presents some of each as well as the effects of drugs. Some of these characters experience memory, imagination, and immediate existence indiscriminately—and that is how the first five novels are alike. An important difference between the first three novels and the two following is the presence of a narrator who forms the story as he goes along. In La Maison de rendez-vous, however, the second plot is provided by a second narrator, and it is the reader’s challenge to find the two narrators.
Project for a Revolution in New York
Project for a Revolution in New York contains descriptive and formal elements that recall Robbe-Grillet’s early work: circular plot, parallel texts, object indicators of time or scene-shifting, and visual projections of the narrator’s imagination. At one surrealistic juncture, a vacant city lot surrounded by a demolition fence and paved with flat stones suggestive of a chessboard contains props from other Robbe-Grillet fictions, objects that lie abandoned and waiting in the weeds to be discovered and pondered by the narrator. This device produces a cross-textual consciousness that interconnects the various novels like a composer’s favorite elemental themes that are developed further in successive compositions. Playfully esoteric authorial intrusion also occurs during plot-related interrogative dialogues that double as lines of critical questioning about the worth and purpose of this novel; the reader who finds Project for a Revolution in New York revolting is thus anticipated. Yet by accepting these devices as viable narrative elements, the reader will recognize in this novel a startling coherence.
In Project for a Revolution in New York, a narrative viewpoint like that of In the Labyrinth and La Maison de rendez-vous becomes the vision of a character like Mathias of The Voyeur. This narrator does not enter the fiction; the fiction enters him—and the context is different. Whereas Mathias is sexually aberrant in a normal social setting, the narrator of Project for a Revolution in New York behaves normally within a peer group that is itself contained in an abnormal society. Abandoned buildings and the subways of the city are filled with a decadent revolutionary madness that culminates in politically motivated assaults on the young daughters of establishment families. This premise frees the willful cruelties of the Mathias figure, now a describer rather than a concealer of atrocity, who does not suppress, but reveals in detail, the gruesome machinations of members of the group.
Readers unacquainted with Robbe-Grillet’s earlier novels will be surprised by the content as well as the form of Project for a Revolution in New York. Unlike The Voyeur, in which Mathias’s crime occurs offstage to create the “void” better imagined by the reader, or La Maison de rendez-vous, in which sexual aberrance is largely suggestive, here violent sexual behavior is set forth in such a way that the reader need not imagine anything. Critical discussions about this work have related its content to sadistic themes of works now within the modern literary tradition and to archetypal literature containing mythic or acultural themes. Robbe-Grillet himself asserts a need for audience catharsis and here makes use of the masks and deus ex machina of Greek drama. He has used such elements before—The Erasers builds on plot elements from Oedipus Rex—but the fact remains that this novel describes cruel and deadly perversions performed by adult men on adolescent girls. This device involves readers in a new way: The story’s perverse content encourages the reader to see the characters and their actions metaphorically as social satire. The violence of the age, whether it be sexual, political, or civil, is pervasive yet habitually ignored. Shutting real violence out of view may ultimately create the absurd world of Project for a Revolution in New York, just as the novel’s narrator creates a world of absurdities.
Topology of a Phantom City
In his 1954 essay “A Novel That Invents Itself,” Robbe-Grillet refers to characters who “make themselves” and who, in turn, create their “own realitya kind of living tissue, each cell of which sprouts and shapes its neighbors.” The first narrative section of Topology of a Phantom City is titled “In the Generative Cell.” Although more than twenty years of writing separate the early statement from this 1975 novel, the connection remains fast. Underlying Topology of a Phantom City is the author’s concept of cellular growth: Like life, fiction creates itself through a process of mitosis.
Robbe-Grillet consistently uses mathematical description to create the freeze-frame effect that usually signifies a shift of scene or viewpoint. At such a point in the narrative, objects are described in terms of their planes and angles, their shapes and configurations. The word “topology,” moreover, is a mathematical term that refers to the properties of geometric forms that remain constant even when the forms change. In other words, topological elements carry over from one state of being to the next. Like In the Labyrinth, this story grows out of itself as the narrator discovers the final shape it should take.
The narrator of Topology of a Phantom City begins his story by describing a single cell—a white room—that contains several young women who are being held captive. Some of the women are playing with tarot cards, and an illustrated notice of some kind is visible on one wall. From these stark details, the story grows, each scene a subdivision of the preceding scene, until the narrator has invented not only the lost city but also its recent history, its contemporary rebirth as a historical restoration, and an ancient mythology that includes timeless scenes of hermaphroditic ritual and tragic carnage. The phantom city thus grows backward from the single generative cell to its own mystical origin, while the novel grows forward into its ultimate form.
The narrative of Topology of a Phantom City has been reinforced with numerous cross-textual references. As in Project for a Revolution in New York, motifs from the author’s other works appear in this text. The eye motif (now the eye of a camera) and parts of Mathias’s bicycle from The Voyeur appear, for example, as do the mannequin and the iron bed from Project for a Revolution in New York. The narrator even refers overtly to the author’s work, mentioning Lady Ava’s Blue Villa and the eraser idea from the first novel. Extratextual references are also made: During one descriptive sequence, a character identified as D. H. and then as David H. photographs young women who assume sensual attitudes and mirrored poses that the reader may see in the photo-essay titled Rêves de jeunes filles (1971; Dreams of a Young Girl, 1971), a collaborative production of Robbe-Grillet and photographer David Hamilton. Again and again, Robbe-Grillet, the author, superimposes his consciousness on that of his narrator and, through playful intrusions, refocuses the reader’s attention on the inventive process, rather than on the product, of his narrative search.
Most obviously, the letter V carries blatant significance. The goddess Vanade (suggestive of a species of butterfly, a flying vee), the city of Vanadium, the obliteration of the inhabitants by gases from a volcano, the narrative attention given the words “David,” “divan,” “gravid,” “vagina,” and several more—all interconnect with triangular shapes such as the profile of the volcano, the city’s wedge-shaped plaza, the pointed portico of the temple, the spread legs of sacrificial virgins, and so forth. Since V is also the Roman numeral five, many objects appear in this exact quantity, the symbolism of which is also significant: In occult numerology, the value five is located in the center of the human personality “cell,” or matrix, representing feminine qualities traditionally exploited by men and—in medieval Christian symbol systems—the combined senses, thereby the corporeal life, the flesh. None of these references is subtly made, which is to say that the author repeatedly asserts what he is doing. He is generating a narrative, simultaneously inventing both content and form. The images he chooses are not symbolic allusions but cellular parts of the formal development, organic fictive growth.
Robbe-Grillet’s novel Djinn appears to be a transitional work. Gone are the erotic and the sadistic elements. Sly intertextual references have been replaced with wry and humorous ones, although the structure of this novel is far more complex than that of In the Labyrinth. Children are involved in the story not as objects but as clever protagonists who influence the narrator’s method of telling and help lead him through an invisible labyrinth of his own making. Djinn is encoded with sudden shifts in viewpoint and verb tense that indicate the presence of double characters with double motives. There are also overtones of the Oedipus myth, with its psychological implications, but of the old, blind Oedipus at Colonus being led by a child.
Having written a French primer for intermediate language students (Le Rendez-vous, 1981), Robbe-Grillet employed the idea here as a framing device: A French teacher disappears, leaving behind a mysterious manuscript, the story of Simon Lecoeur and Djinn. Their narrative progresses with increasing intricacy as Simon’s identity changes, by his own inclination and by the intrusion of an unclearly identified narrator who usurps both manuscript and viewpoint. Is Djinn male, female, or androgynous? The novel is a puzzle with pieces that are shaped alike: Simon is known to his students as Yann, spelled Ján; his young friend is named Jean, and Jean’s sister is named Jeannie. Other Jeans and Jeannies surface, too. (A “djinn,” or jinni, is a mythical Islamic spirit that can enter bodies at will for good or evil.) A novel that is this much a puzzle must be brief—128 pages—but its brevity heightens its complexity. Repeated readings lead to a fuller understanding of its manifold story; the structure of earlier works becomes clear by the second reading.
In the third phase of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s career, Ghosts in the Mirror, Angélique, and Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe present his autobiographical fiction. Ghosts in the Mirror provides the oval mirror that the quasi-mythical Comte de Corinthe struggled to retrieve from the sea. Through this mirror’s oval eye, the “I” of Robbe-Grillet, the sole narrator, directs or misdirects the readers while he spins his fictions. He describes his plot structure as a work progressing in a linear fashion through his life, from “critical essay to novel, from book to film, continually questioning,” and including the sea and fear, two things giving theme or structure to previous works. His actual method, however, shows his usual scorn for traditions. An achronological approach dominates. Time sequences alter when dislocated descriptions, tangential ideas, critical theories, and subjective fantasies are incorporated where they neither belong nor seem to fit.
Robbe-Grillet’s fictional characters reappear in fragmented or altered forms in these works. Angélique has many incarnations. She may be the living model for Violet or Jacqueline in The Voyeur. Other shifting images depict her as not only Corinth’s fiancé but also mysterious washerwomen fairies or even a vampire bat. (This last pairs her with the author’s mother, who shelters a bat in her blouse.) At her death, she becomes an Ophelia floating on the waters.
Cross-textual references to key objects and parallel scenes are again used as linking devices. Allusions to torn, bloodstained clothing and broken glass link related objects to previous sequences of sexual activity or interests to many scenes in Angélique. Childhood memories of Robbe-Grillet’s red-curtained bedroom parallel one curtained room from In the Labyrinth. Robbe-Grillet creates an imaginary, isolated white cell in which his fantasized captivity recalls women prisoners in another white room in Topology of a Phantom City. This depiction illustrates one of Robbe-Grillet’s favorite concepts: generators, starting points for evolutionary growth. Here, Mersault’s prison cell is a “generative cell” able to create its own cellular growth and shape other organic fictive growth such as the fantasy cell in Ghosts in the Mirror.
Another significant element is the sly, playful humor that surfaces. Repeatedly, Robbe-Grillet refocuses the reader’s attention on the inventive process rather than on the product of his narrative search. In Ghosts in the Mirror, Robbe-Grillet admits, “I don’t believe in truth,” but he adds, “I’m not a truthful soul but nor do I tell lies.” Further, according to Robbe-Grillet, “an author is a being without a face.” If the author is writing his (or her) autobiography, not fiction, his query should be, “Who is Alain Robbe-Grillet?” rather than “Who was Henri de Corinthe?”—the first question in Ghosts in the Mirror. That confusing situation is at the heart of Robbe-Grillet’s autofictions. Are these works fact or fiction? How much real biographical information does the author provide for the reader? Are his childhood memories real or false? In autobiography, a reader expects to discover more information about the author than has previously been known. Here, there are few documentable facts revealed that are not already known about Robbe-Grillet’s personal and public life. The autofictions could be skillful and sly efforts to reject the familiarconventions of form by creating a new one. Indeed, without telling their readers, writers have been telling lies for centuries.
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