Robbe-Grillet, Alain (Vol. 8)
Robbe-Grillet, Alain 1922–
French novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and critic, Robbe-Grillet is the leading exponent of the New Novel in France. His style has been described as cinematic: it depicts reality in rapidly changing scenes, revealing the flow of mental rather than physical life. He rejects the idea of the writer as social critic, maintaining that his work is a "search" and not an expression of social attitudes. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
With Alain Robbe-Grillet, fictional perspective takes the final step prepared for by Sartre and Camus of subordinating the entire spatio-temporal field to its trompe-l'oeil aspects. Robbe-Grillet's fictional world presents a single microcosmic enigma, a labyrinth in which as many readers are led astray as successfully enter and find an exit. In Dans le Labyrinthe Robbe-Grillet introduces and constantly maintains an ambiguous, enigmatic double perspective with unabashed temerity. It is from the labyrinth of its title that this slim volume comes to represent the vision not only of its author, but of the entire group of New Novelists and their disciples who continue to proliferate in France.
Creating a fiction about the creation of a fiction, Robbe-Grillet in Dans le Labyrinthe succeeds more completely than either Sartre or Camus, or indeed than any other New Novelist, in eliminating his personal voice from the novel. Robbe-Grillet's first-person narrator begins and ends the Labyrinthe by narrating a story about a soldier, whose third-person perspective determines his story within the story. Although Robbe-Grillet succeeds through this double perspective in eliminating his personal voice from the novel, he does not even attempt to eliminate the narrator's voice from intervening in his narrative so that interventions by the narrator will occur in the place of the more usual interventions by the author. Although such a technique seems simply to replace the author by the narrator, in fact, the author of Dans le Labyrinthe controls the fictional domain of the narrator, who in turn controls the fictional domain of the soldier. Robbe-Grillet's peculiar method of depicting an independent narrator in the throes of the creative process at the very outset of the Labyrinthe effectively adheres to Sartre's avowed esthetic purpose of setting both author and reader equidistant from the narrator who creates his fiction independent of either, yet dependent to a certain extent on both.
Rather than allow his narrator to discuss the creative process within his own fictional domain, as Proust, Gide, and Joyce have done, Robbe-Grillet introduces a narrator who shows the creative process at work in the construction of a fictional world different from his own, albeit one which is a reflection of his own. Robbe-Grillet's narrator does not reign as protagonist of the fictional field he creates; indeed, whether he is present within his narrative at all has been questioned.
It is Robbe-Grillet's development of reflection as a literary technique which determines the import of his novel. Although consciousness can proceed from author to narrator to character with no reversal in this novel, forms—objects, itineraries, events and persons within their physical limitations—can reflect precisely as in a mirror image, or approximately as in a shadow, from the narrative domain to the narrator's domain, and from both fictional domains to life itself. (pp. 101-02)
Robbe-Grillet's emphasis is upon the reiteration of single forms under various guises within a specific fictional world, so that his work lends itself easily to mythical and archetypal interpretation. Emphasis upon sameness and reflection works toward the unity of the work, the unity of the point of view, and the unity of the fictional world which itself is double in Dans le Labyrinthe….
Robbe-Grillet's concern with method, with the functioning of the feverish or creative consciousness, overrides his concern with its end result….
Although critics have maintained that Robbe-Grillet will-fully confuses the spatio-temporal framework in Dans le Labyrinthe in order to create a dream state, it seems more relevant to say that the work resembles a daydream or a fantasy. (p. 103)
Dreams, daydreams, and thought being in themselves phenomena with a double aspect, Robbe-Grillet's peculiarly physical affirmation of the existence of things, events, and gestures counter-balances the dreamlike metaphysical aspect in this work. Just as these are double phenomena, the point of view in this novel is double; it is a fictional world composed of two domains or sites, each of which corresponds to one of the two perspectives. (p. 105)
By calling up the powerful archetype of the labyrinth as a figure which incorporates chaos within order, by resorting to a theatrical framework which promotes sequences of scenes emphasizing spatial at the expense of temporal coherence, by exploiting reflection both as a literary technique and as a profound esthetic conviction, Robbe-Grillet tries to impose the experience of creating fiction on the individual reader. Robbe-Grillet's vision begins with peace from within the calm center of each individual who, when exposed to the chaotic confusion of life or death or even the unconscious, will find his own individual solution. In fact, if Robbe-Grillet has a philosophy of life and death, an analogy-myth through which the labyrinthine complexity of life and death is to become comprehensible, it is only that there are no valid generic myths—each man's solution is sui generis and is arrived at through the static peace in his inner self. (pp. 147-48)
Betty T. Rahv, "The Labyrinth As Archetypal Image of the New Novel," in her From Sartre to the New Novel (copyright © 1974 by Betty T. Rahv; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1974, pp. 101-48.
Robbe-Grillet's theories constitute the most ambitious aesthetic program since Surrealism…. [In his essays] reasoning is close; his remarks upon other writers, including the classics of the bourgeois novel, are reverent and lively. Because of his training as an agronomist, his understanding of science and of how its truths subvert our workaday assumptions exceeds that of most writers. His pronouncements do catch at something—a texture, an austerity—already present in other, often older French novelists, such as Nathalie Sarraute. To an American, however, there is a hollow ring of Thomism. Robbe-Grillet's concept of thereness looks like the medieval quidditas; the attempt to treat existence itself as a quality that can be artistically emphasized seems a formal confusion, a scholastic bottling of the wind…. There is a forced naïveté in his vision, a strange inversion of the pathetic fallacy he detests, for in artistic practice his concern with the inviolable otherness of things charges them, saturates them, with a menace and hostility as distortive of their null inner being as an imagined sympathy. One's reservations about Robbe-Grillet's formulations come down to the discrepancy between his description of what happens in his fiction and what actually happens. Far from striking us with their unsullied thereness, the "things" in his novels are implicated in the pervasive flimsiness and inconsequence.
La Maison de Rendez-Vous could have been translated as The House of Assignation or The Blue Villa or even Up at Lady Ava's. It tells of, or circles around, a night at the elegant brothel run by Lady Ava, or Eva, or Eve, in Hong Kong…. Through [a] fog of events, or anti-events ("What does all that matter? What does it matter?" the book asks itself, answering, "All this comes to the same thing"), rotates a constellation of repeated and refracted images…. True to Robbe-Grillet's credo, the present never accumulates; rather, it unravels. There is a studied false numerical precision. A hand is "about eight or twelve" inches from a serving tray; forty pages later, the distance is given as six inches. Manneret's apartment is on the third floor, or the fifth, or the sixth, or the eighth. Different characters relive the same adventures; a play within the action becomes the action; and twin servant girls have the same name, "pronounced quite similarly, the difference imperceptible except to a Chinese ear." The ingenuity behind all this doubling and shuffling is considerable. The writing is clean and deft and even entertaining, though the reader's interest tends to cling, pathetically, to the excitements of the hackneyed tale of exotic intrigue that is being parodied, fragmented, and systematically frustrated. The popular adventure form underlying the sophisticated nouveau roman rises up and revenges itself by imposing upon the book a cliché ending of double-cross and a flat last sentence: "And there is nothing in her eyes." But there has never been anything in her eyes. Upon the basis, I think, of false analogies, Robbe-Grillet has already dissolved, with his "descriptions whose movement destroys all confidence in the things described," the credibility as elemental to the art of narrative as the solidity of stone or metal is to sculpture. (pp. 354-56)
Robbe-Grillet's fiction is almost exclusively cinematic. La Maison de Rendez-Vous is not so much written as scripted: "The scene which then takes place lacks clarity." "Then the images follow one another very rapidly," "Now we see the young Eurasian girl backed into the corner of a luxurious room, near a lacquer chest whose lines are emphasized by bronze ornaments, all escape cut off by a man in a carefully trimmed gray goatee who is towering over her." The full syntax of splicing, blurring, stop-action, enlargement, panning, and fade-out is employed; the book lacks only camera tracks and a union member operating the dolly. The trouble is that prose does not inherently possess the luminous thereness of a projected image, and all of Robbe-Grillet's montages, visual particularization, careful distinctions between right and left, and so on do not induce the kind of participation imposed by, say, his real movie Last Year at Marienbad. A man sitting with a book in his lap is a creature quite different from a man sitting hypnotized in a dark theatre. The mind translates verbal imagery into familiar images innocent of a photograph's staring actuality; it seizes on a single detail and enshrouds it in vague memories from real life. An image, to have more than this hazy recollective vitality, must be weighted with a momentum beyond itself, by that movement of merged relevance that Aristotle called an "action."
For this movement, and the accumulating emotion and concern around the things described, Robbe-Grillet, in his essay "Time and Description in Fiction Today," offers to substitute "the very movement of the description." Here we have [in addition to a false analogy with the cinema,] the second false analogy—with painting…. A page of print can never, like a rectangle of paint, lift free of all reference to real objects; it cannot but be some kind of shadow. Further, a painting is from the painter's hand, whereas a book has passed through a mechanical process that erases all the handwriting and crossing-out that would declare the author's presence and effort. Robbe-Grillet's off-center duplications, subtle inaccuracies, and cubistic fragmentation do not convey "the very movement of the description." They instead seem mannered devices intended to give unsubstantial materials an interesting surface. (pp. 357-58)
Robbe-Grillet does have instincts, tropisms toward certain styles of experience; his first novel, The Erasers, a coherent detective story, shows the same surveyor's eye, the same fondness for duplication and stalled motion, as does his last. But between the two there has been a buildup of theory, a stylization of intuition. La Maison de Rendez-Vous is less a work of art than an objet d'art, shiny with its appliqué of progressive post-Existential thought; it has a fragile air of mere up-to-dateness, of chic. (p. 358)
John Updike, in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1975.
Despite its title [Topologie d'une cité fantôme] Alain Robbe-Grillet's latest book is by no means a topographical study. Instead, the author once more explores in his own way the technique of the new novel. As in several previous works, he focuses on the process of writing fiction. Again form precedes content.
Complex and replete with variations, regressions, repetitions and intertextuality, the book emphasizes the structure. The narrator, perhaps an anthropologist, examines an ancient city, possibly situated in Greece or Sicily, with its houses, prisons, temples, brothels and harbor. At the same time, he explores techniques of the novel. He constantly modifies his point of view through a stream of consciousness in which individual words generate larger meanings….
[Words] are the generative cells of the fictional body. By manipulating them, creating new words by adding or changing letters, the author creates new associations…. Each word becomes the center of a prose swatch that is in turn woven into a larger structural unit. The whole is a colorful collage of an ancient city, with its visible strata of successive cultures, where a catastrophic event takes place: on a peaceful day hostile soldiers invade the land, create great carnage and, in a mysterious ritual, rape a beautiful young girl. (Rape is an obsessional image of the author.) Robbe-Grillet uses the cinema technique of presenting everything in the present. The narrator moves with ease from one cultural stratum to another or, more importantly, from one fictional structure to the next.
Besides verbal structure, the narrator, much as he has in former works, uses geometrical figures such as the number eight in Le voyeur. Patterns in this work are more complicated, ranging from numerical and spatial forms to colors. Circular, oval and triangular shapes occur; white and red dominate as colors. Girls' white robes contrast with red materials—blood, wine, ink—all against backgrounds of dark, mysterious rooms or caves. With a painter's sensitivity to color Robbe-Grillet "paints" the white page with words.
When the narrator finds that he is again walking where he has been so often before, along the endless corridor of the book, it is clear that the structure of the novel is circular; and as in several previous works, the cyclical device destroys time, and the content comes full circle. An entirely different matter is the cultural and personal history that is hidden behind the words. As in Joyce's Ulysses, this level of meaning cannot be completely decoded. But this hardly matters. On the level of reading pleasure the dynamic impressions that evoke pagan cruelty and stark terror can be enjoyed as much as the impeccable prose. (p. 55)
Anna Otten, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.
Topologie d'une cité fantôme, Robbe-Grillet's most recent novel, is also his purest, purest because to a greater extent than any of his previous works it ignores the conventions of the novel (plot, character, meaning) and such external determinants as human psychology or political ideology. An archeological excavation furnishes the pretext for a series of visions, myths, anecdotes and dramas, all relating to a central terrain. However, the cohesiveness of the novel's scenes depends less on their common site than on the series of generating elements from which the scenes are constructed.
The novel's first "espace," "Construction d'un temple en ruines à la Déesse Vanadé," gradually builds up a set of elements which generate the novel's episodes. Foremost among these elements are four geometric shapes: rectangle, triangle (associated with the letter V), sphere, and line (also a short phallic stylus or iron bar). Other generating elements are naked young girls, a camera, blood, and a woman's scream.
The letter V is the most dynamic of these elements. It is born of the isosceles triangle which was the primitive form of the temple of Vanadé. In inverted form it recreates the erotic spread of two naked legs or the volcano which destroyed the city of vanadium. The letter in conjunction with the letters G and D gives rise to a series of words … from which the narrator constructs one of the novel's myths.
In addition to these generating elements, one of the most consistent sources of Robbe-Grillet's film and fiction is his previous work. Thus, one finds in Topologie the image of a mannequin tied to an iron bed which appears in Projet pour une révolution à New York and Glissements progressifs du plaisir, an allusion to the Villa Bleue at Shanghai (La Maison de rendez-vous) and the description of a multiroomed building which sounds sometimes like the hotel of L'Année dernière à Marienbad and sometimes like the chateau of L'Homme qui ment (also recalled in Topologie by a game of blind man's bluff)….
The novel begins with a five page "Incipit" in which the narrator as he is about to fall asleep calls forth images which will be the novel's central motifs: dripping water, ruins of an ancient city, the image of a young naked girl combing her hair before a mirror, a knife, and a pool of blood. The suggestion that the novel is the product of a dream is reinforced in the "Coda," a five page conclusion which begins as the narrator is awakened by a scream, and in which his preoccupation with butterflies (a motif of the novel) establishes an explicit comparison between the mounting of butterflies in a collection and the stabbing deaths of young girls as described throughout many of the novel's episodes.
Most of the episodes do in fact seem to relate to the murder of a young girl. Several versions of the murder stretch across historical periods from the mythological sacking of an ancient city followed by the massacre of its female inhabitants to the modern detective story version which presents the investigation of a series of knife slayings. The historical period of each episode determines the nature of the structures of the city as well as the nature of the murder which takes place in it. (p. 80)
Two names recur throughout the different episodes: Vanadé and David. The former is a mythological goddess whose temple is one of the earliest ruins on the site. David is first introduced as Vanadé's male counterpart, actually a hermaphrodite responsible for the fertilization of a race of women. In other episodes David is the "incestuous and fratricidal" twin of Vanessa (a variation on the name Vanadé). David is also the name of a biblical king, a twentieth-century photographer and the subject of two dramas described within the novel. In the Coda, Vanadé-Vanessa becomes the variety of butterfly: vanesse.
Topologie d'une cité fantôme is more difficult and less fascinating than its predecessor, Projet pour une révolution à New York. The many divisions of the text are a distraction and break down the cohesiveness of the novel. And the novel's descriptions never seem to attain the vividness and poetic strangeness of the earlier work. One section which strikes the reader with its freshness is the series of interior monologues of one or several young female prisoners who stare at themselves in a mirror and dream of an erotic escape with their other selves. The dedicated reader of Robbe-Grillet who has learned to expect from each new novel or film familiar images and techniques accompanied by a renewal of subject and style will not however be disappointed by Topologie which marks another important step in the continuing development of the nouveau roman. (p. 81)
Paul J. Schwartz, in The International Fiction Review (© copyright International Fiction Association), January, 1977.
The received idea of Robbe-Grillet is of a mechanistic, philistine writer who is hardly a literary man at all. That idea was never fair and is regularly disproved by what he has to say in Robbe-Grillet, where he quotes from such unexpected sources as Swift and the Bible and goes into detail over the extreme care with which he constructs his novels. He works on four versions simultaneously, each one page further advanced than its successor, and writes slowly because nothing can remain in the approved text unless the scheme justifies it. Robbe-Grillet therefore has to pick and choose between the inspirations which come as he writes, as the actually fortuitous is turned into the apparently deliberate. This is what he most enjoys about his work….
This technique of récupération is put successfully to work in La belle captive, one of the two fictions which Robbe-Grillet published in 1976…. La belle captive is a text set, in some splendour, facing reproductions of works by Robbe-Grillet's favourite painter, the archetypal Surrealist, René Magritte. The writer takes elements from the pictures and turns them to uses of his own. The plot is erratic and inconsistent; fragments of it can be traced to Magritte's beautifully blank, suggestive images, though communications between the words and the pictures on the whole are poor. Just as Magritte is devoted to repetition and transformation—putting fins on a cigar, let's say, and creating a cigar-fish—so Robbe-Grillet alienates particular elements of his text by qualifying them differently at each reappearance.
The enemy … is "meaning". What he aims at, and more gracefully now, surely, than when he began writing, is to flood his books with meanings, to browbeat his readers with a mass of "information". Some bits of this information contradict other bits, so that meanings come and go as the plot circles on. What we do not know, and what there seems little hope of finding out (short of some massive and prolonged act of concentration), are the rules of selection and transformation to which Robbe-Grillet works; his humour and intelligence perhaps make up for that ultimate frustration.
He still has an ambition, so he says, to write a "popular" novel. Long ago he claimed that his novels were popular, or would be if only people read them with fewer preconceptions. No doubt he accepts by now that the taste for coherence and stable meanings is more stubborn than he had hoped. If one day Robbe-Grillet's novels are generally assimilated, it will at least be a sign that our traditional narrative forms are not inevitable or universal, and that there are more logics than one when it comes to telling tales.
John Sturrock, "The Built-In Excrescence," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 6, 1977, p. 565.