Robbe-Grillet, Alain 1922–
A French New Novelist and critic, Robbe-Grillet is the author of The Erasers, Jealousy, and Last Year at Marienbad. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Alain Robbe-Grillet is the forerunner of a revolution in the novel more radical than Romanticism and Naturalism were in their time. This almost unknown form, he tells us, is already trying to establish itself in spite of resistance all the way from publishers to the most modest readers "via the bookseller and the critic." Renouncing "sacrosanct psychological analysis," and, as far as possible, the subjective point of view, it tries to reflect the world as it is: neither significant nor absurd, just present…. This bewildering appearance of a world impervious to any frame of reference whatsoever ("sentimental, sociological, Freudian, metaphysical or other") is found by Alain Robbe-Grillet to be much more plainly revealed in the cinema than in the present-day novel. It is found not only in the avant-garde cinema but in the filmed equivalents of mediocre novels, where the most conventional scenario does not interfere with the well-named objective of disclosing common objects in all their bareness….
Alain Robbe-Grillet disregards the feelings and complicated thoughts of his heroes. All that counts is the immediate sensation. Man is reduced to a robot, the mind to a recording machine, so no incident is of more importance than another….
The minutiae in the description interfere with the view. One sees no better for seeing more. Actually, we seem to grasp more of the over-all than of the details. To decide the contrary is perhaps an assumption as good as any. But by what right could it be called less conventional? At the start of every creative work there is a plan. There is no art without choice. The author of Gommes and Le Voyeur gives the impression at first of making no choice in what is presented to him. Then one becomes aware of the plan: to keep what has no importance to the action of the novel and make it the fictional material itself. Small facts that novelists ordinarily neglect but that the novel takes for granted: changes of place minutely described, with the houses and streets always the same and practically interchangeable….
Psychology is reborn, new, bare and pure from its destruction. Never, perhaps, has the insane character of jealousy been made perceptible with such acuteness. The heroine [of La Jalousie], although she is not described with any of the usual words, is surprisingly seductive. For the first time, in convincing fashion, Alain Robbe-Grillet gives us a beautiful and genuine novel in La Jalousie. No doubt his theories will prove fruitful when they become more flexible through use and are reconciled with what should be kept from the fictional assets of the past. There is no doubt that he has already advanced quite far in the right direction….
What is new in Robbe-Grillet (or rather what would be new without the precedent of Francis Ponge), is the concrete character of the images, whether they are caught by a glance or seen again in the darkroom of the mind. He deliberately uses in his novels the revealing difference mentioned by him between reality and its cinematographic representation. It is then not only his heroes but their creator himself who makes movies—avant-garde movies and novels. No doubt Robbe-Grillet is a pioneer. It is possible that he has found a way out of the impasse which the most advanced literature had reached—so that it was no longer advancing…. By grasping objects visually without judging them, being satisfied...
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to take them without wanting to understand, Alain Robbe-Grillet escapes perhaps, and perhaps makes literature escape inanity. This fictional study of phenomena is itself misleading, but it is capable of giving an illusion some of the time, thus making possible works that will be something more than proof of impotence or madness.
Claude Mauriac, "A. Robbe-Grillet," in his The New Literature, translated by Samuel I. Stone (George Braziller, Inc.: from The New Literature by Claude Mauriac; reprinted with permission of the publisher; copyright © 1959 by George Braziller, Inc.), Braziller, 1959, pp. 225-34.
No subtlety of characterization is possible [in Robbe-Grillet's novels] since only familiar shapes are recognizable in these murky waters: Detective confronts Victim in The Erasers; the trio in Jealousy are the stock triangle of harlequinade and French bedroom farce; the soldier of In the Labyrinth has no shred of individuality.
Worst of all, the results quickly become monotonous and boring. Robbe-Grillet's freedom from the conventions of the novel is the freedom of deprivation. It binds the novelist with the tightest new constraints, until he cannot even perform his primary function, which is to be interesting. A prefatory note to In the Labyrinth insists that the story "is subject to no allegorical interpretation." We must take Robbe-Grillet's word that these events are not meant to have any larger meaning, that they stand for nothing beyond themselves. But in themselves they are trivial and tedious, so that finally they have no interest for us. I regard these novels as serious experiments and Robbe-Grillet as a very clever man; in my opinion they are failed experiments of limited value, and Robbe-Grillet has been sadly misled by his cleverness.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Austerities of the New Novel," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 264-68.
[When Robbe-Grillet published his first novel, The Erasers, he at once became one of the antinovelists, eventually the leading apostle of chosisme.
Like Mme. Sarraute and other allitérature writers, Robbe-Grillet professes to avoid using the customary properties of the novel, such as plot, psychological development, and message, respectively the favorite devices of the classicists, the realists, and the social or religious propagandists. Similarly, he shrinks away from the metaphors and symbols so dear to the romanticists and symbolists. Robbe-Grillet is particularly opposed, in poetry and prose that draw upon nature, to what Ruskin called the pathetic fallacy, which attributes human characteristics to inanimate matter, as "the cruel, crawling foam" or "Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white." In order to escape such anthropomorphic reductions of experience, Robbe-Grillet projects events with an unemotional, geometrical precision and measures landscapes and objects with compasses and calipers. In this refusal to humanize objects, he presents them scientifically and descriptively—and they dominate his story….
In Robbe-Grillet's novels, his essays, and in such ventures as the screenplay he wrote (l'Anée dernière à Marienbad; 1961, Last Year at Marienbad), he has embodied his idea that the internal reality of consciousness exists in terms of the objects with which it comes in contact. If this is to some extent an idea related to phenomonology, it is also a kind of extreme of materialism…. [The] effects of Robbe-Grillet are obtained by the omission of psychological development and of such devices as symbol and metaphor—in the last case perhaps less an omission than a reduction, since, with metaphors at least, so many of the adjectives used almost obligatorily are metaphoric in tone or intention….
Further, although Robbe-Grillet attempts to avoid meaning, he cannot altogether do so for, even in his still-life attempts the very objects that he chooses to present suggest a meaning. Why are these particular things projected, and why are they arranged in a certain pattern? By implication, Robbe-Grillet is making a statement about life—his very technique does that, of itself—and he is therefore indulging in philosophy, which deals in meaning. Yet in the commonest use of that word—what does such-and-such mean?—Robbe-Grillet is evading the concept, as his characters and situations are left in the mist; unless the reader knows what happens, he cannot properly evaluate the meaning of the story. And with Robbe-Grillet the reader never really knows; the deaths, even murders, of certain characters may not be deaths at all, but fantasies. So here we may have a philosophy ("life exists in terms of objects"; "the events of life are a puzzle") and yet no meaning in the accepted sense, as found in the usual story.
Harry T. Moore, in his Twentieth-Century French Literature Since World War II (© 1966 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966, pp. 120-29.
Perhaps the most naïve aspect of Robbe-Grillet's theory of fiction is his assumption that words can ever describe with absolute precision anything. At no point does he acknowledge that words are simply fiat for real things; by their nature, words are imprecise and layered with meanings—the signs of things, not the things themselves. Therefore, even if Robbe-Grillet's goal of achieving a total reality for the world of things was desirable, it would not be possible to do it with language, since the author (that man full of torments and passions) is bound to betray his attitude to the sequence of signs he offered us; he has an "interest" in the matter, or else he would not write. Certainly if he means to reinvent man, then he will want to find a way of defining man through human (yes, psychological) relations as well as through a catalogue of things observed and gestures coolly noted. Wanting to play God, ambition is bound to dictate the order of words, and so the subjective will prevail just as it does in the traditional novel. To follow Robbe-Grillet's theory to its logical terminus, the only sort of book which might be said to be not a collection of signs of absent things but the actual things themselves would be a collection of ink, paper, cardboard, glue, and typeface, to be assembled or not by the reader-spectator. If this be too heavy a joke, then the ambitious writer must devise a new language which might give the appearance of maintaining the autonomy of things, since the words, new-minted, will possess a minimum of associations of a subjective or anthropomorphic sort. No existing language will be of any use to him, unless it be that of the Trobriand Islanders: those happy people have no words for "why" or "because"; for them, things just happen. Needless to say, they do not write novels or speculate on the nature of things….
Despite Robbe-Grillet's tendency to self-congratulation …, there is not much in what he has so far written that will interest anyone except the specialist. It is, however, a convention of the avant-garde that to be in advance of the majority is to be "right." But the New Novelists are not in advance of anyone. Their works derive from what they believe to be a need for experiment and the imposition of certain of the methods of science upon the making of novels. Fair enough. Yet in this they resemble everyone, since to have a liking for the new is to be with the dull majority. In the arts, the obviously experimental is almost never denounced because it is new: if anything, our taste-makers tend to be altogether too permissive in the presence of what looks to be an experiment, as anyone who reads New York art criticism knows. There is not much likelihood that Robbe-Grillet will be able to reinvent man as a result of his exercises in prose. Rather he himself is in the process of being reinvented (along with the rest of us) by the new world in which we are living.
Gore Vidal, "French Letters: Theories of the New Novel" (1967), in his Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship (copyright © 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Gore Vidal; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co.), Little, Brown, 1969.
Robbe-Grillet himself does not give us biographical clues to his sensibility. We sense his anti-romantic temper, his commitment to an Apollonian ideal of distance and precision, a visual measure of things. But we sense also his unavowed desire to participate—like the Surrealists—in the silent metamorphosis of things. Controlled, he pretends to surrender the initiative to objects. Detached, he still accedes to the frenzy of men….
In artists, madness cries for a style. We can believe Robbe-Grillet when he insists: "What is important for me in the novel is structure, or form." The form creates a private, maniacal, sado-erotic world—The Voyeur, Jealousy—in which minute observation conceals derangement of the sense, in which sick solipsism reigns….
Critics will not agree on form or madness in Robbe-Grillet. He gives them a fictional labyrinth wherein they lose themselves. He also gives them, in For a New Novel, tangled threads leading here and there. In this collection of reviews, essays, manifestoes, the author defends, attacks, defines, all the while pretending to explain himself, at most presuming to outline a new kind of art….
Even more than Nathalie Sarraute, he feels that the Balzacian novel has come to an end, that the bourgeois world which it assumed has become as obsolete as Newtonian physics. The ideal of Flaubert, "un livre sur rien," presages the beginning of the end. A "new realism," closer to what we crudely call Surrealism perhaps, extends from Flaubert to Kafka, thrusting into the future….
Robbe-Grillet, however, does imply a certain view of the universe, an anti-metaphysic. He refuses the absurdity of the Existentialists and their nausea: "But the world is neither significant nor absurd. It is, quite simply. That, in any case, is the most remarkable thing about it."…
Robbe-Grillet creates his own metaphysic within language. We know why. He detests older forms of anthropomorphism. Things are things and men are men, he says to Sartre through Roquentin. He detests pathetic fallacies, analogical styles, metaphor, adjectives. He detests the arrogance of humanism and the self-pity of tragedy, the assumption that man is everywhere and that the cosmos conspires miraculously to thwart him. He detests viscous, dark, and soulful depths. Almost in the spirit of Zen, he gives back the world to itself…. He avoids abysmal despair….
His own novels do not cease to appear with some regularity, varying in theme as in formal ingenuity. Compact, controlled, sustained emotionally without cryptomania, Jealousy offers an example of the genre at its best. The novel creates unbroken tensions between description and suppression, reason and madness, objectivity and obsession. Its violence derives from a gap in language and structure, what the author calls "un creux." We see what an invisible character, the jealous husband, sees, a consciousness without pronoun, a "je-nêant." The husband sees; he feels only by implications of language, in the prsence of a reader; if he acts to murder his wife or her lover, we only feel without seeing it. Jealousy—the word in French also means a window blind—renders reality sharply in certain slants of light, through slats, both hiding and revealing. Like a blind, like jealousy itself, the novel invents the landscape by selective omissions. The eye which is the screen is also tormented by what it inwardly sees….
Surrealism yields to the new realism of demented objectivity….
Everything [in Jealousy] remains separate, discrete, clear in itself only, and, like the white ship in A's calendar, totally fictive. Everything in the novel resists, as long as the reader can endure, conventional meaning.
A disturbed narrator, both absent and omniscient, leaves no alternatives to the reader but to become himself that narrator or else close the book. Once again we stand within the circle of subjectivity, on the thresholds of solipsism, believing only what we have no other means to disbelieve. We are still in the presence of man, of human consciousness oppressed by itself in the midst of things—a chestnut tree, the sun, centipedes. But Robbe-Grillet pushes language, farther than Sartre or Camus, toward a certain line of artistic "insignificance." We defeat him by forcing upon his structures familiar closure or extrinsic meanings—jealousy, paranoia, colonialism, etc.—and by denying him the patience he labors to earn from his readers. His art may not refute the possibility of art in the future. His perspective, nonetheless, is posthumanist, anticipating a change in the structure of consciousness, and helping to effectuate that change by means of new fictions.
Ihab Hassan, in his The Dismemberment of Orpheus (© 1971 by Ihab Hassan; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 167-76.
La Maison de rendez-vous is an example of Robbe-Grillet's attempt to put his theories into practice. Traditional elements of the novel—plot, character, setting, point of view—are transformed from solid representations of the real world into chimerical illusions, in effect voiding them of signification in the real world. Edouard Manneret has been murdered, but the murder has been committed in three different ways and under three completely different sets of circumstances….
Ultimately any attempt to treat the novel in the same terms as a traditional realistic novel leaves the reader at a dead end. "Signification" has been abandoned, and "presence" has been created. A series of images constitute the presence of the novel and form a thematic motif that runs throughout the novel, lending it both unity and coherence. The circumstances surrounding them may change, but the images themselves remain constant. Like a composer, Robbe-Grillet begins with a simple statement of his themes and then goes on to explore their various possibilities.
Jack Goodstein, "Pattern and Structure in Robbe-Grillet's La Maison de rendezvous," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 1972, pp. 91-7.
Robbe-Grillet … [is] a supreme artificer and The Immortal One is certainly the best film he's made—I'm not including masterly milestone of modern cinema Last Year at Marienbad which he wrote for it bears very strongly the signature of director Alain Resnais….
[As] is usual with Robbe-Grillet, elements of the story contradict each other and the real, the imagined, the dreamed and the construed are indistinguishable; anyone who reads the script without having seen the film will find themselves well lost—there's nothing particularly poetic about these descriptions which were originally intended for technicians and the reader is certainly not manipulated in the way he/she is when reading Robbe-Grillet's fiction. I think that his inability to realise his manipulative gifts in a purely cinematic way is the main reason for the comparative failure of his films. Marienbad was a great film for, among other reasons, the way in which an imagined world was depicted and made believable (which has nothing to do with representing real life) through a definition of its limits. Robbe-Grillet's shortcomings are as director, not as screenwriter;… and he has, in venturing into the actual making of films, rather overreached himself. No matter, he's still one of the best living novelists.
Jonathan Meades, in Books and Bookmen, January, 1972, pp. 54, 56.
[Project for a Revolution in New York] is Robbe-Grillet's fifth. He has been on the scene nearly 20 years and has established himself as the major representative of the new school through his novels, his essays (which are as clear and coherent as his fiction is jumbled), and his films. The first and best known of the films is an elegant and often beautiful puzzler called "Last Year at Marienbad." After seeing it, you think you dreamed it. He has also attracted an impressive following of critics and commentators. Many of them, like the American, Bruce Morrissette, keep divulging his presumed blue-prints—Tarot cards, the Oedipus myth, the Moebius strip, mathematical series and sets. Perhaps a novel emptied of content encompasses all shapes. Leonardo told painters to stare at splotches on the wall. There is no denying the fascination of Robbe-Grillet's creations once one accepts the equivalence or absence of all human values. In his fictions violence, depravity and deceit have no moral dimension. He asks us to watch the pure play of events….
There is a universal principle at work here and in many similar novels. I can describe it best as rhyme. Painters rhyme shapes and colors. Poets rhyme terminal syllables, sometimes moods. Robbe-Grillet rhymes events themselves—fits them inside or outside one another like Chinese boxes, like sounds heard in a whispering gallery. In [Project for a Revolution in New York] one character or another is shown time after time doing almost the same thing: coming up stairs to find Laura, climbing down a fire-escape in a fire. The repeated subway sequences of pursuer and pursued turn endlessly into themselves like kaleidoscopic images. Furthermore, the rat and the railing in the subway tunnel rhyme with the rat and the railing in the house where Laura is held (and is not held) a prisoner. The house, or its fictional image, rhymes with the blown-up picture of that house on a huge advertisement—on which the representation of a door turns out to be a real door through which people walk and through whose keyhole the locksmith peeks. And so on. Poets, from Hugo to Valéry to Frost, tell us that rhyme is not an obstacle to composition but a mechanism inducing invention. It takes a little readjustment of one's literary sights to follow and appreciate, not a story line but a story rhyme.
Possibly I am restricting the principle of rhyme too closely to events in a nonexistent story. For what is really crossed and matched in that eerie blank scene in the subway is levels of reality. An underground film image, a revolutionary plot, a narrator's obsession with red, and this little printed book swirly up together and dissolve. Unreal is real, and conversely. Don't try to discover which is ground level. There is none….
[Project for a Revolution in New York], would make a great novel to explicate; it is harder to read. I am not fully satisfied by a story without human content, or in which human content is systematically dismembered and never reconstituted. This mystery story has no conclusion and no solution. I kept looking for the body of the text. When, every so often, I found it for a page or two, it was quickly snatched away again. Coitus interruptus does not suit my taste. Robbe-Grillet is its tantalizing literary master.
Roger Shattuck, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 28, 1972, pp. 5, 24.
To my mind, this "novel" [Project for a Revolution in New York] has exactly the same characteristics as [Alain] Robbe-Grillet's five preceding works, but the publicity handout accompanying the French edition, which was written by the author himself, is rather more explicit than some of his earlier statements and is therefore worth bearing in mind as one reads the book.
He begins by repeating, for the nth time, that the traditional novel is "a fossilized use of language," surviving from the early nineteenth century, which tells, in chronological sequence, a story which is "as definite as a judgment." Sociologists have shown that this traditional novel reflects bourgeois values connected with the destiny of the individual and the history of societies. The bourgeois values having collapsed, the traditional novel must be replaced by something else, "a new organizing force." To supply this force, the New Novel has evolved the theory of generative themes….
But what are these generative themes? Robbe-Grillet says he finds them among the "mythological material" of everyday life—in newspapers, posters, etc.—which reflects the collective unconscious of society…. As his imagination manipulates the mythological material, the novelist establishes his freedom, which exists only in language, the sole domain of human liberty. And this literary game, unlike bridge or chess, has no preordained rules; they are made up and canceled by the writer, according to his whim….
Robbe-Grillet produces a series of question marks in the reader's mind (or at least in this reader's), because he has deliberately arranged his pattern so that it is opaque. This is not to deal with the real, or supposed, opaqueness of life, but to parody it, which is quite a different matter. The traditional novelist has often been accused of rivaling God by stimulating omniscience; one might accuse Robbe-Grillet of trying to rival God by carefully creating a little unintelligible universe, in which to entrap his readers. But whereas we have no way of opting out of God's incomprehensible universe, we are not obliged to accept Robbe-Grillet's, any more than we are obliged to do the Times crossword puzzle.
John Weightman, "Refrigerated Dreams," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), June 1, 1972, pp. 6-10.
Robbe-Grillet was trained as an engineer and scientist, and in his essays (which in some ways are the most interesting things he has written) he shows the cool intelligence that goes with these professions. For engineering or science the fragmentation of experience is not a matter of human anguish but simply the powerful analytic tool by which objective problems are ground down piecemeal and solved. The anguish at the fragments has hitherto been left to philosophers and artists. In the future, if Robbe-Grillet's theories were to prevail, the artist may join the scientist in the cultivation of pure dispassion.
William Barrett, in his Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1972 by William Barrett; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 61-2.