Robbe-Grillet, Alain 1922–
Robbe-Grillet is a French novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and critic. In 1964 he published Pour un nouveau roman, a work which established the precepts of the New Novel movement. Rejecting traditional literary devices and theories as dishonest and misleading in their representation of the natural world, Robbe-Grillet proclaimed in his brilliant manifesto: "The world is neither significant nor absurd. It just is." He strives for complete objectivity in his writing and leaves the meaning intentionally ambiguous, for Robbe-Grillet wishes each reader to bring his own perceptive powers and life experiences to bear on his interpretation. Robbe-Grillet's theories and subsequent fictional works continue to be a center of controversy in literary circles. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
In his first novel, Les Gommes, Robbe-Grillet deliberately exploits the potency of the Oedipus myth, while simultaneously undermining its pretensions to significance. Once the myth is planted in the text, a sculpture of a Greek chariot becomes fraught with meaning: station announcements become oracular, and snippets of news in the newspaper take on Delphic profundity. It is not only the central figure, Wallas, who is trapped, but readers too are caught in the snare of words. Readers determined to make sense of the latent symbolism of the Tarot cards, of the rue de Corinthe, the picture of Thebes, and so on, are likely to make of the novel a reworking of the Oedipus myth. But the fact that the image of the Sphinx, seen in a canal, is only a momentary configuration of bits of paper and orange peel should give us pause…. [The] inclusion of a report on the state of the potato crop in the newspaper "oracle" is discouraging to symbolic interpretation. The famous riddle of the Oedipus myth is here presented only as a muddled conundrum on the lips of a drunk. Robbe-Grillet is in fact both exploiting the myth, and simultaneously undermining the mythologising impulse. He draws attention to the insidious patterns of association as they arise, and from time to time renders them ludicrous by giving them an ironic pat on the head.
We seem here to observe language in the very act of generating associative series and systems: a mention of swollen feet or a whisper of Corinth generates a whole mythical infrastructure; a reference to espionage and the Café des Alliés evokes passages crediting Fabius with an exciting wartime past…. The repetitive and associative forces that are apt to influence narration are not here discarded or concealed but exhibited and exploited with considerable wit. Despite his explicit disengagement from moralism, Robbe-Grillet's aesthetic concerns lead him in fact to examine the processes of a kind of linguistic determinism from which only awareness can free us. (pp. 37-8)
He presents men in the grip of passions which disturb their perception and make them the victims of their imagination…. The unfortunate Wallas is everywhere tripped and trapped by the insidious patterns that interpose themselves between him and the world. Sadistic fantasies seem to leap—from iron rings, film-posters, or even bits of string—into the mind of Mathias in Le Voyeur. An obsessive picture of the world forms the substance of La Jalousie; Dans le labyrinthe elaborately unfolds the processes of observation, distortion, and creation in a tormented mind. In La Maison de Rendez-vous and Projet pour une révolution à New York, Robbe-Grillet turns to exploring the deviations and distortions, the recurrent motifs and obsessions of his own narrative imagination. (pp. 38-9)
[In the aptly named Le Voyeur], Mathias is primarily a seer, and what is more, a seer seen . We...
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have no access to an inner coherent world in which smells, tastes, and feelings would take their place in an ordered structure presided over by a character. The reader too becomes avoyeur: our eye follows the eye of Mathias, and everywhere sees other voyeurs. Indeed, the vignette [is] repeated throughout the novel…. The world is full of eyes…. The figure-eight represents both the seer and the seen, the eyes that gaze, and the female figure that is the object of the gaze. And the huit couché is also the mathematical symbol for infinity, and thus an appropriate mark for this area of unlimited imagination….
Mathias' hearing is [also] shown, like his vision, to be unreliable, selective, and subject to interpretations governed by his erotic fantasies. (p. 39)
All through the novel, neutral and geometrical descriptions stand in counterpoint to the heavily subjective and distorted world of Mathias, for whom all objects are evocative, and become part of recurrent and significant patterns. When I say all objects, I should of course say all the objects he sees. For his seeing itself is selective…. (p. 40)
[The] real and insistent counterbalance to Mathias' distorted perceptions lies in the meticulously neutral descriptions in which Robbe-Grillet has framed them.
The distorting—or creative—impulse reveals itself not only in Mathias' obsessed imaginings, but on a milder and everyday level in such banal inventions as the stereotyped image of the wayward girl, the precocious Jacqueline…. She has … moved out of histoire and into histories. She is already an invention. On the larger scale, the general mythomania is reflected in the promulgation among the islanders of an ancient legend … involving the sacrifice of a virgin in the Spring to appease the sea-gods. Like the Oedipus myth in Les Gommes it is an ironic reflection of the creative and distorting process of human narration…. The human narrative is always liable to pull down some handy myth or stereotype, ignoring the reality…. (p. 41)
In this novel, Robbe-Grillet reflects directly the distortions of perception in an obsessed man: scenes observed by Mathias change as they are fired by his imaginative response—"fired" is indeed the word, when the girl in the photograph begins to crackle and burn as the flames leap round her from Mathias' observing eye…. We see perception in the act of becoming imagination. The passionate attention which Robbe-Grillet has elsewhere given to parallels, reflections, and repetitions indicates the same conviction in the novelist that observation is creative…. As we can never enter the same river twice, so we cannot observe the same scene twice—or even continuously. We change, and it changes. The continually modified repetitions of Dans le labyrinthe make the same point as they illustrate the observing and the imagining processes at work, the one insidiously replacing the other, with no visible hiatus. (pp. 41-2)
Valerie Minogue, in Forum for Modern Language Studies (copyright © by Forum for Modern Language Studies and Valerie Minogue), January, 1976.
Mathias, in Robbe-Grillet's Le Voyeur, sees and/or creates figure-eights wherever he goes. Seagulls form the pattern overhead, bits of string fall into it underfoot, iron rings on docks form it before his eyes, even his bicycle trip around the island falls naturally into two joined loops, a figure-eight. The murder which he may or may not have committed takes place on a blank page between Section 1 and Section 2; in the spatial context of the island and his trip around it, it takes place at the point where the line drawn in forming a figure-eight crosses itself, and in the first French edition that page is numbered 88. Mathias is of course an obsessed figure; what he is pre-programmed to see and do he sees and does. But some of these figure-eights never impinge on his consciousness at all, and most of those that he does notice don't tell us anything about his surroundings or him, except that there are a lot of free-floating figure-eights in the vicinity of both. In the classical economy of the novel, this kind of distraction would destroy a variety of author-reader relations, a shared trust which the author's proceedings and the reader's learned responses aimed to build. The new-style novel implies a measure of antagonism and mistrust to begin with; a fixed relation between author and reader is avoided, and the grid or pattern is a kind of pseudo-structure, serving to unsettle and complicate that relation. It is pseudo, not in terms of the author's beliefs, which may be utterly sincere, but in terms of the workings of the fiction, defined in the old way, of course, as action, character, representation. But as the reader's engagement with these old friends diminishes, so it becomes more involved with the texture of the author's construct—not with the author as public spokesman, but with the author's personal game. (pp. 46-7)
Robert Martin Adams, in his AfterJoyce: Studies in Fiction After "Ulysses" (copyright © 1977 by Robert Martin Adams; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press), Oxford University Press, 1977.
Intrepid admirers of M. Robbe-Grillet or of the "new" novel, or of both, might conceivably read "Topology of a Phantom City" with interest, but most readers will undoubtedly find its strained affectlessness crushingly soporific. Consider, for example, how M. Robbe-Grillet sets the stage for his imaginary city: "The first thing that is striking is the height of the walls: so high, so disproportionate to the size of the figures it does not even occur to you to wonder whether or not there is a ceiling; yes: the extreme height of the walls and their bareness; the three that are visible, constituting the back and two sides of the rectangular, possibly square (it is hard to say because of a powerful perspective effect), possibly even cube-shaped cell (which again raises the problem of the improbably existence of a ceiling) …" (p. 112)
The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 27, 1978.
Robbe-Grillet is a filmmaker and [Topology of a Phantom City] addresses itself to the eye almost exclusively. There is not a line of dialogue in the book. But there is endless scene setting—the same scene presented over and over again. In the opening pages we are asked to gaze upon the nude body of a young girl who lies in a spreading pool of blood. With a technique that is hard to differentiate from standard stream-of-consciousness, Robbe-Grillet brings us back to this scene again and again…. Eras change. We move from the mythic past, to the now, to the hereafter. But the story is the same. We move round and round the event like a camera dollying circularly. We discover the book's real merit in this technique. We see things with an artist's eye. After a while, you may think you are Paul Signac ready to embark on a career of pointillism. Yet the imagery is, at times, as stark as Colette's, e.g., "When she got home next morning she was fit only to be thrown with the dirty rags, if that."
Robbe-Grillet's theatrical world is a narcissistic world, a world of mirrors endlessly casting back an image of itself, and of vampires ceaselessly seeking replenishment. As a film, Topology might stir our sense of wonder. As a novel, it is better calculated to induce vertigo. (pp. 373-74)
John J. McAleer, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), March, 1978.