Alain Robbe-Grillet 1922-
French novelist, screenplay writer, short story writer, essayist, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Robbe-Grillet's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 14, and 43.
A provocative literary experimenter, theoretician, and filmmaker, Alain Robbe-Grillet is one of the most influential and vigorously disputed French literary figures of the postwar period. As a leading proponent of the nouveau roman, or New Novel, during the 1950s and 1960s, Robbe-Grillet was instrumental in the formulation of avant-garde literary techniques that challenged basic assumptions about the possibility of truth, the function of literature, and the integrity of plot, character, and chronology in the conventional novel. Drawing attention to the indefinite, disconcerting quality of human experience and imagination, Robbe-Grillet's trademark fiction features the use of ambiguous narrators, surreal temporal dislocations and juxtapositions, sadoerotic imagery, and chosisme, a literary style involving meticulous description of external objects and activities. His groundbreaking novels Le Voyeur (1955; The Voyeur), La Jalousie (1957; Jealousy), and Dans le labyrinthe (1959; In the Labyrinth) became important models for subsequent antinovels and foreshadowed the literary theories of postmodernism.
Born in Brest, France, Robbe-Grillet was raised in the coastal region of Brittany by his eccentric mother and father, an engineer and former soldier; both parents were atheists with extreme right-wing sympathies. As a young reader Robbe-Grillet was captivated by Lewis Carroll's Alice stories and the exotic settings of Rudyard Kipling's novels. After receiving a secondary education at lycées in Paris and Brest, he won admittance to the Institut National d'Agronomie in 1942. However, his studies were interrupted by the Second World War, during which, under the terms of the Nazi Occupation of France, he was forced into compulsory labor service in Nuremberg, Germany, where he worked as a lathe operator in a Nazi tank factory from 1943 to 1944. Eventually graduating in 1945, Robbe-Grillet found employment at the National Institute for Statistics in Paris. He visited Bulgaria in 1948 to help rebuild railways as a volunteer member of the International Reconstruction Brigade. From 1948 to 1951 he worked as an agronomist for the Institute des Fruits et Agrumes Coloniaux, a position that included posts in Morocco, Guinea, Guadelope, and Martinique. He completed a first novel, Un Régicide, in 1948, but it was rejected by publishers and remained in manuscript until 1978. In 1951 Robbe-Grillet abandoned his scientific career to devote himself to full-time writing. His first published novel, Les Gommes (1953; The Erasers), received the Fénéon prize in 1954. He also contributed essays on literature to the newspaper L'Express and literary journal Critique. Many of these articles were reprinted in Pour un nouveau roman (1963; For a New Novel) along with his polemical writings on the New Novel. With the 1955 publication of The Voyeur, Robbe-Grillet received the Prix des Critiques award and became the center of critical controversy. Robbe-Grillet fortified his reputation as the leading representative of the New Novel movement with Jealousy in 1957 and In the Labyrinth in 1959. In 1955 he was employed as literary director at Editions de Minuit, the publisher of his books as well as those of Samuel Beckett and other New Novelists, including Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor. Robbe-Grillet married Catherine Rstakian in 1957.
During the 1960s, he produced a volume of short fiction, Instantanés (1962; Snapshots), and the novel La Maison de rendez-vous (1965; The House of Assignation). He also turned to filmmaking with screenplays for L'Anneé dernière à Marienbad (1961; Last Year at Marienbad), directed by Alain Resnais, L'Immortelle (1963; The Immortal One), Trans-Europ-Express (1967), and L'Homme qui ment (1968). With the exception of the first, Robbe-Grillet wrote and directed all of his films; several won awards at European film festivals. Over the next two decades Robbe-Grillet continued to alternate between cinema and fiction, producing films such as L'Eden et aprés (1970) and Glissements progressifs du plaisir (1973) and the novels Projet pour une révolution à New York (1970; Project for a Revolution in New York), Topologie d'une cité fantôme (1976; Topology of a Phantom City), and Souvenirs du triangle d'or (1984; Recollections of the Golden Triangle). The novel Djinn (1981) was written as a textbook for intermediate French language students. He also published three volumes of unconventional autobiography—Le Miroir qui revient (1984; Ghosts in the Mirror), Angélique ou L'Enchantement (1988), and Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe (1994). A guest lecturer at conferences throughout the world, Robbe-Grillet has also taught literature and film as a visiting professor at New York University and Washington University in St. Louis.
Robbe-Grillet's fiction is guided by the theoretical principles of the New Novel, a literary mode characterized by the deconstruction of narrative authority, metafictional techniques, and chosisme.In For a New Novel, Robbe-Grillet delineates his project to purify the novel of verisimilitude, tragedy, and the pathetic fallacy, the practice of attributing human emotions to the natural world, through the creation of objective, nonrepresentational texts that depict man's neutral relationship to the universe. Reacting against the philosophical outlooks of nineteenth-century realism and postwar existentialism, Robbe-Grillet asserts, “the world is neither meaningful nor absurd. It quite simply is.” The Erasers introduces many of the narrative devices found in his fiction, particularly the use of flashbacks, time lapses, and the obsessive repetition of events and observations. Drawing upon tropes and stereotypes of the detective thriller, a recurring aspect of Robbe-Grillet's work, the novel revolves around a perplexing murder investigation headed by special agent Wallas. No body is found at the crime scene and, as the reader soon learns, the reported victim, Daniel Dupont, has actually survived his attacker and is in hiding. Clues in the narrative begin to suggest that real Wallas is Dupont's murderer, a paradoxical suspicion that becomes when Wallas fatally shoots a man he assumes to be Dupont's returning assailant, but is Dupont himself. Resembling the structure of a Greek tragedy, the novel includes underlying allusions to the Oedipus myth, as the slain Dupont may also be Wallas's father. The Voyeur similarly involves a violent death and gradual unfolding of clues that reveal the identity of the perpetrator. The story's protagonist is Mathias, an itinerant watch salesman who arrives by ferry to an island community to make his rounds. While unsuccessfully peddling his wares to the local inhabitants, Mathias learns that a young girl, Jacqueline Leduc, has disappeared. When her body washes ashore, it is assumed that she has simply slipped and fallen into the ocean. However, as Mathias compulsively calculates the time expended on his sales route, he is unable to account for a lost hour. This computational anomaly and a panic-stricken sense of guilty lead Mathias to suspect that he has raped, tortured, and murdered Jacqueline himself and pushed her into the sea. The only possible witness, a young man named Julien Marek, does not implicate him and Mathias leaves the island with impunity. The voyeur of the title is ultimately uncertain, as either Mathias or Julien may have killed Jacqueline while the other watched. Along with themes of repressed memory and aberrant sexuality, the novel is permeated by the imagery of figure eights, represented by the double loops of rope, a pair of watching eyes, and Mathias's circuitous route on the island.
Jealousy, set on a banana plantation in the tropics, involves an untrusting husband who spies on his wife, referred to as A, in an effort to confirm his suspicion that she is having an affair with a neighboring man, Franck. The French word “jalousie” means both jealousy and slatted shutters, a double reference that alludes to the blinds through which the husband peers. Though the unnamed narrator's surreptitious observation of A. and her interactions with Franck reveal nothing conclusive, his preoccupation with her imaginary infidelity suggests a voyeuristic indulgence. The husband's detached description of events and objects, including the image of a crushed centipede—a symbol of his jealousy—underscores his emotional alienation and maddening inability to ascertain truth. In the Labyrinth involves a lost soldier who wanders the desolate streets of a wartime city in search of a man to whom he has agreed to deliver the personal effects of a fallen comrade. As the enemy army advances on the city, the soldier is wounded and eventually dies in an apartment occupied by a young woman and her small son. An attempt by Robbe-Grillet to produce a self-generating text based on neutral “signs” or “triggers,” the novel functions primarily around description of key objects in the room, including a bayonet, the undelivered box, and an engraved picture of a military debacle entitled “The Defeat of Reichenfels.”
Robbe-Grillet's subsequent experiments with the novel, which he has distinguished as nouveau, nouveau roman, draw increasingly upon themes of sexual fantasy and sadomasochism, blurring distinctions between art and pornography. The House of Assignation, set in Hong Kong, features sexual obsession and criminal dealings in a Chinese brothel, and Project for a Revolution in New York, only nominally a story of political intrigue, exploits pornographic motifs and the imagery of sexual violence. Likewise, Topology of a Phantom City and Recollections of a Golden Triangle portray apocalyptic future worlds in which sexual transgression and perversity is ubiquitous. His three autobiographical works—Ghosts in the Mirror, Angélique ou L'Enchantement, and Les Derniers Jour de Corinthe—represent an attempt to develop a new form of personal memoir, dubbed “new autobiography,” based on the free interplay of biographical fact, memory, and imagination.
Widely acclaimed as an iconoclastic literary innovator, Robbe-Grillet is considered among the most important French novelists of the 1950s and 1960s. His first four novels—The Erasers, The Voyeur, Jealousy, and In the Labyrinth—established him as one of the most original writers of his generation and remain his best known works. The Voyeur and Jealousy are still considered his most accomplished ventures in the New Novel form that he pioneered. Though many reviewers initially rejected his novels as incomprehensible and esoteric, important early critics such as Roland Barthes praised Robbe-Grillet and legitimized his theoretical principles. Critics often note similarities between Robbe-Grillet's work and that of Franz Kafka, Beckett, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as Robbe-Grillet's intellectual debts to surrealism and phenomenology. While critics continue to appreciate his challenging textual puzzles and compelling treatment of human perception and the relativity of truth and individual experience, some note that his conceptual approach to art embodies its own limitations. In particular, his attempt to strip language and fiction of metaphor, allegory, and psychological associations is considered an ambitious though ultimately impossible and self-defeating task. As evidence, critics cite elements of humanism, existential anxiety, and symbolism in his work, all of which contradict his claims to pure objectivity or dispassionate description of the human condition. Ben Stoltzfus writes: “As a creator of fictions, he is asking his readers to believe in them, yet at the same time he negates the right to believe. He builds the reality of his fiction then he destroys it.” Consequently, many critics regard his novels and films after In the Labyrinth as repetitions of previous inventions rather than fresh developments. In addition, Robbe-Grillet has received unfavorable attention for his preoccupation with pornographic images, especially those including adolescent girls and sexual violence against women, which some consider a dehumanizing aestheticization of sexual desire. Despite such criticism, Robbe-Grillet is highly regarded as a major intellectual force whose radical literary enterprises exerted an indelible influence on contemporary experimental writing.