SOURCE: “Alain Robbe-Grillet: Scientific Humanist,” in Bucknell Review, Vol. XV, No. 2, 1967, pp. 1-9.
[In the following essay, Wylie discusses the combination of humanist concerns and scientific observation in Robbe-Grillet's fiction. Noting the influence of Surrealism and existential philosophy on his work, Wylie writes, “For Robbe-Grillet the cosmos is neither absurd nor tragic; it simply is.”]
A return to stylistic experimentation sets Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman apart from their predecessors, the existentialists. Early criticism preoccupied itself with these technical innovations, with Robbe-Grillet's visual images and his striking use of language and vocabulary. This analysis seemingly considered subject matter of lesser importance or irrelevant. The truth is probably that early critics were unable to find a connecting link between Robbe-Grillet's themes and his literary technique. My description of the novelist as a “scientific humanist” is an attempt to provide this link.
By “humanist” I mean to describe any writer who concerns himself primarily with man and with those basic, unchanging problems which traditionally have been the province of literature, themes such as faith and despair, love, madness and war, freedom and creativity. The term “humanist” seems to have been first applied to various Renaissance scholars and philologists (Petrarch, Boccaccio, Erasmus, Luther, Montaigne) who sought to arrive at a comprehension of man through intensive analysis of language and elucidation of the basic texts of their civilization: the Bible and the “Classics.” These and later attempts to define man's essence by scholarly efforts unaided by recourse to revelation and dogma have given the term “humanist” the further implication of secular thought, of independence from any preconceived religious or political system.
By “science” I mean not only a certain attitude toward truth and knowledge but also a particular vision of reality and nature, even an emotional set toward matter and energy, toward the correspondence between mental and physical phenomena. Science as science is marked, usually, by a materialistic bias, by the implicit belief that man's frame of reference is the bio-physical world of matter and motion. Science may also be defined through its detachment and objectivity, by its desire to know through systematic and sustained observation, while humanism suggests a pursuit of human values and goals.
Trained as a plant pathologist and having spent several years in the patient study of the diseases of banana trees in the tropics, Robbe-Grillet as writer manifests both attitudes and approaches. He may be added to the company of notable figures to whom the label “scientific humanist” has been applied: Alfred North Whitehead, C. P. Snow, Teilhard de Chardin. He shares with them the belief characteristic of the scientific humanist that the hidden mainsprings of the material world are of critical importance to the understanding of our human condition, and that the relation of physical reality to our mental processes—perception and thought—is the key to knowledge and truth.
What then are the primary manifestations of this humanistic concern? It must be made clear at the outset that Robbe-Grillet's continuing interest in the natural sciences is an integral part of this humanism. For Robbe-Grillet the ultimate metaphysical problems are those of epistemology and ontology, of how can we have true knowledge of ourselves and our world. Robbe-Grillet has said that science is an essential instrument of our comprehension and has implied that the arts should make use of the latest scientific discoveries and techniques. Quantum theory, which demonstrates the dependence of physical phenomena on their observer, seems to interest the author particularly. Its definition of science is inclusive and fluid, allowing a vital communication between science and the arts. But the intellectual detachment of...
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the scientist and his quest for objectivity are responsible for that stylistic precision and sharpness which set Robbe-Grillet apart from much that is shoddy in twentieth-century thought. Perhaps it would be fair to say that like Théophile Gautier and the Parnassians, Robbe-Grillet has bothered to master the technical problems of his craft and hence has attained the impersonal validity of the scientist. He prefers to remain silent rather than voice a half-truth or a provisionary truism.
The first problem attacked was the fundamental one of the nature of existence: the existence of man in his surroundings. This ontological problem was found to be inseparable from the problem of knowledge: how can man know his fellows and his environment? Thus in Les gommes Robbe-Grillet studies one man's attempt to penetrate misleading appearances and circumstances in order to arrive at a true understanding of a relatively simple situation. With irony the author depicts the two hermetic realms of material reality and the related mental processes which twist the exterior reality into a new entity. Especially important in this study of the nature of the mind and its dependence or independence of the material world is the typical “object” ; in Les gommes this is often a clue. Robbe-Grillet is fascinated with clues, and probably for this reason cast his first novel, Le voyeur, as a detective story. A material clue is for Robbe-Grillet closely related to the surrealist object as defined by Maurice Nadeau: “tout objet dépaysé” or “sorti de son cadre habituel.” A clue is no longer a mere gum eraser or piece of chalk but takes on a heightened existence, an immediacy, a human relevance. It serves as a link between man and the inert surroundings, as a correspondance in the Baudelairean sense. Perhaps this humanizing factor explains some of the continued popularity of Simenon, Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie.
Critics have realized the importance of these clues but have been at a loss to explain their value, since in the light of Robbe-Grillet's critical writings they have been hesitant to view them as symbols. The eraser, the famous quarter of tomato, the drawbridge serve to focus our awareness, to channel our psychic energy. A repeated image in Robbe-Grillet's works is that of a man rapt in meditation before a poster, a painting or a statue. It would seem that the individual is attempting to penetrate to ultimate reality through complete comprehension of even one banal, everyday object.
The natural scientist was soon forced to admit that both the problems of being and of knowing were essentially psychological. In the surrealist sense, in the sense proclaimed by Rimbaud, man's mind creates the universe around it, particularly the modern technological cityscape. So Robbe-Grillet broadened his perspective to take in the area of human creativity, especially as expressed in the labyrinthian architecture of modern life. Bruce Morrissette has noted that in Dans le labyrinthe it is the narrator and not the author who is the creator of this involved, convolute fiction: “le narrateur est occupé à l'élaboration d'une fiction destinée à composer une harmonie en soi, une sorte de ‘roman pur.’” We might say that Robbe-Grillet has given us an unusual illustration of existential man in the act of self-creation.
Now turning outward again we can see that the typical protagonist of Robbe-Grillet creates his own environment by his observation, his response to and interaction with it. This is most apparent at the beginning of Dans le labyrinthe, where, as James Lethcoe has remarked, the conflicting detail and the hesitancy in choice of tense represent either the narrator's fumbling attempts at imagining his tale or his difficulty in recounting a previous event. The mutual interaction and interdependence of man and his surroundings are also responsible for the baffling “false scenes” of which Robbe-Grillet is so fond. Perhaps Les gommes provides the best example; here the variant passages are most characteristically the detective's projections of various possible solutions to the ‘givens’ furnished by the clues.
Robbe-Grillet has insisted that his novels are not non-human and has pointed to the central presence of a perceiving, thinking protagonist in each of his works. This human presence is responsible not only for its own being and for the particular existence of its surroundings, as we have seen, but also for the action which ensues and for the evaluation of both the present situation and the future outcome. Time for Robbe-Grillet, as for Proust, is a living, changing thing; even the past is not fixed, dead. But increasingly Robbe-Grillet has turned toward the future. As we will see, hope has become an important element in the author's outlook.
Most of Robbe-Grillet's critics have refused to treat thematic or “philosophic” content in his works. Is it true, as Robbe-Grillet once seemed to say, that we can make no generalization about the discrete entities which surround us? Recurring images and themes, ideas repeated by his characters and key statements of his own in Pour un nouveau roman would indicate that certain objects, certain modes of action and perception, certain ideas are “privileged” in the Proustian sense or have an aura which detaches them from the purely meaningless. We have already noted the themes of contemplation and of creation, both involving the problem of comprehension. We might now briefly enumerate two other themes.
Foremost among those subjects which are given sustained treatment are love and sexual passion. Since Baudelaire and Proust few writers have presented such a polyvalent description of human affection and desire or have probed so deeply into their related motives and thoughts. Always the “realist” seeking a true understanding of a human phenomenon, Robbe-Grillet has not falsified what his observation has told him, has not evoked a sentimental or romantic picture of love. Instead he gives us without comment descriptions of passion, with all the bewildering complexity and demonic intensity of the emotion of Racine's Phèdre or Baudelaire's madonna. This love is often tormented or twisted, as in Le voyeur and La jalousie; but L'Anneé dernière à Marienbad is more full of hope in its suggestion that through the surrealist linking of love and revolt the lovers can win through to freedom.
The sustained analysis of love, transforming scientific case history into the archetypal patterns of art, reveals several humanistic implications. Love, for Robbe-Grillet, is often illusory or obsessive, the result of Freudian displacement of psychic energies caused by free association. Robbe-Grillet condemns self-deceit and hypocrisy in our efforts to picture romantic love. But he also seems to suggest—in the lovers of Marienbad and the spontaneous relation between the soldier and the boy of Dans le labyrinthe—that disinterested affection is possible and worth striving for.
A second major object of attention is the technological landscape with which man has surrounded himself. The traditional humanist has tended to look upon the modern with a biased eye, yearning to return to a simpler, sweeter, mythical past. Even Camus showed considerable prejudice in his hostility toward science and technology, a view which tends to falsify his analysis of what Lewis Mumford has termed “neotechnic” civilization. Robbe-Grillet accepts this new world as a given and projects his characters into it; the task of judging and evaluating both what is viable and what is harmful in it is largely left to the reader. The author, however, intimates that the joys and artifacts of the modern world are as valid for it as were other cultural manifestations for past societies. Perhaps a new humanism, in harmony with neotechnic science, engineering and art, is evolving to bring new order and meaning into our lives and our environment.
One example will illustrate both Robbe-Grillet's handling of the imagery of the neotechnic world and his characteristic “technological” lyricism:
Un groupe, immobile, tout en bas du long escalier grisfer, dont les marches l'une après l'autre affleurent, au niveau de la plate-forme d'arrivée, et disparaissent une à une dans un bruit de machinerie bien huilée, avec une régularité pourtant pesante et saccadée en même temps, qui donne l'impression d'assez grande vitesse à cet endroit où les marches disparaissent l'une après l'autre sous la surface horizontale, mais qui semble au contraire d'une lenteur extrême. …
This evocation of the métro escalator is followed by the description of a corridor and a man:
En dépit de la taille énorme du dessin et du peu de détails dont il s'orne, la tête du spectateur se penche en avant, comme pour mieux voir. Les passants doivent s'écarter un instant de leur trajectoire rectiligne afin de contourner cet obstacle inattendu. …
In dispassionate understatement the author muses on the perversity and freedom of man. Only one of these scurrying Dantesque voyagers of the underworld has stopped to reflect, to contemplate the modern Beatrice; but who knows? If Brunetto Latini, the poet Dante acknowledged as master, could sing in Hell, this solitary figure, disrupting the flow of harried souls, may resist even the subway.
The attempt, not to pigeonhole the author but rather to put him in the context of his age in relation to his predecessors, is difficult but important. The comparison with Camus and with the Surrealists is particularly rewarding. Robbe-Grillet undoubtedly studied at great length the work of Albert Camus, perhaps the leading French humanist and moralist of the past generation. In a detailed analysis of Camus' L'étranger, Robbe-Grillet points out the stylistic progression from a simple declarative prose at the beginning to increasingly involved and metaphoric language in the portrayal of the murder of the Arab: “La scène capitale du roman nous présente l'image parfaite d'une solidarité douloureuse: le soleil implacable est toujours ‘le même,’ son reflet sur la lame du couteau que tient l'Arabe ‘atteint’ le héros en plein front et ‘fouille’ ses yeux.” These subjective anthropomorphic metaphors, according to Robbe-Grillet, falsely humanize nature, and Camus’ famed absurde becomes a form of tragic humanism. Its multiple symbols will be Meursault the innocent victim, Sisyphus the plaything of the gods, and the rats of La peste. But Robbe-Grillet rejects, like André Breton, this acquiescence in a tragic view of man, this seeming conquest of the absurd by a new linking of man and nature through this solidarité douloureuse. For Robbe-Grillet the cosmos is neither absurd nor tragic; it simply is. With the Surrealists, Robbe-Grillet looks toward the future and hopes for an ultimate harmony with nature.
Thus it is up to man to impose both order and meaning on his surroundings. Although some of Robbe-Grillet's protagonists may seem passive, the most important—Wallas in Les gommes, the hunted soldier of Dans le labyrinthe, and X, the lover in Marienbad—are persistent in their effort to uncover or to create a moral and human truth. To Camus, who felt at home in the primitive culture of Algeria, man's state is fixed and unchanging, whereas to Robbe-Grillet man is constantly modifying the essence of his life through technological and cultural evolution. For Robbe-Grillet history is neither cyclical nor static.
Robbe-Grillet also rejects the existentialist idea of engagement in art, since he sees in Sartre's definition of commitment only the peril of didacticism. In the context of our definition of humanism, we might say that the artist directs his energies to creating forms or new “myths” which have only an indirect moral influence. The artist, like the scientist, must strive to maintain a certain detachment and impartiality in order, precisely, to function as artist. The artist or writer as humanist is neither partisan nor preacher. Robbe-Grillet's revival of the disinterested dedication, the intensity, of the art-for-art's-sake movement of the nineteenth century has been a fresh wind in our times.
The boldest and most sustained effort mounted in our own century to know ourselves and nature through art is that of the Surrealists: of Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti, Picasso. In rejecting traditional definitions and limitations of reality, they strove, in varying ways, to find new freedom, new strength for man in liberating the subconscious and creating a new mental and intellectual “super-reality.” This would be accomplished by reconciling the subconscious and conscious mind with our inanimate, indifferent world. Breton states in the Manifesto of Surrealism that the channel and form for this new harmony would be a fusion of art and science.
Robbe-Grillet is close to the Surrealists in his interest in artistic form and technique; he too is a literary technician and experimenter, a magicien ès lettres. His formal innovations lend a haunting musicality to his prose, the product of a characteristic density and texture closely related to those of the atonal serial music he describes in Marienbad. This musicality, however, is far from that of Verlaine. Here the volupté; is that of the gnarled and twisted tree: sharp and hard consonants replace the rather gooey vowels of Verlaine. The words are precise, objective, scientific and have a cerebral sensuality; typical are scrutigère, centimètre, rectiligne, périphérique, homogène, imperceptiblement.
Robbe-Grillet is close to the Surrealists too in his interest in Freud, in the subconscious and in dreams. Several critics have pointed out the presence of multiple layers of consciousness and the important roles played by the subconscious in both the observation and description of objects and in the cross-relations among them. It is really the subconscious which provides the missing links between scenes in a work by Robbe-Grillet. Kafka is one of the non-French writers to whom Robbe-Grillet turned for inspiration; the latter's work shows the influence of the fantastic, non-Aristotelian logic of his precursor. The dream-atmosphere of a Robbe-Grillet novel has been often noticed, particularly in Marienbad. There is always an aura of mystery, of strangeness, awakened by the immanence of obsessive images and by encantatory language. The surrealist force of the quarter tomato of Les gommes derives perhaps from the synthesis of these elements, whose essence is represented by the gelée verdâtre.
The last major bond between Robbe-Grillet and the Surrealists is their common rebellion against all forms of servitude and their quest for total freedom. For Robbe-Grillet the labyrinth is a recurring image of man's imprisonment; but the possibility of escape exists, and at times Robbe-Grillet suggests that his characters do or will escape from the enclosure of the room, the hotel, or the maze of city streets. Especially at the end of Marienbad is the hope of a definitive departure strong. Robbe-Grillet refuses any resignation and often returns to the potentiality of man finally breaking out of those restraints and frontiers which bind him. The true life will be fluid, an eternal flux, a life always looking forward: “vous étiez maintenant déjà en train de vous perdre, pour toujours, dans la nuit tranquille, seule avec moi.“
The open world of Robbe-Grillet is infinitely complex, a plenitude in which the reader can plumb the depths, can lose himself in the labyrinthian passages of this watery timeless realm. There is an addictive quality to these works; one runs the same danger of being engulfed here as in Proust's Combray. But like Theseus, we will emerge from the maze with new understanding and increased vigor.
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.
SOURCE: “The Evolution of Narrative Viewpoint in Robbe-Grillet,” in Novel, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall, 1967, pp. 24-33.
[In the following essay, Morrissette examines the development of narrative perspective in Robbe-Grillet's fiction and films. According to Morrissette, Robbe-Grillet's “ingenious and constantly varying narrative modes cover almost the entire spectrum of current experimentation and practice.”]
1. EMERGENCE OF THEORIES OF “JUSTIFIED” VIEWPOINT
Two decades ago the question of narrative viewpoint seemed quite amenable to critical analysis; yet today it appears one of the most ambiguous and unresolved aspects of fictional structure. The elimination of the omniscient narrator and his replacement by posts of observation within the fictional field are steps in a well-known history: first, in the English tradition of narrative analysis, James and Lubbock argued on esthetic grounds for observers located within the framework of the novel; then, in the French tradition, Sartre offered a systematic philosophical defense of internal viewpoints, holding that Einsteinian relativity and existential views of knowledge justify relative “frames of reference” in fiction and the restriction of content to that present in a “framing” consciousness. But the apparent stability of a fictional geometry based on internally justified viewpoints proved illusory, and the prospect of rational coherence was of short duration. Indeed, we can see in retrospect that the novel had already rejected such tidy consistency. Soon it would proliferate with new narrative modalities, to return, astonishingly and unpredictably, to a kind of “omniscient” stance in which the reader himself is placed at the—often shifting—narrational focus.
Some of the main factors of instability that led to the abandonment of the novel of justified viewpoint lay, paradoxically, in the novel of the first person which had always seemed to call for little if any structural defense, because its straight-forward and automatically justified recital of events is given by a single character, a central or peripheral observer of the action, whose thoughts, observations, and other direct testimony constitute an unassailably coherent text. When the mode was further justified by the cadre of a diary, letters, or other pretexts of written documents it seemed to produce the maximum illusion of reality or authenticity, if not with respect to outer reality or the real universe, at least with respect to the fictional field. But already in the case of Proust, the “je”; or first-person mode had revealed unsuspected ambiguities (see Marcel Muller's recent study identifying as many as nine separate modes of “je” in the “narrative voices” of A la recherche du temps perdu); and André Gide in Les Faux-monnayeurs had played mirror tricks with the first person by introducing an inner novel or journal, while ironically reserving to himself the supposedly outmoded privilege of intervening as the “real” author. Meanwhile, the urgent claims of interior psychology had led to wide acceptance of interior monologue and stream of consciousness techniques which in most cases found no place within the logical schema of the novel of justified viewpoint.
To complicate matters further, the example of films and cinematic construction, which seemed at one time to strengthen the case for the objective novel (see the classic chapter on “Roman et cinéma” in Claude-Edmonde Magny's L'Age du roman américain), underwent an abrupt change. With the advent of what Raymond Borde calls the “cinéma de la vérité intérieure,” subjective viewpoints appeared on the screen with spectacular results, as in Hiroshima mon amour and L'Anneé dernière à Marienbad (not to mention the long prehistory of cinematic flashbacks, camera scenes shot from the viewpoint of a single character, contrapuntal soundtrack monologues, and the like). When mental content was projected on the screen, the last bulwarks of justified, pseudo-objective cinematic structure began to crumble. Both films and novels were entering a phase of ad hoc framing and découpage wherein each new work would create its own narrative perspective.
No contemporary author's works illustrate these tendencies and techniques more brilliantly than those of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose ingenious and constantly varying narrative modes cover almost the entire spectrum of current experimentation and practice.
2. ROTATION OF VIEWPOINT IN LES GOMMES (1953)
In this pseudo-detective story of a protagonist who repeats, without realizing it, an inverted and semi-parodied version of the myth of Oedipus, as he murders the “victim” whose death he is investigating, Robbe-Grillet sets out deliberately to destroy clock time (which he calls “linear and without surprises”) in favor of human time, the time that each man “secretes about himself like a cocoon, full of flashbacks, repetitions, and interferences.” Consequently, the author seeks also to present the contradictory versions of the same events that exist in a world of observational perspectives which he compares, following Sartre's lead, to Einstein's universe of multiple frames of reference. Such an intention explains, indeed almost necessitates, the use of a wide range of viewpoints in Les Gommes. The characters see the same décor from different angles, observe each other, witness and interpret according to their situations. (Robbe-Grillet's own comments on Les Gommes are preserved in a rare pamphlet, never republished.)
The specific narrative mode in most cases is a third-person pronoun, but one deepened and extended by use of Flaubertian indirect discourse and passages of interior monologue, as well as pseudo-objectification of conjectures, memories, and even hallucinations. The characters who “see” the scenes number about a dozen; they are, in order of their “appearance,” the following: the owner of the Café des Alliés, a focal point in the action; Garinati, the hired assassin; Juard, a shady abortionist who ministers to the “victim”; Marchat, a fearful friend of the intended victim; Laurent, the police chief; Wallas, the “special agent” who has been sent to solve the crime; Anna, the victim's maid; “Bona,” Jean Bonaventure, the ring leader of the band of political assassins; Mme. Bax, whose apartment overlooks the house of the crime; the drunkard who recites distorted versions of the riddle of the Sphinx; Mme. Jean, a postal employee; and Dupont himself, the intended and eventual victim of murder. Some of these “observe” only one or two scenes, but the principal characters, such as Wallas, Garinati, and Laurent, are interwoven into a complex design of different viewpoints.
In the case of Wallas especially, radically new techniques of objectifying the character's imaginings cause the ostensibly realistic framework of the third-person mode to collapse suddenly into visionary subjectivity. At times, pure inventions or speculations, such as Laurent's theory of the crime, are described as if actually occurring, as might befit the visualized hypothesis of a trained police chief. Along with the general pattern of rotating viewpoints there exist, consequently, the special techniques of mixed objectivity and subjectivity which Robbe-Grillet will in later novels employ apart from any arrangement involving multiple viewpoints.
One question of theoretical difficulty arising in Les Gommes is the following: if, in the novel, everything is seen or described from some particular character's viewpoint, how can such hidden allusions as those to the Oedipus myth, or to the Tarot cards, be communicated to the reader, if all the characters remain ignorant thereof? More importantly, how can such “metafictional” elements be tolerated at all? The answer must lie close to the basic paradox of all fiction. Reflection will show that the universe “observed” by the characters cannot be their own creation, in any real sense, but must emanate from the novelist, whether he “intervenes” visibly or not to make his presence known. It is he who determines what kind of universe will be observed by his characters; he can therefore hide, or partially reveal, at will, features recognizable by the reader but not by the characters. This intentionality is essential to the creation of any fictional field, since an opposing theory would necessarily fall into the realistic fallacy of a Zola, who tried to persuade himself and his readers that the fictional world he had created was somehow real, and subject to the same “scientific” laws as nature or society itself.
One additional narrative mode remains to be identified in Les Gommes. At first it appears to be an anomaly, if not a regression to outmoded omniscience or at least direct authorial intervention. It is the impersonal mode that appears here and there in passages that seem to come from nowhere or no one (“Un bras machinal remet en place le décor. Quand tout est prêt, la lumière s'allume …” etc.). The explanation, which does not justify the passages in the sense of fitting them into the pattern of observational viewpoints, shows them nevertheless to be structurally related to the conception of the particular novel. They are passages attributable to a “chorus.” The work, with its five chapters (acts), prologue, and epilogue parallels in form the divisions of a Greek tragedy, such as Oedipus the King, whose plot is also paralleled. In this regard, Robbe-Grillet has allowed formal, esthetic considerations to outweigh philosophical or metaphysical ideas concerning the relativity of time or viewpoint. Thus at the outset of his career, he reassumes authorial privileges which should be theoretically excluded.
3. SINGLE AND DUAL VIEWPOINT IN LE VOYEUR (1955)
Point of view in Le Voyeur has a paradoxical quality which analysis shows to be related to the theme and structure of the novel. Some critics have found in the work only a single focus, that of the protagonist Mathias, the traveling salesman who lands on an island to sell wristwatches to its inhabitants and departs several days later, after murdering, in a “suppressed” scene whose content is only gradually revealed, a young girl whose (probably) tortured body is thrown over a cliff into the sea. According to the unified view, the whole text (written in the third person) describes only Mathias’ perceptions and outlook on the surrounding world. But, as I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere, there are large blocks of text wherein Mathias is very definitely seen from the outside, long, “neutral” passages and developments incompatible with the single viewpoint theory. It is from these scenes that the paradox or ambiguity of narrative mode arises, and not from the mixing of real and imagined scenes in the sections of the text which do render the world and mind of Mathias through techniques of objectified subjectivity.
Assuming the correctness of this analysis (see my study Les Romans de Robbe-Grillet for a full treatment of the point), one may discover, on probing more deeply into the problem, the reason for the paradox as well as its solution. The fundamental structural intention served by the narrative mode of pseudo-objective third person is indeed that of incarnating the world of Mathias, a character “out of phase with himself,” a sadistic schizophrenic obsessed with visions of erotic violence. But to present this deformed universe, the author has need of an undeformed background against which the distortions, alterations, and other psychic projections of Mathias may be discriminated, measured, and judged. It is for this reason that Mathias is frequently observed and described from a point d'optique that cannot be his own (as, for example, when he is depicted looking downward) and that he is seen against a décor presented in a “style Robbe-Grillet” whose objects and other consistent elements (geometrical terms, scientific precisions, deceptive qualifiers, and the like) mark the general “manner” of the author (as, for example, in those descriptive portions of the scenario of Marienbad designed primarily for the director), and are not a style specifically adapted to the character's mentality. Moreover, when—in a fashion comparable to that of Faulkner when he presents the world through idiot Benjy's eyes—Robbe-Grillet creates a vision of the world distorted by Mathias’ psychopathology, it is this neutral, background universe that is distorted, and the style takes on a deformed, hallucinatory quality only by its relationship to the primary décor.
The well-known figure-of-eight object series of Le Voyeur illustrates how the two worlds, that of the stylized universe in which the protagonist exists and that of the visionary erotic sadist's mind, are linked. In the “background” world, the coiled cord, the marks of the iron rings on the quay, the pattern of eyes on the doors, the spirals of cigarette smoke, the adjacent rings left on the bar by wet glasses, and all the other 8's are coincidental forms such as any attentive observer, with an eye for geometrical patterns, might discern about him. But as they enter Mathias’ mind they become charged with morbid psychological tensions and sinister associations, and the reader begins to feel the upsurge of violent emotion, to recognize in these objects cords that may bind wrists, rings that could hold young limbs apart, bonds, watching eyes, and the whole repertory of obsessive objects found in the novel.
After a certain critical resistance, recent studies of Robbe-Grillet have come to agree with the analysis that finds Le Voyeur “organisé selon deux perspectives,” as Jean Alter has expressed it. What is important is to perceive that this dual perspective, that of the author and that of the protagonist, coincides perfectly with the novelist's intention to make the reader experience as directly as possible the disorientation of the schizoid mind, including a “blackout” or period of amnesic repression during which the crime is committed, a “hole” in the text during which the viewpoint entirely ceases to exist.
As the novel progresses, the point of view of Mathias (or his mental content) occupies more and more the volume of the text, so that the latter sections function in an almost pure single viewpoint mode. Even before that, as we have seen, when we speak of a dual viewpoint in Le Voyeur we do not mean one belonging to two narrators or fictional characters, but rather the opposition described between the author's “nominal,” stylized décor, and the personalized view of that world as apprehended in the mind of the protagonist. In a sense, the remarks made earlier concerning certain details of the author's world in Les Gommes, as opposed to the world of the characters themselves, apply to Le Voyeur.
4. SUPPRESSED FIRST-PERSON NARRATION IN LA JALOUSIE (1957)
Seeking a term to describe the innovation in narrative viewpoint invented by Robbe-Grillet in La Jalousie, I called the new mode that of the “je-néant,”; or absent-I. Without entering into the metaphysics of Sartrean néantisation and its relationship to the perceiving consciousness, the je-néant may be defined as a technique of the suppressed first-person in which all pronouns or forms associated with it (such as I, me, my, mine, and the like) are eliminated. The perceptions of the protagonist of the novel, a jealous husband who exercises an intense surveillance over his wife, constitute the “narrative,” which is expressed without perceptible self-reference. A central focus of vision is created, in a style related to that of the cinematic subjective camera, but lacking the first-person commentary on the sound track which typically accompanies the subjective sequences of films made in this mode, such as Lady in the Lake. A hole (Robbe-Grillet calls it a “creux”;) is created at the core of the narrative, and the reader installs himself therein, assuming the narrator's vision and performing, without verbal clues, all the unspoken and implicit interpretation of scenes and events that, in the conventional novel of psychological analysis and commentary, would normally be spelled out by the author or his character. Not only does the text embody the naked dynamics of the husband's perceptions of external events and objects; it also, as the incarnation of the magma of his mental content, contains secondary, associative materials, such as memories more or less deformed by emotional tensions, exaggerated visions of an erotic or paranoid nature (such as the paroxysmal image of the enlarged mille-pattes or centipede whose crushing carries the weight of the husband's dread of his wife's possession by another), and even purely hypothetical scenes of murderous wish fulfillment, such as the crash and burning of the car containing his wife and her presumed lover.
This esthetically fascinating and quite powerful effect, arising almost entirely through the special narrative mode employed, seems extraordinarily appropriate to a novel about jealousy. The husband's preoccupation is not with himself; he has, therefore, little reason for self-reference. What obsesses him is what his wife “A …” is doing, is planning to do, or has done, with the virile and aggressive Franck. He returns constantly to past scenes, reexamining them for clues as he visualizes them, and simultaneously transforming them and distorting them in line with his mounting suspicions. Sharing these visions through the technique of the je-néant, the reader feels, rather than thinks, jealousy. The wiping away of the conventional vocabulary of jealousy, as one would find it in Proust, for example, allows nothing to intervene between the phenomena that give rise to jealousy and the emotion itself. The reader's psychophysical responses take over. We may compare in this sense the text of La Jalousie and the essays in the “simulation” of psychopathological states, including paranoia, written by Breton and Eluard in L'Immaculée Conception during the surrealist period. The contrast between a novel like La Jalousie and a traditional novel of psychological analysis is paralleled by the contrast between the poetic texts of simulation of abnormal mental states and the texts found in conventional manuals of psychopathology, including Freud's and Stekel's, which embed the pathological experience and its visions in the rational context of an explanatory commentary.
Other writers of the nouveau roman, especially Claude Ollier and Jean Ricardou, have used the suppressed first-person mode to good effect. It would seem that the je-néant will enter the repertory of techniques of point of view (along with Michel Butor's “narrative you”) destined for future exploitation by many novelists. Looking back, one may now discern a link between Robbe-Grillet's je-néant and the partially suppressed first-person mode of the je in Camus’ L'Etranger. While there is in Camus’ novel no suppression whatever of the pronoun je (on the contrary, it becomes even obtrusive in its proliferation), Meursault's “I” appears as a pronoun of surfaces only, oddly lacking in depth or interiority. The protagonist of L'Étranger almost never “thinks,” or analyzes, and, like the husband of La Jalousie, he communicates his sense impressions at a more or less objective level. The reader quickly passes over Meursault's repeated je, so weightless is it. Suppression takes place behind the pronoun. It remained for Robbe-Grillet to erase the pronoun itself, and to create a wholly new mode.
5. THE HIDDEN AUTHOR WITHIN THE NARRATIVE FRAMEWORK: DANS LE LABYRINTHE (1959)
In the first sentence of Dans le labyrinthe, a “je” speaks. No further first-person form appears until near the end, in the phrase “à ma dernière visite,” and in the last sentence a departing narrator closes his text with the word “moi.” Thus, having announced himself at the outset, the narrator has retired from view (though we sense his presence in passages employing a type of je-néant mode), to reappear—but not fully, even then—as the novel closes. Yet as we become sensitive to his presence, we feel near him, in his small author's room, even when the action is taking place outside, in the labyrinthine streets where the soldier protagonist, ill or wounded, makes his way, from café to barracks to ambiguous apartments, carrying his box to the recipient whose identity he cannot remember, towards some forgotten rendezvous.
What has Robbe-Grillet gained by this narrative structure, involving the interior duplication of an author composing a novel? One could easily imagine another version of the novel in which the wanderings of the soldier, described more or less in the third-person style used here, would alone form the text. Even brief reflection should show that such a simplification would not only impoverish the novel; it would, in fact, negate its meaning. The author is obviously concerned less with the adventures of the soldier, pathetic as they may be, than with the relationship between the soldier's feverish story and the concealed inner author whose struggles in the labyrinth of novelistic creation form the real “subject” of the book.
The title is not “The Labyrinth,” but “In the Labyrinth.” Once the inner author, whose voice creates the novel, is seen as the real protagonist, the narrative viewpoint becomes clear, and the first-person frame is justified. As this writer attempts to build from the materials in his room (a steel engraving of a soldier in a café, a shoe box, a bayonet, etc.) a coherent novel, his stops and starts, revisions and alterations, give rise to the image of the labyrinth, an image not only of the maze of identical perpendicular streets in the story, but also of the labyrinthine verbal style of the text itself. The fact that towards the end of the work this narrator merges with the doctor who treats the dying soldier may be viewed as an effort finally to push the narrator himself into the story, in a fashion somewhat analogous to the re-entrant line in certain drawings of Steinberg, which, having emerged from the pen of an artist depicted in the sketch, rejoins eventually the figure of the artist himself. The effect is the opposite of that employed by Camus in La Peste, wherein Doctor Rieux, hitherto seen only as a third person, suddenly emerges as the first-person narrator, abandoning “il” for an unambiguous “je.”
In Dans le labyrinthe, Robbe-Grillet appears to adopt a kind of Mallarméan esthetics in which the creation of the literary work itself becomes the primary theme, lying beneath the fictional incarnation which may have its own anecdotal or pseudo-anecdotal value, as in L'Apres-midi d'un faune, or more strikingly, in Un Coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard. Like Mallarmé's “ptyx”; sonnet, which the poet termed “allégorique de lui-même,” Dans le labyrinthe is in a sense analogical of itself. Since the intention was to devise a structure appropriate to a self-contained novel, the inner author and inner subject (duplicated in the engraving) seem perfectly justified, as do the pages lying on the table at the end, as the narrative voice leaves the room at last, uttering the final phrase, “derrière moi.”
Of particular interest to the study of the evolution of techniques of mode and viewpoint in Robbe-Grillet is the creation in Dans le labyrinthe of a new type of authorial intervention that permits, by means of an author placed within the fictional field, the use of free modalities of narration that would be impossible in the system of existentially justified viewpoints. Whereas the passages of abstract intervention in Les Gommes had to be explained in terms of formal imitation of the Greek dramatic chorus, such intervention now becomes part of the activities of a “creator” whose operations and maneuvers are at once the subject and the text of the novel itself. The relative “realism” of Le Voyeur and La Jalousie begins to disappear, in favor of a new constructionalism.
6. POINT OF VIEW IN THE FILMS: L'ANNEé DERNIèRE à MARIENBAD (1961) AND L'IMMORTELLE (1963)
The prefaces to these two films, as well as their structure and the camera angles which they employ, show them to be closely related, as far as viewpoint is concerned, to the novels of Robbe-Grillet's middle period, Le Voyeur and La Jalousie. (His latest film, Trans-Europ-Express, has not yet been shown in this country, or viewed by the present writer.) In the preface to Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet states that when two people converse, for example, what is present in their minds, as counterpart to the actual words of their dialogue, can only be visual or sensory images related to the topic under discussion. Thus mental content, which is primarily visual, becomes a natural narrative mode for the cinema, which can show the characters’ imaginings while retaining the same degree of “realism” in the décor and photography as that used in the “normal” scenes, if indeed any scenes may be thought of as existing apart from the characters' perceptions.
Consequently, if a character in a film remembers or imagines something, especially under the influence of emotion, the scene appears before us as it does in the character's own mind. Sometimes subtle alterations mark such an imaginary scene, but not as a clue to permit the discrimination between the real and the imaginary. The alterations must result from the tensions exerted by the character's emotions: thus the heroine's bedroom in Marienbad, recalled in great stress, appears in a heightened baroque style. When recalled scenes recur in L'Immortelle, they are deformed in accordance with the “narrator's” jealous scrutiny, in a technique exactly comparable to that employed in the written, rather than visual, text of La Jalousie.
Neither Marienbad nor L'Immortelle, however, uses a consistently justified system of viewpoint in the manner just described. In Marienbad, in addition to some scenes taken from an imaginary and “impossible” angle high in the air, there are shots wherein the mingling of two viewpoints occurs, as when the lover X “intervenes” (verbally) in the vision he evokes in the heroine's mind of the seduction scene, and which we see through her eyes. In both Marienbad and L'Immortelle two or more characters appear twice in different parts of a panoramic camera movement, creating a strange effect of continuity between two moments of time and two spatial locations which on a realistic level could not be proximate. Nor is it always possible to “linearize” such shots by assuming them to consist of memories or imaginings within a single mind. As with the “chronological impasses” of La Jalousie, one senses in Robbe-Grillet an impatience with the limitations of the justified system and a tendency to reclaim authorial rights over point of view, to replace the old doctrine of the omniscient author by a new but in a sense similar one that would place the point of view not necessarily within a given character, but in the spectator (or author) himself. The novelist demands a creative freedom not possible within the theoretical limits of the James-Sartre system.
The extent to which Robbe-Grillet's ideas and practices had changed by 1963 may be measured by referring to the short article he published in 1958 bearing the long title, “Notes sur la localisation et les déplacements du point de vue dans la description romanesque.” Therein we find almost complete support for the visually justified viewpoint, and the cinema is held up as an example to the novel, since the film, “whether or not there is a person from whose viewpoint the scene is shot, must absolutely be shot from some precise point,” and this post of observation must be that of a man, either one within the fictional frame, or one placed at a possible vantage point. But within a few years the new novelist-deity of Robbe-Grillet will compensate in creative freedom for what the old Balzacian author-god had lost in omniscience and protean viewpoint. The justification will move from within the characters to the form or structure of the novel itself.
7. INTERPLAY AND ENTANGLEMENT OF NARRATIVE VIEWPOINT: LA MAISON DE RENDEZ-VOUS (1965)
In his latest novel, Robbe-Grillet employs a number of apparently new techniques, not only of viewpoint but also of plot structure. These may, however, be shown to be developments and intensifications of practices already discernible in his earlier works, and represent outgrowths of tendencies whose evolutionary possibilities may be identified retrospectively, even if they were not clearly predictable.
The common principle uniting these innovations is what may be termed reentry or infolding, a procedure which causes both point of view and story line to turn in upon themselves, with metamorphoses and transfers occurring not only backward and forward in time, but also between characters. Though the closest anticipation of the technique is the inner author's assumption of the role of the doctor mentioned above in Dans le labyrinthe, the origins of the mode may be traced back as early as Les Gommes, where the transitions, however, appear easily detectable, as the viewpoint moves from person to person, and where the temporal junctions, when non-linear, involve no serious “dechronology.” With La Jalousie the viewpoint never changes, but the temporal reversals and impasses, with the altered reiterations of scenes, create something of the contradictory quality of the structure of La Maison de rendez-vous. An example in La Jalousie is the passage in which Franck replaces on an adjacent table a drinking glass in which the ice has completely melted. A few lines further, we read that one melting ice cube remains. We soon realize that two different moments of time have merged in the narrator's mind, linked by associative tensions, and the apparent impossibility is resolved. In La Maison de rendez-vous no such resolutions will exist for such non-linear transitions. Thus the fleeing protagonist Johnson, escaping the police by going through a hotel and out the back way, continues on to commit the very crime for which he was being pursued. Not only this—the crime itself occurs more than once, and each time under different circumstances: not theoretically, as in Les Gommes (where several characters visualize the same crime according to their separate hypotheses), or through imaginary projections, like those of Mathias in Le Voyeur (as he creates fantomatique scenes of selling watches to the same clients, etc.), but literally, or, at least, textually.
Accompanying this change is an extension of the device of the “initial I” used in Dans le labyrinthe. A first person appears and reappears, but its accounts of events merge with virtually verbatim repetitions attributed to another character, such as Johnson. Robbe-Grillet progressively establishes what amounts to a state of viewpoint; justification is not only abandoned, but distorted and negated so violently that the reader acquires or shares a kind of omnipresence similar to that of certain dreams. If, as its author has stated, La Maison de rendez-vous is indeed the house of our imagination, it is a domain in which the reader, with the novelist, feels free to create whatever structures of space, time, and action he wishes.
In her excellent analysis of the non-linear aspects of this novel (see Etudes, March 1966), Mme. Mireille Latil-Le Dantec quotes from one of my articles my formulation (here translated) of the “eternal question of the novel”: “What justifies or explains the existence of a narrative text, this deceitful text which pretends to be plausible, which comes to us from somewhere, from someone who speaks from a hidden or ambiguous place, and who presents us with an ever stranger novelistic universe, structured according to the perspectives of his evermore polymorphous point of view?” Mme. Latil-Le Dantec replies that La Maison de rendez-vous seems to offer to this basic question of the justification of viewpoint, “the proudest of replies,” namely, that “Nothing justifies the narrative text other than itself. It seeks no vraisemblance, deriving its truth only from itself. It comes from nowhere. It is a mental space, the rendezvous of viewpoints successively adopted or abandoned by an imaginaire who has no support other than himself, and who creates his own world.”
Must we admit, then, that the omniscient author of Balzac, driven from the house of fiction by a score of novelists from Flaubert and James to Sartre, has returned through the back door of La Maison de rendez-vous? Are dechronology, entangled and shared viewpoints, and non-linear structures only a modern form of the older mode? Careful reflection and analysis will show, I believe, that it is not a case of Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The Balzacian omniscient author played his god-like role in a world of characters offered as Aristotelian imitations of life. Even the scientific pretensions of a Zola implied a transfer from fiction to reality itself. But in Robbe-Grillet's latest work we enter a domain of psycho-fiction, akin to that of Mallarméan poetry or the invented novelistic world of Raymond Roussel, with its formal schematics and its principles of self-generating content and self-contained structure. It remains to be seen whether Robbe-Grillet's future novels and films will evolve further in this direction, and to what extent these new developments will be accepted as authentic fictional techniques, or regarded as over-elaborate, byzantine projects of concern to only a small group of specialized readers. At present, La Maison de rendez-vous leads all of Robbe-Grillet's novels in sales and public acclaim. Even if some of this popularity may be attributed to erotic elements in the book, or to its pseudo-James Bond atmosphere and plot, we may still detect a willingness to accept, in fiction, some of the same formal liberties and absence of conventional justifications that prevail in modern pictorial styles (from abstract to op) and musical compositional methods (from serial to chance). A McLuhanite or a disciple of George Steiner might argue that the phenomenon is related to the breakdown of language, or at least the breakdown of the old rhetoric of fiction in the direction of the non-rational, if not the non-verbal. To so argue would be in one sense a paradox, since works like La Maison de rendez-vous have a stylistic intricacy and polish that set them apart from the “revolution of the word” syntax of lettrism, beat poetry, post-Joycean free association, syllabic interplay, mangled texts à la William Burroughs, or other symptoms of that retreat from reality which now, according to Steiner, “begins outside the verbal language.” One thing at least seems assured: the nouveau roman, in the hands of Robbe-Grillet and other experimentalists, continues to promise evolutionary surprises.
Les Gommes [The Erasers] (novel) 1953
Le Voyeur [The Voyeur] (novel) 1955
La Jalousie [Jealousy] (novel) 1957
Dans le labyrinthe [In the Labyrinth] (novel) 1959
L'Anneé dernière à Marienbad [Last Year at Marienbad] (screenplay) 1961
Instantanés [Snapshots] (short stories) 1962
L'Immortelle [The Immortal One] (screenplay) 1963
Pour un nouveau roman [For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction] (essays) 1963
La Maison de rendez-vous [The House of Assignation] (novel) 1965
Trans-Europ-Express (screenplay) 1967
L'Homme qui ment (screenplay) 1968
L'Eden et aprés (screenplay) 1970
Projet pour une révolution à New York [Project for a Revolution in New York] (novel) 1970
Rêves de jeunes filles [with photographs by David Hamilton; translated as Dreams of a Young Girl and Dreams of Young Girls] (text and photographs) 1971
Les Demoiselles d'Hamilton [with photographs by David Hamilton; translated as Sisters] (text and photographs) 1972
Glissements progressifs du plaisir (screenplay) 1973
La Belle Captive (novel) 1975
Construction d'un temple en ruines à la déesse Vanadé; [with engravings by Paul Delvaux] (text and engravings) 1975
La Jeu avec le feu (screenplay) 1975
Topologie d'une cité fantôme [Topology of a Phantom City] (novel) 1976
Temple aux miroirs [with photographs by Irina Ionesco] (text and photographs) 1977
Un Régicide (novel) 1978
Djinn: Un trou rouge entre les pavés disjoints [Djinn] (novel) 1981
Souvenirs du triangle d'or [Recollections of the Golden Triangle] (novel) 1984
La Belle Captive (screenplay) 1983
Le Miroir qui revient [Ghosts in the Mirror] (autobiography) 1984
Angélique ou L'Enchantement (autobiography) 1988
Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe (autobiography) 1994
SOURCE: “Internalized Reality: The Subjective Point of View,” in Narrative Consciousness: Structure and Perception in the Fiction of Kafka, Beckett, and Robbe-Grillet, University of Texas Press, 1972, pp. 134-48.
[In the following essay, Szanto examines the presentation of character and narrative perspective in Robbe-Grillet's fiction. According to Szanto, “Robbe-Grillet is not telling stories as much as he is creating characters—not really creating characters, either, as much as creating an atmosphere for a character.”]
There are a number of ways in which the narrator of a tale can present himself to a reader. Robbe-Grillet's first three novels, The Erasers, The Voyeur, and Jealousy are told in the third person, yet the importance of each novel lies in its capacity to produce the immediate presence of a narrator. In each novel the narrator exists at every point only within the character relevant to that particular narrative. There is no gratuitous description, no gratuitous object; everything is linked to the central character. Of The Voyeur, Bruce Morrissette remarks, “… even the most ‘neutral’ and innocent-seeming description of natural objects may contain, imperceptible at first glance but beyond a doubt fully intentional, some formal theme or coincidence of vocabulary that relates the object to the plot, or to the personality of Mathias, or to some aspect of a later action.”
In the novels the narrational voice, a unified source of information, becomes the theoretical basis for an image of the world; the voice seems to speak in absolutes. Each voice's primary relevance is to the fiction itself, but the situation of the narrator is analogous to that of the chief of police in The Erasers: “He dares not reject his assistant's hypothesis out of hand, for you never know: suppose that happened to be what happened, what would he look like then? Then too the obscurities and contradictions of the case have to be interpreted one way or another.” All obscurities and contradictions must be forced into a mold so that they make sense to a perceiving consciousness; the only mold capable of holding the incidents in proper relation to each other is the one formed by the narrating mind.
The first three novels interchange normal characteristics of first- and third-person narration. Although each novel maintains a first person point of view, the pronoun itself is in the third person; each “I” character (except A … 's husband) designates himself with his own proper name. In The Erasers, although the point of view is distributed among several characters, each in his turn follows this rule of self-objectification—the manager of the Café des Alliés, Laurent the chief of police, Garinati, Wallas.
Snatches of conversation, in their banality, record the undecorated sounds of the human voice immediately, as they are perceived. Wallas's uncertainty in the matter of a simple question is recorded together with the exchanged words. His uncertainty in this trivial matter is the weak echo of his far greater uncertainty and one of the novel's structuring motifs, his Oedipal search for his (probable) father (Dupont).
Maison de rendez-vous (1965) in a sense returns to the multi-narrational technique of The Erasers; with the apparent exception of the “I” character, who begins the book and returns to its pages at odd intervals, the several “narrators” each see themselves in the third person. Kim, for example, enters the building of Manneret's apartment; with her is one of Madame Ava's dogs. “Kim has only to follow the dog: in her turn she climbs the steep, narrow, wooden steps, a little more slowly of course, … the absence of light constituting a further obstacle for eyes accustomed to the bright sun outside.” The difference here is that the novel is dominated by one character alone, the narrator “I” is creating the conflicting snatches of narrative as he sits in his room. The reader knows that it is probably in an apartment house also, for in the quarters above the narrator's room a man is rocking in a chair, to the great irritation of the narrator. The narrator later gives the rocking chair to Manneret when Kim visits him.
Much more remains of the room in which the narrator/doctor of In the Labyrinth writes the story of the soldier returning from the war, who carries a box filled with irrelevancies to be given to someone whose name he has forgotten at a place and time he does not remember. The narrator's room contains all the elements from which the story of the soldier grows: a bayonet, a box, tracks in the dust (which become tracks in the snow), filaments in the light bulb, and, most of all, a picture, titled The Defeat at Reichenfels, in which the soldier, the boy, and the bartender figure as principles. The narrator weaves a story from these elements, a story almost fulfilling Flaubert's attempts to conceive a roman pur, a novel created from nothing. Maison de rendez-vous is, in this sense, purer; only a rocking chair links the created events with the narrator's reality.
Like the created characters of Maison de rendez-vous, the soldier attains his own point of view, but it is granted him by a narrator who is constantly in the process of forming his hero. Robbe-Grillet's narrator puts himself in the midst of the situation being described. Whereas the events of the first three novels are actually occurring at a single remove—they are the fictions of Robbe-Grillet (everything happens to the narrator)—In the Labyrinth and Maison de rendez-vous are operating at a further remove. Robbe-Grillet is writing the story of a narrator who is creating the events he is describing. In this respect the structural development of the two latter novels approaches that of the later novels of Samuel Beckett. A story is told by a narrator within the novel who plays little active part in the story being created. But whereas Beckett's narrator would say, “I am now going to create a narrative,” or, “No, no, this won't do, this is badly written,” Robbe-Grillet's narrator omits the step; the reader is not certain whether Robbe-Grillet or his narrator is telling the story.
The inability to differentiate between “real” and “imaginary” events is not limited to the later novels. Mathias of The Voyeur is quite capable of imagining what could happen as he goes out to sell his watches. In his thoughts he has visited a house, has sold several watches, and starts to go. “As he was leaving he wanted to say a few words of farewell, but none came out of his mouth. He noticed this at the same moment he realized the whole scene had been a stupidly worthless one [sic]. Once on the road, behind the closed door, his suitcase unopened in his hand, he understood that it all still remained to be done.” Here is a further remove, a further frame: first person interplay between imagination and immediate reality is disguised behind what appears to be a third-person narrative. The interplay itself is presented from the single point of view, Mathias's mind. Robert Champigny notes that
the technique of Le Voyeur is the result of an attempt to present everything that occurs (gestures, perceptions, projects, images, memories, calculations) on the same plane. This search for flatness means a reduction of the conditional mood (the alibi) to the indicative, of the unreal to the real: the alibi is unreal, but the images in Mathias’ mind are real. It also leads to a reduction of the past and future to an eternal present: Mathias’ memories and projects may point toward the past or the future, but they themselves are present. The thoughts and images which crop up in Mathias’ mind are thus assimilated to perception.
A … 's husband in Jealousy also mixes imagination with past incident and projected possibility. But the element deleted from Robbe-Grillet's third novel is an objectification, at any point in the narrative, of the narrator himself. The narrating voice must be relevant to the story; context forces the realization that it is A … 's husband. He never refers to himself, either with adjective or with proper noun, or with “I” or “he”; his single device for self-reference is the generalizing “one” or the passive voice. The tone of jealousy itself demands the conclusion that no one living in the house with A … other than her husband would be jealous of Franck, with whom, to the narrator's mind, A … spends too much time and to whom she pays too much attention. The narrator could be another lover, but the possibility is eliminated by the propriety of circumstances in which the events take place; and A … does speak of her husband, who can be present only in the person of the narrator—never more than three chairs are occupied. The husband will not admit to himself what he strongly suspects is happening between his wife and Franck. “In order to avoid the danger of upsetting the glasses in the darkness, A … has moved as near as possible to the armchair Franck is sitting in, her right hand carefully extending the glass with his drink in it. She rests her other hand on the arm of the chair and bends over him, so close that their heads touch. He murmurs a few words: [she is] probably thanking him.” “Probably” forces the reader to doubt the explanation. The husband fools no one but himself.
In a sense, elimination of the personal pronoun in reference to oneself is an honest fictionalized description of the relation between a subjective conception and the objectification of oneself. In speaking, one does say “I.” In thinking, such pronouns are rare. Nor does one use the label of a name (with which the external world objectifies all the qualities compounded to describe an individual) for oneself in personal thoughts. Since memory and imagination do not reach a stage of symbolization demanding words, and pictures suffice (much as they suffice to describe what one sees at a given moment), the need of a pronoun or any label for self-reference is not necessary. A … 's husband finds need neither for this nor for labels other than the most simple (A …) in referring to his wife; whether he has reduced their relationship to this single letter or whether the letter suffices to bring to his mind all associations of their life together is not important.
Contrary to Robbe-Grillet's pronouncements that characters no longer exist in fiction, he has created, as thoroughly as most authors can, characters who may be spoken of as real and full people; one learns about them as they expose their consciousness to the reader. And they are each sufficiently conscious to display themselves not only in the functioning of their minds, but also in their ability to watch themselves as they act out given situations. For example, Kim, seeking out M. Tchang, locates him; but he, for a reason at that point unknown, will not make contact with her. She then transports herself in her mind out of the situation and begins over. The second beginning belongs to the narrator. (To claim it belongs merely to Robbe-Grillet would be to beg the question; it is Robbe-Grillet who is creating the mind of an author/narrator whose several attempts at writing a story are all described.) The juxtaposition belongs to the narrator and as much explains his inability to work out a facet of the plot as it explicates the character of Kim. What the reader of Maison de rendez-vous has before him are, in effect, notebooks of the imagination for a novel about an evening in Hong Kong. It has been said that watching the evolution of characters in Gide's notebooks for The Counterfeiters is as interesting as reading the novel itself. Robbe-Grillet accepts such a sentiment literally and writes a novel about the psychological movement expressed almost completely in the episodes invented by a writer carrying on his occupation. The changing situations of characters in relation to each other, and in relation to time sequences, is nothing more than a shift in the author's conception of characters with which his mind is working. As the shifts and changes proceed, a novel comes into being.
This experiment relates most completely to Robbe-Grillet's first novel: the process of an examination into the death of Dupont changes constantly as new evidence is introduced. Each new hypothesis is a corrective to previous explanation, an improvement that brings complete explanation (of the case and of the novel) closer. Each incorrect analysis clarifies something not only about the case but also about Wallas, for The Erasers is primarily his story. The process of the novel, the constant process of change, is a correction by erasure of those “facts” previously assumed correct. As new information is accumulated, both by the novel's investigators and by the reader, earlier information is edited and events are given more valid explanations. What is incorrect is, so to speak, erased.
Because the reality of each of Robbe-Grillet's novels changes under one's eyes, it becomes essential for the reader to find one point in the novel that remains steady. The point of view of the narrator alone will suffice. Of Jealousy, Morrissette says, “The point of view, with its rotations, emerges from a consciousness inside the text which the reader must assume, thus placing himself at the observational center.” The reader must, in effect, become the jealous husband, thereby himself experiencing pangs of jealousy for this beautiful woman, his wife, a sensuous female with beautiful hair brushing her bare shoulders and back, who wears tight-fitting dresses so that Franck's wife herself becomes jealous and suggests that A … wear something loose there in the tropics. This place for the reader Robbe-Grillet calls a “hollow” in the text. The same kind of missing factor, this time called a “hole,” must be recognized in The Voyeur. The time during which Mathias kills Jacqueline is a blank both in the book and in Mathias's mind; the latter position must be assumed by the reader for him to realize the existence of this empty space. Only from within does Mathias's avoidance of the events, even silently in his mind, become evident.
The demands of In the Labyrinth and Maison de rendez-vous are more stringent. The early novels contain events with which memory and imagination can be linked; the later novels are moving so quickly toward the roman pur that very little landscape remains. The reader must submit himself so rigorously to the flexibilities of the author/narrator's mind that imagining events on the snow-covered streets of the city in In the Labyrinth and sensing the smells of Hong Kong in Maison de rendez-vous become the only conscious reality. The narrative implicates the imagination, even though it consists only of generalizations and clichés about Hong Kong. Yet, when related to each other in Robbe-Grillet's carefully structured descriptions, the pictures and images evoke complicity and force the reader into the chair behind the writer's desk, making him a part of the novel.
Robbe-Grillet is not telling stories as much as he is creating characters—not really creating characters, either, as much as creating an atmosphere for a character. An atmosphere remains for only a limited period of time; Robbe-Grillet's novels never take place over a period of more than a day or two. The period of Maison de rendez-vous covers one late afternoon and the subsequent evening. The narrator's recorded episodes attempt to evoke the exoticism of Hong Kong, an exoticism of the city as well as an exoticism of pleasure. Carnal pleasure is present from the beginning, from the moment the narrator characterizes himself with his opening statement, “Women's flesh has always played, no doubt, a great part in my dreams.” A crude interpretation of the intent of the narrator could be paraphrased in Genêt's words, that he wrote Our Lady of the Flowers merely to maintain an erection. But the intent here is far more complex, for it makes of a possible Genêt-like author merely another character to serve Robbe-Grillet's fiction-making process. The success of exoticism in Maison de rendez-vous is achieved without the use of exotic language or unnatural description; the inventive juxtaposition of clichés suffices.
Robbe-Grillet's methods for presenting a scene or situation are relatively simple. That his artist's mind's eye is no camera should by now be obvious. His descriptions edit too completely; they do not begin with panoramas that a camera's image could embrace; rather they choose microscopic details of large scenes and landscapes. When describing the rows of banana trees, for example, Robbe-Grillet omits not only the foreground of the picture but also the spaces between the trees themselves; furthermore, to differentiate between trees is impossible. The importance of Camus's experiments is discernible here: as Meursault tries to recall, “en imagination,” the details of his room, he lets his mind's eye wander from one wall to another, cataloguing, enumerating everything he can recall, the objects as well as the wall's imperfections, and though he carries on this procedure many times he finds that each repeated survey of the same image reveals more details than had the previous. Without verbalizing this difficulty, as did Camus's narrator, Robbe-Grillet leaves to the reader's discovery the incomplete picture before him. Not even a six-page description of The Defeat at Reichenfels suffices to describe all the elements the picture contains.
Of course, Robbe-Grillet is partly responsible for the confusion. He has quite deliberately called the published form of both Last Year at Marienbad and The Immortal “ciné-roman,” and his collection of brief prose narratives he has named Instantanées (Snapshots). Since, aside from his theoretical pieces, these represent his only publication besides his novels, it is not difficult to conclude that Robbe-Grillet is merely applying the techniques of one medium to the presentation of another. But the evidence of his fictional heritage stands opposed to carrying the supposition too far; Robbe-Grillet has, of course, utilized techniques from the film, but artists have always sought new forms in neighboring disciplines. It is his ability to edit language, to keep the narrative relevant, that retains his identity as fabulator. What is not relevant is never absorbed, either by narrator or by protagonist. Like Mathias, Robbe-Grillet is trying to sell his product. Mathias hears from the sailor all the details about the family of the sailor's sister: “Mathias, who expected to put them to good use soon, added all these facts to the inquiries he had made the day before. In work like this, there was no such thing as a superfluous detail.” Nor must Robbe-Grillet allow superfluous details.
The point of view of narrative consciousness is capable of a great deal. It can, for example, converse, as does the husband in Jealousy:
The conversation has returned to the story of the engine trouble: in the future Franck will not buy any more old military materiel; his latest acquisitions have given him too many problems; the next time he replaces one of his vehicles, it will be with a new one.
But he is wrong to trust modern trucks to the Negro drivers, who will wreck them just as fast, if not faster.
“All the same,” Franck says, “if the motor is new, the driver will not have to fool with it.”
Franck's words are reported as direct or indirect discourse, the words of the narrator/husband appear as generalized thoughts, a pedestal to which only “objectively” true statements are usually elevated. Such a technique is successful in its re-emphasis of the feeling that one's own utterances are always valid.
Even in description that might otherwise be deemed purely “objective,” Robbe-Grillet's narrators manage to inject a note of doubt. The usual technique is to overstress otherwise innocent situations. So A … 's husband speaks of A … and Franck in town: “It is only natural that they will meet there, especially for dinner, since they must start back immediately afterwards. It is also natural that A … would want to take advantage of this present opportunity to get to town, which she prefers to the solution of a banana truck.” All this is so natural that there seems little need for the narrator to mention it; yet he does, and implies that much is going on below the surface of his reports. Much the same effect is gained with such words as no doubt, probably, certainly, and perhaps. Knowing it not to be true, the husband nevertheless notes: “The table is set for three. A … has probably just had the boy add Franck's place, since she was not to be expecting any guest for lunch today.” To show the complicity between A … and Franck, the narrator describes by concealment the reaction of one to another in a certain situation: “A … is humming a dance tune whose words remain unintelligible. But perhaps Franck understands them, if he already knows them, from having heard them often, perhaps with her. Perhaps it is one of her favorite records.” Whether the two ever heard it together is uncertain; only the narrator's suspicions are clear. The narrator chooses ambiguity partly in order to avoid accusing A … and Franck without absolute evidence; partly, however, he does not wish to admit to himself the possibility that his wife is having an affair. Evasion on the part of the narrator plays a large role in Robbe-Grillet's early novels. Wallas is unaware that his search is leading him into a situation in which he will have to kill his (possible) father, and so the evasion is perpetrated by the author on the reader only; but Mathias is capable of, and completely involved in, doing so by himself. The last two parts of his narrative involve nothing but evasion: he will not even admit to his own conscious mind what he has done, and the reader must piece the information together from the images that do come to his mind, for not everything appearing in print can be accepted as “truth,” not even very limited truth. Mathias's refusal to admit his acts to himself is based in a conscious desire to establish an alibi for himself to cover the time of Jacqueline's rape and murder.
The narrator, seeing A … leaning through the car window to kiss Franck, describes the scene as geometrically as possible. The fact of passion is absent. In much the same way the husband takes his mind off A … 's late return from her trip to town with Franck by considering with almost paranoid exactness the details of the house; the more control he can retain over his mind the greater will be his ability to withstand his jealousy. In much the same way the narrator will shift his glance from A … and Franck to something irrelevant if he believes he may see some hint of tenderness that transcends the relationship of neighbors, or if he already has seen more than he wishes. The description of A … 's hair gives away the narrator's attitude to the scene; since the sensation of jealousy usually corresponds to the realization of imminent (or already determined) loss, the husband must be shown admiring his wife. This is not to say that Robbe-Grillet portrays in the husband a love of A … ; love is not necessary for, although it probably deepens, the imagined oncoming loss. At any rate, Robbe-Grillet is content to portray A …, to her husband's eyes, as a sensual, desirable woman—at least her sensuality is prime in the husband's mind. It is difficult to determine if A … is beautiful. One can assume she is attractive to Franck, who visits her even when his own wife is ill, and she obviously arouses her husband, even though he apparently never considers more of her than her hair, her lips, her shoulder and her figure in a tight dress, which suffices.
Much the same technique is used to establish sensuality in Maison de rendez-vous. Once the narrator has avowed his partiality for women's flesh, his always incomplete hints at possible perversions are sufficient to retain the sensation of sensuality, which becomes a major element in the tone of exoticism dominant in the novel. Even his obsession for the very tight dresses worn by Chinese women, slit to the thigh, suggests the constant presence of exotic pleasure.
Sensuality is not the only tone, though it is one of the most prominent, that Robbe-Grillet attempts to create in his novels. All atmospheres can be determined by the external (and externalized) “things” chosen by the mind's eye. Although related to T. S. Eliot's objective correlatives, such objects cannot achieve any immediate evocation of parallel emotions; the blue cigarette package, the figure eight, and the piece of rope in no way add up to Mathias's crime, but they do point to the obsessive nature of his mind. Robbe-Grillet's success lies in his ability to lead one toward the necessary background that will explain the crime, much as Camus makes it obvious that sun, sand, and sky forced Meursault to kill the Arab. The choice of the “things” the eye of the narrating consciousness perceives is based in their ability to suggest rather than in their power to equate and define.
The choice of objects most relevant to the perceiving mind and the manner in which those objects are described establish the state of mind that controls the point of view in Robbe-Grillet's fiction. The subconscious mind is projected onto an external world, but this never becomes a conscious process; the conscious mind merely reports what it is driven to view. Such a formula allows an identification between Franck's killing the centipede and his probable affair with A … : “A … seems to be breathing a little faster, but this may be an illusion. Her left hand gradually closes over her knife. The delicate antennae accelerate their alternate swaying.” As when A … 's hand came too close to Franck's, the narrator looks away, fearing the overdisplay of emotion to which he might be a witness. The implicit comparison comes almost to the surface when Franck's attack on the centipede is described again later: “A … moves no more than the centipede while Franck approaches the wall, his napkin wadded up in his hand.” This motif reaches its climax when the husband is awaiting the return of Franck and A … ; it combines with the sense of loss to give the centipede enormous proportions: “The pantry door is closed. Between it and the doorway to the hall is the centipede. It is enormous: one of the largest to be found in this climate. With its long antennae and its huge legs spread on each side of its body, it covers the area of an ordinary dinner plate. The shadow of various appendages doubles their already considerable number on the light-colored paint.” Every ounce of objective hatred is expended on the centipede Franck has destroyed just as he has defiled, in the husband's mind, the purity of his beautiful wife and the sanctity of their marriage.
In the same way the eraser and the girl in the shop (who may be his stepmother) combine to arouse in Wallas the beginnings of sensuality, essential for the novel's structure in which the son kills his (possible) father. “Once out in the street, Wallas mechanically fingers the little eraser; it is obvious from the way it feels that it is no good at all. It would have been surprising, really, for it to be otherwise in so modest a shop. … That girl was nice. … He rubs his thumb across the end of the eraser. It is not at all what he is looking for.” Wallas and A … 's husband have a confederate in Mathias, who establishes his own lustful nature in the cafe after leaving the ferry; he sees a natural action of the waitress: “She held her head to one side, neck and shoulders bent, in order to observe more closely the rising level of liquid in the glass. Her black dress was cut low in back. Her hair was arranged so that the nape of her neck was exposed.” A much more generalized object of sensual thought than A …, the waitress helps explain how to Mathias's mind his perversion and crime become possible. All females, even thirteen-year-olds (perhaps especially thirteen-year-olds, who are less capable of resistance—lack of resistance becomes a motif in Maison de rendez-vous), can arouse Mathias's lust.
Emphasis of a narrator's glance also plays its part. A … 's husband watches Franck and remarks: “He drinks his soup in rapid spoonfuls. Although he makes no excessive gestures, although he holds his spoon quite properly and swallows the liquid without making any noise, he seems to display, in this modest task, a disproportionate energy and zest. It would be difficult to specify exactly in what way he is neglecting some essential rule, at what particular point he is lacking in discretion.” Having in effect stared at Franck as he eats, the narrator seems surprised that A … has finished her soup without drawing attention to herself; but the attention to be caught is that of the husband, and he was too busy being irritated at Franck to notice. Franck is not actually lacking in discretion; because the husband is bothered by something far more basic than seeing Franck eat his soup, he expresses his irritation within the context of the incident of the moment. In much the same way and for similar reasons Franck apparently grew sufficiently angry at his own wife when Christiane criticised A … for wearing so tight-fitting a dress.
Having limited his glance only to Franck, the narrator (under the author's control) edits his point of view until he forgets completely the presence of A. … Obliquely this may begin to explain possible causes for A … 's probable infidelity, but since that path of inquiry is both impossible to follow and not relevant to the obsession of jealousy that remains the novel's subject, Robbe-Grillet draws the attention back to the narrator's point of view. Only the fact that A … 's plate is stained lets one (the narrator) realize that she has indeed been eating all the time. The matter, as Bernard Pinguad points out, is not that the glance of the jealous husband deforms what he sees so much as it is that he chooses and sees in a limited way. Mathias's eyes, for example, fall only on a limited number of kinds of things; even in a village shop his eye can find the appropriate object—a mutilated naked mannequin.
In one corner, at eye level, stood a window mannequin: a young woman's body with the limbs cut off—the arms just below the shoulder and the legs eight inches from the trunk—the head slightly to one side and forward to give a “gracious” effect, and one hip projecting slightly beyond the other in a “natural” pose. The mannequin was well proportioned but smaller than normal as far as the mutilations permitted her size to be estimated. Her back was turned, her face leaning against a shelf filled with ribbons. She was dressed only in a brassiere and a narrow garter-belt popular in the city.
The extreme subjectivity of a narrator's glance defines his nature. But a descriptive narrative needs more than an atmosphere if it is to succeed as fiction; it needs a relevant interrelation of its parts. It is already apparent that all images in these novels emanate from the mind of the narrator; their sources—the glance of the moment, a picture from the memory, the image of a hoped for or feared future event—are totally interconnected. Stoltzfus notes that Robbe-Grillet unites the several imaginative processes. What Robbe-Grillet “seems to be saying is that dream, day-dream, fantasy, imagination, the creative process, are all related; that the factor which differentiates dreams from imaginative creation or fiction is a matter of volition, direction, or perhaps even coherent organization.” Precisely this organization is the artist's domain; more than simply searching for new experiences, the act of structuring uses atmosphere-creating words and shapes them into the beginnings of fiction.
SOURCE: “Toward a New Novel: A Theory for Fiction,” in Narrative Consciousness: Structure and Perception in the Fiction of Kafka, Beckett, and Robbe-Grillet, University of Texas Press, 1972, pp. 123-33.
[In the following essay, Szanto discusses Robbe-Grillet's philosophical perspective and concept of the “new novel” as delineated in Towards a New Novel. Szanto notes that Robbe-Grillet's theoretical writings have “contributed to the rampant misunderstanding about his fiction.”]
Alone among the novelists discussed here, Alain Robbe-Grillet has published a volume of purposely theoretical writing. Kafka's diaries and letters, certainly not meant for publication, deal with the events, the day-to-day trivialities of his personal life; any information about his art must be carefully culled from them, and then it usually appears as its own kind of parable. Beckett's essays on Joyce and on Proust and his three dialogues with Georges Duthuit, all written before his presently published novels, these ostensibly deal with subjects other than himself; they explain what Beckett has discovered in the works of Joyce, Proust, and several modern painters but do not allow him to elaborate on what he adds to the innovations of those from whom he learned. On the other hand, although Robbe-Grillet's Towards a New Novel (Pour un nouveau roman) contains essays he has written about other people—understanding the tradition is essential if an author wishes to grow from it—the book's primary force arises from its apparently heretical outline for a new kind of novel.
And yet the program the book demands is often little more than a description of fiction already written by Robbe-Grillet's predecessors, Kafka and Beckett. Certainly it contains something more—it contains passages lending themselves to interpretations that infuriated and impressed critical thinking for more than ten years. Perhaps only in retrospect can one see how Robbe-Grillet's essays could be misunderstood while at the same time they presented a plan for novels unrelated to interpretations of his theories by others. For just as each of his novels shows an increased subtlety and comprehension of technique, his theory too develops to a point where it eliminates the confusion imposed on it by such critics as Roland Barthes, who, himself linguistically and scientistically oriented, saw Robbe-Grillet's first two novels (The Erasers  and The Voyeur ) as representing worlds void of human beings except insofar as humans were viewed, much like all objects within the narrative, as things. In the beginning, Robbe-Grillet did not deny this analysis. He could write the novels and sense their importance, but he could not yet abstract and define the theory. So in 1956 he wrote:
Even the least conditioned observer can't manage to see the world around him with an unprejudiced eye. Let us make it quite clear before we go any further that we are not here concerned with that naive preoccupation of subjectivity which so amuses the analysts of the (subjective) soul. Objectivity, in the current meaning of the term—a completely impersonal way of looking at things—is only too obviously a chimera. But it is liberty which ought at least to be possible—but isn't, either. Cultural fringes (bits of psychology, ethics, metaphysics, etc.) are all the time being attached to things and making them seem less strange, more comprehensible, more reassuring. Sometimes the camouflage is total: a gesture is effaced from our minds and its place taken by the emotions that are supposed to have given rise to it …
Although the argument appears to develop into a plea for objectivity in viewing the world, at the same time it admits that such a project is impossible; the inescapability of subjective vision is a dominant note from the beginning. Yet Robbe-Grillet is not talking about his way of seeing the world, but about the world itself; the distinction has become blurred for many of those who follow Barthes's comprehension of Robbe-Grillet's novels and theories.
To no small extent Robbe-Grillet himself has contributed to the rampant misunderstanding about his fiction; at the beginning he was more interested in considering the nature of the external world than he was in discussing the techniques he utilized in viewing that world. His bent led him to adapt to literature the dictum that “the world is neither meaningful nor absurd. It quite simply is … All around us, defying our pack of animistic or domesticating adjectives, things are there.” An explanation about the nature of the world from a novice writer is only natural if, as Robbe-Grillet does, he considers himself to be writing “realistically.” It is even more natural if he is only in the process of developing his theories about art and its relationship to that world: one must first understand what one is describing before finding the tools for that description. In this respect, a writer's theories about his art begin only after he has begun to write novels; the novels must, by definition (even if not in their stress), be about the world. The theory follows the fact of creation despite an author's possible understanding of the theory before he began to write.
Therefore, when Robbe-Grillet maintained the presence of things to be their primary importance, he gave strong argument to those who believed he was going to be working with things in and of themselves. In this early essay, Robbe-Grillet justly claims that the nineteenth-century fictional tradition sees literature as a mode of expression in which the writer defined and delineated his relation to the external world (called by Robbe-Grillet “tragic complicity”) by explaining the world in terms of himself, by finding in the external world correspondences to his own moods and sensibilities. By carefully using the adjective to anthropomorphize and domesticate his environment (a countryside is “austere” or “calm,” depending on the mood to be established), the writer made of it an accomplice for his hero, as well as an accomplice for himself in his attempt to explain his hero. Robbe-Grillet the theorist wished to eliminate such complicity, since ultimately it must eliminate the possibility of any relationship between man and a universe already by definition nonhuman; only the nonrelationship remains, what existentialism calls the gap of absurdity. Robbe-Grillet, not believing that the simple fact of non-connection between man and his environment should be seen pejoratively (absurdly), claimed that a new kind of fiction could develop if the unbridgeable distance between man and his world was accepted as a neutral fact.
Between taking the world as a series of surfaces, which exist in complete freedom from man's domesticating adjectives and have little relevance for man, and taking the world as a unified projection of man's inmost subjective nature (when the heart is clouded so is the sky, the sun comes out when love is rediscovered—or vice versa, if irony is intended), there is the middle ground upon which Robbe-Grillet attempts to stand. But by arguing forcibly against the nineteenth-century complicity between man and his universe, Robbe-Grillet sounds as if he is embracing the view expounded by Barthes's chosisme, and evidence for Robbe-Grillet's possible chosiste leanings can be garnered from his 1958 article, “Nature, Humanism and Tragedy,” to which he prefixes a quotation from Barthes. The article itself, however, is thoroughly denied by both his previous and his subsequent fictions, which, although they do take as fact the equality of everything external, cannot free his heroes from a complicity with the external world. No human can perceive the world in a nonhuman way; no center other than a living eye, or at least a perceiving mind, can validly explain its environment.
The complicity between man and the universe need not be tragic, and if it is not it differs already from any view within the novels of the past. The fiction of Robbe-Grillet dismisses, as his theories demand, the old myths of depth whose fictions describe at great length what lies beneath the world's surfaces. Robbe-Grillet makes it clear that for him there is no (human) depth in the external world. But there is a depth to man, a psychology man does not understand, which governs much of his life; that psychology is defined analytically by the manner in which the governing psychology sees the external world and by what it finds appropriate to its glance. Whereas nineteenth-century writers of fiction anthropomorphized the universe, Robbe-Grillet allows his heroes their delineations according to what segments of their universe they choose to see and according to the manner in which they see and understand the segments. The universe remains an accomplice of the consciousness that views it. It is still a humanist's universe; the viewer is no less a victim of his own complicity than he is in the novels of Balzac or of Camus. The great difference, however, and the great contribution of phenomenological fiction, lies in immediacy, in its ability to implicate the reader in the situation of the hero without ever explaining what the situation is. Far from being a scientistic literature, a chosiste fiction, Robbe-Grillet's novels display a relevant realism that keeps them in the tradition of that fiction which is altogether descriptive of human experience.
The shame is that, in his enthusiasm to formulate the boundaries of a new novel, Robbe-Grillet attempted to begin with too much of a clean slate, and, for the earlier critics, everything was erased. In his essay of 1957, “On Some Outdated Notions,” he states that such trappings of the novel as character and plot must be eliminated in the new attempt at writing fiction. Although he claims that plot and character are outdated notions, he himself is working with precisely those two elements of fiction, in a modified form, as were Beckett and Kafka before him; merely his method of approach to these problems has differed from that of the nineteenth-century authors. In Robbe-Grillet's fiction, the emphasis has shifted to a tone that describes the character obliquely by engulfing the whole series of events (plot) within the mood established by the narrative; the whole of a novel is completely relevant to the character about whom the events take place.
Even in the article dealing with tragic complicity, “Nature, Humanism, and Tragedy,” Robbe-Grillet undercuts his theory of man's non-involvement with nature: “… it must be added that the characteristic of humanism, whether Christian or otherwise, is precisely to incorporate everything, including things that may be trying to limit it, or even totally reject it. This may even be said to be one of the most reliable mainsprings of its action.” Here he is, in effect, admitting what he discovers later in his theory and knows already after the appearance of The Voyeur, that one consciousness narrates only what is relevant to itself—nothing else is incorporated. The unity lies in the human consciousness itself, which can relate details relevant only to its own humanity; everything considered by that consciousness is dependent upon it for the kind of existence it will be allowed. Each man is an internalized universe who considers the external world in accordance with his own nature. In this sense, Robbe-Grillet practices precisely what he condemns: his dismissal of the contemporary relevance of nineteenth-century fiction is so broad that he denounces techniques of his own that differ greatly from those of Balzac. Yet, whereas Balzac sought unified external correlatives to explain his characters, Robbe-Grillet's characters pick tiny segments of the external world, which they draw to themselves; these segments give the only available clues to their natures and obsessions. And this is the distinction Robbe-Grillet does not draw.
The difficulty from the beginning lies in a distinction between the consideration of things themselves and the presence of these things. For the presence of a thing is relevant only to the mind that grasps that presence. If this is the distinction Robbe-Grillet was attempting to make, he allowed himself to be misled by the intriguing ideas of Roland Barthes and the praises of Barthes's followers. It would be too much to say that the chosiste critics misinterpreted what Robbe-Grillet was writing about (in his theories), since a sufficient base existed for their attitudes. But Towards a New Novel, as a volume of critical essays, cannot be viewed as base for chosiste interpretations. Robbe-Grillet claims, quite rightly, that the volume presents a collection of essays, thoughts about the novel that have evolved over a period of years. Such a description is quite valid, provided an attempt is not made to draw parallels between the chronological development of his art and of his theory. A further danger lies in forcing his novels into the mold of previous theoretical statements. Robbe-Grillet points out the writer's difficulty in knowing precisely where he is going before he gets there; the work of art evolves as the attitude to it evolves, as the writer works with it. To take a ten-page theory and attempt to fit into it a three-hundred-page novel is a dangerous business; some aspects of the theory will fit the novel, but the novel must, if it is to be of value, contain far more than the theory itself. In his novels themselves Robbe-Grillet warns, indirectly, against the danger of any immediate parallels between objective, that is, theoretical, statements and the “meaning” of the fiction. In The Erasers, Wallas interrogates the concierge and concludes that in his story, filled with details, “It is apparent that the author only reproduces all those trifling remarks out of a concern for objectivity; and despite the care he takes to present what follows with the same detachment, he obviously regards it as much more important.” The words of the concierge, as well as the techniques of the novel, must be seen in their subjective unity.
In the evolution of Robbe-Grillet's theories, there is mounting emphasis on the need for absolute subjectivity to dominate the form and the description of the world perceived. In his 1961 essay, “New Novel, New Man,” he openly proclaimed this subjectivity:
As there are many objects in our books, and as people thought there was something unusual about them, it didn't take long to decide on the future of the word “objectivity,” which was used by certain critics when referring to those objects, but used in very particular sense, i.e. oriented towards the object. In its usual sense which is neutral, cold and impartial, the word becomes an absurdity. Not only is it a man who, in my novels, for instance, describes everything, but he is also the least neutral, and the least impartial of men; on the contrary, he is always engaged in a passionate adventure of the most obsessive type—so obsessive that it often distorts his vision and subjects him to phantasies bordering on delirium. It is also quite easy to show that my novels … are even more subjective than those of Balzac …”
Even if the objects seen appear with hard-edged objectivity, they will be the subjective choices of a psychology enforcing its obsessions onto a conscious and recording mind, and they will be colored by the needs of that mind. For example, the paperweight in the office of Dupont in The Erasers is a harmless object when it is first described: “A kind of cube, but slightly misshapen, a shiny block of gray lava, with its faces polished as though by wear, the edges softened, compact, apparently hard, heavy as gold, looking about as big around as a fist; a paperweight?” But, when Wallas arrives at the end of the narrative to kill Dupont, there is murder in his mind and the same paperweight appears other than it was: “The cube of vitrified stone with its sharp edges and deadly corners, is lying harmlessly between the inkwell and the memo-pad.”
This kind of subjectivity was already present in Robbe-Grillet's first novel. Perhaps as a counterargument, the example of the tomato can be considered. Geometrically described, this slice appears totally objective:
A quarter of tomato that is quite faultless, cut up by the machine into a perfectly symmetrical fruit.
The periphereal flesh, compact, homogeneous, and a splendid chemical red, is of an even thickness between a strip of gleaming skin and the hollow where the yellow, graduated seeds appear in a row, kept in place by a thin layer of greenish jelly along a swelling of the heart. This heart, of a slightly grainy, faint pink begins—toward the inner hollow—with a cluster of white veins, one of which extends toward the seeds—somewhat uncertainly.
Above, a scarcely perceptible accident has occurred: a corner of the skin, stripped back from the flesh for a fraction of an inch, is slightly raised.
But its neither appetizing nor disgusting nature underlines merely what has been made clear earlier, that Wallas is not really hungry, that eating is merely one of the functions he pursues as automatically as the automat where he has chosen to eat carries on its preparation of the food: all the dishes offered, for example, are variations of the basic marinated herring. There is a unified, totally objective center controlling all objects and scenes that appear, binding them to a dominating structure; that point of view of narrating consciousness is human from the first of Robbe-Grillet's novels. Roland Barthes in his introduction to Morrissette's Les Romans de Robbe-Grillet asks the question, “Between the two Robbe-Grillets, Robbe-Grillet no. 1, the ‘chosiste,’ and Robbe-Grillet no. 2, the humanist, between the one portrayed by all the early analysis [established by Barthes himself] and the one portrayed by Bruce Morrissette, must one choose?” The answer must be an emphatic yes.
The link between Robbe-Grillet and the phenomenological theory of Merleau-Ponty especially is constant; in a parallel, rather than influential, relationship, the philosopher and the novelist are working at the same kind of problem with differing tools. In Jealousy, the manner in which A … 's husband sees his wife writing at her desk and the assumptions he must make are filtered through his narrative consciousness: “The shiny black curls tremble slightly on her shoulders as the pen advances. Although neither the arm nor the head seems disturbed by the slightest movement, the hair, more sensitive, captures the oscillations of the wrist, amplifies them, and translates them into unexpected eddies which awaken reddish highlights in its moving mass.” Only the surface is visible, only the details of the surface, and one is not interested in what lies beneath it; the perceiving mind alone establishes the mood. Perhaps A … is terrified, perhaps she is nervous, perhaps impatient—the husband can merely guess, and his mood decides for him. Jealousy, for example, follows the movements of the eye of the narrator, the husband. If he closes his eyes for a moment and an object or a person changes position, then, when his eyes turn back to it, it will seem to have appeared or disappeared suddenly. Robbe-Grillet underscores this movement with the image of a lizard that fascinates the husband: “On the column itself there is nothing to see except the peeling paint and, occasionally, at unforeseeable intervals and at various levels, a greyish-pink lizard whose intermittent presence results from shifts of position so sudden that no one could say where it comes from or where it is going when it is no longer visible.” Or, in The Erasers, when Juard is waiting for Wallas, the apparently confused echoes and re-echoes that will dominate the surface of the later novels are present in the train station: “A tremendous voice fills the hall. Projected by invisible loudspeakers, it bounces back and forth against the walls covered with signs and advertisements, which amplify it still more, multiply it, reflect it, baffle it with a whole series of more or less conflicting echoes and resonances, in which the original message is lost—transformed into a gigantic oracle, magnificent, indecipherable, and terrifying.” With Robbe-Grillet, narrative consciousness is complete. The uncertainty and fear of Kafka have disappeared, the doubts and improbabilities of Beckett have been all but forgotten (they still do hide below the surfaces, disguised beneath such adverbs as doubtless, perhaps, and probably): but experiments with the purity of narrative consciousness, with a fiction in which the central interest is the narrating voice, have begun to bear fruit.
It is obvious that writers other than Kafka and Beckett have left their influence on Robbe-Grillet; both Sartre and Camus work with objects and situations, especially in their respective novels Nausea and The Stranger. As Bruce Morrissette reminds one, Nausea makes constant use of object descriptions. “Roquentin's depiction of a chestnut-tree root was also an object lesson in the ‘être-là; des choses.’” But thereafter comes the difference: “… where Sartre freely employs metaphor and draws intellectual conclusions, Robbe-Grillet rigorously restricts himself to the external object.” With Robbe-Grillet, there is no reflection. Camus, even in Robbe-Grillet's eyes, removes some of the anthropomorphism from fiction; but, though a purer narrative emerges, the domesticating complicity continues to persist. It remains for Robbe-Grillet to cleanse fiction of arbitrary anthropomorphism before he can bring to it description of an external world that delineates the viewer rather than the world. When he speaks of a need to liberate the human glance from the categories that limit its value, he knows he demands the impossible; everything is linked to the entire psychology of the viewer. Therefore all preconditions symptomized by his fiction must be based in a comprehension of this basic limitation; but the proper response must also rise from an awareness of an extremely precise reanthropomorphization with which Robbe-Grillet purposely mars his purified fiction. Robbe-Grillet's heroes undergo exactly that Rorschach test in which most critics of Kafka indulge: among generally geometric (objective) descriptions, edges of cubes that are “murderous” appear. But these descriptions no longer dominate the narrator; they are instead his creation. Complicity still exists between man and the world, but, because the descriptions have become humanly controlled, a great part of the liberation Robbe-Grillet demanded has taken place. Certainly the relation is “humanistic,” and because all distance between himself and the world is controlled by man (as theorist or narrator), the complicity need no longer be tragic. “It can in any case quite obviously only be a question of the world as my point of view orientates it; I shall never know any other. The relative subjectivity of my look serves precisely to define my situation in the world. I simply avoid making common cause with those who turn this situation into a kind of slavery.”
Bogue, Ronald. “Roland Barthes, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the Paradise of the Writerly Text.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts XXII, No. 2 (Spring 1980): 156-71.
Examines the interrelationship between the novelist and critic in the development of Robbe-Grillet's fiction and the formulation of Barthes's literary theories.
Brown, Royal S. “An Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet.” Literature-Film Quarterly 17, No. 2 (1989): 74-83.
Robbe-Grillet comments on the major themes, creative influences, and production of his films.
———“Serialism in Robbe-Grillet's L'Eden et aprés: The Narrative and Its Double.” Literature-Film Quarterly 18, No. 4 (1990): 210-20.
Provides analysis of the narrative and thematic structure of L'Eden et aprés.
DuVerlie, Claud. “Beyond the Image: An Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet.” New Literary History XI, No. 3 (Spring 1980): 527-34.
Robbe-Grillet discusses the relationship between text and image in his novels and his artistic concerns in La Belle Captive and Topologie d'une cité fantôme.
Hayman, David. “An Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet.” Contemporary Literature 16, No. 1 (Winter 1975): 273-85.
Robbe-Grillet discusses his fiction, literary influences, and the development of the New Novel.
Morrissette, Bruce. “The Case of Robbe-Grillet.” In Novel and Film: Essays in Two Genres, pp. 40-58. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Offers discussion of Robbe-Grillet's overlapping creative ventures in literature and film.
Ramsay, Raylene L. “The Sado-Masochism of Representation in French Texts of Modernity: The Power of the Erotic and the Eroticization of Power in the Work of Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet.” Literature and Psychology XXXVII, No. 3 (1991): 18-28.
Provides comparative analysis of sadoerotic imagery and themes in the work of Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras.
Stoltzfus, Ben. “Toward Bliss: Barthes, Lacan, and Robbe-Grillet.” Modern Fiction Studies 35, No. 4 (Winter 1989): 699-706.
Offers a Lacanian reading of Robbe-Grillet's Le Miroir qui revient and Barthes's autobiography, Roland Barthes.
Sturrock, John. “The Frisky and the Unfriendly.” Times Literary Supplement (17 June 1988): 671.
A review of Angélique ou L'Enchantement.
Szanto, George H. “Structure as Process: The Temporal Point of View.” In Narrative Consciousness: Structure and Perception in the Fiction of Kafka, Beckett, and Robbe-Grillet, pp. 149-56. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972.
Examines the presentation of psychological time and narrative consciousness in Robbe-Grillet's fiction.
Additional coverage of Robbe-Grillet's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 33; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 83; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1 and 2.
SOURCE: “Alain Robbe-Grillet: The Reflexive Novel as Process and Poetry,” in Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Winter, 1976, pp. 343-57.
[In the following essay, Stoltzfus examines the artistic, literary, and theoretical influences behind the creative process in Robbe-Grillet's fiction. “According to Robbe-Grillet,” writes Stoltzfus, “every fiction is the story of a gamesman in a quicksand world who is continuously reinventing himself.”]
The inner need that structures Alain Robbe-Grillet's novels and films seems to stem from the same creative source: his epistemology and the ontological imagination that surrounds it. His art as well as his essays have the precise optics of the scientist mingling with the sensibility of the artist, thus forming a kind of binocular vision: one form of perception seemingly canceling out the other, and the two together giving a view of the world that is existentially absurd.
The realism of Robbe-Grillet's novels and films belies an antirealism that is forever questioning the reality this realism is supposed to elicit. This process gives his art a rhythm that builds and at the same time destroys; it is a systole and a diastole whose expansions and contractions regulate the artistic flow of ideas. This metaphoric breathing implies two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory levels: the objective and the subjective. The chiseled style of Projet pour une révolution à New York, for instance, controls a sado-eroticism that, at any moment, threatens to break through the shell of his quasi-scientific detachment. In this sense Robbe-Grillet's work probably embodies Gide's dictum that classicism (the objective level) is no more than a vanquished romanticism (the subjective level).
Such phenomenology raises interesting and provocative questions concerning the novel as object, the novel as nonobjective art, and ultimately the novel as poetry. To speak of the novel as an object, or for that matter of any art form using language nonobjectively (i.e., with no referents in external reality), must seem anomalous, since until the twentieth century, the novel as a genre, like painting, was, or was thought to be a window on the world, a realistic “hole in the wall” (as art historians call landscape painting) through which the artist let his viewers, or his listeners, or his readers see “reality” in a truer light. Painters, however, at the turn of the twentieth century, with the Impressionists’ discoveries to guide them on the one hand, moved toward nonobjective art and Kandinsky is often credited with having rendered the first abstract painting around 1910. Music, on the other hand, has always been more or less abstract. In painting, the first thing to disappear was perspective. In the novel, particularly since Proust, plot, like perspective, has been disappearing. Les Fauxmonnayeurs, with its mirrored levels of self-consciousness, was also instrumental in moving the novel closer to reflexiveness as an art form. In painting, objects and people were replaced, gradually, by line, color, and pure composition. We need only think of a Mondrian to perceive a total abstraction in design, while Kandinsky, in the 1930's, among other goals, claimed to be painting the sounds of music. But without words, music is unable to connote anything but the vaguest feelings: its message, like recent experiments of the “nouveau nouveau roman,” is itself and only itself.
Traditional, objective paintings, like words, were signs: they stood for something else. However, as soon as painting became abstract, it stopped signifying in order to become the signified, or perhaps, more accurately, simultaneously signifier and signified. A nonobjective painting represents only itself and nothing else, except perhaps by indirect allusion to a body of work by other, earlier nonobjective painters.
Music, even more than painting, has been the purest of art forms; so pure in fact that in order to communicate ideas about love, religion, death, or patriotism, the score required accompanying words. It was the words, inevitably, that imposed the meaning the music was supposed to elicit. Without words, even with the familiar conventions of church, martial, or popular music, the sounds never evoked specific meanings. Music, by its very nature, has been and is nonobjective. Sound is its content and its form. But painting was different and it changed radically when the technical precision of photography replaced the painstaking accuracy of landscape or portrait painters. Photography interiorized painting, making it aware that its uniqueness lay not in realism, but in color, line, and form. In short, the materials of the painter, like notes or sounds for music, became the subject matter of painting: art became reflexive.
Unlike painters, novelists were or are relative latecomers to the non-representational world of art. It was, comparatively speaking, easy for painters to “purify” their art by substituting line and color for recognizable objects. Words, no matter how nonsensically arranged, always seem to mean something in spite of themselves. In this context, the purpose of reflexive writing is not to express a vision of the world, but to obtain a universe which obeys the specific laws of writing. Gérard Genette is probably right in saying that man's contemporary ideas on art, unlike man's thinking from Aristotle to La Harpe, no longer stress art's mimetic role. Whereas the classicists strove for resemblance between art and nature, we moderns, on the contrary, are looking for radical originality with an absolutely new creative dimension. Like Genette, Roland Barthes, in his Essais critiques, speaks of the freedom that man has to make things mean something. Objects signify themselves (i.e., have no external referents), and a work of art which signifies itself or becomes self-reflexive is part of a general twentieth century trend toward “abstraction.” In painting we speak of nonobjective or abstract art, whereas in literature the term that seems to have emerged is “self-reflexive.”
Reflexive novels are formal structures in which the signs are not primarily Freudian or Marxist or social or religious or human, but essentially literary. In this sense, Finnegans Wake is a reflexive work. A sentence like “The Mookse and the Gripes,” combining the “Fox and the Grapes” with the “Mock-turtle and the Gryphon” does not speak of God, or the class struggle, or beauty. It points instead to the imagination and the creative spirit of its author and is, by extension, an invitation to the reader to participate in the recreation of its meaning. It signifies itself, and as such, is pure literature. But what, if anything, is its message? It refers us, to be sure, to one of Aesop's Fables in which the fox, unable to reach the grapes, says they are too green. The same sentence also invokes Alice in Wonderland in which the Mock Turtle sings of “Beautiful Soup, so rich and green.” The fox is frustrated while the Mock Turtle is not. The fox goes hungry while the Mock Turtle will eat. The word “green” is the point of contact for both experiences. As a signifier within a mythical realm, it signifies two contradictory reactions that cancel each other out. While the moral significance of such a construct is, at best, ambiguous, it points undeniably to the author's inventive spirit, to his ability to put words, melds, neologisms and the like into new, original, and startling combinations, to recreate perhaps, the consciousness of his race. Such compression of language takes it out of the realm of ordinary discourse by emphasizing its literary, self-reflexive, ambiguous, and hence poetic qualities.
Except for Joyce and Roussel, the “nouveau roman” of the 1950's and the “nouveau nouveau roman” of the 1960's and 1970's is a relative newcomer to the nonobjective or self-reflexive realm. In the nineteenth century a number of artists wished to transmute reality, thereby to transform life which was base into art which was sublime, believing that Art, like the touch of Midas, affecting all those who came in contact with it, made life, if not better, at least bearable. Through Art, Flaubert and Baudelaire and Mallarmé and eventually Proust wished to lift the veil of this imperfect world, thereby providing us with glimpses of a higher perfection. I am not prepared to argue the merits or demerits of their varying degrees of Platonism; that is another matter. Of interest here is the fact that they did seek to achieve varying degrees of self-contained, hermetic structures in order to give their individual utterances a perfection and a durability capable of transcending nature as well as their own, particular, finite lives.
Even though A la recherche du temps perdu is a vast panoramic view of French life and society at the turn of the century, art, Proust's art, like a flying carpet, transports us as though in a dream, a waking dream, toward those privileged places, such as Martinville, where metaphor, imagery, metonymy, and “les anneaux d'un beau style,” may work their magic. The voyage, perhaps inevitably, was toward an art and a language in which the artist's parole, his trademark, made the novel an increasingly self-conscious art. Nevertheless, Proust seems traditional when compared with the recent writings of Philippe Sollers or Jean-Pierre Faye. Proust's artistic method relies on the well-established use of metaphor and comparative imagery. He transforms Charlus into a drone, Jupien into an orchid, valets into greyhounds, and Guermantes into birds. The wild rose has a red bodice, while the apple trees of Normandy are wearing rose-colored satin evening gowns. Such reciprocal imagery is for Proust one of the first conditions of style. Thus the role of metaphor is to give the reader insight into an unknown quantity and, in order to evoke feelings that are difficult to describe, it claims a similarity between two different but familiar objects. But by describing the brief flowering season of the human plant, the passages “within a budding grove” communicate a true and meaningful reciprocity. In admiring the girls’ freshness, the narrator distinguishes those imperceptible tell-tale signs that already indicate the full growth of the fruit that will lead to its ripeness, its seeding, and its final dessication. But the use of metaphor, while reciprocal in function, is objective in purpose. The imagery signifies, and the comparisons refer the reader to a familiar, identifiable world of things signified.
As for poetry in the novel, Hemingway, in speaking of The Old Man and the Sea, said that he wished to write a prose that would be so dense and so charged with latent meaning, that it would be harder to write than poetry. The message, like an iceberg that is seven-eighths below the surface, was to remain hidden. Only one eighth would be visible to the profane eye. While Proust and Hemingway are stylistically and temperamentally galaxies apart, each writer's parole and imagination gives his art the stamp of his individuality and, perhaps, the independence of a new, necessary, and created object. If Proust and Hemingway have anything in common it is a need, verging on compulsion, to create something that will resist death. Like these two living artists, Sartre's fictional Roquentin, feeling “de trop” in a contingent world, believes that only music and eventually the writing of novel can dispel the fear of a nauseous, viscous, natural world of things that is only one step away from the disintegration of being and self.
Nevertheless, in contrast to Roquentin or Hemingway or Proust or Baudelaire or Flaubert, as one of the strongest proponents of the committed artist, Sartre insists that art should have social or political relevance; that the artist who writes and the reader who reads must not ignore the realities of world hunger, suffering, and injustice. Ives Buin in Que peut la littérature has traced the debate between Sartre and other committed novelists like him, and the defenders of the “nouveau roman” of 1965 who, like Faye, Sollers, and Ricardou are among the current crop of “nouveaux nouveaux romanciers.” It is possible for both kinds of art to coexist. Robbe-Grillet, for all his disavowals, writes novels and films that are simultaneously useful and useless. Like the Tel Quel group, he rejects Sartre's insistence that the artist be committed to a cause beyond art. Art for the “nouveaux romanciers” is, in and of itself, a sufficient cause, and the artist, they feel, need not search for political or social involvement beyond his work. But unlike that of the “nouveaux nouveaux romanciers” Robbe-Grillet's art, even though it is reflexive and does explore the ramifications of the creative process, is, in spite of itself, rooted in reality. It is not a pure exercise in language or optics or structure. While the proponents of non-objective art may claim him, death and eroticism, as two of Robbe-Grillet's main themes, relate too strongly to the world (even though they may not be intended to mirror it), not to involve us in a relationship which postulates interaction. Robbe-Grillet's art occupies a middle ground somewhere between Sartre's extreme commitment of words to reality and the equally extreme linguistic hermeticism of the Tel Quel group.
Robbe-Grillet's art serves as a point of contact for Ricardou's solipsism and Sartre's “words.” Each of these positions explains the ambivalent relationship between Robbe-Grillet the author and the willfulness of his characters. In Le Voyeur Robbe-Grillet imagines Mathias; Mathias imagines the seduction of Jacqueline. Robbe-Grillet imagines the doctor in Dans le labyrinthe; the doctor imagines the city maze of Reichenfels through which the soldier endlessly walks. Robbe-Grillet imagines Marienbad and his male lead invents a meeting “last year.” Robbe-Grillet puts his characters on the Trans-Europ-Express where they invent their roles and adapt them to the continuously shifting demands of each hour, each new encounter, and each new complicating circumstance. Hence all the contradictions, which are not contradictions because everything is imaginary to begin with. L'Homme que ment is about a man who may or may not be telling the truth. It really does not matter and ultimately we do not care whether the things he says or imagines are true or not. What does interest us, if it interests us at all, is the process itself, since we are being asked to watch the imagination build its own reality and then destroy it. In Pour un nouveau roman Robbe-Grillet writes that “the true, the false, and the make believe have become, more or less, the subject matter of every modern work which, instead of claiming to be a fragment of reality, evolves as a reflexion on reality (or what little reality there is, which ever you wish).” The “nouveau roman” is a reflexion on the role of the artist's imagination in relation to the real and the nonreal, thus casting doubt on Sartre's emphasis on the necessary correspondence between words and the reality for which are alleged to stand. Words no longer signify another reality, they create it, and in this role—argues Philippe Sollers in Logique—language, like music and nonobjective painting, is autonomous: supremely independent. Language is now free to signify itself.
Before delving further into this fascinating topic, we should note in passing that Sartre's ideas on freedom and choice have provided an indispensable magma for the gestation of Robbe-Grillet's work: since there is no a priori morality and all values are relative, the artist, like other men, is free to invent the world in which he lives or writes; he manifests this freedom in his choices and these choices, in turn, confer their authenticity on his behavior. My intention then is to move into that “secret room” (the title of one of Robbe-Grillet's short stories), from which and through which all art is possible. It is as though he had modified Descartes and Sartre by saying “j'invente, donc je suis.” This premise has given Robbe-Grillet poetic license. His parole has even renewed Roussel's imaginary worlds which, to many, were purely decadent, but which now seem like the necessary and preliminary exercises of an important precursor. Beckett's characters also invent new lives and new fictions as they lie dying of old age or boredom or decrepitude.
Robbe-Grillet's novels of the 1950's, innovative as they were, evolved from a literary tradition which, for the most part, had gone unnoticed, and which only now, within the last decade, has been defining itself. Robbe-Grillet's work has obliged us to revalue earlier writers going as far back as Flaubert and Diderot's Jacques le fataliste. It must seem paradoxical to some to speak of Sartre and Flaubert as exerting a seminal influence on Robbe-Grillet. Many would no doubt argue that the offspring of such a forced marriage could only produce an “idiot in the family.” Indeed, writers and critics like Jean-Bertrand Barrère, Romain Gary, and Kléber Haedens see Robbe-Grillet's fiction as, if anything, cretinous, a mentally retarded child, wearing Charles Bovary's pointed hat, and wandering around like the soldier of Dans la labyrinthe, going nowhere. But since poetry, like the dance, as Valéry so nicely puts it, was never meant to go anywhere (whereas prose was), we should probably not be offended by a type of fiction that seems to lack direction, that seems aimless, that seems to go around in circles, that is primarily interested in itself. If it behaves like compulsive Viennese waltzers, it is perhaps because dancing is more pleasurable than walking and poetry more satisfying to the mind than prose.
Valéry's poetry, much of which was about the creative process—hence a poetry that by definition is reflexive—anticipates some of the pronouncements by the “nouveaux romanciers” on the novel as object and the novel of the future as “process.” Robbe-Grillet's Dans le labyrinthe is a novel of process because it stands, in part, for the novelist's exploration of the creative act. Butor defines his own endeavors as “le roman comme recherche.” La Nausée, for example, is an early novel of process, a novel in search of meaning, because, among other things, it is a study of nausea, its effects, and its causes. Characterization, plot, interaction among characters, like the disappearance of perspective in painting, are secondary to nonexistent. As much can be said for L'Étranger, a novel which traces Meursault's evolution from his intuitive, animal reaction to the world, to his human, intellectualized understanding of the absurd. Butor's L'Emploi du temps gives the reader the substance, the very process of self- discovery which enables his protagonist, Jacques Revel, to escape from the labyrinth of Bleston that threatens to destroy him. Significantly, Butor's novel, like La Nausée, is written in diary form. Such contemporary writing is the mythical equivalent of Ariadne's thread, looping back on itself so as to enable the protagonists to isolate the objects, understand the events, and escape from the monster threatening their sanity.
The fever-wracked soldier of Dans le labyrinthe, who wanders hopelessly lost in search of somebody's father, unlike the protagonists of the three novels just mentioned, does succumb to things, places, and events. He becomes trapped in the labyrinth of history, war, mythology, language (there are so many possible interpretations), the victim of that “tragic complicity” Robbe-Grillet referred to in his famous essay entitled “Nature, Humanisme, Tragédie.” But the message or meaning of this novel, unlike the above three, does not seem to concern the lost soldier. Instead, everything in the novel, as Morrissette, Alter, and others have demonstrated, points to the novelist's exploration of the creative process per se, so that the subject matter of the work becomes not existentialism, or the absurd, or the alienation of self, or the hero in search of meaning, but is, instead, a novel about the writing of a novel. Essentially, it is a novel in search of itself.
The internal signs of the three transitional novels just mentioned are still part of the signifier/signified aspect of a phenomenological world. Roquentin's reaction to the chestnut tree root is intended to be “real.” Meursault's reactions to the sky one fateful day on the beach, when it rains fire down upon him, are intended to be “real.” Revel's map of Bleston also, in this sense, is intended to remind us of all such similar city maps. The signs of La Nausée,L'Étranger, and L'Emploi du temps have familiar, identifiable, referents in the outside world. The signs of Dans le labyrinthe also seem to signify familiar things, but in doing so they serve only to entrap the wandering soldier. He becomes lost in a maze of familiar things which he expects to mean something, but which in fact are disorienting, as the author-protagonist explores one street after another, one dead-end after the next, opens doors that lead nowhere, ascends, descends staircases that, as in a Kafka novel, will never lead him to the place where he is supposed to meet the father. In spite of the fact that the messenger has forgotten the name of the street, the time of the rendezvous, and the name of the man he seeks, he walks compulsively in search of that elusive something that will provide him and the reader with some shred or thread of continuity out of the labyrinth of confusion. The soldier wanders through the city of Reichenfels in which necessary points of reference have vanished. Something is being signified, but the signifiers have disappeared. In due course the trapped soldier dies trying to deliver the enigmatic shoebox.
What has happened? It is as though the eternal minotaur has become the “connivence tragique” of language and things, a metaphoric alienation that would humanize an inhuman world in which objects and signs are merely “there” signifying nothing. The signs of this novel, therefore, have a double purpose and carry a double meaning. They refer the soldier and the reader to a seemingly familiar world of objects, streets, and places. However, when these are perceived as false, the novel turns back upon itself so that its conative, emotive, metalingual message, to use Jakobson's terminology, becomes reflexive, a structured internal meaning whose code orients the receiver, i.e., the reader, toward internal referents which seem to be either linguistic or affective. Language, says Robbe-Grillet, more specifically, metaphors which humanize and anthropomorphize our environment are responsible for its contamination and man's alienation.
In Le Voyeur, for example, the figure-eight imprint on the levy, in the center of which is the piton with its rusty excrescence, assumes significant sexual overtones for Mathias. He is fascinated with a crumpled blue cigarette wrapper floating on the water and the long detailed descriptions of its motions reveal the importance Mathias attributes to it. The wrapper—or more precisely cigarettes—is Mathias’ image of violent sexual fantasy and desire. His eyes roam selectively and subjectively from the figure eight to the cigarette wrapper to sensual configurations of seaweed revealed when the water recedes from the rocks, back to the blue paper wrapper which emerges from the waves with the sound of a slap and is associated with the blue pack of cigarettes seen that morning in a bedroom of imagined violence. Figure eights are multiplied in their associations to include knots on doors, eyeglasses, cigarette holes in paper, the black holes of eyes, and presumably the burns on the genitalia of past, present, and imaginary fictions. Robbe-Grillet has insisted that objects have no inherent symbolism, but he does not exclude their catalytic impact on an imagination that may precipitate actual or imagined crimes.
To say that waves “slap” against the rocks is an example of linguistic contamination, the type of tragic complicity Robbe-Grillet denounces. How then does he purify language, fumigate it, decontaminate it? Robbe-Grillet's ambiguous answer is to write novels like Le Voyeur and La Jalousie in which metaphor has been replaced by metonymy, novels in which language seems cleansed of metaphors, but is in fact as contaminated as ever, since contiguous descriptions of objects, in due course, begin to “ooze” violence or jealousy. Another answer is to write purely self-reflexive novels—novels in which language, as with Ricardou's La Prise de Constantinople, transforms itself into La Prose de Constantinople. The author's parole becomes repetitive, convoluted, solipsistic, self-contained. There is no “histoire” as such. Nor is it history, since it has nothing to do with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The title of Claude Simon's Histoire is, in this sense, appropriately ambiguous. Are we not again dealing with process, but a process this time which, instead of being metaphysical or creative, as it was in Dans le labyrinthe, is now linguistic? Are the novels of Ricardou, Faye, and Sollers real? Yes, of course. They are as real as objects, they exist as books. We touch them, we read them, we talk about them, even write about them, but their code is different. Like “The Mookse and the Gripes” they speak not of life but of literature. They refer not to things, but to language. They use the materials of the poet—words—and these words have intentionally become part of a new system whose code is primarily linguistic. Whereas the referents of works like Nombres, L'Écluse, Imaginez la nuit are primarily internal, language-oriented, dehumanized, Dans le labyrinthe belongs to both worlds, the internal and the external, hence its hypnotic mood and extraordinary power. It can be read as a metaphysical allegory or as a self-reflexive novel.
In La Maison de rendez-vous the narrative voice moves back and forth in time: it remembers, imagines, observes, and most frequently, “plays” with different and contradictory possibilities. Is it Johnson or Jonestone. Lauren or Loraine, Marchat or Marchand? Was there a murder or was it an accident? Does the telephone number 1-234-567 belong to the Blue Villa, “The South Liberation Soviet,” or the Society for War on Narcotics? Is Johnson a Peking agent? Symbolic labyrinth or brothel, La Maison de rendez-vous is more than a place of encounter for clandestine relationships. It may be also the house of the author's imagination, or ours, or everybody's. It may well be the spot where objective and subjective reality meet, where illusion creates its own reality, where the play within the play's the thing. This novel is a house of encounter for many people and many things, not the least of which is the exploration of the artist's creative process.
Robbe-Grillet's exploration of the creative process reveals, as a corollary, a profound distrust of reality. Nor is it merely a reality that is in a constant state of flux. 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 and then he destroys it. The unwary reader, like the soldier of Dans le labyrinthe, is now lost in the maze of the city. False streets, false doors, and false stairways are the labyrinth through which the creative process struggles to assert itself. But this game bears a strange resemblance to life because in the final analysis it is also a mirror of uncertainty, chaos, flux, and violence—those frequent reminders of the harsh world we are so well acquainted with. Any attempt to give Robbe-Grillet's art a solipsistic independence is bound to fail. Or perhaps it succeeds too well. Because if his art is only a game, a game which in spite of itself mirrors the sublimity of the absurd, or a game which the creator and his characters are free to play at will, and whose parts are interchangeable (as Trans-Europ-Express demonstrates so neatly), then language, words, or pictures are never only just what they are, but forever, in spite of “pure” intentions, will involve man in the world from which they claim to be autonomous.
Nevertheless, Robbe-Grillet's fiction casts doubt, not only on the world which claims our attention, but also on itself as signifying something. In the second part of Le Voyeur, for example, Mathias “sur le double-circuit” spends most of his time trying to destroy the evidence of rape and murder that he has left behind. But in the third part Robbe-Grillet, the author, seems to be erasing the reality of the first two in order to focus our attention on the novel as pure creation—on the novel as object. If this is “the age of suspicion,” as Nathalie Sarraute claims it is, then the only dimension of Robbe-Grillet's fiction that is not in doubt is the language itself. It is this indirect emphasis on the novelist's individual parole which, after process, makes the work of art reflexive, and in Robbe-Grillet's case, ultimately, poetic.
We have been concerned mainly with recent historical patterns of the self-conscious novel. Implicit in the discussion has been the idea that in Robbe-Grillet's fiction, particularly, there is a link between poetry and the reflexive process. We should perhaps look more closely at this aspect of his work in order to determine its poetic content and structure. In his Structuralism in Literature Robert Scholes defines poetry as a message for which the receiver has to “supply the missing elements in an act of communication.” This definition is, no doubt, vague enough to be accurate. Its usefulness, however, stems from the fact that it distinguishes between a poetic image, such as for example Mallarmé's “les rails de l'infini,” and a prosaic equivalent in daily discourse such as “bicycle tracks in the snow,” whose meaning is obvious and requires no interpretation. What happens if we apply Scholes’ definition to Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie? Since La Jalousie, in keeping with Robbe-Grillet's novelistic technique, confines itself for the most part to situating, describing and defining objects and events in space, we may wonder how such a technique, which seems to have cleansed objects, which has killed the adjective, restored to objects, as Barthes says, their “maigreur essentielle,” and to writing, as Genette says, a cathartic dimension, how such writing could ever become poetry.
Perhaps the answer lies in distinguishing between metaphor and metonymy as different aspects of poetic language. Scholes believes, as do Jakobson and Saussure, that “metaphorical substitution is based on a likeness or analogy between the literal word and its metaphorical replacement (as when we substitute den or burrow for hut), while metonymical substitution is based on an association between the literal word and its substitute.” Things that are related by cause and effect in a logical way (wealth and mansion) or whole and part (mansion and veranda) as well as things that are customarily found together in familiar contexts (plantation and millionaire) are in metonymic relationship to one another. For Jakobson, in any work of literature, the discourse may move from topic to topic according to relationships of similarity, i.e., metaphor, or of contiguity, i.e., metonymy.
To reflect on the novel La Jalousie is to see it primarily in metonymic terms. Whenever the husband sees, imagines, or describes a centipede and its corollary, the stain, the reader, in due course, appropriately, substitutes the word or the feeling “jealousy.” There is a signifier, centipede, and a signified concept, jealousy: this is its denotation. But since the word centipede or the descriptive paragraph identifying it has been substituted for the idea of jealousy, the relationship between the signifier and the signified can be defined as a figure. According to Genette, such a figure within a rhetorical code clearly identifies it as belonging to a poetic category. It functions as the signifier of something newly signified, poetry, on a second semantic level, which is its rhetorical connotation. Since to connote is to imply, to signify in addition to the primary meaning, by using the first meaning as a form with which to designate the second concept, the hermeneutics of a novel, like La Jalousie implies the following diagram: centipede-jealousy-poetry.
Why do we have metonymy instead of metaphor? The answer depends on interpreting (i.e., providing the missing link) the contiguous metonymic signs: centipede-jealousy; sportscar-woman; driving-the sex act; car crashing into tree and bursting into flames-sexual climax, etc. Associations that move us from topic to topic according to relationships of contiguity may be auditory as well as visual: sound of centipede mandibles, A … combing her hair, tree burning. Jealousy, like fire, has become a passion that consumes. The protagonist's mind, his “temps mental,” which is also the reader's “temps mental,” filters all “reality” through the emotion of jealousy. Jealousy, then provides the gestalt for the sexual connotation of the images and the events described.
Everything that is seen, heard, imagined, and remembered is part of the poem which, like the song of the native squatting by the river, meanders, stops, starts, retraces itself according to its own, invisible, yet for us clearly identifiable laws—laws of jealousy whose signs Robbe-Grillet has posted along the way: objects, descriptions, juxtapositions, associations that seem to define a process at work—the jealous mind objectified, rendered visible. The subjectivity of the mind has been exteriorized, as though a subconscious process had been identified and labeled. Thus, Hemingway's definition of prose poetry, like the iceberg being seven-eighths below the surface, applies to La Jalousie. The reader provides the missing links and in so doing, recreates not only the jealous process which is the consciousness of the husband, but also the intention of the novelist himself. Once again the novel turns in upon itself and, like Finnegans Wake, has become reflexive. La Jalousie is a reflexive novel of process that is now also a poem.
As for the objects of La Jalousie, contrary to Robbe-Grillet's theoretical pronouncements, they have not been cleansed. The centipede, a blue piece of paper, a calendar on the wall, the sound of a car at night, like rusty pitons, blue cigarette wrappers, and slapping waves in Le Voyeur, act as catalysts to the husband's sensitized and susceptible mind. In this sense the husband, Mathias, Meursault, and Roquentin are kindred souls. The chestnut tree root brings on waves of nausea not unlike the waves of jealousy that overwhelm the husband at the sight of a centipede or the waves of heat and molten metal that blind Meursault before he shoots the Arab. Where Sartre and Camus use metaphor to define tragic complicity (“la connivence tragique”), Robbe-Grillet uses metonymy. Nevertheless, like its predecessors, La Jalousie is a novel of process, only more so. Names disappear, faces disappear, characterization is even sketchier, and time circular. Jakobson observes, in Fundamentals of Language, that “following the path of contiguous relationships, the realist author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time.” On the realistic level (since this novel, like all of Robbe-Grillet's fiction, has an unrealistic dimension) the atmosphere of Robbe-Grillet's book is jealousy, while characters and things, in keeping with Jakobson's definition, are functions of the protagonist's mind. Time is a function of space visualized in the present tense: the real and the unreal, the seen and the unseen, the imagined and the remembered function with equal intensity and a mobility that casts doubt on the novel's verisimilitude.
This implied doubt about Robbe-Grillet's realism draws attention to the creative process, to his artistic imagination. Robbe-Grillet's parole, the structure of La Jalousie, as in all his novels, focuses on its formal properties, away from referential significance. Nevertheless, the fascinating aspect of his work is that it can always be read on at least two levels. The descriptions are realistic (though not always—the seagull in Le Voyeur is one of many exceptions), but the novels themselves, in their total effect, call attention to their lack of realism, to their imaginary, self-willed dimension, to the fact that they signify the mind at work, the imagination, the creative process as pure invention, as poetry.
The meaning of Robbe-Grillet's books, and particularly his first, Les Gommes, is now much clearer than it used to be. All the contradictions of the novel: the detective who is a murderer; Wallas who has a double, named V. S.; the murder which is not a murder and which, although it apparently occurred at the beginning, occurs at the end; all the minute contradictions of reality—a reality which is at first constructed and then destroyed—are abolished by the creative process which effaces one possibility after another. Hypothetical possibilities also represent the artist's alternate choices. Since the work of art is, for the moment, the only admissible reality, many choices are possible, even contradictory ones.
Projet pour une révolution à New York presents similar ambiguities and contradictory realities in a city in which Laura, Joan Robeson (who is perhaps Robertson), Ben Said, and others are characters in a state of continuing metamorphosis. There is for instance a locksmith, who is so nearsighted a voyeur that he cannot tell whether the picture of a nude girl on the other side of a keyhole is real or false. Projet is a novel in which everything is possible, a novel in which the certainty of events is negated finally by the creative imagination of the author. The author lies because perception itself is suspect.
In the film, L'Homme qui ment the central character “plays” with the past, the present and the future which he invents, reinvents, and then negates, because reality functions exactly like that. According to Robbe-Grillet, every fiction is the story of a gamesman in a quicksand world who is continuously reinventing himself. Robbe-Grillet's art is, in fact, the mirror of constantly shifting and contradictory realities. The “man who lies” is therefore the main character and metaphor of such fiction. Not only is reality suspect, but all art as well, particularly that conventional art which is supposed to mirror a stable reality. But a novel which constructs itself and then questions its right to exist, abolishes itself, leaving us with the ontological void described in Sartre's L'Etre et le néant.
The worst fears of the “nouveau roman” critics may now have been realized, since the “nouveau roman” has destroyed, in effect, the traditional nineteenth-century novel with its plot, story line, and well-developed characters. Process has been substituted for the old conventions. Michel Butor's novel La Modification, though it may seem to describe a husband who is going to leave his wife in Paris for his mistress in Rome, is not so much about the husband, as it is an analysis of that “change of heart” which prompts a return to his wife. The novel is an exploration of this “change.” Such writing about process, this Emploi du temps, as Butor calls it in his novel of the same name, is the “murder of Bleston,” the symbolic killing of the traditional novel form with its well-defined plot and characters and its linear chronological development in time and space.
It may be useful, finally, to distinguish between the traditional novel which depicts “life,” the “nouveau roman” which pictures life and the novel itself, alternately, and the “nouveau nouveau roman” which is completely reflexive, picturing only itself. While Robbe-Grillet's novels may be self-reflexive, and like the non-objective paintings of Mondrian, Pollock, or Frank Stella be on the verge of abstraction, they always somehow, in spite of themselves, by virtue of their ambiguity, do finally signify more than themselves. Robbe-Grillet's parole is not purely formal and its referents are not exclusively within the work of art, as they are, I believe, with Faye, Ricardou, and Sollers. The silence of Robbe-Grillet's dream-like constructions is, after all, our silence. The hesitant, circuitous patterns of his novels and of his protagonists’ desires, lies, and imaginings are in large measure our own. The voyeurism of his early works and the sado-eroticism of his recent ones gives us a variety of “glissements progressifs du plaisir” between life and art, the real and the unreal, prose and poetry, bondage and freedom. Such is the ambiguity of Robbe-Grillet's Art as it objectifies itself while defining its essence, subjectively.
SOURCE: “Mirror, Mirror …,” in New Statesman & Society, November 4, 1988, p. 31.
[In the following review, Wood offers tempered assessment of Ghosts in the Mirror. “Fortunately,” writes Wood, “the writing itself is better than the pompous theory.”]
The New Novel in France was a lingering cross-channel stab at modernism, hampered in many ways by the assumptions it thought it was toppling. But it understood very well the interest of reported obsessions, and the way the wildest obsessions can hide in the tidiest, most rational-seeming of discourses.
In this book Alain Robbe-Grillet mentions a painting by Marc Tansey, held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which shows the writer in a desert of cultural rubble. It's called Robbe-Grillet cleansing everything in sight. Robbe-Grillet likes the picture, accepts the charge. He does collect details, miniatures, miscellaneous objects, does long for the order which will result from their classification. Yet he also recognises that this is not an antidote to obsession, but is itself obsessive; and he wants us to see the monsters and the ghosts which lurk in the ascetic landscapes of his novels and films.
This work is a “modest autobiography”, Robbe-Grillet says, a “sidelong look” at himself over his (then) 62 years. Those are his terms when he is feeling relaxed about the enterprise. He remembers Roland Barthes with admiration and affection; recalls very precisely a number of Kipling stories read long ago. He evokes his eccentric, right-wing parents without nostalgia but with amusement and evident fondness. His father, for example, put up a picture of Pétain when everyone else was taking theirs down; his mother read Le Voyeur in manuscript and liked it, though she said she “would have preferred it not to be written by my son”.
The family lived in Paris when the writer was small, but also spent much time in an old house on the outskirts of Brest, and the most memorable parts of this book concern Robbe-Grillet's Breton childhood, full of fears of the sea, and flooded with folklore and legend. The book itself included a quest for a shadowy aristocrat, Henri de Corinthe—“Who was Henri de Corinthe?” we read on the first page. We are not much wiser at the end, but we have been well haunted. De Corinthe was a friend of Robbe-Grillet's father, rider of a mythical white horse, founder of an abortive right-wing political party, hero of a Breton rumour involving the reappearance in a floating mirror of a long-drowned fiancée.
This rumour—the story locals have made of this rumour and which Robbe-Grillet recounts—is the source of the book's title, very deftly translated into English. Le Miroir qui revient literally means the mirror which returns, but a “returner” is also a ghost, a revenant. There is another mirror in the book, too, but that occurs when modesty gets left behind, when the relaxed writer becomes fussy and starts posing. This mirror is that of ideology, favorite buzz-word of the disaffected of the eighties: “It's a hydra-headed mirror: whenever one head is cut off it soon springs up again, presenting the adversary with his true face in the mirror, which he believed he had defeated.”
It is a little messy that Robbe-Grillet, who insists that he doesn't believe in Truth—“Truth, in the final analysis, has only ever served oppression”—should be so confident about what Truth is, but we are in the realm of fading oppositional chic here—Robbe-Grillet's own version of the untimely portrait of Pétain. He sees this clearly enough himself, but doesn't seem disposed to do anything about it, and the book is full of lordly scorn for what he supposes other people like and need. “For whoever's interested I affirm my objection to the autobiography that claims to assemble a whole life … making it into a closed book with no gaps …”
“For whoever's interested” is just nervous bravado—he'll be in a fine fix if no one cares. Only the dimmest autobiographer thinks he can tell the whole story, and very few autobiographers even want to. Robbe-Grillet's defence of the fragmentary nature of his own work is meant to reassure us about how up to date he is, but has the reverse effect. Fortunately, the writing itself is better than the pompous theory.
When he says, for example, that characters in novels and films are phantoms, it's a truism of which only the most naive realist can remain unconvinced. But when he says his characters are phantoms, “desperately trying to gain access to a fleshly existence which is denied them, trying to enter a veracious world which is closed to them”, we come very close to what is happening i n Last Year at Marienbad and other works, and we see that his characters hanker for Truth even if he doesn't believe in it.
What seems dated here, then, is the sturdy commitment to a very narrow version of the modern. “Reality begins at the precise moment when meaning becomes uncertain.” The good guys know this, and the rest are “moved by the comforting familiarity of the world” and “write like the Sagans … make film like the Truffauts.” “Why not?” Robbe-Grillet says, lending condescension the mask of tolerance. But I'm afraid reality is even more uncertain than he thinks. Not even uncertainty and unfamiliarity are to be counted on all the time.
SOURCE: “A Phenomenologist Bares His Heart,” in The New York Times Book Review, January 27, 1991, p. 24.
[In the following review, West offers favorable evaluation of Ghosts in the Mirror.]
Recently, during a panel discussion on Parisian television, a French novelist plucked out the earpiece of his headset and tossed it across the set at me; of course, being tethered, the earpiece merely rebounded.
Such antics seemed a long way from my no doubt severe notion of a French novelist, at least one of the 20th century. Consider, for example, Alain Robbe-Grillet, deviser and austere high priest of the French “new novel” that emerged in the 1950s, who used such works as The Voyeur (1955) and Jealousy (1957) to reveal the novel as a form in search of itself, emerging in his version as objective and non-psychological, rather like an inventory or timetable of plot-refuting and character-denying images of hard, inscrutable, untragic things.
Mr. Robbe-Grillet, the epitome of rational poise and calibrated steadiness, would never have tried such a stunt; instead, a voluminously described raspberry would have arrived in my mail, inviting me to respond with even more relentless philatelic finality, as if truth were a feat of exhaustion.
Scrupulously impersonal, in his novels at least, Mr. Robbe-Grillet won a reputation for meticulous, patient accuracy by cultivating sheer indefatigability of the eye, as if to imply that fiction cannot be based upon, cannot be, anything slovenly or vague. Mr. Robbe-Grillet maintains that the novelist has nothing to say and might as well make a good job of describing the world instead. He sees the novelist as a top-notch phenomenologist, untouched by the egotistical sublime.
Here, however, comes Mr. Robbe-Grillet baring his heart, exposing the lyrical and rather lilting soul we suspected was there all along, behind those solemn and strict nouveaux romans of his. Surprisingly enough, the means of this revelation is the first volume of a projected three-book memoir, which ranges from Brest to the Rue Gassendi in Paris, from New York's Bleecker Street to the Jura Mountains to Istanbul.
The prose manner is controlled, of course, but almost voluptuous and, throughout, lush, ripe and luminously intuitive. Mr. Robbe-Grillet still disdains metaphor, but he revels in sensuous describing, as if the people of his own life had conferred upon him license to plumb and guess, to sample their interior lives with eclectic fondness, not as copiously as Nathalie Sarraute, an other but very different pioneer of the French new novel, does in her books of “sub-conversation,” yet much more than is usual with him.
Mr. Robbe-Grillet still mistrusts “adjectivity,” as he calls it, after Roland Barthes, and the thick prose of Zola, but he does allow one phobia into view: from the beginning of the 1940's, he “couldn't listen to ‘Pelléas’ or ‘Tristan’ without feeling instantly uplifted by the insidious, perilous surge of the sea, then sucked reluctantly into the heart of an unknown, unstable, irrational liquid universe ready to engulf me.” Look at the adjectives there.
Without laboring it, Mr. Robbe-Grillet makes the point on every page that good prose must be at least as detailed as the world it seeks to evince or supplant, whether the writer is guessing or just reporting. Take this passage about a 1951 trip to Turkey, for example—mauve if not purple, and essentially celebrational: “Caïques sailing up the Golden Horn through the lengthening rays of the setting sun; the main street of Pera already lit by signs for dancing girls in the soft twilight and the floods of silent men in dark robes; the Galatasaray lycée where sugary, nostalgic melodies alla turca throbbed, lulling us to sleep in the big white marble dormitories.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Robbe-Grillet remains the detached observer who began writing his first novel in 1948 while working at a biology laboratory, “taking vaginal smears every eight hours from hundreds of sterile rats injected with urine from mares in foal.” But he seems to be mellowing his effects, ushering in sentence after sentence in a procession that resembles a conga of gorgeous animals.
The most vivid and moving writing in this relaxed, well-tempered book is about Mr. Robbe-Grillet's parents. Although they lived in Paris, the author's father and mother shuttled regularly between the Jura (his father's home ground) and the countryside near Brest (to the home of his maternal family, where he was born in 1922).
Mr. Robbe-Grillet pays devout attention to both parents, but most of all to his mother, who once kept an ailing bat for several weeks under her blouse “in what she called her pouch,” to the horror of visitors, who watched it emerge from her white collar and spread its wings over her breast and neck. Myopic, big-nosed, she doted on tiny things (Japanese figurines made from grains of rice, for instance) and so loved all forms of animal life that, when washing watercress, she became completely sidetracked by the aquatic insects she found among the stems. She had no sense of time and, like her husband, was both anti-Semitic and an Anglophobe.
Without knowing a word of German, Mr. Robbe-Grillet's “Papa” translated Schiller's plays with gusto; he also resoled the family's shoes, worked in a cardboard box factory, had a passion for making porridge and, like his wife, subscribed to “an almost visceral atheism.”
The book evolves by sentimental convection as Mr. Robbe-Grillet drops themes only to pick them up later, creating a wafty, haphazard atmosphere. With so many good things to get to, he sometimes tries to attend to them all at the same time; the effect is of a book long resisted and then allowed to burst forth, ebullient and chiming.
In addition to plenty of crackling gunfire about the stodginess of the 20th-century novel, Mr. Robbe-Grillet offers commentary on Barthes, Camus and Sartre; memories of starting out as a fiction writer; and a dispersed portrait of Henri de Corinthe—a nebulous, mythic family visitant, a Wagnerian Nazi, sometimes a mummy stripped of its wrappings, sometimes a Breton horseman out of legend who lived alone in an old gun emplacement and bore a double puncture on the back of his neck.
This is all solid material, required reading for Robbe-Grillet buffs, but the nonspecialist reader, whose awareness of the nouveau roman may by now have waned, is going to remember the family, the seagoing forebears; the scene of Mr. Robbe-Grillet and his father renting a wheel-barrow to haul a sack of coal across wartime Paris the affectionate sketch of Mr. Robbe-Grillet's uncannily young-looking wife, Catherine, who, along with the author, survived the crash of an Air France Boeing 707 in 1961; and the days of Mr. Robbe-Grillet's forced labor during World War II in Nuremberg, Germany, where he worked as a lathe operator in an armaments factory and began to make his own steel chess set.
Several times Mr. Robbe-Grillet reminds us that language, that uniquely human thing, is subjective to begin with and can never with utter authority reveal the nature of anything. There is fiction among the facts of this memoir, as he admits. Breastfed until the age of 2, playing with china dolls bound hand and foot for sexual rituals, he comes across as a dreamer, a conjurer, an uncontriving eccentric.
Mr. Robbe-Grillet's latest book has all the amenity of For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, and some other qualities too, once latent and implicit in his work but now in the open for amazement and study. When his novel La Maison de rendez-vous appeared in 1965, The Times Literary Supplement of London observed that Mr. Robbe-Grillet had become a gifted pornographer; Ghosts in the Mirror also shows him in a new role, that of gifted rhapsodist, akin to the Albert Camus of the North African essays.
Jo Levy's translation is winning and artistic. I wonder why this book, which was originally published in France in 1984, has taken so long to appear in English.
SOURCE: “Alain Robbe-Grillet and the Fantastic,” in State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film, edited by Nicholas Ruddick, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 91-6.
[In the following essay, Chadwick and Harger-Grinling examine elements of fantasy in Robbe-Grillet's fiction. According to the critics, “Robbe-Grillet takes his reader into a fantastic world whose closeness to everyday existence prompts the kind of anxiety that he feels characterizes life in the late twentieth century.”]
The novels and films of Alain Robbe-Grillet were originally decried as too objective by those critics who had not studied this author in depth, or who took at surface value Robbe-Grillet's own pronouncements on his work. The two volumes of what may be his autobiography, Le Miroir qui revient (1984) and Angélique (1987), testify to the irony implicit in all the artist's creations. If these volumes are indeed autobiographical (Robbe-Grillet gives them the generic title “romanesques”;), then they are autobiographies in which it is the mind that is depicted, an inner reality, one that bears little resemblance to anything external. These romanesques are concerned with memory, both individual and collective, and are inspired by a world of the fantastic, associated in Robbe-Grillet's case with the inner world of childhood and the obsessional world of adulthood. The autobiographies reinforce the intended confusions that mark his novels and films, and they force the reader to see that the world of fantasy, illusion, and nightmare has always been the real subject matter and the central interest of Robbe-Grillet's work.
Robbe-Grillet, speaking in Towards a New Novel (1962) of the so-called objective descriptions in his works, emphasizes the importance of the reader's being aware of “the little detail that strikes a false note.” This concept has affinities with Riffaterre's notion—borrowed from Russian formalism—of literariness [littérarité;], according to which the distinction between the language of everyday and that of literature is frequently a question of the difference of a minor detail. The presence of the detail creates a new pattern (in Riffaterre's terms, offers a new grammar) in order to guide the reader to realms that are far from that of the real. In this way, Robbe-Grillet is warning the reader to avoid oversimplification and is answering those critics who seem to him merely to have skimmed the surface of his books, if indeed they can be said to have read them at all. He is stating that all is not as it seems, that in fact the novels he writes, far from being simply about things and containing mere descriptions of things, are about a way of seeing, and to the reader are an invitation to interpretation.
Similarly in stories of the merveilleux [marvelous], as distinct from the fantastic, it is these small details, or slips one might say, that indicate that all is not as it seems. In this genre, moreover, they invite the reader to see beyond—not necessarily beyond the text but beyond what is presented as reality, and indeed to question one's assumptions about that reality. It might be added here that if Robbe-Grillet has a mission in his art, it is exactly that of questioning the tenets of the establishment, while extending the boundaries of what might be defined as art.
In the 1950s and 1960s Robbe-Grillet was first accused of writing difficult books about nothing but objects, then of writing difficult books about nothing. In the 1970s and even the 1980s, he was variously accused of writing about women as sex objects, about violence (particularly sexual violence), and of being a pornographic writer and voyeur. While all this criticism does contain certain elements of truth, the insightful reader and critic will realize that it is by no means the whole truth.
Robbe-Grillet seems to take a malicious delight in confounding readers and critics. In his essays collected in Towards a New Novel, for example, he refuses the concept of metaphor in his work. It is now obvious, after an examination of Le Miroir qui revient and Angélique, that he was simply refusing the accepted definition of metaphor and was indeed once again playing with his readers. He admits in these two volumes that he has always used metaphor and imagery of various kinds. These two works testify to the inherent lie in all his writings. Nothing could be so unlike an autobiography and yet contain so much truth. Elements from the fantastic abound in these books; whether they originate from legends springing from his family's past, from Breton folklore, or from his own fertile imagination is left to the reader to ascertain.
Similarly, Robbe-Grillet's apparent rejection of previous schools of thought and writing in Towards a New Novel is underscored by a perverse deconstructing of these modes of thought and expression in nearly all his writings. In sometimes very evident ways, even classical myths and legends abound, from the Oedipus of Les Gommes [The Erasers] (1953), where the mythical element is only too obvious, to the legends of Theseus and Pandora more subtly hinted at in Dans le labyrinthe [In the Labyrinth] (1959). The labyrinth features in both the form and content of many modern works and is prevalent throughout the work of Robbe-Grillet. More obscure elements from past stories and beliefs are also present, such as the Tarot symbolism, which first appeared in the figure of the hanged man in Les Gommes, but was also suggested in many of the earlier works.
A good example is one of Robbe-Grillet's earliest published novels, Le Voyeur [Le Voyeur] (1955), superficially a tale of obsession and repressed violence. The main character wanders in ever more confused figure-eight patterns around the island at which he has, or perhaps has not yet, arrived. These wanderings can be seen as an inner journey through obsession and memory. Moreover the cyclic journey, like the cyclic nature of the story itself, adds an element of horror—and of humorous frustration to the reader who can stand aside from the content and view the text as an exercise in interpretation, or in frustration and impotence.
Yet the nightmare quality of the true horror story exists here as the impression of being trapped in a situation from which there is no escape and of endless repetition—an internalized, Sisyphean hell. There are in fact constant references to the devil and his disciples, overt ones in the case of the young girl Jacqueline/Violette: she is at once a victim of rape and murder, and a devil's advocate who violates the protagonist's (and perhaps the reader's) mind. In the case of young Julien Marek, the allusions are more covert: he is a doppelgänger figure whose fixed stare fascinates and repels Mathias, as would his own mirror image. Even the sea, first suggested as murkily reflecting the turgid depths of Mathias's mind, is later referred to as the home of a Leviathan-like monster who demands the sacrifice of nubile young women.
While all this can be interpreted as another form of Mathias's obsession, it must still be admitted that this text is a long way from being a simple series of objective descriptions. The protagonist has become immersed in spite of himself in an enclave-like aspect of Breton culture; it is easy to imagine that atavistic elements of the Celtic past still rule the lives and minds of the inhabitants of this island. If, as is suggested but never verified, Mathias himself was born on the island and had once left it, he has obviously not succeeded in really leaving it and its legends behind him. One tends to think of Robbe-Grillet himself here, a native of Brittany whose writings in their vocabulary and concise images reflect the agronomist and scientist he became. Yet in spite of the modernist, avant-garde, and even postmodern aspects of his writings, the seas and skies of ancient Brittany—not to mention the author's mother who used to wander around with a bat clutched to her bosom—are ever present within them.
Running through the preceding comments is a common thread, which may provide a key to the importance of the fantastic in Robbe-Grillet's work. The denial of an authoritative view of the real, the deconstruction or negation of classical myth and Breton legend (especially those that contain an oedipal figure), and the conscious rejection of literary avatars point to a dynamic that Harold Bloom drew to the attention of critics of the fantastic at the Second Eaton Conference in 1980. His “formula” is phrased as follows:
Fantasy, as a belated version of romance, promises an absolute freedom from belatedness, from the anxieties of literary influence and origination, yet this promise is shadowed always by a psychic over-determination in the form itself of fantasy, that puts the stance of freedom into severe question. What promises to be the least anxious of literary modes becomes much the most anxious.
Bloom's notion offers a rich vein of ideas. On the one hand, it suggests that fantasy represents a pull away from the dominant literary models that constitute the canon (in particular that of realism), at the same time as it manifests a fear of freedom from such models. On the other hand, freedom itself is thrown into question by the form of fantasy itself, since it cannot take comfort in the representation of the real. By posing fundamental questions, fantasy is able to hold out the possibility of creation without fear of the father and anxiety because of the lack of the father.
As the leading theoretical exponent of the nouveau roman (new novel) in France, Robbe-Grillet could be seen as striking the (literary) father dead, and thereby assuring his own artistic freedom. Yet in a move that is at the same time perverse and aesthetically defensible, Robbe-Grillet moves his fictional world as close to the objective reality of the everyday as he possibly can, separating it from the real by the thickness of a mirror or the play of light on a surface that may be the exterior of a mannequin or the skin of a human being. This psychological strategy intensifies the aesthetic impact of the writing by undermining its purely referential qualities and by offering a new poetics. If one considers for a moment Pierre Reverdy's concept of the metaphor in poetry, the extent of Robbe-Grillet's aesthetic revolution becomes clearer. For Reverdy, the greater the distance between two terms of a metaphor, the greater the impact of the metaphor on the reader. This theory had a great influence on the Surrealists and could thus be considered an important factor accounting for the nature of much of the fantasy of the modernist period. It is this kind of fantasy that Bloom probably had in mind when he formulated his definition. But for Robbe-Grillet, as for many contemporary makers of horror films, it is the closeness of the fantasy world, its barely disguised absence, that marks the revolution in thinking about the nature of the literary experience.
The desire to be free of literary influence, of a spiritual father, does not mean that Robbe-Grillet thinks that he can write in a void. Indeed he has admitted to several major influences on his work. One that is obvious and has been already studied and discussed by ourselves and other critics is that of the Alice books (1865, 1872) by Lewis Carroll. The Alice story as interpreted by Robbe-Grillet presents an adolescent accompanied by a repressed sexuality seen as an invitation to imagination and violence. This is not of course to say that Carroll was not portraying a similar figure. His sexual preferences have been well noted in literary and psychoanalytic circles. Whereas the original Alice would have read fairy stories or other similar material, and have converted and integrated these tales into her own wonderland, Robbe-Grillet's young girls and women have been assailed by a far more violent imagery—of the cinema and television, of the newspaper and radio—so that their passage through a sometimes painful adolescence would elicit a different imagery. But the wonderland that Alice explores in her rite of passage is in the mirror, no further away from the real than the thickness of the glass.
As a literary father for Robbe-Grillet, Carroll offers a minimal threat, at least for a French writer in postwar France. Faced with the giant figures of Sartre, Malraux, Gide and Camus, all of whom were writing in the realist mode, it is not surprising that Robbe-Grillet should choose a forefather who elicited less anxiety than these fellow countrymen—namely Carroll, the English fantasist.
Robbe-Grillet has often been accused of portraying women as victims. A close examination of his novels and films, however, reveals that the acts of violence against the young women are never actually realized—to the gratification or frustration of the audience—but presented in such a way that they can only be conceived of as internalized images of obsession. It would seem to be the male characters who are haunted by these images and the young women who engender them. The few adult female characters in the novels and films are never victims, but indeed they are depicted as being in total control of themselves and others, including men; unlike the male characters, they are also in control of the world around them. One has only to think of A in La Jalousie [Jealousy] (1957) or the female figures in La Maison de rendez-vous (1965), or Vanadé; in Topologie d'une cité fantôme (1976). The male protagonists, conversely, are caught in the web of their own obsessions and compulsions. They are afraid and lost in the external, physical world, and whether in the imagined or real world around them, they seem to need the relationship, sadistic or otherwise, that they attempt to establish with the female characters in order to allow them contact with their own reality.
An important part of the Alice scenario is the mirror or looking glass. The mirror is a constant motif in Robbe-Grillet's work, as is suggested by the title of the first volume of his autobiography, Le Miroir qui revient. With its multiple possibilities of signification, for its association with both the female figure and the fantastic, it is the ideal Robbe-Grillet motif. As the mirror is specifically associated in the Alice books with the entry into the fantastic realm, the world of multiple mirrors suggested in Djinn (1981) continues this theme and adds to it the ideas of the confusion, untrustworthiness, and distortion of reality, an integral part of the Robbe-Grillet thesis as presented in his writings. The multiple Simon Lecoeurs in Djinn, the very title of which suggests both magic and, in the echo of “Jean,” the banality of the everyday, are simultaneously figures in a hall of mirrors and multiple versions of the Self. The indecipherable writing can quite easily be dismissed as mirror writing or seen as an invitation to mystery. Presence is underlined as absence in a hall of mirrors; yet at the same time it suggests another presence beyond.
Starting from elements of the modern world—billboards, the architecture of large urban agglomerations, glass, and steel—Robbe-Grillet takes his reader into a fantastic world whose closeness to everyday existence prompts the kind of anxiety that he feels characterizes life in the late twentieth century. By emphasizing the proximity of the two worlds, he denies the reader a route to easy escapism while simultaneously offering a critique of his realist predecessors. For his refusal to accept realism's validation of the real, Robbe-Grillet deserves to be considered a writer of the fantastic.
SOURCE: “Absurdist Estrangement and the Subversion of Narrativity in ‘La Plage,’” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 89, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 50-60.
[In the following essay, Milman provides analysis of Robbe-Grillet's metaphysical concerns and narrative presentation in the short story “La Plage.” Milman notes strong similarities between Robbe-Grillet's “absurd view of man” and the philosophical tenets of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.]
In the ‘snapshots’ he wrote at the beginning of his career as a writer Robbe-Grillet established a new subgenre of the short story, a kind of 'story-picture’ in which he radically actualized the poetic approach of ‘Chosisme’. These story-pictures, including ‘La Plage’ which is the subject of this study, are thus not some immature experiment heralding Robbe-Grillet's innovative writing as it has been regularly scrutinized and publicized by critics (basing themselves on his novels). The time perspective allows one to see these apparent ‘études’ as the fullest realization, in both philosophical and aesthetic respects, of the unique writing of one of the major theoreticians of the French ‘Nouveau Roman’. It is therefore surprising that in contrast to his novels, which aroused and continue to arouse much critical response, Robbe-Grillet's short stories have been scarcely studied (not even in the fairly numerous monographs on his work appearing from time to time). ‘La Plage’ is no exception, in that the critical response to it has been limited and confined to very general or narrow aspects of the work. In the present study, however, an attempt will be made to examine in detail how in ‘La Plage’ Robbe-Grillet managed to realize, by meticulous application of his pictorial narrative technique, a work which patently expresses the basic metaphysical premises as well as the fundamental poetic principles of ‘Chosisme’.
The reality depicted in ‘La Plage’ consists of a quite small number of motifs. Three children walk along a deserted beach, to their right an expanse of sea stretching away, only a single wave rising and breaking close to the shore to disturb the stillness; to their left a steep cliff with no apparent egress. At the water's edge, just in front of the children, approaches a flock of sea-birds whose star-like tracks are being washed away by the recurrent waves. In contrast, the children, slightly away from the edge, leave three close lines of footprints which bisect the beach along its entire length. From time to time the chime of a distant bell elicits brief snatches of conversation among the children. The three children, the flock of birds, the divided strip of beach, the tracks, the sea, the wave, the cliff, the sounds of the bell and the occasional talk are the basic motifs of the story. Their description, repeated each time with some slight variation, constitutes the whole ‘plot’.
Compared with ‘Le Mannequin’, another of Robbe-Grillet's ‘snapshots’, this story is much easier to accept as a simple, direct description of ‘a piece of reality’ appropriate to a realistic story (of course, only as a part of it, since it is difficult to imagine a whole story devoted to such a scene). The first reason is that a landscape description such as the one presented here (for itself and from a purely ‘aesthetic’ point of view) is far more common in real life than a detailed account of ordinary household items like those depicted in ‘Le Mannequin’. Whoever tells about a landscape which has made an impression on him needs no additional justification. Nor does the angle of vision from which the description is presented in ‘La Plage’ depart from the normal view of a landscape: there is no unusual close-up or atomization of the described scene, and the perception of common objects (the cliff, the wave, the birds, the tracks, and so on) appears here in a more or less ordinary way. Moreover, the narrative convention more readily admits the description of landscape as a means of creating the effect of the real (with no additional signifying intention) than a thorough description of domestic objects. The choice of materials as well as the perspective from which they are presented therefore construct a quite convincing realistic scene. In contrast to ‘Le Mannequin’, there is nothing estranging or distancing in the depicted objects themselves, which allows emphasis to be placed upon different estranging factors such as characters, plot, space, and time.
While ‘Le Mannequin’, for example, is outstanding in the complete absence of any human protagonist (except, perhaps, the implicit presence of an observer's point of view), the children in ‘La Plage’, who appear right at the beginning of the story and remain there until the end, are clearly not only a human component among the other components of the described world but also major characters who make up the central object of the plot (if one can call their walking and brief exchanges of conversation ‘plot’). In addition they are the major object of the description, whereas everything else is presented and located in relation to them: the beach stretching before and behind them, the sea to their right, the cliff to their left, the birds proceeding in front of them, the bells heard at a great distance from them, and so on. In fact, because of their central role in the described reality, a role which suits the traditional function of the characters in realistic fiction, the children in the story become a major factor in the defamiliarization and the alienating effect of that same reality.
In contrast to what is expected in a characteristically realistic description, the characters in ‘La Plage’ are not given names, and moreover the readers in no way make their acquaintance. The sentence which opens with ‘Trois enfants marchent le long d'une grève’, by giving no information about the subject and place, actually avoids endowing the characters, even indirectly, with that specific identity which acts as one of the central characteristics of realism in literature. The only information supplied is that which might be given by a passing witness: the external appearance of the children, their movements, and their words. This information, however, despite the fact that it presents the reader with these characters’ ‘stage presence’, separates this presence from any link with a wider context, which is necessary for a complete picture of reality. We know nothing about the children beyond their ‘être-là’ in that place, in the state and time-frame given in the story. Even the minimal information we might expect from this particular situation is missing: we do not know where the children come from, what beach they are strolling along, where they are heading, and why they have to get there. The brief exchanges which take place among them and which might, eventually, fill in the gaps, only increase the obscurity. Here is their dialogue, presented in full, but taken out of the descriptive narrative continuum into which it is placed in the original:
‘Voilà la cloche’, dit le plus petit des garçons […]
‘C'est la première cloche’, dit le plus grand […]
‘C'est peut-être pas la première’, reprend le plus petit, 'si on n'a pas entendu l'autre avant […]
‘On l'aurait entendue pareil’, répond son voisin […]
‘Tout à l'heure, on n'était pas si près’, dit la fille […]
‘On est encore loin’. […]
Le plus grand des garçons dit alors: ‘Voilà la cloche’.
This is the whole dialogue, but the spaces of time between the brief comments (the narrated time of the fictional reality as well as the narration real time) provide it with relative importance (one of the four pages over which the story is spread). And they undermine the continuity and connection between the children's statements. In any case, rather than replying to the questions that the situation raises, this type of dialogue directs attention to those unanswered questions, thereby increasing the atmosphere of obscurity: the remaining distance between the children and their destination, for example, only directs our attention to the fact that we do not know what the objective of the walk is, where it is situated, even whether it is close or far away, and why the children want to get there.
The structure and development of the dialogue also contribute to the obfuscation of things. The opening sentence spoken by the smallest child (‘Voilà la cloche’) only mentions a fact that the readers, and probably the other children, are already aware of, since it has already been mentioned (‘de très lointains coups de cloche résonnent dans l'air calme’). This same sentence, however, also closes the argument, the only difference being that now it is spoken by the biggest child. This emphasizes the circular nature of the conversation and paucity of information it contains.
But this is not all. The second sentence, ‘C'est la première cloche’, expresses a vague claim. This is not only because it is disconnected from the context of the wider conversation, or because the children's statements are factual and do not reveal any emotional involvement, but also because of the ambiguity of the formulation. ‘Bell’ here might be a metonym for the sound of the bell, indicating time priority, but it might also be a metonym for the belfry, in which case we are dealing with priority from the point of view of place. The continuation of the dialogue (‘C'est peut-être pas la première […]’) is not conclusive regarding this question, or regarding the point of statement of the speaker, whose explanation is cut off from the start: 'si on n'a pas entendu l'autre avant […].’ His companion's answer, ‘On l'aurait entendue pareil […]’, is thus incomprehensible, since again we do not know what it refers to nor what argument it intends to contradict. The girl's words, ‘Tout à l'heure, on n'était pas si près […]’, might in fact express the smaller boy's interrupted assertion, but this is not certain, and anyway the answer precedes the formulation of the claim which it perhaps answers. If nevertheless some small piece of information remains in the girl's words that might be a key to understanding the dialogue (suggesting that the children are already close to their destination), the next brief comment, ‘On est encore loin’, contradicts this information undermining further the communicative value of the whole conversation. In addition, considering the large intervals between the replies, which raise doubts about the connection between them, it is not surprising that this dialogue ultimately returns to its starting-point, the establishment of the fact that a bell is ringing, and that is all.
In the end, the whole dialogue, by its disconnection from the circumstances, its lack of continuity, the paucity of information in it, the circular nature of its argument, and its semantic vagueness, not only fails to shed light upon the scene (the characters’ intentions, the point of their action and so on) but even adds the element of linguistic opacity to the opacity of the described reality. In this regard it clearly contradicts Jean-Paul Sartre's claim that ‘le dialogue […] est le moment de l'explication, de la signification’ and that to give it a place of honour would be to admit that meanings exist. A dialogue such as the one in ‘La Plage’ apparently demonstrates the opposite: how the dialogue can blend into the narration as part of the totality of factors which blur the significance of the text. Of course, this only emphasizes the basic agreement that exists between Robbe-Grillet and Sartre about the traditional explanatory or ‘rationalizing’ role of the dialogue in the narrative, and the need to undermine this tradition if one wishes to undermine the meaning of the work. Robbe-Grillet only demonstrates that it is possible to do this in different ways and not necessarily, as suggested by Sartre's claim, by abolishing the dialogue's place privilégiée or privilège typographique in the text.
The explicit description of the characters, however, acts to estrange the presented reality no less than the opacity of the action and the dialogue does. In the first place, the fact that the three children are hardly distinguishable stands out. Their lack of individual identifying names is complemented by their almost identical appearance: all three are almost the same height and age, and have the same complexion, similar faces, the very same look, and identical clothing. Their movements, obviously, are exactly alike: all three walk along the beach holding hands and looking straight ahead. If so far reference has been made only to their external appearance, we now see that the dialogue (which because the description is purely of the surface remains the only possible way of hinting at some internal quality) also lacks any individual uniqueness. On the one hand it is reduced to impersonal, factual content; on the other, it ends with another child repeating the sentence that began the conversation, ‘Voilà la cloche’, as if to suggest that in this way, through an exchange of roles, another round of the same exchange of words has opened. Ultimately it seems that the only purpose of the slight differences among the children (one is smaller than his companion, one is a girl, and their places in the line are different) is to emphasize the similarity between them. Yet this slight difference imparts a trace of human uniqueness to the characters, without which they would be perceived as almost mechanical duplications of indistinguishable individual portraits very like the dressmaker's dummies of ‘Le Mannequin’.
The humanity (and with it the realistic level) of the characters is undermined not only by the absence of discrimination but also by the nature of the description, which is identical to the mode of presentation of lifeless objects. Indeed, in regard to the characters also, the narrator adheres to the purely observational approach, avoiding any analytical or evaluative comments and any emotional involvement. In fact, he limits himself to essentially visual impressions: sights, shapes, colours. Even if one of the children's voices intervenes here or there, the description still remains essentially external (the privilege of relating to an auditory phenomenon, which the narrator occasionally allows himself, does not go beyond what he allows himself in regard to the lifeless universe, for instance, when ‘un bruissement de graviers roulés’ or ‘de très lointains coups de cloche’ are mentioned). The mathematical element in the description (expressed in the relatively large number of measurements: size, quantity, angles, directions), as well as the geometrical terminology and the geometrical nature of the division of space, are directed equally to natural objects and human beings. The impression finally achieved is not only of ‘dehumanization’ of the natural world but also of ‘reification’ of the human universe. The purely observational, and quantitative approach applied to the characters transforms them into material bodies devoid of any psychological dimension and perceived only through their external physical features (just like lifeless objects).
This analogy between the human world and the world of objects becomes even stronger because of the similarities between the characters and the other components of the landscape: the children's skin is of a yellowish hue, like the sand; their clothes are blue, like the sea; in their walk they form a straight line and produce a rhythmical movement, similar to the wave. In contrast to ‘the romantic analogy’ rejected by Robbe-Grillet, which ‘personifies’ objects, we have here ‘objectivation’ of human beings. The lack of distinction between the different children, which, as I have shown, depersonalizes the characters, is compounded by the basic lack of distinction between man and object, bringing about an almost complete ‘reification’ of the whole reality presented, including its living and its lifeless components. All in all the characters of ‘La Plage’ quite clearly recall the picture of man drawn by Albert Camus in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, when he discusses the ‘inhumanity’ which sometimes men themselves exude, the ‘mechanical’ aspect of their gestures, and the ‘pantomime privée de sens’ which their deeds resemble when seen at certain moments of awareness. This characterization, especially because it extends over the whole work, is undoubtedly linked with Camus's fundamental claim that each individual ‘nous demeure à jamais inconnu’, and that the only possible recognition that exists in such a case is ‘practical’ recognition, which limits itself to recognizing men and women by their behaviour, ‘à l'ensemble de leurs actes, aux conséquences que leur passage suscite dans la vie’.
Nevertheless, I am not merely referring to behaviouristic relativism. Although in Le Mythe de Sisyphe a phenomenological description can certainly be found which fits the characters that appear in Robbe-Grillet, as can a theoretical expression suiting the espistemological assumption upon which the characterization of these same characters is based, there is nothing in Camus to explain more specifically the almost pure ‘objectal’ nature with which the human world adorns itself in a story such as ‘La Plage’. This type of explanation can be more easily found in an analysis of Sartre's concept of être-pour-autrui, in which there is a phenomenological description of ‘the Other’ as he exists for us, which is likely to reflect the fundamental ontological assumptions upon which Robbe-Grillet's conception of character is based.
In his attempt to counter the realist approach (in the philosophical sense of the term) to the Other, as it is expressed in the positivistic psychology of the nineteenth century, Sartre discusses in L'Etre et le Néant the fact that the conclusion we tend to draw from the presence of the Other's body in regard to the existence of a consciousness similar to ours is in no way certain recognition (despite its being a reasonable hypothesis). ‘Il reste toujours probable qu'autrui ne soit qu'un corps’, claims Sartre. Thus the first appearance of the Other, according to him, is essentially ‘objective’. ‘Object-ness’ is the basic condition of the Other's being-for-me, and ‘objectivation’ is the fundamental relation between the self (that is the ‘me-as-subject’) and the Other. ‘Cette femme que je vois venir vers moi’, writes Sartre, ‘cet homme qui passe dans la rue […] sont pour moi des objets, cela n'est pas douteux’. He even stresses the basic analogy which exists between this kind of presence of the Other and the way lifeless objects exist.
Je vois cet homme, je le saisis comme un objet, à la fois et comme un homme. Qu'est-ce que cela signifie? […] Si je devais penser qu'il n'est rien d'autre qu'une poupée, je lui appliquerais les catégories qui me servent ordinairement à grouper les ‘choses’ temporo-spatiales. C'est à dire que je le saisirais comme étant ‘à côté des chaises, à 2m.20 de la pelouse, comme exerçant une certaine pression sur le sol, etc.
‘Cet homme’, of course, is not a puppet. Yet being ‘Other’ he is not essentially different from any puppet or other similar ‘thing’, and that, at least in regard to ‘une, du moins, des modalités de la présence à moi d'autrui’. And referring to this same ‘modality’ (l'être-pour-autrui) Sartre adds:
Mais autrui est encore objet pour moi. Il appartient à mes distances: l'homme est là, à vingt pas de moi, il me tourne le dos. En tant que tel, il est de nouveau à deux mètres vingt de la pelouse, à six mètres de la statue […]. Au milieu du monde, je peux dire ‘homme-lisant’ comme je dirais ‘pierre froide’, ‘pluie fine’; je saisis une ‘gestalt’ close dont la lecture forme la qualité essentielle et qui, pour le reste, aveugle et sourde, se laisse connaître et percevoir comme une pure et simple chose temporo-spatiale.
It is difficult to miss the clear similarity that exists between the human character as drawn in Robbe-Grillet's work and Sartre's ‘object-ness’ or temporal-spatial ‘thingness’ of the other (or Camus's mechanical ‘inhumanity’ exuded by men). Moreover, what in Sartre is nothing but one of the modalities of the other's ‘presence to me’ becomes in Robbe-Grillet virtually the only presence of the human character for the reader. The other modality of the Other's presence, his être-sujet (or pour-soi) whose threatening presence that apprehends me as être-vu-par-autrui (or être-objet-pour-autrui, that is as an ‘object’ or ‘thing’) manifests itself according to Sartre in the Other's look, is entirely absent in the characters of ‘La Plage’. This mode of presence, to the extent that it exists in Robbe-Grillet's work, is almost always situated in the point of view from which the reader is lead to observe things, while the observed characters are tied to the same objectal characterization upon which the total picture of reality is fashioned.
In Robbe-Grillet's theoretical writings, collected in Pour un nouveau roman, there is explicit evidence for the connection between his objectal approach to the world and the world-view held by Sartre and Camus, as well as express support for the link between his ‘objectified’ approach to the character and the existentialist-absurdist view of man. This is so, for instance, when he asks, in his defence of the identity-lacking characters of modern literature: ‘Combien de lecteurs se rappellent le norm du narrateur dans La Nausée ou dans L'Étranger?’ This is also the case when he bases himself on Heidegger (‘La condition de L'Homme, dit Heideger, c'est d'être là’), in his attempt to explain ‘le théme essential de la présence’ which manifests itself in the ‘being there’ of Beckett's characters and which needs no significance beyond itself. It is thus impossible to doubt that the fashioning of the characters in Robbe-Grillet is in some way connected to the absurd view of man held by Camus and Sartre. It is also obvious that the method of characterization in a story such as ‘La Plage’ greatly corresponds to several of the central stylistic-poetic basic positions of the Absurd (the pure descriptive approach, for instance, ‘cognitive humility’ and so on).
One should not draw the conclusion that the characters in this story constitute part of the picture of an explicit absurd world and that they therefore play some part in constructing the experience of encounter with such a world. A condition for this would be the existence of minimal thematic direction in the story towards existential problematics (something completely absent here), and there should, at least, be some minimal realistic credibility for the world presented, which would posit its opacity as an analogy for the opacity of the actual world, and the feeling of estrangement it arouses as a significant ontological experience. Instead, in ‘La Plage’ there are various factors which undermine both the sense of reality and the referential, absurdist significance connected with it.
First, belief in the ‘reality’ drawn is increasingly undermined throughout the reading in regard both to the characters and to the background, and, following this, belief in the referential dimension of the text as a whole is diminished. This undermining of the meaning of the work, on both the fictional world and the language levels, is caused by the prominent emphasis given to the aesthetic nature of the description. On the diegetic level, the more unreal the nature of the descriptions becomes, the more we become conscious of the aesthetic point of their existence. This is the case, for example, with the characters: if the children's walking hand-in-hand along the beach might have been acceptable at the beginning of the story as a ‘realistic’ description of a momentary situation, its verisimilitude is later reduced. Actually, the longer this walking continues, the more its mechanical character becomes conspicuous. Moreover, the gradual negation of any link between the children and the surrounding reality (for example, the children never glance at the cliff or at the distance they have covered, they are indifferent to the waves as well as to the flock of birds advancing before them) cancels all the ‘realistic’ justifications which might have given credibility to the situation. In the absence of any significant relation of contiguity (causal, practical, purposeful) between the characters and the other components of reality, attention is drawn to the formal-pictorial analogy between them: the blue of the children's clothes and the sea, the hue of their skin which corresponds to the colours of the sand, the straight line of their footsteps which is parallel to the sea and to the cliff, and the steady rhythm of the movement of both the children and the waves. The description of the figures, which at first one tends to accept as an act of significant estranging of some basic aspects of human reality, increasingly becomes a component of a demonstratively aesthetic composition of a stylized picture, whose correlation with actual reality, and even perhaps its very relationship with such a reality, is doubtful.
Just as one can find in ‘La Plage’ an aesthetic estrangement of the human world, one can also find a similar estrangement of the non-human universe. While this estrangement (unlike that of ‘Le Mannequin’, for instance) is not applicable to the objects depicted in the story's fictional world per se (the sea, the wave, the beach, the birds), whose presentation more or less matches the general impression one gets in reality, it is certainly applicable to the links which join the objects and establish the general character of the reality described. Thus all causal linkage among the objects is absent in the text (that is, from the linguistic presentation of the reality, not from the ‘reality’ presented itself), and this is so even when these objects appear in a realistic context which obviously invites such linkage: for example, when mention is made of the wave which suddenly rises when there is neither cloud nor wind (and not despite this fact), or of the sudden flight of the birds, when the children seem just about to catch up with them (and not because of this). Clearly these phenomena may have a simple realistic explanation whose implicit presentation in the text might have created the connection between them. It is the way things are presented, however, with synchronism being the only basis for linking the phenomena, which creates the estranging effect, deriving not from the objects themselves but from the space in which they appear as a whole and from the picture of reality they ultimately constitute.
A similar estranging effect takes place with regard to movement and time. If the movement appears to be an attempt to change the location of something in relation to something else, such a change does not occur in any of the movements presented in this story. The different stages of the wave's movement (its rise, breaking, dispersal) appear in fixed places. Similarly, there is no stable point of reference (a distinct exit point, intermediary position, or final destination) against which the movements of the children (or of the birds) can be measured, nor are these movements accompanied by any visible change of location in relation to their surroundings. If the varying distance between the children and the birds still creates some kind of change in the arrangement of the space, the periodicity (or circularity) of this change, by removing the progress forward from movement and realizing in this way Zeno's well-known paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, finally cancels the point and purpose of this movement. What emerges is a movement which does not come close to any place, does not move off from any place, does not bring about any significant change in space, and which thus represents some kind of marking time that on the one hand emphasizes the static and mechanistic nature of the described reality, and on the other hand, by virtue of its stylized artificiality, undermines the actual character (and realistic credibility) of that very reality.
Movement, however, imagined from experience, occurs not only on the spatial continuum but also on the temporal, and the method of its description in ‘La Plage’ is therefore significant regarding the nature of the time no less than the nature of space. An obvious example can be seen in the last description of the flock of birds:
Les oiseaux, qu'ils étaient sur le point de rattraper, battent des ailes et s'envolent, l'un d'abord, puis deux, puis dix […].
Puis toute la troupe est de nouveau posée sur le sable, progressant le long du rivage, à cent mètres environ devant les enfants.
From the moment the birds take off until they land upon the sand, the flight of the flock is divided here into almost static situations which are presented one after the other and whose actualization in the mind's eye might be more or less like this: first we visualize the birds beating their wings; later we see one bird in the air at the beginning of its flight, after that two, then (there appears to be a leap in time here) ten birds flying in the air; finally (this time definitely after a leap in time) the whole flock is ‘seen’ again, as it rests on the sand after landing.
On this occasion it is the continuum of time which is undermined because of the method of describing the movement. If earlier I discussed a kind of realization of the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise which, as it were, divided space into non-continuous sections, the present description is an even more explicit realization of another of Zeno's paradoxes, that of the Flying Arrow. Like the flight of the arrow in Zeno, the movement of the birds also breaks down into almost static non-continuous parts of the present. Together with the cancellation of the movement (or at least its freezing in the spirit of Zeno's paradox) and the undermining of the continuity of time, the duration of time itself is thus undermined. The fragmentation of the action into separate moments of (the) present, situated next to each other, cancels the various possible connections between the different units of time upon which continuity, change, and the concept of ‘action’ itself are based. In Robbe-Grillet's language one can say that in such a case ‘L'instant nie la continuité’. This time, which, as Robbe-Grillet put it, has been ‘cut off from its temporality’ and which neither flows nor supports any action, thus joins the other components of reality (characters, space, movement) to establish a static, atomistic, and mechanical world which is essentially objectal. The human dimension contributed by time to this ‘world’ is illusory and its only purpose is to emphasize the human continuity it lacks, just as the presence of the characters and the action only emphasizes the absence of both the emotional involvement and purposeful intention expected in human deeds. This temporality-severed time in the end only strengthens the feeling of confusion and estrangement which anyway alienates the reader, because of the mechanistic ‘thingness’ of the whole reality presented to him.
It is hard, however, to accept unequivocally this treatment of fictional reality as a significant estrangement of the real world. Because of the remoteness of this time from experienced time (whether it be Bergson's internal ‘concrete duration’ or the practical time of physics), attention is necessarily drawn to the aesthetic function it fulfils: by the fact that the static character of time combines with the pictorial nature of the work, for example, or by the fact that its atomism and mechanical nature combine with the demonstratively aesthetic functioning of the other components of the described reality.
The reality formed in ‘La Plage’ may thus be approached from different directions. It can, at first, be mimetically read as a direct and accurate reflection of reality. Yet the objectal estrangement of this picture of reality undermines its illusory realistic appearance and directs us towards an absurdist realization. None the less, the aesthetic estrangement which is consistent with neither the realistic nor absurdist realizations leads towards an aesthetic approach. Since every one of the three approaches can be justified, we are finally left with a picture of reality open to different possible interpretations. The three approaches and the three corresponding dimensions of the text remain open, to one degree or another: two of them, the realistic and ‘objectal’ (or absurdist), constructing a referential, meaningful text, inviting interpretation, while the third establishes a ‘literal’ text, devoid of any significance, which has a purely aesthetic character.
The openness to the various interpretations, however, also acts as a sealant against any of them. While such interpretations can separately constitute a coherent explicative model which might cope successfully with the opacity of the text, they cannot simultaneously co-exist in a meaningful realization of the story, because of their contradictory approaches. It thus appears likely that it is, in fact, the openness of the work to different meanings which is likely to undermine the meaningful nature of the text, while it is the actual ‘blocking of meanings’ (achieved through the opacity of different elements in the story) which constitutes a central factor in its establishment as a meaning-bearing text. If the whole of Robbe-Grillet's art lies essentially in his ability to ‘decevoir le sens dans le temps même qu'il l'ouvre’, or to ‘provoquer le sens pour l'arrêter’, as Roland Barthes put it, then it is no less true that the uniqueness of Robbe-Grillet's writing consists essentially in producing the meaning of the text by the very act of withholding it. One of the most striking expressions of the poetic heritage of the Absurd in Robbe-Grillet, as it is realized in ‘La Plage’, is the tension which exists in the text between the ‘meaning-creating’ vector and the vector which negates (or ‘decreates’) it, both of which grow out of the very same elements. Such a paradoxical, self-undermining text (which negates its own meanings by establishing them and establishes its meaning by negating it) indeed manifests Robbe-Grillet's attempt both to realize and transcend one of the most essential principles of the Absurd poetics: the obligation of the work to express the absurdity of existence while paying strict heed not to deviate from the basic lack of meaning which, from the Absurd viewpoint, characterizes all human action.
None the less, Robbe-Grillet's story, goes beyond the self-abnegation that a consistently absurd work must demand of itself. Indeed, a story such as this not only raises doubts about its message or significance but also undermines the very concept of narration, the ‘eidos’ of the narrative which defines it both as a story and literary work. In an article devoted to Baudelaire's prose poems, Barbara Johnson raises the possibility of regarding such poems ‘as ironic reflections on the nature of poetic language as such’. Robbe-Grillet's stories are not prose poems, despite their prevalently cold and alienated poetic atmosphere, since prose poems, as Suzanne Bernard claims, must, first and foremost, be poems. In contrast, the realistic materials and the narrative patterns which make up ‘La Plage’ clearly identify it as prose. If it undermines the narrativity and realism which are considered to be basic attributes of traditional prose fiction, then this type of story does so from within the narrative itself, paradoxically achieving this by implanting them there in the first place.
It is this which allows us to see Robbe-Grillet's Instantanés as what Barbara Johnson would call an ironic statement which relates to the very nature of narrative language as such. The revolt of the mid-nineteenth-century prose poem against the generic conventions of the time (primarily against the verse lyric) aimed at exposing the limitations of such conventions and creating a new poetics which would both extend the limits of poetic language and undermine it. Similarly, and in line with the most subversive manifestations of the modernistic twentieth-century prose poem (Jacob, Tzara, Breton, Michaud), Robbe-Grillet's use of narrative elements is supposed to deconstruct the narrative and, even, negate the possibility of narration itself. The conception of time and action implied in Robbe-Grillet's stories thus has a fundamental aesthetic significance, in addition to the metaphysical significance discussed throughout this essay, and the anti-narrative ‘nouveau conte’, which Robbe-Grillet created, ultimately embodies a new generic poetics of the short fiction, which complements the metaphysical view to which it is linked.
SOURCE: “Corinthian Casual,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 7, 1994, p. 12.
[In the following review, Sheringham offers tempered criticism of Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe. “If not for the pinch of irony which still enlivens Robbe-Grillet's writing, and his authentic merit as a stylist (often self-consciously paraded),” writes Sheringham, “few readers … would be likely to stay the course.”]
Not as quick off the mark in the autobiography stakes as some of his fellow nouveaux romanciers, Alain Robbe-Grillet has compensated for this by a higher rate of productivity. Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe is the third and apparently final instalment of a series called “Romanesques”, a label designed, presumably, to make it clear that straight autobiography is not the name of the game. The eponymous figure of Henri de Corinthe is once again used to make the same point. In Le Miroir qui revient (1985), Corinthe featured in a number of patently fictional passages which, from time to time, interrupted Robbe-Grillet's otherwise fairly conventional account of his background and early life. A composite figure—now a friend of the narrator's father, with traces of Proust's Swann, now a First World War soldier in scenarios deriving partly from the works of Claude Simon, now a legendary figure on a white charger—Corinthe was less an alter ego than an ever-changing cipher for the powerful currents of fantasy and creativity which, for Robbe-Grillet, are a vital part of his curriculum vitae.
In Angélique ou L'Enchantement (1985). Robbe-Grillet took Corinthe a stage further by making him a second author-narrator, and then blurring the boundaries and transitions between narrative levels. At any point the narrating “I” could turn out to be Corinthe attempting to make sense of some event in his rather lurid past, rather than Robbe-Grillet doing likewise. But since the fabric of Corinthe's “past” consisted entirely of Robbe-Grillet's fabrications, these passages into fiction were autobiography by another means, a point the author of La Jalousie had been driving home since his combative assertion, at the beginning of his autobiographical project, that, however, forbiddingly self-contained they seemed, his novels had always been all about their writer.
This new book is in the same vein, full of state-of-the-art postmodernist undecidabilities, neo-baroque excrescences and trompe-l'oeil surfaces. The Corinthe material, now dominated by sado-masochistic goings on and obscure political rumblings in a comic-strip Uruguay, is more prominent than ever, particularly since the lack of any strong autobiographical motivation or focus is now more acute than ever. Angélique was theoretically centered on the relationship between writing and erotic fantasy. Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe reverts to some sort of chronology, and gives patchy coverage to the 1950s, the decade which saw the publication of Robbe-Grillet's first few novels and the constitution of the nouveau roman group with the author of Les Gommes as its ringleader. Robbe-Grillet has little to say about all this, except when he sounds off about the touchy ingratitude of Marguerite Duras and Claude Simon (who are both now more famous than the man who is convinced that he gave them their first break).
If Robbe-Grillet seems disinclined to notice, or to worry about, how hopelessly petty and unilluminating he is being, it's partly because it suits his attempt to discredit the whole genre of what he sees as conventional autobiography. “Serious” autobiography is dismissed as “un bavardage public” which artificially arrests the perpetual motion of memory and fantasy that makes up our authentic, unstable identities. Robbe-Grillet sees himself as the exponent of “New Autobiography”—critically self-conscious, mobile, subversive, committed to plurality and proliferation rather than fixity and form. As in Angélique, he makes Corinthe the mouthpiece for some of his ideas, thus achieving a little ironic distance from what might otherwise seem a rather rigid, not to say platitudinous, set of allegedly new prescriptions. Well-worn analogies with particle physics and chaos theory are accompanied by frequent invocations of Mallarmé and Nietzsche. Robbe-Grillet's “enterprise auto-hétéro-biographique” is placed under the patronage of Zarathoustra, dancer on tightropes and reveller in ruins. The absence of fixed identity, the recognition that we postmoderns must deal with the debris of past systems, is seen not as a cause for lamentation but for rejoicing, and as a spur to anarchic creativity.
Robbe-Grillet gets good mileage out of this freewheeling credo, and his “vacillante aventure polymorphe” certainly has its moments, particularly when the constant switches of narrative level, the melting and merging of contexts, the variable geometries of real and imaginary experience work together to induce a pleasurably vertiginous state in the reader's mind. But vertigo has its drawbacks, and were it not for the pinch of irony which still enlivens Robbe-Grillet's writing, and his authentic merits as a stylist (often self-consciously paraded), few readers of Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe would be likely to stay the course.
It is one thing to push against the limitations of conventional narrative autobiography in the name of a compelling desire to articulate selfhood or its abeyance. But Robbe-Grillet seems to lack such a desire, and this probably accounts for his failure to establish any real dialogue between the well-rounded public persona, with opinions about everything, who features in the more prosaic passages, and the fantasized subject for whom Corinthe is one of the vehicles. Some key issues are broached in original ways, for example the risk that autobiographical recollection destroys the very material it raises into consciousness. But Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe, like its predecessors, tends to evade the challenges of authentic autobiography, new or otherwise, and to settle for the safer ground of purely textual dislocation.
SOURCE: “Writing on the Ruins in Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe: From Reassemblage to Reassessment in Robbe-Grillet,” in French Review, Vol. 70, No. 2, December, 1996, pp. 231-44.
[In the following essay, Ramsay examines Robbe-Grillet's pastiche of autobiography, myth, memory, literary text, and history in Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe. According to Ramsay, “The text sets out to consciously stage, deconstruct, indeed to ‘ruin,’ both its own generative mechanisms and the monsters and the sirens lurking in the writer's subconscious.”]
Nous écrivons, désormais, joyeux, sur des ruines
—Alain Robbe-Grillet, Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe, 1994.
In this “new autobiography,” a writing of the self characterized by self-consciousness about the “impossibility” of any such definitive self-reconstitution, according to Robbe-Grillet, the reader is embarked, once again, on a ludic, intertextual journey through the ruins of humanist enlightenment, of tragedy, and of autobiography. Guided/lured by the pure and false Ariadne (alternatively, Mina, Marianic and Marie-Ange) along now familiar passageways strewn with the debris of Western culture and Robbe-Grillet's own earlier texts, the reader stumbles across artefacts inspired by images of cruelty in Lautréamont or Delacroix or “decadent” refinement in Moreau, or again, by flat material objects of the everyday represented in the paintings of Jasper Johns or the sculptures of George Segal. Enchanted by an intoxicated story-telling (“la folie fabulante”), we follow the narrator via the disconnected pages of his singular history (“ces feuillets décousus de souvenires”) to investigate the secret rooms of a cliched, yet particularized sado-erotic imagination. The text sets out to consciously stage, deconstruct, indeed to “ruin,” both its own generative mechanisms and the monsters and the sirens lurking in the writer's subconscious.
The artefacts that serve in the re-constitution of underground stories and memories, the bloodstained high-heeled shoe, the entwining seaweed as feminine hair and the devouring sea as female vulva, the provocative, punished child-woman, like the fairy-tale search for the fountain of youth, bring together both ready-made collective myths and their self-conscious personal reference. The blue shoe, a variant of Cinderella's fur/glass slipper, used in the film Glissements progressifs du plaisir, for example, is conspicuously showcased in the living room of Robbe-Grillet's Paris apartment. Tales of the fear and fascination of drowning that is also a stereotyped Freudian metaphor for fear of being consumed/castrated by the mother/the feminine, proliferate in realistic and precise detail in this third set of autobiographical “memories.” The incident at “Le Minou” [“Pussy”] in Brittany where the young child is carried off by a freak wave (another of those stories not remembered directly but perhaps “recounted” by his parents, notes the narrator), or the accident in Martinique where the young agronomist working on the diseases of banana plants capsizes while out sailing, appear to observe the conventions of autobiographical truth telling. Yet, such anecdotes are also clearly ironic as they invert, for example, the traditional autobiographical use of the present to mark the time of the narration and of the past to indicate the event narrated: “Je vois déjà ma fin venue, ce que je trouve bête par un si beau temps, avec encore toute mon oeuvre à faire.” This passage makes an indirect comment on the arbitrariness and artifice of autobiographical conventions: their double perspective presented as unified (the mature self in the present and the child it claims to have been) and their pretence at recapture of the past. For, any capture can only be effected in the present and the perception of the past is necessarily modified by what has happened in the intervening period. The apparently real or lived memories recall figures from Robbe-Grillet's earlier fictional texts, the sailor lost at sea (péri en mer/mère), whose portrait appears in the novel Djinn (1981) and the fear of being caught and enveloped by the rising tide on childhood beaches in the short story “Le Chemin du retour” (Instantanés 1962). The other face of this fear of drowning or of the feminine sea/mother (mère/mer), and of the lure of the song of the very young sirens, that is, the numerous fantasies of capture of the seductive and dangerous child-woman present throughout Robbe-Grillet's work, is related by the writer to a description of his first encounter and subsequent imaginative relation with his ice-cream eating “Lolita” wife, Catherine, a still present and very real companion despite some complicated sexual arrangements in the intervening years, but seen as his little girl or child.
In the course of iterative journeys through the underground passageways of the dungeons of the Breton cliff fortress that echo the fantasy of the return through the inner organs to the womb, we encounter Henri de Corinthe, also a product of history and story, of the past and of the present, of text and experience and an avatar of the writer since the first volume of this autobiographical trilogy. This fictional character and figure of the autobiographical writer, alone in the writing cell with the disordered pages of his manuscript, is a prey to the anxiety that his third person narrative concerns some distant person who is not himself. Indeed, on the South American frontier between Brasilia and Uruguay, another Henri de Corinthe, insinuating himself into the plot at every opportunity, finds a further double sitting in his chair in the exotic beach cafe already described in earlier texts. This imposter is concealing his erotic interest in the ball-game of a young adolescent girl, spying from behind the mobile screen and alibi of the newspaper, Le Globe, familiar from Souvenirs du triangle d'or (1978) where it recounts a sexual crime. Other curiously recognizable encounters follow between this proliferating hero-villain and his accusers—or are they perhaps his accomplices in crime? He is interrogated by the Professor of parapsychology, Van der Reeves, father or manager of the seductive very young call-girl Marie-Ange who offers his daughter for Corinthe's suspect purposes and by a quixotic and comic police Inspector. Both of these male characters figured in the film, La Belle Captive.
The reader is lead to dance light-heartedly on the ruins of earlier characters and texts, uncertain memories, and pseudo-confessions. She/he is asked to negotiate the truths behind the fictionality of familiar yet new re-tellings of fragmented tales of wild adolescent gangs and their acts of sexual enslavement and cruel punishment of their more beautiful captives during a conflict to the death with the army. The soldiers, more brutal even than the adolescents, intern their victims in the Lyric Theater, transformed to a prison, where the criminal passions of the austere ruling class (magistrates, police, archbishops, business men and women) find a secret outlet. These violent futuristic scenarios recall both the stories of Robbe-Grillet's assemblage novels, Topologie d'une cité fantôme and Souvenirs, and the hypothesis of hidden passions beneath the surface of civilization exploited in the popular holocaust or catastrophe genre—comparable to the cruelty, and orgiastic freedom of certain Fellini films, City of Women, for example, or even feminist fables of the will to power over others such as Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. However, power over the threat of feminine seduction and disorder in Robbe-Grillet's stories is not exerted through the more standard methods of ritualized insemination and the control of reproduction as in Margaret Atwood's feminist critique of power struggles latent in society. Rather, order is reestablished through the “specialized” and less generally practised sexual control manifested in the bondage, torture, and suppression of the feminine body or through female pain and domination in a game of master and slave, defined as pleasure.
The twelve young girls in various stages of filmy white (un)dress for their first communion, mannequins that Robbe-Grillet claims to have seen in a shop-window in General Franco's very Catholic Spain before they found their way into Souvenirs, may conceal-reveal a sexual symbolism as the writer suggests. Their self-giving as brides of Christ can be read in terms of a certain form of “feminine” ecstasy experienced in self-loss or self-sacrifice and resembling the passionate physical experience of divine possession of the “feminized” mystics. In La Violence et le sacré;, René Girard argues that the cathartic cleansing of collective guilt by the violent ritual shedding of the sacrificial blood of an innocent victim is characteristic of classical and modern societies. Self-reflexive and ironic, pointing insistently at the violent sexual underpinnings of sacrifice and the sacred, Robbe-Grillet's free-thinking tableaux are not essentialist in Girard's sense. In what was clearly deliberate sacrilegious excess, pastiche, and confessional pirouette, his previous texts had depicted the dresses stained at the groin with blood and the communicants nailed to crosses upside down with candles in their vaginas, victims of the nefarious priest/alias Dr Morgan, an early avatar of Corinthe. Yet, although close to those of Sade, Robbe-Grillet's representations remain distinctive. Young boys, for example, do not share the cruel fates of the fair angels in a work where the beautiful captive and victim is invariably a pubescent girl or a very young beautiful woman. I suggest that Robbe-Grillet's claim to be exploiting “the richness of popular fantasies in this [sado-erotic] domain” (“la richesse des fantasmes populaires dans ce domaine”) is at least as much a screen and an alibi for the self-centered confessional and investigative staging of the ruins of his own personal mythologies as it is the pretended moral crusade to open the reader's eyes to the true nature of our shared sexual phantasies in freedom and subversion.
The real personally familiar hotel Lutetia on the Boulevard Raspail and the fictive hotel Lutetia d'Heropolis in South America where Herod and Salome play out their erotic scenarios, are products of a particular if dimming memory, of an unconscious, and of the “folie fabulante” that embodies the exploration of the links between the collective and the individual subconscious. The “fabulations” of Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe are generated from the mixed fragments of the ageing Robbe-Grillet's memories, imagination, and an eclectic range of existing texts, including the pornographic and the underground (Sade in particular has interested Robbe-Grillet) as the writer attempts to choreograph a distinctive dance on the ruins—of popular mythologies, of the recent history of France and of Western civilisation, of the old coherent ego, of narrative and autobiographical convention, and of his own past selves.
If Man is a Heideggerian tightrope or Nietzschean bridge, stretched out over an abyss, as Robbe-Grillet writes in Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe, in mortal danger that the past will crumble to ashes if he looks back (or be absorbed into a liquid universe of the swelling feminine if he looks down), his salvation appears to lie less in a return journey than in a lucid Heideggerian “ab-bau” or deconstruction of his situation with “mocking self-awareness” (“une conscience rieuse”). This is neither to accept the long sleep of a defeated “Grand Architect” and to resign oneself to offering only unrelated fragments, broken columns, and systems in collapse, claims Robbe-Grillet, nor to return, repentant, to some rational and stable entity. It is, rather, to “weave proliferating structures” that vanish as they are put in place. The ruins are to be envisioned not with existential despair but with the pleasure and knowledge afforded by these active processes of deconstruction and reconstruction that are the effects of lucidity and liberty.
For Kafka, there was a goal but no path. For Robbe-Grillet, there appears to be a path but no goal. Is Robbe-Grillet's narrator, then, simply a slightly more determinedly joyous Sisyphus still pushing a barely post-Camusian rock and evoking, if not man's destiny or tragedy, at least the aleatory character or absurdity of his condition? There are some new elements in the existential scenario—the “grilling” (Robbe-Grilling) or sceptically self-consuming process and the passionate character of the fire devouring the new structures even as they take form. Fire illuminates the background threads that configure the canvas. Playing with fire is exciting, dangerous.
The writer is both product and producer of art in ruins in Robbe-Grillet. His hybrid, sceptical work is generated from disparate visual images—from Delacroix, Moreau, and the contemporary Americans Mark Tansey and George Segal—and from literary texts, selected for the detail that captures the heart and mind (Barthes’ “punctum”) and with transforming purpose. There are, once again, a number of unacknowledged “quotations” from Baudelaire (“O Mort, vieux capitaine …”) and from Mallarmé (“Vierge, cette écume …”) and Marguerite Duras’ luxury liner, casting light and waltz music over a phosphorescent sea cradling the young drowned lover, makes a provocative entrance, somewhere between pastiche and “homage.” These link the marine universe once again with femininity, bliss, and death.
Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe similarly re-collects Robbe-Grillet's own earlier emblems and texts and again, re-assembles these in new autobiographical configurations. The oedipal tale of Les Gommes is re-called, but re-read here more particularly as a story of Dr. Juard's elitist politico-economic movement (“Synarchie”), close to Robbe-Grillet's pirouetting “confession” of his own right-wing political positions. Or does the eraser derive, as the text later perversely hypothesizes, from the need to erase the “stains” (“taches”) or “suspect traces” on the smooth surfaces, the white robing (“robe blanche”) of the Gallimard books found in formative years in Macrez's book shop on the Boulevard Raspail—to erase guilt? The voyeuristic sexual crime against a precocious young girl concealed at the heart of Le Voyeur, the meticulously ordered banana plants of La Jalousie that hide a second face as symbols of an unstable, shifting world organized by sexual jealousy and by a potential crime and evoked by fissures and suspect surface traces, or undulating feminine tresses are reread in this more introspective work. Despite being turned completely towards the outside world, claims Robbe-Grillet, these novels express a consciousness imprisoned in its own void. From the autobiographical perspective of Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe, Corinthe-Robbe-Grillet can identify the early vertigo in his work as the piercing and still present terror of having disappeared from within oneself, the fear of inner void and the paranoia of take over by the other (“cette expérience fondamentale d'une désertion par l'intérieur, face à l'ennemi qui a investi la place”).
The underground passages and the imprisoned female captives recalled from Souvenirs begin to signify as cliche by their very repetition, along with the assemblage of other familiar and suspect sea-changed objects from the first two autobiographical fictions. These include the magic mirror cast up by the sea in which Corinthe sees not himself but the victim Angélique and the white horse (principle of virility) sees his own death, the writer's desk made out of a block of wood, out of the ruins from a shipwreck, and the “lavandeuses de nuit,” the fairy washer-women of Breton legend and Robbe-Grilletian sado-erotic transformations, sirens drying their bloodstained gossamer underclothing in the moonlight on the sexualized curve of the beach.
The “ruins” are the products of the deconstruction of an imaginaire. This is, in part, the collective and popular imaginary of the sadomasochistic “confrérie” that Robbe-Grillet here claims to avoid; in part, Robbe-Grillet's particular and self-confessed story of sadistic phantasies of commerce with the fair Angélique and preference for very young girls. Self-conscious figures of the writer, the self-deconstructing Narcissus-narrators are at risk of falling into the water and drowning in their reflection, confused with that of the nymph Echo, the dangerous (feminine) other, Mina, Manrica, Angélique or the feminine in the self. At the same time, the sceptical and suspicious “new autobiographical” enterprise is conscious of the greater perils of any single image or self-constitution, aware that certain forms of truth-telling may be less “true” than certain forms of fabulation or “lying”—selecting or constituting one's preferred or imaginatively productive images of self, for example. A self from fragments and in ruins may be “truer” than a monolithic edifice, less coherent and complete but more authentic than the “identity” constructed by traditional self-representation.
The “ruining” of traditional autobiographical conventions—identity between character, narrator and writer (or between the “I” who writes, the “I” of the story, and the “I” of history)—of the autobiographical pacts of sincerity, and of the chronological and causal continuities and coherence of narrative serve a critical and deconstructionist enterprise similar to the deconstruction of an imaginaire. Along with unified and self-identical, self-present, authorial self and conventional story, the myths of the coherence and knowability of twentieth-century French history, particularly those of resistance and collaboration, also undergo a similar process of deconstruction. Corinthe, the military man of Heropolis, Resistance fighter or Nazi collaborator and later South American exile or trafficker, embodies the French difficulties in deciding who was the hero and traitor in and after the wars with Germany. These questions have become particularly acute with the recent trials of Klaus Barbie and the first charges brought against Frenchmen (Bousquet and Touvier) for crimes against humanity. The revelation of Mitterrand's connections with Bousquet and with the Pétain government, and the revisionist backlash that would contest the existence of the gas chambers suggest the complexity of the situation. At the same time as he stages the French myths of resistance and the more recent myths of general collaboration, Corinthe corresponds to Robbe-Grillet's personal concern to explain his own apparently blameworthy political past (right-wing and Germanophile) and present positions to his reader. His belief in the failure of both liberal democracy and communist dictatorship; his predilection for a strong, elitist, (paternalistic?) form of government and pessimistic recognition of failure are reflected in the comi-tragic end of the aristocratic Corinthe, implicated in shadowy movements resembling the nationalistic Croix du feu or the Action Française to which Robbe-Grillet's parents were close. Corinthe will die solitary and immured in his Breton stone fortress on that “ancient soil” (“vieux sol d'argile”) of Celtic-Germanic strength, long under siege, his belongings seized, and nostalgic for a lost order.
More generally, the mise en scène of the past indicates the impossibility of acceding to any absolute vantage point from which to know or judge history and its heroes. In Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe, the past can only be looked at from the relative standpoint of a specific (and changing) present. The political and the personal, inner and outer event cannot be separated; the hero is also potentially the villain. The cavalry officer, knight in shining armor, or war hero comes upon his double lying dead on the ground and (shades of Angélique ou L'Enchantement) discovers the latter's participation in a sexual crime against a captured young woman enemy agent.
The ruins of the imaginary, of autobiography, of history and of the rational taxonomies and ordered knowledge to which Robbe-Grillet admits a very considerable attachment become the material of a rebuilding undermined in its turn by phantasies dismantled in self-critical irony—Salomé dancing before Herod (by the “decadent” painter Moreau and so many other artists before and after him), the already too well-known Robbe-Grilletian erotic description of the young girl (“Ici prendrait place une description érotisée ordinaire de la jeune Allemande … Insistance habituelle sur les charmes intimes, abus des adjectifs interdits, cruauté latente”). The ruined material proliferates and functions to construct open, variable new geometries and mobile architectures, invisible cities and virtual realities, characteristic of the “post-modern,” the “post-modern” being defined here as what comes out of and after modernism. At the same time, this material is chosen by a particular, situated, writer. Indeed, the nature of the reassembled material in this final “romanesque” or autofictional text by Robbe-Grillet makes it evident that his writing also concern his personal experience. As the story-teller is doubled by an experiential subject of the history of his period, so, alongside the theorist stands the libertine who may have sought the anonymity of text to disown a particular face and body while revelling in displaying it. Paradoxically, then, writing although intellectually exigent, and on the hunt to deconstruct the ready-thought, in its refusal of fixed and single identity, may be as much a will to self-effacement or to epitaph as to self-knowledge.
In the literary traditions of Europe, ruins have most often been symbols of the glories of past civilizations and of humankind's achievements. For the Romantic intellectuals of the eighteenth century, the tour of classical sites was a source at once of inspiration and of the melancholy that accompanied the post-Napoleonic generation's feelings of loss of power and of decline, their subsequent world-weariness, and emotionally intense longing for a lost absolute. Ruins for the Romantics become a catalyst for intense emotions that create a feeling of existence. Camus, for his part, writing of the Roman ruins at Tipasa in the essays “Noces” and “Retour à Tipasa,” sees their glory less in their character as symbols of the lost grandeur of human civilization than in their return to unpolished natural stone, to the fierce beauty and innocence of the elements, part of the intense marriage of the sensual feminine earth and the fierce masculine sun, and indifferent to human affairs. Despite the existence of the “absurd” (lack of transcendental meaning and his own inevitable death), his duty as a “Man” is to accept happiness in his physical body, in sensual harmony with the elemental beauty of the natural world of sun and sea that constitutes the origins of the Mediterranean race to which he belongs. Camus’ recognition is that without such a return to the body and the elemental natural world, lucidity and commitment to the abstract fight for justice against all the “plagues” that diminish humankind remain arid and unsustainable. This formulation of the symbolism of ruins as return to a nature that has little in common with man, although at opposite poles from the Romantic pathetic fallacy (a sentient nature in sympathy with human emotions), nonetheless rejoins the latter in its affirming of the primacy of the emotional or sentient body. While Camus’ body is assimilated to nature by the outside world's assault on the senses—the fierce heat of the sun, the velvet enclosing and sharp salt sting of the sea—romantic (and even realist) sensibility projects the inner emotions onto nature.
In Robbe-Grillet's work, there is a breaking down of such binary oppositions between inside and the outside, humankind and nature. The ruins of Western culture represent less a melancholy sense of the loss of human grandeur, less a return to and renewal in the earth/sea from which one's body comes, than the freedom to reconstruct just such constitutive dichotomies. Outside comes to coexist with inside, culture with nature, without clear boundaries or mutual exclusion as in the figure of the Moebius strip. In a conventional autobiographical frame (outside), the evocation of ruins in Robbe-Grillet's last autobiography would be linked to a sense of time running out. Ruins would connote the approach of death. In Corinthe's besieged fortress, Robbe-Grillet indeed regrets that the golden naiads have disappeared along with the sun, pleasure, and the dangerous song of the sirens. Accompanying the sense of increasing cold, the decline in desire, and feelings of loss and anguish is the strong sense of decomposition and catastrophe that has, in fact, always been a distinctive characteristic of both post-modern thematics (outside) and Robbe-Grillet's own personal preoccupations (inside). The date groves in the Persian gulf, ruined by the destruction of millenary irrigation canals in an absurd, bloody, eight-year war, the ominous and alien unpredictable patterns of the boiling mud pools in Rotorua that are all that Robbe-Grillet's autobiography retains of his 1986 lecture tour of New Zealand, re-collected in Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe, are further outer signs of the inner obsession with decay and the strangeness of the universe. The autobiographical anguish occasioned by the uprooting of the one hundred and fifty year old trees on his property at Mesnil-au-Grain in a violent storm, and the recall, once again, of the war-time bombing of his house of birth at Brest on the Kerangoff plain echo a fictionalized fear of disorder and catastrophe present in the writer's work since the earliest text, Un Régicide. Such fears are projected, ruined, transferred from inside to outside into the play of eroticized text that, like irony, is an ever-present antidote. Untouched by the storm, the statue in the fountain, Angélique, young and beautiful for eternity, arms raised gracefully, protects her delicate features against the trees that bend threateningly towards her. Dancing on the ruins may be a conscious strategy, an attempt to preempt or at least negotiate with inner or unconscious fears; it may be sufficient to temporarily neutralize the sea-monster, Corinthe, who in Robbe-Grillet's autofictions is characterized by his hidden predilection for devouring very young (and dangerous) girls to preempt his own demise.
Beyond the elucubrations of Corinthe in his cliff fortress or in Uruguay, however, back at Mesnil-au-Grain, Robbe-Grillet's stately eighteenth-century mansion in Normandy, the reader has also been following a more traditional and sedentary autobiographical itinerary whose monsters are relatively domesticated and where the ruins of the park are cleared away and the strangeness (the Unheimliche or the uncanny other or the “feminine”) of scenes of unexplained night bells ringing or an extraordinary fall of snow is assimilated into the fabric of the homely and everyday. Motivated by the approaching end of the “great writer,” the latter records the genesis and history of his writing for posterity with as much precision as possible. Footnotes add the corrections or clarification of certain details contributed by his editor and friend, Jérôme Lindon (the owner of the Editions de Minuit). In this recapitulation of the minutiae of the origins and trajectory of his work, Robbe-Grillet “constitutes himself as a great writer” much as Roland Barthes describes such traditional autobiographical endeavors in the first “new autobiography,” Barthes par Roland Barthes. In anecdotes about his adventurous and studious life as Visiting Professor of literature at NYU and Washington University of St. Louis until his still rankling exclusion from the latter by what he depicts with rancour (only partially concealed by his usual ironic camouflage) as “rabid feminists,” Robbe-Grillet defines himself as a teacher and literary critic. Accounts of his relations with other French men and women of letters, including Sartre, Sarraute, Simon and Duras, and some pejorative remarks about the detested Simone de Beauvoir complete this portrait of the artist as a not so young man. Memories here are no longer subverted by irony, or the intrusive processes of writing. Robbe-Grillet's autofiction may dance on some ruins of the autobiographical genre. Nonetheless, traditional autobiography constitutes an appreciable part of the material of the new autographics.
In this respect, it cannot be said that what Robbe-Grillet, autobiographer, has dared to look back on has turned to dust. On the contrary, his early work is framed very traditionally by the present autobiography as great art, initially unrecognized by the establishment (in particular, by Gallimard). Robbe-Grillet, critic, is set up to share the laurels with Jérôme Lindon as he who was able to detect and encourage genius—in Marguerite Duras’ Moderato Cantabile or Claude Simon's Nobel prize-winning work, for example. To the fury of Nathalie Sarraute and a number of others among his fellow “new novelists,” Robbe-Grillet in his own person is at pains to set the record of his leadership of that critical movement straight for posterity. There is little irony (self-irony, in any case) and indeed, relatively little self-consciousness in these passages. No splitting of this narrator, no evocation of a ruined country prevents a literary history and self-portrait (a monument to self) being set in prose for posterity. Similarly, Robbe-Grillet's critical reflections that function to interrupt, to fragment or ruin the unfolding of story or anecdote are often simply repeated from his earlier public conference performances, their import further weakened by autobiographical self-indulgence or need for self-vindication. Presenting the case for sexual liberation, for example, he notes the omni-presence of phantasies of sexual cruelty in Japan and the Far East where freedom is limited and the lesser frequency of these cruel phantasies in more sexually open societies. But the writer's very respectable case for greater openness towards taboo sexual practices is then “proven” by the example of the young part-Vietnamese woman who, after the filming of Trans-Europ-Express, left her loving American boyfriend, unwilling to tie her to the iron bedpost, for Robbe-Grillet, more open to variations on the bonds of love.
It is nonetheless the writing and not the writer that is situated at the center of this work. “La chair des phrases a toujours occupé, sans doute, une grande place dans mon travail” claims the introductory sentence. This multiform flesh or body of the text shifts from personal anecdote, to literary reflection or theory, or to the extended fable of the elixir of life or death to be found behind one of three doors. Occasionally progressing by linguistic analogy (between, for example, such different sounds and referents as “flacon” and “flocon”), it is self-aware, as Robbe-Grillet puts it, of the fictions that thread through it and the lacks and aporias that, as in life, undermine any possible stability of meaning. Although, like Camus, Robbe-Grillet speaks of his personal experience of the beauty of the natural world and the colors of the lichens, his writing, with its attention to sonorities, rhythm, regularity, and unpredictability, echoes and ruptures presents itself as a work on language rather than on the world. It is the movements of the prose that models the non-mutually exclusive contradictions of the “monotony and violence” of Robbe-Grillet's landscapes and sea-scapes, the alternating of caressing flow and sudden violent eddies of inner sexual phantasies, and of the movements of the sea, in textual play. This text is multilayered in its reference: the opening sentence, for example, is at once textual, sexual, and intertextual as it reconstructs the first sentence of La Maison de rendez-vous (1965), “La chair des femmes a toujours occupé, sans doute, une grande place dans mes rêves.”
Robbe-Grillet's creative work, his “temple in ruins” is dedicated to the future divinity named “Construction.” I would suggest that where the traditional autobiographical edifice is not sufficiently reduced to ruins to permit these new constructions, where traditional autobiographical “truth-telling” predominates and selected anecdotes of the origins of a work, Parisian literary quarrels and the incidents of a day at Mesnil-au-Grain hold the stage, the death of Corinthe (that is, the establishing of his genius for posterity) can appear longwinded, egocentric, self-indulgent and less than intellectually mobilising or linguistically enchanting. This particular style, present in all three autofictions and of varying but generally limited degrees of interest for all but the most devoted of Robbe-Grillet's readers, leaves the reader nostalgic for the creative tightness, the distanced, and artistically controlled self-exploration through the staging of another consciousness already both empty and full, both inner and outer, of the always inventive early fictions—Les Gommes (1955), Le Voyeur (1955), La Jalousie (1957). The interest of the exploration of the processes of textual generation in Dans le labyrinthe, of the myths of violence in contemporary urban society and in Robbe-Grillet's own imaginary society in Projet pour une révolution à New York (1970), again constitute threads in this latest work but are no longer novel or subversive.
This third work of the autobiographical trilogy also lacks the originality of the interrogation of the confessional autobiographical genre introduced by the first autofiction, Le Miroir qui revient (1985). Its explicit and detailed taboo erotic scenarios no longer have the shock value and provocation of the weaving of sado-eroticism into medieval and knightly legend that cast a spell of fascination on the reader in the pirouetting “confession” of Angélique ou L'Enchantement (1988). While Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe does specialize in the Lolita/Salomé phantasies in elaborate detail, and appears to probe yet more deeply into the “true” heroism and lonely courage or “false” villainy of Corinthe, it does not develop a form that introduces a noticeably new figuration into the auto fictional textual dance. Although the use of visual art as generator of the diegesis is striking, particularly the narration of Robbe-Grillet's encounter and identification with Segal's ashen, frozen life-like sculptures of ordinary people, this is again a continuation of the experiments of the picto-novels whose assembled and interconnected texts largely constitute Topologie d'une cité fantôme (1976) and Souvenirs du triangle d'or (1978). The constant movements between representation and real simply continue to refine the now familiar practice of mise en abyme or interior duplication that feeds into the self-conscious reflexivity or metatextual level of textual functioning.
However, where the narrators represent both the collective and the particularized unconscious in contradictory but not mutually exclusive mobile architectures, and to the extent that the heterogeneous styles that clash and set up oppositions are also organized in new “complementary” and “chaotic” constructions, this third autobiography is again a “new autobiography.” The unexpected narrative movements of the text, the recognition of inter texts, the creative and critical play of its multiple layers of meaning, make the reading of this less than strikingly original third new autobiography an intellectual pleasure. There is interest in its reassemblage and rewriting on the ruins of the span of a life and work and in the exploration of the links between the collective and the individual unconscious; some interest in Robbe-Grillet's own critical and philosophical reflections. The configurations of the dance of the text on the ruins of the imaginary, history and genre in Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe are critical, dynamic and constructive, not those of a writing in ruins.
On the other hand, Robbe-Grillet's self-deconstruction is rendered suspect, once again, by his inability to reduce the conventional binary oppositions of gender to ruins, and to envision the traditional “feminine” sacrificial victim and “masculine” aggressor, the siren and the deviant sailor as interchangeable and “complementary” pairs in their turn. The refusal to deconstruct further the intact scenarios of her pain and loss of power, as his (and indeed her) pleasure limits the revolutionary potential of the staging and examination of the significant and repressed psychological complex of sado-masochism. Paradoxically, it is to the extent that the text is not able to engage fully with the “ruins” of self, tragedy, and history or with the “ruin(ing)” of Robbe-Grillet that this joyous autofictional writing on the ruins fails.