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From the outset, the proliferation of game structures in the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet identifies this writer as a notable example of artifex ludens. Almost all the tendencies that were later to be termed "aspects ludiques" in his novels and films may be uncovered by careful scrutiny of his earliest productions. It is even possible to reduce the numerous game structures to a few basic models, such as the circular or winding path of individual cases or rectangles (like those usually found on board games played with dice), the maze or labyrinth, and the multiple-solution type of game, such as Clue, in which shuffling the cards representing characters and places allows each separate partie, although created out of identical elements, to lead to a totally different outcome.
The conception of a fundamentally game-like structure of the novel would make of specific games mentioned in the works, or played by the characters therein, examples of interior duplication, functioning with respect to the over-all structure in somewhat the same way as an "inner novel" (cf. Jealousy) or play (cf. Last Year at Marienbad) that duplicates, at the level of the characters, and within the fictional field, the general pattern of the novel or film. This integrative principle constitutes one type of "justification" of an actual game (as in Marienbad) as coherently incorporated into the esthetic structure. The literal game may be minimized, or may not appear at all; but the "metaphysical" aspect of general game structure cannot, since it is part of the novelistic technique, be avoided. It is in turn this metaphysical implication that protects the work from falling into the gratuity of a neo-Kantian "free play of the faculties" conception of fictional art which might, if pushed to the limit, reduce the creative process to a kind of esthetic billard game or acrobatic display. It is also evident that the problem of formalism in the use of game structures in novels and films has its parallels in painting (from abstract expressionism to Pop Art) and the other arts, especially contemporary music. (pp. 159-60)
In The Erasers (1953) Robbe-Grillet employs myth as hidden structure and establishes ingenious correspondences between myth and the semi-occult "game" of Tarot cards. Neither the myth (that of Oedipus) nor the Tarot cards are specifically mentioned in the text, and the general recognition now of their presence may be attributed to the publication of various critical essays, beginning with my own. It is now possible here to reinforce and extend my original findings, thanks to the unexpected and welcome collaboration of the distinguished surrealist critic Jacques Brunius. I had limited myself to studying more or less separately the systematic correspondences between the Oedipus myth and the plot of The Erasers (in which the protagonist seeks a murderer only to become that murderer in the end), reflected in references to an abandoned child, Thebes, the riddle of the Sphynx, Apollo's oracle, Laïus' chariot, and the like, and to parallels between traditional reading of certain Tarot cards and the fictional situations in which they occur (in hidden form) in the novel. (p. 162)
What Jacques Brunius has proposed to me … is the possibility of discerning in the novel certain cross-correspondences between the Oedipus Myth and the Tarot pack which would "bring out a troubling parallelism between the two perspectives on Destiny represented by Oedipus and the Tarot." The effect of these would be to further integrate the "game" aspect of the Tarot into the novel's total structure…. These findings do indeed create a new parallelism within the novel, and they demonstrate conclusively that...
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the notion of game, in the sense of purely formal diversion, carries with it implications reaching all the way into the domains of archetypes and myths. True, the Tarot was rarely, if ever, played as a "pure" game, since it was used for fortune-telling and prophecy. Yet its structure and interpretative systems are game-like in their organization, and from its minorarcanes the pack of cards used in contemporary "empty" games has been derived.
While there are no outright or hidden references to games in The Voyeur (1955) and Jealousy (1957)—if we except such off-hand allusions as that to pin-ball machines in The Voyeur café scenes—, both novels show serial patternings with analogies to the general conception of game structure…. The entire series of 8-shaped objects and forms in The Voyeur is a case in point, as is the more subtle series of Y-shaped objects and designs which can be discerned in a minute reading of the text, and which are organized around the Y of the pubis and thus brought into the eroto-sadistic gestalt of the 8-shaped bonds, rings, and the like associated with Mathias' rape and murder of Jacqueline. Similarly, the V series of Jealousy, from the parquet floors to the accidental arrangement of logs waiting to be used on the foot-bridge, as well as the "spot" series (centipede, oil spot, grease spot at Franck's place at the table, defective spot in the window, and the like), may all be seen as an extension of a high-order game of "find the resemblance." Needless to say, this aspect of the novel is subordinated to less game-like and more "serious" matters; but the games "that people play," like Mathias' burning of side-by-side holes with his cigarette, or like the husband's testing of the mathematical regularity of his trapezoidal banana fields, have easily recognizable psychic meanings, and find their place readily in novelistic structures that are far from constituting "mere" games.
It is In the Labyrinth (1959) which offers, for the first but not the last time in Robbe-Grillet's production, outright analogies with those board games that depend for their effect on multiple attempts, with advances and retreats, with side excursions into dead ends, with repeated efforts to find the "right" path to the center and win the game (in the case of the soldier in the novel, to deliver the box). The title of the work invites the comparison, and the paragraphs of the text itself often give the effect of a throw of the dice permitting no movement ("Non. Non.") or of frantic turnings from right to left (the scenes in the corridor), of arrivals in hopeless impasses. I have suggested that this whole pattern is metaphorical of the problem of writing this or any novel; in this view, the "game" aspect of randomness, multiplicity, and alternatives becomes allegorical of the creative process, somewhat in a Mallarméan sense. Every narrative effort is a throw of the dice, and will never abolish chance.
We now come to Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which could well serve as a model of game structure in novel and film. Readers will recall the world-wide reactions to this game, ranging from articles setting forth its basis in binary mathematics (or contesting this basis) to the distribution in movie houses, in New York and elsewhere, of booklets of matches with the rules of the game printed on the cover. Alain Resnais, the director, announced following the release of the film that the "Marienbad game" was a variant of the ancient "Chinese" game of Nim; it was also learned that Robbe-Grillet thought he had invented it, and that at least one angry French citizen, claiming to have both invented and patented the game, threatened to sue the producer, director, and scenarist. Cinema 61 and 62 carried a learned debate on the mathematics of Nim…. Aside from the incidental interest of the game itself, the important point suggested by the existence of a mathematical theory is that Nim, both in reality and in the film, is not a "game" in the open sense, but the execution of a predetermined certainty by one familiar with its system. Obviously, only M, the husband figure, is privy to Nim's secrets in the film…. The antagonists X and M confront each other in two ways: in the struggle of passion to possess A, and in the duel of the mind to win at Nim (or at poker, dominos, etc.). A certain tonality of playing dice with the devil is sounded in these encounters at the gaming table. M always wins, but he "can lose," as he says, and in the end, he does; is it deliberately? (pp. 163-66)
All the games of the film, including the shooting gallery, reinforce the themes of contest domination, imposition of will upon another, even violence, that form the basis of the main action of Marienbad. Like the play on the château stage, the games of the film are forms of interior duplication, of mise en abîme in the Gidean sense, which serve not only to permit the characters themselves to take cognizance of their situations (as the statue does, for example), but to let the spectator or reader plunge deeper into the "vertical" significance of the work. (p. 166)
As for the other "games" of Robbe-Grillet's latest novel—the erotic sketches, the garden of statues, they are mostly examples of interior duplications linked in typically complicated ways to other elements in this, as well as previous works of the author.
Is the predilection for games and game structures evidence of excessive formalism in Robbe-Grillet? It would be possible to argue that … the creation of novels on game premises has given rise to certain tendencies in fiction leading away from the "serious" thematics (such as Sartrian engagement, the depiction of contemporary alienation, and the like) associated with the novel in the mind of the public…. [However,] game for Robbe-Grillet has come to mean structural freedom, absence of traditional rules of transition, viewpoint, chronology, and other parameters of previous fiction, and, on the constructive side, an invitation to create new models, to develop new combinations, to push ahead even further the aptly termed nouveau roman. (p. 167)
Bruce Morrissette, "Games and Game Structures in Robbe-Grillet," in Yale French Studies (copyright © Yale French Studies 1968), No. 41, 1968, pp. 159-67.
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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….
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. (p. 347)
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. (p. 348)
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 … 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…. 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…. 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. (pp. 350-52)
[According to Roman 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. (p. 353)
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…. 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 … 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…. 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…. 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. (pp. 353-54)
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 …, 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. (p. 355)
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. (pp. 355-56)
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 … non-objective paintings … 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…. 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. (p. 356)
Ben Stoltzfus, "Alain Robbe-Grillet: The Reflexive Novel as Process and Poetry," in Symposium (copyright © 1976 by Syracuse University Press), Vol. XXX, No. 4, Winter, 1976, pp. 343-57.
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In the fictional context of the nouveau roman, the problem of critical analysis is … compounded by the mediation of the object in language and its concomitant over-determination in the superimposed itineraries of narrative events, along with the necessity of demystifying the relation between subject and object, the signifier and the signified….
Robbe-Grillet's first two novels, Les Gommes (1953) and Le Voyeur (1955), presented to the reading public a surface ambiguous enough to provide grounds for the most sardonic condemnations and the most elaborate apologetics. [Roland] Barthes was quick to recognize that the nouveau roman represented not merely a novel aesthetic, but that it attempted to revolutionize the hermeneutics of traditional fiction through its fidelity to the ethos of the world-as-object, a "degree zero" of extratextual signification. (p. 558)
That Robbe-Grillet had anticipated the value of a phenomenal poétique, even before the publication of his first novel, is evident in an essay on Beckett's Waiting for Godot [see CLC, Vol. 10], which he reads as a parable of Heideggerian Dasein, the dilemma of simply being there. And in his subsequent reflections on his own novels, Robbe-Grillet argues for a decontamination of the image from all psychological or cultural associations and for a consequent liberation of the text from critical expropriation. Those elements in his novels that shatter the window of interpretation may be swept under the carpet of the absurd, he observes, "but the world is neither significant nor absurd. It is, quite simply…. (p. 559)
Responding to critics who had condemned the anti-humanism implicit in the novels, particularly in La Jalousie, Robbe-Grillet admits that he may have gone "too fast"; that there existed no more than a "loose parallel" between his theories and the novels, after all; and that it was easier to indicate a new direction than to follow it, without an échec—a partial or even total impasse—constituting "a decisive, definitive proof of the error committed at the outset." (p. 560)
A narrative that records only what is seen and imagined by the narrator could scarcely avoid "complicity" with the object; indeed, the narrative objects and events could not exist without the mediating presence of his consciousness. La Jalousie constitutes a tour de force of Berkeley's cardinal axiom, esse est percipi, since there is nothing in the novel that may be presented to the reader without first being "seen" by the narrator-husband, and nothing he sees can remain uncontaminated by his consciousness.
Robbe-Grillet's fictional strategy may approximate Husserl's "eidetic reduction," or epoché—the bracketing of all presuppositions about existents and their conditional qualities—but it is bound to run into the same impasse that led Husserl to abandon the search for the thing-in-itself in favor of analyzing its eidos, its "essential" modes of being-in-consciousness…. [The] object may only "present itself" as a function of consciousness. This is, of course, the most familiar paradox in the metaphysical tradition, and the one from which phenomenology originally derived its rationale…. (p. 561)
If phenomenology has moved away from Hegel's elaboration of self-consciousness as a simulacrum of the universe, it had merely traced the arc of an infinitely long pendulum…. If the pendulum continued to … [move] back toward the fictional end of its arc, it would discover that narrative consciousness may only penetrate the "secret heart of things" at the risk of penetrating into itself, since the boundaries of the object are those of consciousness itself. It is from such a pendulum that Robbe-Grillet's heroes can be found dangling, most particularly because of the role played by the relativity of time and space in the collapse of Self and Other throughout the narratives and because of the role played by the relativity of language. If the whole of the fictional tradition has failed to scratch the surface of the object, it is because no object can appear in narrative without becoming image, and the Dasein of image can only be mapped-out by the omnipresence of consciousness at the crossroads of eidos and logos. It is the inherent duplicity of language, its overdetermination, that cuts into the secret heart of things in Robbe-Grillet's novels.
Even that most literal and objective scene in La Jalousie—the counting of the banana trees—could best be seen as a mirror image of the Berkeleyan forest which constitutes the husband's state of mind, its ellipses and retracings, its obsession to re-establish the continuity of an existence disrupted by jealousy, its hesitation and uncertainty over the suspicious evidence. The audit of the trees could, perhaps, constitute a mere distraction for the husband—a less disturbing sight, for example, than his recent vision of his wife in her bedroom reading her lover's letter—but it would be a motivated perception, even then, a reflection of his avoidance of pain. It is in this sense alone that the novel preserves a kind of narrative sequence, a chronology, but it is one governed purely by psychological resistance or association.
Of course, Robbe-Grillet deliberately avoids all conventional marks of transition from actuality to memory to fantasy, all verb tenses which would indicate the time of the episode, all qualifying adjectives and adverbs which would attest to the narrator's ubiquitous sentience and sentiment. There does seem to be a vacuum in the language of the text left by the absence of these signes-du-narrateur, but it is one which is essential to Robbe-Grillet's sense of an "actual" stream of consciousness as opposed to the "speaking consciousness" of Joyce's narrator, for example, whose language is full of the qualitative indices that signify a colloquy with the reader. The apparent artificiality of Robbe-Grillet's narrator derives from his nearly absolute silence, in his relation to the other characters and to the reader as well. It is a silence motivated in general, however, by the phenomenological assumption that any consciousness in progress would necessarily take its own presence and its own voice for granted. But that consciousness is never more in evidence than when it is absent. (pp. 561-62)
[The] space occupied by the surface of the text can only be the same space occupied by the intentional consciousness of the narrator—and the same time…. [The] actual development of scenes is juxtaposed with those the narrator "recalls, recreates, or even imagines." These two levels of action would seem to be only logical. The husband's jealousy would have to result from some actual set of events … [episodes which] would provide sufficient motivation, and one could assume they actually happened at some time, while the recurrent "distorted" versions of the same scenes could be attributed to the husband's growing jealousy.
The question is, when did they occur originally, and in what order? In the case of recurrent scenes, the solution is deceptively simple, since memory works in only one direction. Unless the husband is clairvoyant, only the first occurrence of each episode could constitute the actual event; all recurrent scenes would have to be considered memories, subject to the husband's fantasized elaborations. Consequently, the sequence of actual events would be relatively easy to reconstruct by mapping the first occurrences of each scene in chronological order…. But if [the itinerary thus determined] were the sequence of actual time, one would have to suppose that the husband's jealousy developed overnight, as it were, on the slightest pretext. (pp. 563-64)
[Any] of the repetitions could be taken for a similar occasion rather than a memory of a unique event. Naturally, Robbe-Grillet insures that each recurrence varies in some detail, and since most of them are routine activities, it is always ambiguous whether a particular episode constitutes another occasion or a memory. On the other hand, he makes sure that there are sufficiently identical details among those repeated scenes. I should say, identical sentences, since it is always a question of that subliminal presence of language, sequestered between the lines of La Jalousie. To assume that the same physical details could recur in the narrator's perception is one thing; it is another to assume that an identical phrase would be repeated, either in the fragments of "overheard" dialogue, or in the sentences of narrative description. The most ironic of these, of course, serves to mark at once the beginning and final scenes of the novel—Maintenant l'ombre du pilier ("Now the shadow of the column"). In essence, it is the sole pillar needed to support the chronological edifice of the text, since it marks time only in relation to the phenomenological cycle of narrative events. (pp. 564-65)
The ultimate Hegelian paradox in the novel is that what is true for the phenomena of the narrator's perception must also be true for the husband-as-object, his existence is equally dependent upon what he sees and what sees him. The itinerary of objects in the narrative can serve only as the mirror of his conscience, in the double sense; and the absolute rule of consciousness is that it has no opposite, one can never be un-conscious. The ellipses are all atemporal—they mark shifting trains of association. If the husband exists in "actuality," his life can last only as long as the events he describes. The narrative is as timeless as the maintenant with which it begins; it can be considered a single event, a phenomenon, in the literal sense. (p. 565)
Because the field of the husband's perception is confined only by the reach of his imagination, and because he is never unconscious, he can find himself only in a universe of his own making whose center is wherever he happens to be. And each perception is equally weighted with significance because its significance is constituted in its relation to all others—not merely the actual, but all of the possible moments of self-perception. The time of the narrative unfolds, consequently, on the metaphoric rather than the sequential plane. And what is true of time is equally true of space: it is significant only in its refusal to measure the distance between subject and object. (p. 566)
In the wake of several critical attempts to reappropriate a chrono-logic in La Jalousie, [Robbe-Grillet] admits that he had made such a reconstruction impossible. It was not a "whimsical shuffling of calendar time" in order to deceive l'académie, he reveals, but merely an attempt to demonstrate that the only order possible for the novel is that of its sentences: "the unfolding of a story which had no other reality than that of the narrative, a development which functioned nowhere else than in the mind of the invisible narrator, that is, of the writer, and of the reader."
It should be expected that this poétique merely exposes itself more insistently in La Jalousie, which has served as a crossroads in the development of the nouveau roman. It begins with Robbe-Grillet's first novel, Les Gommes. Here, the role of the column's shadow is played by the hero's watch. It stops, presumably at seven-thirty, when the action begins, and starts ticking again during the moment of the murder, the paradoxical denouement of the action…. As in La Jalousie, all of the episodes of the histoire are circumscribed by the same event and thus are compressed into the space of a split-second, the trajectory taken by the assassin's bullet. Of course, Robbe-Grillet deliberately confuses the identities of the victim, the assassin, and the detective in keeping with the ambiguity of time occupied by each of the murders at the perimeters of the novel. He thereby throws into question the actuality of all "intervening" events. But the interfusion of time and identity is no more arbitrary here than it is in La Jalousie—it functions to suggest that the only space where overlapping or mutually exclusive identities may coexist is that of a single consciousness. (pp. 567-68)
Indeed all the characters appear de trop. Dupont is at once victim and assassin, Albert Dupont as well as Daniel Dupont. Wallas is the special agent sent out to apprehend the assassin only to find himself become the victim, Dupont, or the murderer himself, depending upon the light in which one reads the final scene of the action…. Suddenly the skein of narrative journeys collapses, the identities staked out in each become superimposed. Like the paths traced by two cosmic worms eating their way through the einsteinian apple of the universe, those followed by Wallas and Dupont become one without ever having intersected until this moment. That intersection also collapses the Dasein of existences differentiated in time. Wallas, who has experienced flashbacks of a search for his father throughout the narrative, finds in the end that it is his own father (or himself at another time—in another histoire) whose essence is usurped by the confluence of their respective quests. (pp. 568-69)
That the quest for [the] eraser, which reappears in several of Robbe-Grillet's narratives, should be coterminous with Wallas' quest for his father's assassin is, of course, also a deliberate parody of the myth of narrative illusion. Like the indelible mark of the centipede in La Jalousie, the eraser becomes a talisman which reveals the narrative as a conjurer's trick, giving the illusion of linear progression through a "sequence" of simultaneously occurring alternatives of the action…. Like the photograph of the tableau in the window (a parody of mimesis remarkably similar to René Magritte's surrealist canvases), the eraser serves as a palimpsest upon which are brought into coexistence the past and the present, the mythical and the actual histoires. It cannot erase one or the other completely; traces of each remain, superimposed, as indeed they must in the reader's consciousness once the association has been made. A similar association of identities is occasioned in the surfacing of the eraser throughout the narrative, and in its wake trails again the question of narrative consciousness which finds metaphorical expression throughout this novel in the riddle of the sphynx. (p. 569)
As we might expect from any detective novel, it is the least suspicious consciousness that is invariably guilty of authoring the crime. In Les Gommes the role is fulfilled by le patron of the "Prologue."… It is le patron, in the double sense of "proprietor" and "pattern," who is again discovered in the "Epilogue," his massive body leaning on out-spread arms, still staring with a twisted smile into the mirror-aquarium of his reflections, which are filled with floating images and spectres "from fifty years of badly digested existence." There can be little doubt that this flotsam serves doubly as the imagery of the text; that le patron is at once the editor and the author of the scenes of the novel; that the eraser best serves as the instrument of narrative choice—erasing now one episode, now another—always leaving behind the traces of each actuality and the anticipation of other possibilities; that the "time which sees all" of the prefatory note discovers, finally, the only possible solution to the riddle in the riddle itself.
It makes little difference that le patron is not completely alone in these scenes, that his actions are being observed by another narrator. Not until La Jalousie will the "efficient cause" and the "sufficient cause" of the narrative coincide in the sense of that roman sur rien dreamed of by Flaubert. It may be ironic, moreover, but it could scarcely be considered unfaithful to a genuine phenomenal poetics to present the author of the narrative Dasein with a mere walk-on role in it—dreams, films, and waking experience alike lend ample precedent to illustrate that the "subject" must be first the perceived. It is merely an illusion anyway since this is narrative, and the language of the entire text must reflect an image of a singly intentional consciousness, ubiquitous and omniscient behind all the protean disguises of his fictional discourse. The discrepancy between the proprietor and the "outside narrator" finds its rationale in the irony which obtains between the dreamer and the dreamed, the self-image of the perceiver as it plays across the mirrors of the "Other." It is the paradoxical discrepancy between consciousness and self-consciousness, the author and the text. (pp. 569-70)
This self-reflection, so obviously parodic, recurs in practically every line of the novel; even where it is not self-evident it exists between the lines, silhouetting the author's image in the interstices. It is Robbe-Grillet who arises from the tomb of the text, enshrouded in its parole. He is Wallas, playing the detective role worthy of Poe's Auguste Dupin, sequestering the solution to the riddle in the obvious by inverting the envelope of the text. In his search for the center of the city, which doubles for the center of the narrative, Wallas comes across a poster which he has seen throughout the country…. (p. 570)
This poster looks forward to the one which surfaces throughout the course of Le Voyeur, serving in its different guises to record the scene of the crime and the scène-dutexte … Along with the erasure of boundaries between hero, narrative, author, and reader, [Robbe-Grillet] erases those between his own novels, causing the fictional discourse to collapse in a confusion of intersecting images. "Trying to decipher the entanglement of curves and angles [in Le Voyeur], Mathias no longer recognizes anything—he is even incapable of establishing if there were actually two different superimposed images, or else a single image, or even a greater number." And when he steps back to get a better view of the whole, like the old man in Les Gommes, he finds merely a flux of representations changing and incomprehensible.
This affiche is indecipherable precisely because it is a simulacrum of the paysage of the narrative, a palimpsest of intertwining itineraries and overlapping images which call attention to the overdetermination of consciousness and to the endlessness of its modifications. As in all of Robbe-Grillet's novels, this is the narrative of a single consciousness…. If there exists a slight discrepancy between the narrator's point of view and that of Mathias, it cannot be considered grounds for a narrative duality, evidence for a distinction between the imaginary and the actual. The sole voyeur is the author—in actuality, the reader—who sees everything as it is, in itself. The sole time is that of the narration, the reading time, the six hours' itinerary through narrative consciousness which must double back upon itself like the figure-eight insignia of infinity that serves to structure the journey. The best metaphorical agent of authorial presence is Mathias as child, sitting at his desk looking out of the window at a seagull which he sketches. Aside from forming a convenient portrait of the artist, it collapses the space of time and identity separating Mathias and the child … and it serves at the same time to reveal the superimposition of the perceiver and the perceived. The child's collection of strings, coiled into figure-eights and kept in a box, is a model of the novelist's collection of narrative possibilities, the phenomena of the text.
The danger in this self-reflexive freeplay is that it might come full circle and seal the lid on its own tomb. Yet it could scarcely choose not to unmask itself as object. For the novel to pretend to be anything other than narrative would fictionalize the phenomenal interrelations of the consciousnesses which brings it into being. Robbe-Grillet thus attempts to dispel that pathetic fallacy which artificially differentiates the histoire within the text from the histoire of the text, and by implication, subject from object, the sign from its referent. The nouveau roman is thus obligated to record not only the narrator's visions but the author's revisions as well, since they are one and the same. (pp. 571-72)
If it was difficult to discern the poétique of self-actualization in Robbe-Grillet's early novels, the appearance of Dans le labyrinthe (1959) stripped away the last shreds of the veil from the metanovel…. In the Labyrinth merely uncovers the narrator, at his desk behind the velvet curtains that hide the window in front of him, at work on the novel which, describing the world "outside," comes into being as he writes. Yet here, too, the author must remain invisible. His presence is intuited only as the subliminal center of the infinite layers of association triggered in his perception of objects lying around him in his room. (pp. 573-74)
The novel … thrusts a mirror between the traditional semantic dualism of sign and referent—since the world signified by the fictional signifier is also fictional, it can admit no actuality outside itself. Robbe-Grillet goes a step further to argue that because it is the representative of all signs, language can have no signification outside itself, nothing is exterior to it. Following this logic, one would have to conclude with Robbe-Grillet that the narrative image is more real because it is imaginary; that is, because it demystifies the impasse between the imaginary and the real. Robbe-Grillet's invisible narrators are confronted everywhere with the problem of decoding a universe they have created. The implication of the texts is that there is no reality outside of the affabulation of consciousness, no truth which is not a fiction. (pp. 574-75)
Alwin L. Baum, "The Metanovel: Robbe-Grillet's Phenomenal 'Nouveau Roman'," in boundary 2 (copyright © boundary 2, 1978), Vol. VI, No. 2, Winter, 1978, pp. 557-75.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 936
In his first novel in almost seven years [Topology of a Phantom City], Alain Robbe-Grillet, spokesman and practitioner of the new novel (nouveau roman), conjures up the destroyed city of Vanadium. Using old and new tools "the city once more rears up …"—a city of both old and startlingly new forms. An archeologist (David G.? the narrator? the reader?) digs through abandoned rooms and endless corridors, "unrecognizable fragments of what were palatial homes, public buildings … houses of prostitution…." (p. 11)
Topology begins with a section entitled "Incipit" (Latin, "It begins") and ends with a "Coda." Except for similar moves in The Erasers …, with its Prologue and Epilogue, and in Jealousy …, where, on the first page, we find "titles" for the eight sections, this is Robbe-Grillet's first novel whose text is stopped again and again with individually named chapters. Apropos of archeology, however, we are not given chapters but, instead, five "spaces." (pp. 11-12)
There are probably more V's in Topology than any single piece of writing to date. Most of the buildings we uncover are triangular—three V's at once! (One has to wonder why the author made no use of vector.)…
If Robbe-Grillet is digging through the rubble of his past work, what can be salvaged? What can be conjured up? Simply a topology of old structures?…
Some of the old tools we find here are the repetition of phrases and "confusions" (the "same" event happening again differently), impaled virgins, and general sadomasochistic episodes (women chained with iron bracelets, assassins dressed in black, gleaming stilettos plunged into white, supple breasts—all recalling earlier works, for example La Maison de Rendezvous and "The Secret Room")….
Having a play performed within the action of the novel (here, "The Birth of David"), or employing stage-setting directives, is also a familiar technique, one he used in Last Year at Marienbad …, La Maison, Project for a Revolution in New York, and Jealousy…. In Topology we find cameras, pictures, drawings, and paintings, all described to set (and enact) scenes; we experience temporal reversals and overlaps (effected through his characteristic present tense grammar). Once again we are confronted with intentional "inaccuracies" and ambiguities."…
In a startling turn, he makes direct references to many of his past novels. Is Robbe-Grillet playing with his critics and/or his established reading audience? Perhaps he simply plans to "help us out"—with some new tools!…
The author's employment of language also marks a new turn in this work: the strange, illusive transitions of scenes; the addresses to and remarks about "the narrator," "the reader," "the dreamer," "the listener"; the looseness of his language resulting in sentence fragments, language rhythms. But what might be the two most striking contradictions to his past premises of the nouveau roman are his use of myth and poetic voice. Myth, one could safely argue, breeds depth, something Robbe-Grillet has come out strongly in opposition to.
Yet we find not only a myth related within the novel, but many scenes paralleling it. And it is difficult to see how poetic voice can yield anything but poetic vision—vision at least in most cases committed to a depth of things….
Lest we think Robbe-Grillet out of control, he straightens us out: "We've had enough of outings into the country, voyages, adjectives, and metaphors. We tried that for fun; it wasn't much fun. We change." And later, the foliage of the vast, abandoned forest surrounding the impossibly large dwelling beats at the panes of the windows "like some sly sea alive with adjectives and metaphors, poised to swallow you up." Yet and still further on, in the "Coda," we are swimming once again in poetic voicings. Is Robbe-Grillet playing with us?
We might criticize this book in terms of the discrepancies it sets up between theory and practice. Speaking out against the metaphor in For a New Novel (essays on fiction), Robbe-Grillet states, "Metaphor is never an innocent figure of speech," and "metaphor is almost always a useless comparison which contributes nothing new to the description." In the same book we read, "All analogies are just as dangerous." Against myth and depth he says that "trying to define the direction of a still tentative development in the art of the novel, I described as a constant factor 'the destitution of the old myths of depth,'" and, "Drowned in the depth of things, man ultimately no longer perceives them…." Against tragedy: "Tragedy may be defined, here, as an attempt to 'recover' the distance which exists between man and things as a new value…."…
Even granting a difference between "recover" and "uncover" (as in archeology), there still remains this discrepancy: as an extra-novel maneuver a "tragic" uncovering is not problematic, for Vanadium is Robbe-Grillet's invented city (invented for the first time, and so we cannot have here the case of a recovery guised in an uncovering)—yet internal to Topology the I-persona sacrifices non-illusion to the altar of tragedy, where myth, depth, poetic voice, and vision all reveal their jeweled stilletos, their black togas, their ambiguous intentions—he conjures up Vanadium….
If Robbe-Grillet, in this latest novel, is digging through the rubble, why? For simply a topology of old structures? Sifting through visions conjured up, what does he find? If Topology of a Phantom City flaps like a fish out of water, it is only the water of prior critical jargon. Robbe-Grillet may be flapping not on the altar of his own sacrifice—but for the new novel, the new man. (p. 12)
R. Bartkowech, "Topology of a Phantom City: Alain Robbe-Grillet," in The American Book Review (© 1978 by The American Book Review), Vol. 1, No. 2, April-May, 1978, pp. 11-12.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 314
It is possibly (a key word here) significant that Robbe-Grillet's phantom city [in Topology of a Phantom City] should have a topology and not a topography and that the reader should be required to accept the arbitrariness of the writer's perceptions and imaginings, while being expected to attend scrupulously to the single bar of a prison window which would be rectangular rather than spherical in cross-section. No doubt (another key phrase), we are wrong to rely on the author/voyeur, who may see variously or inaccurately, misunderstand what he sees, and wish, as well, to deceive us…. The invitation to participate in the construction and construing of the "text" may be genuine, but as soon as we accept it we find ourselves to be flailing amateurs, dangerously prone to confusing genres and predicting outcomes from internal evidence. The novel is certainly not, according to the famous Barthesian distinction, culpably lisible. What about illisible?…
As a technical exercise designed to demonstrate what a dodgy business reading is, especially if we've been schooled to depend on some notion of a writerly purpose, the novel is predictably (prediction, like expectation, being discouraged, of course) adroit. It is unlikely that the allusions to artefacts: painting, forms of script, mirror images, will be lost on the alert reader, whose wish that the Piranesi townscape might remain static long enough for its features to be examined will, of course, be frustrated…. Pity the obliging reader, dutifully attentive to clues to which all usefulness must be denied, conceding readily his crassness and limitations as a novel reader, and all for some only fairly tantalizing glimpses of artfully positioned and possibly bloodstained (it could in the end be melon juice) nighties and their temporary occupants.
Jane Miller, "Watching the Girls Go By," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3982, July 28, 1978, p. 838.