Alain Robbe-Grillet Robbe-Grillet, Alain (Vol. 14) - Essay

Bruce Morrissette

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1638 words.)

Ben Stoltzfus

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?...

(The entire section is 2481 words.)

Alwin L. Baum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 3506 words.)

R. Bartkowech

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 936 words.)

Jane Miller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.