In the usual understanding of the term, there is no “story” in this novel. The author’s method of narration is deliberately designed to challenge conventional reader expectations. Events in the novel do not follow in a straight line from beginning to end; the pattern is more a convolution of episodes repeated again and again with minor variations, out of which there emerges a partially realized story.
A synopsis of Jealousy, therefore, sounds strange, with good reason. The type of novel exemplified by Jealousy, and of which Alain Robbe-Grillet is both the principal theorist and practitioner, is termed New Novel or “antinovel.” Even considering the innovations in the novel by major twentieth century novelists such as James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and William Faulkner, the New Novel is, in many ways, without precedent. From the 1950’s through the 1970’s especially, it represented an extremely provocative, internationally influential approach to the craft of fiction by French writers such as Michel Butor, Natalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Robbe-Grillet.
Born in 1922, Robbe-Grillet came to intellectual maturity in a mid-twentieth century France divided by vicious political antagonisms and shattered by war but also animated by tremendous artistic and intellectual creative activity, such as the Theater of the Absurd, abstract expressionist painting, and existentialist philosophy—especially the last. Existentialism’s main assertions—that the human is a radically free agent; that the universe has no meaning; that “meaning” itself is a perceptual construct validated only by action—became articles of faith for the French intellectual left during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Many writers derived themes of alienation or despair from such premises, but for Robbe-Grillet, the meaninglessness of life is simply a neutral fact. Meaning is the pattern imposed by consciousness upon experience; reality cannot be understood apart from our perceptions of it, which are always subjective no matter how objective they may seem. For Robbe-Grillet, the role of the novelist is not to seek out truths on such subjects as life, character, or morals but to challenge the reader’s uncritical acceptance of such myths. The meaning of a Robbe-Grillet novel is to be sought in the techniques by which he subverts the very notion of meaning while creating an intriguing fictional structure that shimmers like a mirage with enigmatic significance.
The most basic and...
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