Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745
The creator of the fictional realm of Fantoine and Agapa, Robert Pinget (pihn-zhay) explored the limits of language in his novels and plays. After receiving a law degree from the University of Geneva and practicing briefly he had turned first to visual art, then to literature. In 1951 he published a collection of short stories, Between Fantoine and Agapa, at his own expense. Mahu, his first novel, appeared the following year and received a favorable review from the French avant-garde writer Alain Robbe-Grillet. His next novel, Le Renard et la boussole (the fox and the compass), came out under the prestigious imprint of Gallimard, whose reader, Albert Camus, found the work impressive. Subsequent fiction also enjoyed critical acclaim: In 1963 The Inquisitory won the Prix des Critiques, and Someone received the Prix Femina two years later. A Ford Foundation grant in 1960 and a sabbatical subsidized by the French government (1975-1976) paid further tribute to his literary achievement.
Pinget’s career as a dramatist was as productive as his efforts as a novelist. In 1959 he translated Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall (pr., pb. 1957) into French; Beckett returned the favor by rendering La Manivelle into The Old Tune, which was aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on August 23, 1960. In that same year Pinget’s Dead Letter shared the stage with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (pr., pb. 1958). Despite his 1968 vow to stop writing, Pinget continued to produce experimental literature that challenged his audiences to discover meaning in a world of chaos.
Always an innovator, Pinget shared his compatriot Robbe-Grillet’s view that literature should be “an exploration, but an exploration which itself creates its own significations as it proceeds.” Robbe-Grillet adds to his statement, “We no longer believe in the fixed significations, the ready-made meanings which offered man the old divine order and subsequently the rationalist order of the nineteenth century.” Hence language, and identity that springs from it, is constantly in flux. In Identité (identity), the protagonist, Mortin, wishing to discuss his doctor, speaks of l’analyse (analysis). The maid, Naomi, hears Anne-Lise and so shifts the conversation to that woman. In That Voice, the reader cannot be sure whether a leaflet advertises coppers or copiers, whether “a candle was burning at the deceased’s bedside” or “a handle was churning up his diseased backside.”
Personality is as fluid as words. In The Old Tune, Pommard and Toupin recount their early lives. The two sound alike, making them indistinguishable in the radio play, and each seems more familiar with the other’s life than with his own. Levert (Dead Letter) talks to a bartender, then to a clerk, about his missing son. These two listeners may be the same person as well as the son Levert seeks. Two minor figures in that piece, Fred and Lili, claim to act with Bed and Quiqui, whose names are similar to their own, and in the play that Fred and Lili perform they assume their colleagues’ roles. The title characters of Abel et Bela have names and pasts that are virtually identical.
Nothing is certain in Pinget’s works. Why does the young Theodore in That Voice live with his uncle? According to one version, the youth exploits the old man; another account claims that Alexandre was abusing his nephew. How did Alexandre die? Did Theodore stab him? Did Alexandre’s housekeeper, Marie, kill him? Perhaps her nephew, Louis, murdered his aunt’s employer. Perhaps Alexandre died naturally.
At the beginning of the second act of Clope the title character gropes in the dark for a clue that will reveal his past to him and so allow him to make sense of his life. All Pinget’s characters are embarked on similar quests as they try to understand themselves and their surroundings. Like Clope, they are doomed because ambiguity reigns in Pinget’s fiction, as it does in the late twentieth century world he records. Geography, language, identity, motivation—they all shift. As Baga tells Architruc, “There’s no ‘life.’ There’s you.”
Such a view can be tragic for those seeking definite answers, but it can also be liberating. Because reality is subjective, people can be whatever and whoever they want to be and to do whatever they wish. Existence is a kaleidoscope: Lacking a single pattern, it has many; thus characters, writers, and readers are free to mold themselves and their environment. As Friedrich Nietzsche observed, “There must be chaos that new worlds may be born.”