Warp Records’ “Artificial Intelligence” series, 25 years on

I don’t intend to write often about music on this blog, but a recent Guardian article reminded me that a group of albums that I love are approaching their quarter-century. Given that they transformed my musical tastes, I thought it worth revisiting them and the effect they had on me. Also, in an era where information can be found in seconds, it’s interesting to look back at a time when cryptic liner notes and credits were all you had to go on when making discoveries and connections.

Many 1990s retrospectives follow a predictable line of easy signposts: early 90s rave, baggy, shoegaze (if you’re lucky), grunge, Britpop, drum n’ bass, big beat (if you’re unlucky). Those that dig a little deeper will cover the underground electronica which crossed over (Orbital, Leftfield, Underworld, The Future Sound of London, the Orb, etc.), but some of the most revered acts and albums of the time are those which passed under the radar of the cultural gatekeepers, via the then-Sheffield-based Warp Records, but which ultimately had a huge impact on the development of electronic music.

In 1992 Warp released a compilation called “Artificial Intelligence“. They followed it up the next year with groundbreaking albums by the acts featured on it, making ’93 a year which marks, for me, the highpoint of electronic music*. Easy to forget now, but at this time, it was unusual for the NME (let alone Melody Maker) to cover electronica in much depth: you had to buy DJ or Mixmag (or, later, Muzik); the idea that broadsheet newspapers would review such albums was unthinkable.

Artificial Intelligence

By late 1992 when I started University, my musical tastes were moving away from guitar-based indie. The Shamen and Primal Scream had been my gateway to electronica: firstly to The Orb and Orbital and then, under the influence of my friends, some of the progressive house and early trance of Guerilla Records. The bassline to FSOL’s “Papua New Guinea” alone did much to convert me. This was what the future was going to sound like, and it didn’t involve guitars.

A friend left the CD of Artificial Intelligence at my house along with a host of others, and it was initially the one that looked least promising. Among the rest were Hardfloor’s classic second-wave acid “Trancescript” and a compilation with a superb, and then-rare, remix of Orbital’s “Open Mind“. The green CD with the robot on the front looked impenetrable. But I gave it a spin, possibly because the closing track was a version of “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain” by The Orb’s Alex Paterson (listed here as “Loving You” and credited to Paterson himself for legal reasons).


The cover image (by Phil Wolstenholme, top) was an exciting – and witty – vision of what computer graphics could do. The message on it is clear: the record is coming from the label which released “LFO”, “Tricky Disco”, “Dextrous” and “Testone” (all on Warp’s own “Pioneers of the Hypnotic Groove”, on the floor by the chair), but it isn’t for the dancefloor. “Electronic listening music”, it said. Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk were closer to the mark: this was “music for late nights and chill dawns”.

Most of the electronic stuff I’d listened to so far had been either not too far from the indie-dance stuff, or quite dubby. The abstract, metallic soundscapes on Artificial Intelligence were something new to me. But another of the CDs left with me was Network Records’ superb 1990 compilation Biorhythm (subtitled “dance music with bleeps”), and I listened to these two albums with increasing fascination. Although the tempos of the two CDs were quite different, and the sounds of the Warp one far more abstract, these were my initiation to the world of Detroit techno. It was all new to me: both this second wave of techno, and the late 80s Detroit stuff which had influenced it. The reference points on the AI inlay card were as esoteric as the sounds I was listening to. Who was Derrick May? Well, Biorhythm had the track “Emanon” by Rhythim is Rhythim: there’s your answer.

For music to listen to after a night’s clubbing, ambient had passed its first 89-90 peak (KLF, Orb, 808 State) and not yet found its 1994 second wind (Fax records, Rising High records, SAW2) but as Jochem Paap noted, “ambient means in the background. This focuses on that it has to be listened to.” It seems unbelievable now, but there was little at the time in the mid-tempo range of electronica to sit and listen to. There was club music you could play at home (Orbital were moving towards their trance peak of 1992-3), but it was really designed for dancing. There was ambient (The Irresistible Force’s lovely Flying High was released in ’92, as was UFOrb), but that was for spacing out to. There was a gap in between that needed filling. Dave Simpson in Melody Maker, in his review of AI, noted that this was “music to provoke thought rather than to nullify it”.

And the music? The opening track on the compilation was “Polygon Window” by Aphex Twin (recording as “The Dice Man”, which caused a spike in sales of records by an identically-named – but very different – artist on Vivatonal records). His wonderful “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” was being passed around at the time. This was much more raw, but gripping. I liked the slightly cheesy concept of “Telefone 529” by Musicology (B12) but came to a shuddering halt against “Crystel” by the then-unknown Autechre. “The Clan” by I.A.O. (Black Dog) managed to be both abstract but warm, and so was Speedy J’s “De-Orbit”. “Preminition” by Musicology I disliked for many years: too harsh! too loud! Yet at the same time, the next track was the one that finally hooked me: “Spiritual High” by UP! Another low-key rumble from Autechre followed, then a nice quasi-ambient wash from Speedy J and, to my further surprise, the closing Alex Paterson track stood out like a sore thumb: the track I’d been most keen to hear as a fan of The Orb just did not sit with the other tracks. In the time it had taken to listen to the CD, my tastes needed re-evaluating.

Then, in 1993, we were drip-fed every month or so a new emission from Warp as these artists released their individual albums. The production values were superb: The Designers Republic rarely did better work than their Warp sleeves during this period, and their abstract beauty was a world away from the tired cliches of hyperreal dance music visuals and circuit board imagery.

Polygon Window: “Surfing on Sine Waves”

I love “SAW 85-92” and some of his other tracks, but have never been an Aphex convert. His mid-90s drill & bass stuff left me cold, and there’s a gleeful darkness to much of his work that I couldn’t, and still can’t, get into. The opening track here (“Polygon Window”, again), the scrapyard frenzy of “Quoth” and a few others I can listen to, but I rarely bother and long ago sold my vinyl copy (which I bought in Chalmers & Joy, Dundee: is that shop still there?). But at the time it sounded like nothing else, and that was enough.

Black Dog Productions: “Bytes”

This is great, and a remastered version is long overdue. My cousin had it on (gatefold) vinyl, and it was both accessible and (for early 1993) very odd at the same time. Simon Reynolds described it as being “asymmetrical dance music for beings with an odd number of limbs”. Weird breaks, tracks that seemed to last seconds before veering off at tangents; everything buzzing with unquenchable energy; it was a world unto itself, and remains a highlight of Warp’s back catalogue. Black Dog had been around for several years by this point, and 2007’s “Book of Dogma” gathered their early stuff. By then the trio had long since split (into Plaid and Black Dog) after their 1995 LP “Spanners”. Both acts continue to this day, and whereas Plaid’s stuff I’ve always found a bit insipid, Black Dog still produce deep, thoughtful electronica. This, arguably, is the AI release which has best stood the test of time.


B12: “Electro-Soma”

This caught my attention as I walked into HMV in Dundee, but the name “B12” meant nothing to me at first. Their tracks on the compilation had been under the Musicology name, and they weren’t happy that Warp marketed them as “B12”. For them, that was the name of their own label, and the tracks they released on it had been under such monikers as Redcell and Cmetric: not “B12”.

This is the AI release that really wound Simon Reynolds up in his 1998 book Energy Flash, but it’s the one I’ve listened to most consistently (and has just been remastered and re-released). What I didn’t know at the time was that the acts were offered fat contracts by Warp (giving Aphex a permanent home and launching Autechre’s career) but B12 rejected the advance. As a result, they released only two more records for Warp (1996’s fine Time Tourist and the ugly duckling drum & bass/jazz of 1998’s 3EP) before going on a decade-long hiatus.

From the opening wash of “Soundtrack of Space” to the plangent “Drift” (vinyl only), I was hooked. It maybe lacked the industrial aggression that the early Detroit releases sublimated, but there was no better gateway drug for me to the Detroit (or Detroit-influenced) sound of techno.

F.U.S.E.: Dimension Intrusion

For many years, this was my favourite album. Although Richie Hawtin’s earlier work as F.U.S.E. was strictly for the dancefloor – and appears here courtesy of cuts such as “Substance Abuse” and “F.U.” – the newer pieces** reflected a change of mood. Introspective, subtle and haunting, “A New Day”, “U.V.A.”, “Mantrax” and the title track blew me away then and still do.


Hawtin, in coming from Windsor, Canada, was the closest to an actual Detroit artist – and along with Speedy J the only non-UK artist – in the AI series. Dimension Intrusion and Electro-Soma were both compiled from the back catalogues of their owners’ labels (Plus 8 and B12 respectively) with a few new tracks added, rather than being recorded as cohesive albums. In Hawtin’s case, the musical progression, and the shift in style and tempo, is more obvious. Although he mutated into Plastikman and released some excellent music in the rest of the 90s, for me nothing he has done since has matched the atmosphere of the handful of tracks here.

Speedy J: Ginger

Rotterdam’s Jochem Paap was signed to Hawtin’s Plus 8 Records, and “De-Orbit” (which ends the UK release of Ginger) appeared on his 1991 Intercontinental EP for that label. Again, the development of electronic music was so fast at that time that “De-Orbit” already felt out of place, tacked on to the end of an album whose true final track was the gorgeous “Pepper”***. Although Paap later dismissed the album as over-produced, it bleeps and blips serenely, though always with a subtle, steely undercurrent that he let rip on 1997’s Public Energy. Paap released a club-friendly (and now somewhat dated) remix of “Pepper” the following year, and the lovely G Spot album on Warp in 1995 before he, like Hawtin, licensed his UK work to NovaMute.


Autechre: Incunabula

I never bought this album until 1998, by which time I had all their other releases and had seen them live twice. Although I bought Basscadet in 1994, nothing about the tracks on the compilation could convince me to shell out for their album. A mistake, in hindsight: Incunabula is their most accessible record (which isn’t saying much), and a vast improvement on those two early tracks (“The Egg” reworked here as “Eggshell”). This release was notable for the first appearance of a small “AI” logo, of a smiling face receiving audio waves. Cute, but surely not a good sign?

Artificial Intelligence II

Summer 1994 saw the release of a follow-up compilation. Featuring most of the original artists, plus others, this was a bigger affair, with a broader range of styles reflecting the quantum leaps electronica had made in the intervening 24 months. But for me, more wasn’t necessarily better. Although some of the tracks were outstanding (those by Speedy J, Richard H Kirk and Link in particular), there was a harshness to the likes of Seefeel and Polygon Window that for me defied the whole “listening” concept. It was the final release consciously branded as “Artificial Intelligence” (barring “Motion“, a 40-minute VHS of (for the time) stunning computer animation by Phil Wolstenholme, David Slade and Jess Scott Hunter). As Warp founders Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell noted, when HMV begins to stock the likes of “Now That’s What I Call Artificial Intelligence!”, the movement is over.


The series, though, signified a huge change in the culture of dance & electronic music. Acts had released albums before with mixed success (both The KLF and Orbital had done it well), but Artificial Intelligence was a tipping point. It’s from this moment that the album or the 74-minute CD, and not the fast turnover of white label 12″ singles, became the main concern of many aspiring artists.

This bourgeoisification of electronic music, as Simon Reynolds notes, happened at the same time as the tempo dropped and the focus moved away from the communal experience of the rave or club into the more private surroundings of the home. For Reynolds, this was a sapping of dance music’s power and energy, resulting in “test-card muzak” and which marked a

“full scale retreat from the most radical aspect of rave music…towards more traditional ideas, namely the auteur theory of the solitary genius. Because it was founded on exclusion (musical and social)…it ultimately paved the way for its own dead-end redundancy.”

Reynolds was scathing about the whole AI project in Energy Flash, which raised my hackles when it came out in 1998, but he’s right about the initial compilation: it’s difficult to look at objectively now and see what the fuss was about. It isn’t, on its own merits, an outstanding compilation: Musicology had better – or more representative – work; two tracks by an unsigned band was a gamble (Autechre went on to great things, but “The Egg” and “Crystel” wouldn’t have suggested it); the appearance of Alex Paterson seemed incongruous; and the Richie Hawtin track, though an absolute belter, undermined the “listening music” concept. But the album and its sequels changed my life, and my musical tastes (which amount to the same thing, no?). As a statement of intent, and for what it signified, Artificial Intelligence is one of the most important releases of the last 30 years. Not that I love 1992! would tell you that.


*also out in ’93:

  • Spooky: Gargantuan (Guerilla)
  • Orbital: Orbital [Brown album] (Internal)
  • Orbital: Peel Session (Internal)
  • Amorphous Androgynous: Tales of Ephidrena (Virgin)
  • The Future Sound of London: Cascade (Virgin)
  • Underworld: Rez/Cowgirl (Boys’ Own)
  • Reload: A Collection of Short Stories (Infonet)

**the comprehensive sleevenotes by NME’s Sherman provided a history of Hawtin’s Plus 8 record label, and the state of Detroit techno since the late 80s heyday of May, Atkins & Saunderson, along with composition dates for the tracks on the album.

***Trainspotter alert! Vinyl and CD contained different versions of “Pepper”.



Reynolds, Simon: Energy Flash (, 1998)

Young, Rob: Warp (Labels Unlimited) (BDP, 2005)


Peter Lanyon: Liminality & Psychogeography

The art of Peter Lanyon – who died 53 years ago today – is, like all great art, uncompromising. For those seeking “Cornish Art”, it has none of the serenity of the calm seascapes on offer in every gallery in every tiny cove. But if you’re prepared to look beyond the initially daunting surface of Lanyon’s vast canvasses, there is much on show that should strike a chord with many who come to experience (and I use the word advisedly) the liminal zone – where sea meets land meets sky – of Cornwall. There’s nothing wrong with the calming blue landscapes on show elsewhere: there are worse things than a memento of a Cornish summer in the grip of a bleak, grey Scottish winter. But Lanyon’s work is a distillation of Cornwall: its long past, and the ever-present moment of vivid experience.


You need only stand on any headland – Lizard, Cape Cornwall, Trevose Head – to recognise in the 270° sea, and 180° sky, what works such as Silent Coast, High Ground, High Wind, and my favourite, Thermal, exemplify: the experience of being in a place where edges meet and clash.

Lanyon, in his travels across Cornwall, wanted to come “on a place unawares”, and capture the first sight of it before it settled into familiarity. In the days before he took up gliding, he would do this by running up to a sudden view, or turning over to see it upside-down; by hanging onto a cliff-face, or by diving. “A formal conception of landscape”, he said, “is a horizon set low, dividing the canvas in top and bottom” which “presupposes a fixed viewpoint”.

His greatest works are his gliding paintings of 1959-1962*, and though they may depict a view of Cornwall few of us are lucky enough to share, they are more conventionally beautiful and accessible to the casual viewer than much of his earlier work. At least, the names (Thermal, again) quite clearly match what the canvas shows: airy blues and whites rising and spilling and colliding. His own intrusion to this barren kingdom is symbolised by the streak of red seen in Solo Flight and Soaring Flight.

For walkers on the South-West Coastal Path, for surfers at Fistral or Praa Sands and for sea-kayakers off the Lizard, though their pursuits differ there is a shared goal of the sheer in-the-moment experience. Lanyon’s work re-presents this. In simple terms, from the mid-1950s, he didn’t seek to paint a place, but the sense(s) of being in that place. Compare two paintings of Portreath. The first, Portreath (below), from 1949 is an abstracted but still-recognisable portrayal of the fishing village near Camborne. The latter, Offshore (1959) only shows symbolic elements of green and blue, but the energy imbued in the work suggests the winds off the coast, and an approaching storm. If the sky is vertical in a Lanyon, it’s probably because he was lying down at the time, catching the view unawares. Offshore shows what it felt like to be there, not what it looked like.

Peter Lanyon: Portreath (1947)
Peter Lanyon: Portreath (1949)


On his return to St Ives after the Second World War, he had sought a reconnection with the countryside of his youth, and this process informed his work throughout his life, even when working abroad (in Czechoslovakia, for instance; the USA; or Devon). This led first to an appreciation of the history of a place (and the role of human labour in that history), then to portraying the sensation of being in a place at a particular moment, and then, as he sought ever-new ways of experiencing the world around him, into the air (and, ultimately, to his death after a gliding accident).

From the late 40s to the late 50s his work is dark, earthy and rooted in particular places. His palette is redolent of the greens and browns and blacks of the Penwith peninsula’s farms, fields and walls. He wanted to bring out the smell of dung in a farmyard in the work Bojewyan Farms. This is one of a series of agricultural paintings done in the early 50s after a walk from Pendeen to St. Just, through the near-barren farmlands which still cling to the cliff-edges of Penwith on the most western face of England. The map he later drew of the walk shows the route and the paintings it inspired:


As if working out an atavistic guilt over his family’s wealth from the local mining industry, his work at this time is filled with references to human labour: thick black mineshafts, and what Cambridge art historian James Fox described as one of the most significant pieces of British art in the 20th Century, St. Just (1953). This not only commemorates the men killed in a mining accident at the Levant mine near St. Just in 1919, but stands now as an elegy for an entire lost industry.

By ironic coincidence, this walk (which we would now think of as an exercise in psychogeography) traces the route of the B3306, today widely considered as one of the most “picturesque” roads in the UK. But for Lanyon, the act of walking, of touching the Cornish hedges, of feeling the road and fields underfoot, was the crucial thing linking him to the landscape.

In late 2000, Tate St. Ives mounted an exhibition (Peter Lanyon: Coastal Journey) commemorating that walk. For the first time, it grouped together in one space the paintings Lanyon refers to in his map, each of which portrayed a stage of the journey and the associations of that particular spot. In the accompanying catalogue, Andrew Dalton writes that Lanyon

“thought of these works as representing more than a mere tour of the region. He wished to express a complex, multi-layered experience of these places which addressed his sense of the industrial, agricultural, spiritual and mystical aspect of Penwith…to evoke the deeper meanings locked within the landscape.”

Lanyon is buried in the churchyard of St. Uny in Lelant, in a corner sheltered by a small sycamore, beneath a gravestone of granite and slate, those two emblematic Cornish bedrocks. It may seem an incongruous resting place for a man whose greatest works depict the experience of taking wing and soaring above the clashing territories of wave and shoreline, but he was – fanatically – a Cornishman, and this was his territory. Engraved on the slate of his tomb are lines from one of his own poems.

I will ride now

The barren kingdoms

In my history

And in my eye



*This is not to discredit the work that follows from them in the final two years of his life. Though his purpose – to capture the sense of being in a place – changed little in his final years, the style and method did. Alert to changing tastes, and the rise of Pop Art in particular, his response to the new forms of art sees a lightening of touch, an introduction into his “serious” art of the humour he was well-known for. If he lacks the irony of Pop Art, he shares a kindred playfulness, and the bold – but lightly applied – colours of works like Saltillo or Mexico, which almost look like they’ve been done in acrylic rather than oil, reflect this.



Dalton, Andrew: Peter Lanyon: Coastal Journey (Tate, 2000)

Fox, James: The Art of Cornwall (BBC, 2010)

Stephens, Chris: Peter Lanyon:  At the Edge of Landscape (21 Publishing, 2000)

Garlake, Margaret: Peter Lanyon (St. Ives Artists) (Tate, 2002)



Alain Robbe-Grillet: early fiction (part 3)

In this final part of my study of Robbe-Grillet’s early fiction, with today being what would have been his 95th birthday, I’ll look at the novel which, for me, sees him reach the high-point of the nouveau-roman; and a series of experimental (in the true sense of the word) short fictions. By the time of their publication, Robbe-Grillet’s focus had already moved into the world of film-making, his first forays into which I’ll also look at briefly with emphasis on his cine-romans.

By 1959, Alain Robbe-Grillet was the enfant terrible of the French literary and cultural scene (inasmuch as a 37-year-old can be any sort of enfant). Critics had by now a well-established idea of the nouveau roman as a movement even if, as always happens, those lumped together into a scene deny its very existence. The New Novel represented, to the critics, “l’ecole du regard” or “school of the look” being obsessed, as they saw it, by an utterly objective fascination with superficial details. Robbe-Grillet, in his articles for the Nouvelle Review Francaise and later collected as Pour un Nouveau Roman (Towards a New Novel) explained with great patience and in great detail, how his works, on the contrary, were not objective and anti-human, but were utterly subjective and anti-humanist.

His next novel would be the last which by nature of its content was likely to appeal to a broad readership, before his own sexual obsessions drove his work in both cinema and literature.

Dans le Labyrinthe (In the Labyrinth)

I have previously explored the different techniques which each of his works employs (as a writer I have long been keen to examine how he does what he does): in particular the ‘hole’ of The Voyeur and the ‘absent-I’ narrator of Jealousy. In the Labyrinth documents – though it may take several readings for this to become clear – the writing process itself. It expresses itself through the fits and starts, backtrackings and wrong turns of finding a satisfactory narrative path, and the magpie-like collection of phenomena that are woven into a work of art. Its very form is that of the process of the novel itself being written.

The story ostensibly being told is that of an unnamed soldier from an unspecified army, in retreat after losing at the Battle of Reichenfels, and his search for the recipient of the parcel he doggedly carries. That’s the story in a nutshell, on one level. The other story is the writing of that story by a narrator who frames the soldier’s tale, bookending the work, and whose intervention in the tale is evident in places when elements of the story are retraced – with variations – or discarded entirely. The result is a wonderfully claustrophobic maze-like trudge through the empty streets of a deserted town and at the same time, the repeated turns and culs-de-sac of the narrative process.

The book begins with an authorial preface; a typically destabilising effect in which Robbe-Grillet claims “the reality [of the story] is strictly physical…it has no allegorical significance”. Again, as with Jealousy, Robbe-Grillet denounces depth and meaning, and warns us that all that exists is the text. As he was later to say of L’Année dernière à Marienbad, the characters have no existence before the film starts, and none after it ends. In the Labyrinth is, structurally, a counterpart to the script Robbe-Grillet wrote for Alain Resnais’ film.


In a film by Frederic Compain, Robbe-Grillet says of In the Labyrinth that “it’s probably the first of my books, for whom no pre-established anecdote existed before the writing started [and is] the first of my books without a central figure, or central conscience, towards which everything converges”. The narrator here is no je-neant: he comes and goes, with reference to himself, and the soldier is his pawn, at one remove from us. In his autobiographical Ghosts in the Mirror, Robbe-Grillet says “characters…are kinds of phantoms: you can hear or see them, you can never grasp them”.

That remove is blurred early on as we begin the first of our plunges into the depths of this novel. James Lethcoe produced a graph (below) which plots the “levels of reality” in the novel, and is similar to the diagram used by Alain Resnais while filming Marienbad to help him place each scene in the correct slot within the temporal schema.

31-07-2017 14-59-37

As we can see, the bookending “meta” level in which the narrator directly addresses us is Level 0.

This first person soon disappears, having lulled us into a false sense of security about the narrative mode we can expect. This voice makes decisions about the weather: “outside it is raining…outside it is snowing”, but even after the narrative has entered Level 1 the writer is still making changes to the setting of the “story”: “outside it is raining…outside it was snowing”. This prevents us from establishing a continuous timeline, as with Jealousy and its many references to an unspecifiable “now”. As if to remove any remaining doubts as to the unreality of what we’re reading, we come across a description which nests within it a by-now-recognisable Robbe-Grillet trope: the snow removes “all depth from the landscape as if this blurred view were a badly painted trompe l’oeil” (my italics).

The soldier’s journey through the snowy, deserted streets is one we will see over and over again, with varying start- and end-points. What gradually becomes clear is that this journey may only be taking place in the author’s mind (and as Robbe-Grillet said upfront, in any case only exists in the reader’s mind at the time of reading). We can gather this from the use of triggers. Contrary to the hole in The Voyeur, but like the guilty, evasive gaze of Jealousy, these triggers are textual generators: items described which spin off what initially seems a narrative tangent but may signal a change between Levels. These include a lamp, the shadow cast by that lamp, the act of flicking a cloth across a table and, crucially, a print depicting a cafe scene full of soldiers entitled “The Battle of Reichenfels” which is, of course, the battle the soldier we are following has just fled: so how is this possible?

Each time one of these triggers is activated – every time a table is cleaned, for instance – we shift to another Level. This has the wonderfully disorientating moebius loop effect whereby the print will be described – the positions of the figures within it, etc. – and then we are in the mind of the soldier in it, who is also the soldier we have been following, who apparently exists in the same continuum as the print which features him, and so, spiralling, on.

That these recurring events are being arranged in the mind of a controlling author is also demonstrated by the decisions made about their placement: we see this in examples such as “no. Door ajar. Passage. Staircase…no. No. No. The door is not ajar”, and in the earlier decisions about what weather this story will take place in. In some cases, a certain train of events will start, be halted, the story will backtrack and we will then take a different route to the same outcome, which this time will be allowed to play out to the full. Examples of this include the appearance of an enemy motorbike: “Then they heard the sound, very far away, of the motorbike. No. It was something else.” “The” motorbike suggests something already known or anticipated, but it is not time for its appearance for another four pages. The use of the past tense here should also ring alarm bells as to the event’s reality. A little later “the soldier is lying on his bed…his coat is unbuttoned. No. It is in fact another wounded man”: it is not yet time for the soldier’s death, either.

In true postmodern style, this back-tracking and changing highlights the unreal nature of what we are reading. As he writes in his autobiography, the Nouveau Roman “tries to expose and stage accurately the multiple impossibility with which it is contending and of which it is constructed…this intended conflict [becomes] the very subject of the book. Hence the…digressions, cuts and repetitions, blind alleys, shifts in perspective, dislocations…”

Here, this is further aided by typical Robbe-Grillet touches such as suspect numbers (the soldier’s number is 12,345) and doubts about chronology: “yesterday…you saw me yesterday?” The soldier gives the boy he meets a marble. “Where is it from? From my pocket. Before? Before I don’t know”. Yet the mood – of a lonely, snow-covered town – is perfectly sustained and highly atmospheric.

At the end, the soldier is dead, and the first person narrator reappears. But the presence of the cafe print, objects in the room which have appeared in the “story” and the fact that despite the snow, “outside it is raining” suggest, like The Usual Suspects, that the story has been built out of almost nothing. Have we been in a labyrinth, or up the garden path?

Instantanes (Snaphots)

Robbe-Grillet’s next purely literary appearance was the 1963 publication of Snapshots (bundled together in the UK with his collection of theoretical articles, Towards a New Novel), a collection of very brief short stories. Although undated, they read like warm-ups or exercises: initial forays into the use of a device he will later expand on in a novel; in this context, they look back across his work to date, but also – in the case of the final story – point toward his future.

The first is arguably the best-known, later being anthologised in John Fletcher and John Calder’s “The Nouveau Roman Reader” (highly recommended, particularly for the introduction): “The Dressmaker’s Dummy”. Consisting solely of the description of the arrangement of objects in a room, it seems – right up to the penultimate sentence – to provide Robbe-Grillet’s critics with ammunition. As I mentioned at the beginning, “L’ecole du regard” was one disparaging term for the Nouveau Roman because of Robbe-Grillet’s scientific-appearing, highly detailed descriptions (has any writer used the word “parallelepiped” as much?). But “The Dressmaker’s Dummy”, like Jealousy, proves ultimately to demonstrate quite the opposite.

The objects described include a coffee pot, the eponymous dummy, a wardrobe which has a mirror, and a further mirror on the mantelpiece.

So far, so objective. However, not yet described, is the tile upon which the coffee pot rests: not described because not currently visible. The description, having inventoried the primary objects, then expands to include what the action of the mirrors means is actually seen. That is: three dressmaker’s dummies: the object and its reflections. Everything that is reflected, however partial its re-appearance, is described with as much narrative respect as a tangible object, in the same way as Robbe-Grillet’s “objectivised hypothesis” gives equal footing to phenomena existing only in the imagination as to those in the “real” world.

The final two sentences deliver the epiphany: that is, a revelation for the reader, if not the narrator. Because in a move which reveals the subjectivity of the entire piece, the design on the tile (“an owl, with big, somewhat terrifying eyes”) is described. Yet this could only be done by someone who knows what it looks like; an objective “camera” eye could not tell us this, only a je-neant narrator.


“The Way Back” is a startling little description of a walking trip around an island which is attached by a causeway to the mainland. The narrator makes clever use of time and perspective to create a moebius loop in which a view of the island from the mainland prior to crossing, morphs into a view of the mainland from the island prior to returning. The story is told in the first person plural and we are never sure which of the named characters – if any – is telling the story. This further adds to the confusion over “point of view” in more than one sense: there is no “I”. Roch C. Smith, in his Understanding Robbe-Grillet says the “switch of tenses disorientates the reader just as the narrator is confused by the viewpoint”.

“The Beach” is probably my favourite of these shorts. It displays a scene of perpetual motion in which everything moves but nothing changes. Three children walk along a beach, the gulls they disturb fly a little way off and land, and the action is repeated. The constant, repetitive motion of the tide mirrors the “action” (such as it is) of the vignette, providing the perfect metaphor for the author’s experiment. Even the children’s speech seems to loop: like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, it beckons or seeks to initiate change that never happens. The children leave no track because “the sea is constantly obliterating the star-shaped trace of the feet”. “The Beach” reminds me of the novelty lenticular rulers or postcards which frame a brief scene of action which movement animates.

“The Escalator” attempts a similar effect with slightly less impact. However, the key here is spatial relationships. The loop of a moving escalator in the Metro – another example of movement without change – provides the scene, and the passage of people in respect to each other is described in detail. Robbe-Grillet, in Towards a New Novel, defended his work against charges of being anti-human by saying it features people and is written from a person’s viewpoint. This story is a case in point: the people become obscured because of their position relative to the person watching them. An omniscient, god-like narrator would not feel the need to impose such a restriction; here, the narrator is implicitly human, with the limits which that entails.

The final story, “The Secret Room”, points towards Robbe-Grillet’s future. Structurally it describes a scene – a torture chamber, in which a young girl has recently been killed – which at the end is revealed to be a picture on a wall. The content, however, is an indicator of the direction Robbe-Grillet’s work would take henceforth.

The cine-roman and beyond

Intrigued by the possibility of film, and though ostensibly happy with L’Année dernière à Marienbad, he was keen to take control and launch his own directorial career in which he would have full control – as does an author – of the finished product. His first attempt, l’Immortelle (The Immortal One, 1963), is a stilted, clunky affair (which, in highlighting the artificiality of the enterprise, was partly the intention), but still watchable.

As John Fletcher notes, along with his later work, l’Immortelle plays on the cliches of genre fiction and the reader’s expectation, and takes place in a romanticised version of Istanbul. His subsequent works would take pulp thrillers and spy stories as their template, but his later use of sexual violence goes far beyond what relatively harmless titillation genre fiction offered.

As with Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet published what he called a cine-roman of l’Immortelle: essentially a description of the film, shot by numbered shot, accompanied by black and white photos and with an introduction by the author. The cine-roman aimed to provide a lasting record of the cinema experience in the days before VCRs, but it is notable that it should have flourished among the more literary film-makers of the Left Bank. It enjoyed a brief vogue in the early 1960s. Fellow nouveau-romaniste Marguerite Duras published several: Hiroshima Mon Amour contains an introduction and supplementary background information on the characters such as would never appear in Robbe-Grillet’s, and is arguably more of an illustrated script with bonus features. The cine-roman of Chris Marker’s La Jetee is possibly the finest example of the form. Almost every image from the film – which is of course composed entirely of static images – is present, with the voice-over text in as close to the appropriate place as possible (although there is an argument that this is not a true cine-roman because La Jetee is not, fundamentally, cine). In the case of Marienbad, while the film was ultimately Resnais’ work from Robbe-Grillet’s script, the cine-roman of that script was entirely Robbe-Grillet’s, and there are differences in content and of tone between the two. Robbe-Grillet was thus able to maintain control over “his” element of the film-making process.


In Robbe-Grillet’s own words, he likened the cine-roman to the libretto of an opera, as a memory aid after watching the film and as a means of “analysis for those for whom the images and sounds of the film have gone by too quickly to assimilate”.

Robbe-Grillet’s next film, and arguably his best, was Trans-Europ-Express (1966), which starred Jean-Louis Trintignant and was partially set on the eponymous train between Paris and Antwerp. Robbe-Grillet himself takes a lead role in which he proposes a film, which is what we see Trintignant play out. As Robbe-Grillet discusses the story with his associates and changes are mooted (like In the Labyrinth), the action onscreen changes accordingly. The result is a fun and witty film, with a charismatic performance from Trintignant. It’s a pity no cine-roman of this exists in English.

To the fore, though, is the role of sadmasochistic sex (one reason for the film’s initial notoriety and cult popularity). Though far from the explicit levels of his subsequent films, it highlights the problem that exists with any analysis of Robbe-Grillet’s work.

The signs were there from as early as The Voyeur, and he himself was always candid in discussing his sexual proclivities: he was attracted to young girls. That these girls exist in his work (particularly from the mid-60s onwards) as sexualised objects, and more often than not as victims of sexualised violence, is deeply troubling. His unpleasant sexual politics, overwhelming as they do the content of most of his later work (Djinn excepted) are the reason this essay ends with Snapshots. However, it cannot be wished away, and cannot be disregarded. John Fletcher finds his portrayal of female sexuality “at best misleading and at worst sadistic and perverse”, and his justifications “not wholly convincing”. His portrayal of women – of girls – remains a “but” in any appreciation of this important writer.

As with all revolutions, the wheel turns and this year’s craze is last year’s embarrassing memory. Almost inevitably, the nouveau roman was succeeded in the 1970s by the nouveau-nouveau-roman, with theorist Jean Ricardou as it’s prophet and cheerleader. His work is far less accessible than Robbe-Grillet’s, and perhaps it’s main legacy was in a turning away from such overt experimentation among French literary fiction. As for it’s impact in the UK, the nouveau roman was influential among a small circle of British writers in the 1960s (Ann Quin, Alan Burns) but most of them (BS Johnson apart) are arguably less well-known in the UK now than their French counterparts.

Much as I like Robbe-Grillet’s early work, I can see that adherence to the principles he laid down in his Towards a New Novel does not make him an easy writer to contend with. He rejected the humanist concept of “character”, or the use of inner psychology, arguing persuasively that such techniques belong to the nineteenth century, and can’t map the human experience in the twentieth (far less the twenty-first). No doubt his work, if more widely known, would be decried as pretentious. It dares to look beyond the paradigm and suggest that the fictional mode we unthinkingly consume as “realism” is a construct like any other. But there is nothing necessarily wrong with ‘difficult’ or ‘pretentious’ writers – I’d argue that we need them now more than ever – and it’s a shame that Robbe-Grillet’s forms and techniques are not emulated or developed further in the way that they deserve.



Lethcoe, James: “The structure of Robbe-Grillet’s Labyrinth” in The French Review (vol. 38, no.4, Feb 1965)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Snapshots and Towards a New Novel (Calder, 1965)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Last Year at Marienbad (Grove Press, 1962)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: The Immortal One (Calder, 1971)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (Calder, 1988)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: La Maison de Rendezvous (Grove Press, 1966)

Duras, Marguerite: Hiroshima Mon Amour (Grove Press, 1988)

Smith, Roch C: Understanding Robbe-Grillet (USC Press, 2000)

Resnais, Alain: L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Studio Canal Blu Ray, 2009)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1966-1974 (BFI DVD, 2014)

Leutrat, Jean-Louis: L’Année dernière à Marienbad (BFI, 2001)

Van Wert, William F.: The Film Career of Alain Robbe-Grillet (Redgrave Publishing, 1977)

Cornwall: two landscapes

Driving west on the A30, it’s impossible to miss the post-industrial landscapes of clay- and tin-mining country. Whatever your feelings toward them, they are impressive, and very different from each other.

Clay mining – the Cornish Alps – sprawl over the area north and west of St. Austell (and give the Eden Project it’s home). Tin mining – a larger part of the Cornish economy for a far longer time, dating back millenia rather than centuries – is spread across a much wider area. Standing on Carn Brea, the low hill that looms over Camborne, Pool and Redruth, you can see from right to left, pretty much all the tin areas before you: St. Agnes, Camborne-Redruth, Godolphin, St. Ives, Wendron. Only that of St. Just is hidden by the low spine of West Penwith.

One ancient industry and one more recent, in one of the few areas of Britain where mining heritage is still highly visible. In Fife, Lothian, Yorkshire, South Wales and Nottinghamshire the winding gears have (mostly) long been dismantled and recycled. Although mining museums (such as those in Newtongrange and Wakefield) keep alive the history, regardless of your views on either the environmental impact of fossil fuel use or the assault on the trade union movement by the Thatcher government (of which coalminers bore the brunt), that there are so few signs remaining of this once mighty industry is dispiriting1. You can destroy the buildings far quicker than you can repair the fractured communities.

Cornwall has – for far longer than the coalmining regions – had to pick up the pieces after industry’s demise, and it still has one of the lowest standards of living in Britain. The county has been hugely subsidised by the E.U., just one more thing which makes the Leave vote incomprehensible.


The tin industry was not – unlike coal – destroyed by a vindictive government, but by the vagaries of an early global market. Falling prices killed the mines slowly, wheal by wheal2. Ironically, the cheaper tin which flooded the market was often sourced from countries whose own industries were founded by Cornish migrants fleeing successive waves of unemployment (the Heartlands “cultural playground” in Camborne/Pool commemorates this in its “diaspora garden”).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, these fluctuating tin prices led to miners starving. There were riots in Truro and Redruth; tinners would break into merchants’ houses looking for grain. In an early, but sadly recognisable form of working-class demonisation, they were scapegoats for all ills, and “held responsible for any disturbance, any breach of the peace.”

Several of the “iconic” engine houses have been preserved or refurbished: Levant, Geevor, East Pool, King Edward and Robinson’s Shaft (at Heartlands), and today’s (service sector) employees do not, hopefully, risk their lives on a daily basis (their pristine condition is misleading however: no tin mine would be that clean when operational, but heritage tourism doesn’t “do” dirt and grime).

The winding gear of South Crofty, across the road from Heartlands, stands proud, visible for miles. It remains mothballed since its closure in 1997 spelled the end of 3,000 years of tin mining in Cornwall. Successive attempts to re-open it have foundered, and its future remains uncertain3.

Previous attempts to reboot the tin industry have failed, having come up against the leviathan that is now Cornwall’s main employer: tourism. In 1961 a Public Enquiry was held into the prospect of a new mine near Zennor. Objections had been raised that it would spoil the landscape, and affect the fine coastal views. The only witness to speak in it’s defence was the artist Peter Lanyon. Lanyon was the only major “St. Ives artist” who was a native of the area, and he was deeply engaged with the history and geography of west Cornwall. He knew that the mine meant local employment. In defence of the proposal, he said:

“opponents talk of beauty and the magnificence of scenery as if nature were incapable of wrath that would touch them…what view do they think the Cornishman has, who desires above all to make his own riches, but is barred by some concept of beauty that denies him the honour of his labour?”

Lanyon was that rare thing: a landscape painter acutely aware of man’s impact on his environment. Prefiguring China Mieville’s concept of the pictureskew, his near-abstract paintings of Cornwall’s land, sea and sky do not efface the presence of employment and the exploitation of that employment. His monumental St. Just (1951) with its central crucifix, commemorates lives lost in the tin mines in general, but specifically the Levant disaster of 1919, an event only now receding from living memory. Lost Mine (1959) and Wheal Owles (1958) are other examples of his engagement with the industrial history of the region – a history he may, as a descendant of mine-owning family, have felt some unease toward.

Are the west Cornish tinscapes only impressive because of their stillness? Would we find them so romantic if they were not ruined, if they still made the rivers run red4 with their contamination? I doubt it. Daphne du Maurier writes, in her book Vanishing Cornwall:

“perhaps they seemed ugly once, bare as electric pylons do today, smoke from tall chimneys fouling the air, and instead of present silence the chug of machinery”

Is it the absence of people, the loneliness these places evoke (a relative concept in buildings that abut a dual carriageway or a modern industrial estate), their emptiness that elevates a scene to the realm of the sublime? Perhaps. The late Mark Fisher, in his wonderful The Weird and the Eerie, defines the “eerie” as something (i.e. a landscape) containing “absence where there should be presence”, and I’d suggest the ruined engine houses can evoke a sublime eeriness.

But we must be honest about what it is we enjoy in a landscape, and there is something unsettling in the enjoyment taken from a landscape which, from a human-economical point of view, has been hollowed out; there is something not entirely right about preferring a vista with only the remains of industry, to that of one with living industry providing living people with an income right now. But perhaps an acknowledgement of this dissonance is enough; not every circle can be squared.

Nonetheless, there is much that is unsettling in our enjoyment of a landscape. The granite hump of Carn Brea is topped (below) by a obelisk which commemorates Francis Basset, foremost of the mine- and land-owning Bassets of Tehidy. Although he is recorded as being concerned for miners’ welfare, and though 20,000 people took part in the procession of his funeral, this is still a man who, as Bernard Deacon writes in his Cornwall and the Cornish, as an M.P. hurried back to Cornwall to ensure hungry food rioters “were properly hanged and not, as was usual, let off with transportation”.


Is this the type of person we are comfortable memorialising? And if not, then this should lead us to the next question: “who decides who is commemorated?” And if the answer to that is “the authority in possession of the land”, then the logical follow-up question then becomes: “who owns the land?” And, ultimately: “why?”


The “Cornish Alps” are a much more modern manifestation than the engine houses. Clay mining began in Cornwall in 1746. The piles resemble the coal bings of elsewhere (Broxburn, West Lothian springs to mind), but dwarf them, and the white colour lends the panorama an element of weirdness.

Daphne du Maurier, who lived not far away, was smitten by them, writing of their

“strange, almost fantastic beauty…[with the same] grandeur as tin mining in decay but in a wilder and more magical sense…there is nothing ugly here.”

Clay mining and clay country was perhaps viewed by others as less romantic than its elder cousin. It was “relatively new and did not enjoy all the ancient historical associations of metal mining”. Many of the great white peaks, if the Ordnance Survey maps are authoritative, have no official name. Local names may exist, but DANGER signs and restricted access do not help lodge a place’s nuances in the public imagination. That said, authoritative or not, the OS Explorer map for the area in question is striking:


Doesn’t that just make you want to explore? Look at all the white! There are tracks that go nowhere! There are ancient barrows jutting right up against these huge tips! I love Ordnance Survey maps – never forgetting that they are an arm of government, with their own agenda5 – but the fact there’s stuff even they can’t fully map, here in the U.K., is awesome.

Whereas, conventionally, blue is used to denote bodies of water which in reality change colour with the light, the pools nestling in the crowns of the clay tips are actually done a disservice by the OS colouring. As anyone flying into Newquay airport can testify, they are a dazzling aquamarine, more blue than blue.

I haven’t walked among the clay tips as I have the tin country, so this piece is written from a certain distance. But I am happy to defer again to du Maurier:

“[one’s] sense of orientation goes awry, as it does on Bodmin Moor, and although roads intersect the vast expanses, and sign-posts give direction, some strange instinct compels the unwary motorist or walker to travel in a circle, the waste-heaps and pitted pools becoming all alike, and there seems no way out, no means of escaping from this fantastic world.”

She also addresses the question of this more modern industry’s place in the public (folk) imagination.

“An industry rapidly becoming mechanised…is, alas, unlikely to produce myth or legend. No knackers beckon from the pyramids, no water-sprite lurks in the deep pools. Or, if they do, the layman has not yet heard tell of them. Isolation, the breeding ground of fear and mythology, is no more”. (my italics).

Should that prevent new myths? post-industrial folklore? Walks need to be taken, journeys made, from which a common language may spring. These mounds exist; they are not going away6; infertile as they are, it takes growth such a long time to take a foothold that they are not changing their appearance any time soon; and their fascination is plain. How do we act upon them and integrate what they tell us? How do we reconcile them with the ancient features they exist among? Are these not cousins to other post-industrial regions where ruin, toxicity and the expense needed to overcome these obstacles prevent “development”? How do we speak of such landscapes?


1Perhaps coalmining lacks the “romance” of tin mining. Perhaps not enough time has passed; perhaps “romance” only develops when the scars have healed and the struggles have passed from living memory, if we define “romance” in this context as an idealisation of the past.

But are pitheads any less worthy of preservation than the statues of long-forgotten men that litter our cities? To argue otherwise betrays a (typically British) reactionary attitude toward modernist, functional architecture. Cockenzie power station was demolished in 2015; an eyesore to some, but if an eyesore is needed to remind the people of Edinburgh where their electricity has come from for the last fifty years, then so be it. And it was less of an eyesore than the ruin caused by floods or storms that hit (far away, poor) countries as a result of the global warming caused by our burning of fossil fuels.

2wheal: Cornish for “place of work”

3There is no lack of tin under the ground but also, crucially, the minerals that mobile phone batteries need to operate. Surely it’s in our interests to source these minerals without the exploitation that goes on elsewhere in the world in their pursuit?

4The Red River flows into the sea near Godrevy, passing through Tuckingmill. The colour even today is still an opaque brick red. The River Vinnick, passing through clay country, was known historically as the White River for the same reasons: pollution by mining waste.

5The decision to render the clay tips as (mostly) blank white space, although aesthetically pleasing, is questionable. They are not featureless, nor without subtle gradient. Do we lack the mapping language to adequately represent post-industrial landscapes? Are these mounds, because removed from the public arena and therefore unavailable for “utility”,  not worth the detail expended elsewhere?

6Few landscapes in Britain are unspoiled. The Highlands only appear bare and sheep-spotted because the human inhabitants were burned out of their homes and sent overseas to make room for more profitable sheep.


Ordnance Survey Explorer 106: Newquay and Padstow (2014)

du Maurier, Daphne: Vanishing Cornwall (Penguin, 1972)

Deacon, Bernard: Cornwall and the Cornish (Alison Hodge, 2010)

Chapman, Sarah & Chapman, David: Iconic Cornwall (Alison Hodge, 2010)

Stephens, Chris: Peter Lanyon – At the Edge of Landscape (21 Publishing, 2000)

map image copyright Ordnance Survey

21st century pseudonyms, or “furthermore known as the JAMMs”

On 23rd August, Faber will publish “2023: A Trilogy” by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. Written by (I am assuming) Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, whose best-known guise is The KLF, the publication date will mark exactly 23 years to the day since the pair set fire to a million pounds in a disused boathouse on Jura. Shortly afterward, they wrote a contract promising not to speak about the event for a period of 23 years, put the contract in a car and pushed it off Cape Wrath, Britain’s most northerly point.

Drummond and Cauty always had a keen sense of ritual, and so the book, we must presume, is the last revelation, the final act of that particular part of their long (for want of a better) “career”, which has been superbly written about in “The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds” by John Higgs.

Do I expect the book (“a utopian costume drama, set in the near future, written in the recent past”) to reveal their secrets and reasons? No, of course not.

Do I expect it to reveal the meaning of life? No. And in any case, it’s “23”.

Will it be rubbish? Quite possibly. But I hope not.

Will I buy it anyway? Of course.

But that’s not the point of this post.

What I find interesting is the name they’re using. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu were Drummond and Cauty’s original late 80s sample-heavy outfit, charting with the thundering 1990 hit “It’s Grim Up North“. But again, that’s not the point. “”2023: A Trilogy” by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty” would have been one thing, but to have the author’s name be that of a band is, for me, the masterstroke.

I suppose this entire post could just be a single question: “why don’t writers use band-type names as pseudonyms”? Because that is my point.

Off the top of my head – although I’m sure there must be some others – I can only think of one book that has been similarly attributed*, and that’s The Manual: How to Have a Number One The Easy Way by The Timelords, the band behind the genius/godawful novelty smash hit “Doctorin’ the Tardis”. The Timelords were – but of course – Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty.

Let’s ignore for now the fact that all band names are, to an extent, absurd. What is it that’s so different between the music-buying public and the book-buying public that one finds abstract pseudonyms not only normal but desirable, while the other expects it’s authors to have real – or at least realistic – names? It isn’t as if these two publics are different people, after all.

I’m not asking why don’t bands write books, but rather why don’t more authors publish under an abstract or collective name?

It’s convention, isn’t it? Authors have always used pseudonyms, but collective names for artistic purposes (again, please correct me if I’m wrong) I am guessing began early last century with various modernist movements such as the Dadaists, Futurists and Surrealists, who self-consciously used such descriptors. Should we take it as a sign of one of Modernism’s failings that this didn’t cross into literature (other than for the purpose of those groups’ manifestos)?

“The death of the author” was announced by Roland Barthes 50 years ago, we accept such innovations as e-books, the Romantics’ idea of art as self-expression has been called into question for a long time, yet still we cleave to the idea of authenticity that a “real” name above a title evidently confers. No matter what experimentation or deconstruction of the form goes on within the text, still the book-as-object appears earnestly signed off by an identifiable figure. I’d love to see someone else follow Drummond and Cauty’s lead.


*Q by Luther Blissett doesn’t quite fit the bill here, being written by a collective yet appearing as “by” a single figure, though is interesting nonetheless; Luther Blissett in this case being not the former Watford and England footballer, but an Italian group for whom he was a cult hero.

Alain Robbe-Grillet: early fiction (part 2)

In Part 1 of this essay I looked at Robbe-Grillet’s first two novels (A Regicide and The Erasers), in which it is easy to trace the development of the techniques and motifs that he would refine and re-use throughout his career. The first novels are in many ways conventional, and this is because the techniques in question are used tentatively or within the text; from his next work (The Voyeur) onwards, the techniques become part of the structure of the narrative itself. The results are novels which are far more integrated marriages of form and content. Robbe-Grillet says in his autobiography Ghosts in the Mirror that the nouveau roman needs to constantly change, innovate and develop:

“the moment a bold theory has become dogma it loses its attraction and violence and efficacy…nicely and thoughtlessly, it contributes one more stone to the edifice of the established order.”

Each of his subsequent works, therefore, takes a different form (how could it not, when form equals content and vice-versa?) in which a particular technique is utilised.

Digging a hole for himself: The Voyeur (1955)

In The Erasers, he introduced the concept of the day in question being a time out of time – a hole, a moebius loop – in which the events are doomed to repeat themselves at the close of the book. This “hole”, a traumatic event which is the key to the work, is at the centre of The Voyeur (1955), the book which brought him to wider public renown in his native France. But unlike the previous work, here, thrillingly and disturbingly, the hole is an event which is not depicted and which we have no certainty ever took place, yet it drives the latter 2/3 of the novel, and on re-reading, we can see that the first 1/3 is pulled ineluctably towards it.

The book features the visit of a travelling watch salesman, Mathias, to the island where he spent his childhood, in a desperate attempt to sell enough stock to improve his fortunes. To this end, and in order to catch the return ferry on the same day, he establishes a timetable for house-to-house visits which he must stick to, both to sell the majority of his watches and to make his return trip. It is a timetable which, we see at once, can permit almost no delay or diversion. What could possibly go wrong?

From the start we are privy to Mathias’ particular obsessions and mental tics. He fixates on pieces of string, cord or rope; he fingers and re-reads a newspaper cutting which reports the sexualised murder of a young girl; and in everything he sees the crude caricatures of the shapes of the female sexual organs: adjacent circles (in knots of wood, patterns of seagull flight, burn marks in the newspaper cutting when, guiltily, he destroys it) and triangles. During his rounds, he has his attention drawn to the presence, on the cliffs where she tends sheep, of a precocious adolescent, Jacqueline. As Part 1 of the novel ends, he makes the fateful decision to head off in the direction of the cliffs, freewheeling his hired bicycle.

Part 2 begins after a lacuna (a blank page between parts, an as-yet-unspecified lapse of time between events), and it is immediately clear that Mathias’ mental state has changed. His schedule is now derailed, and he expends much effort on stretching the chronology of events, and retrospectively placing himself at locations at certain times, in order to cover this “hole” in events. The hole – the event – is never confronted directly, and never described in the text, but it is the cause of all Mathias’ mental trauma from now on. He is constantly trying to “account for the difference” between his alibis and that of reality, especially as he has been seen at certain times and places. Did the event occur? Jacqueline has gone missing, it later transpires, and her body recovered some time later; and Mathias’ actions are certainly those of a guilty conscience. But Robbe-Grillet is not so gauche as to make anything explicit.

That Mathias is unable to confront the event makes itself shown in several ways. In replaying his early visit to Jacqueline’s mother, he recalls seeing “the shiny metal frame, the photograph showing…the photograph showing the photograph, the photograph, the photograph”: his guilty mind circles the event, his unconscious tries to betray him. Later, on trying to find the piece of cord he keeps in his pocket and habitually fiddles with, “he began looking for the cord in the pockets of his duffle coat. But not finding it in either one, he remembered…he remembered that he no longer had it”. Again, memory averts the hole, skipping over it. Imagined or remembered images of tied-up girls recur throughout the novel and if we are never sure whether they are fantasy or recollection, it is clear that they could easily be both.

In Ghosts in the Mirror, Robbe-Grillet notes that the story, as with all of his books, is told in the present tense. The use of tense in his works (and that of his nouveau-romaniste peers) is significant. People “don’t live in the imperfect tense” nor do they live and act “with particular adjectives in mind…in reality they were swarming in the midst of an infinite number of other details, the interwoven threads forming a living web”. For Robbe-Grillet, the “past historic” tense is identified with ideological tyranny. When he argues that, contrary to criticism of it, the nouveau roman is not anti-life and that it is “traditional” novels which are, he suggests that the “past historic tense” found in conventional fiction causes the “definitive glaciation of the most incomplete gestures, the most ephemeral thoughts”.

When Mathias is covering his tracks and squeezing alibis out of compressed timescales, however, the narrative slips into the “obviously suspect past tense”. At these moments the text uses “the traditional language of irrefutable truth precisely because he is hiding something”.

But Mathias has not entirely covered his tracks. Jetsam he has cast away turns up: cigarette packets and butts, sweet wrappers and, ultimately, Jacqueline’s body, resurface to incriminate him (although – spoiler alert! – he is never apprehended, and as he realises he is going to get away with it, towards the end of the book he spends less time on alibi creation and chronological accounting). Additionally, he has been seen – at the time of the crime – by a boy from a local farm, who has his own reasons for not wanting it known that he was away from home, and thus is happy not to give Mathias away. But none of that is reassuring to the salesman.

He is not unaware of his own mental processes, though: he has a “fear his mind would be wandering over dangerous ground, or into some place impossible to get out of…” This allusion to culs-de-sac and labyrinths (“he had forgotten something…(no)”) prefigures Robbe-Grillet’s later work, In The Labyrinth.

But it is the hole which is the defining, enabling idea in The Voyeur. Robbe-Grillet would use variations of it throughout his career. Here, it is a negative: an event never described in the text, and not even in the book (as object), taking place as it does, (in my copy) in the empty pages between the end of Part 1 and the beginning of Part 2. Later, Robbe-Grillet would include such holes in the text where they would act as generators or triggers: words, objects or situations that spark a digression or repetition of the action that is inconsistent with what has already been told. In Jealousy and In The Labyrinth, as we shall see, these can stem from, respectively, mental trauma or a desire to shape a narrative to the (fictional) author’s satisfaction. In his later works (from 1966’s La Maison de Rendezvous onwards), their deployment leads to loops and repetitions and inconsistencies which, though dazzling in their invention, mean that the stories do actually disappear up their own hole.

But that was to come, and followed the so-called “loosening of morals” of the 1960s, and Robbe-Grillet’s own experience as a film director. His next novel was to be his most perfectly-realised and satisfying work, Jealousy.

The all-seeing not-I: Jealousy (1957)

Jealousy (la Jalousie) is Robbe-Grillet’s greatest work, where he attains the perfect marriage of content and form to produce a short novel whose sustained mood of paranoia is stunning. It is not a novel about jealousy; it is a novel which is the direct, unfiltered expression of it.

It does this by means of the technique which it creates and perfects: the je-neant narrator (not-I or absent-I). That is, a narrator who is present at all times in the events portrayed, but who has erased all trace of himself from what he is describing. There is no reference to “I” but once we realise who is telling the story, we see him everywhere.

The novel is set on a banana plantation, probably in the West Indies, where our unnamed, unseen narrator watches obsessively the behaviour of his wife (referred to only as “A”) and their neighbour Franck, who he evidently suspects of having an affair. Much of the observation (of A in particular) is carried out through the slatted blinds (a “jalousie” in French) of A’s bedroom.

The extent to which the narrator effaces himself from events is shown in the passive description of his own actions. There are four chairs arranged on the balcony, and to follow the conversation between A and Franck, the position of the other occupied chair (i.e. the narrator’s) “obliges anyone sitting there to turn his head…”. Later, at the dinner table, as he absently watches his wife eat her soup, “memory succeeds…in reconstituting several movements of her right hand…which might be…significant”. Later still, picking at flakes of paint on the balustrade, “it is enough to slip a fingernail” under it in order to flick it off. As Tom McCarthy notes in his incisive introduction to the latest English language edition, whose head? Whose memory? Whose fingernail?

I say “later”, but Jealousy is structured so that it isn’t possible to construct a definite order of events. Things happen, over and over: are they taking place “now”, or are they remembered or imagined? Again, we have Robbe-Grillet’s “objectivised hypothesis” at work. In his own superb book of criticism Towards a New Novel (Pour un Nouveau Roman), he argues that time in the modern novel is not an agent: it doesn’t flow. It should no longer be used to trace, over the course of a novel, man’s “development”, which in so doing places him as master of the world, when he is only within it. As David H Walker observes,

“his novels do not present us with incoherence, but with discoherence…[texts] which…deviate from the norms of novelistic coherence…[and] point to other possibilities for organizing…into coherent structures.” (my italics)

The Voyeur is the last of his books in which there is a recognisable start, middle and end. From Jealousy onwards he presents us – via the generative or triggering holes mentioned above – with temporal gyres, but ones which, he also makes the point in Towards a New Novel, are not like puzzles to be reconstituted: there can be no “solving” of them.

A subtle indicator of this within the book is the mise-en-abyme that is the native worker’s song. Heard several times (possibly), it is described as being difficult to follow because the listener is led, by its cadences and progressions, to expect an ending or resolution that never comes. Like the book in which it features, it undermines expectations.

One of the key events in the book is the crushing, by Franck, of a large centipede against the wall. It happens multiple times, in different places; thanks to the narrator’s fevered imagination, it even happens in the bedroom he imagines Franck and A share on their overnight stay at the port town. That the shape it leaves on the wall is like a question mark is no doubt Robbe-Grillet’s joke.

On their return from the port, we can spot the “suspect” historic past tense when Franck explains the reasons for their delay which forced them to spend the night in the city. He accounts for each moment, like Mathias in The Voyeur, but we are wise to him and recognise a guilty conscience at work.

Another detail that is recorded over and over is the shape of the rows of banana trees themselves, and the play of shadow over the veranda. As Robbe-Grillet suggests in Towards a New Novel, the nouveau roman offers “empty enigmas, time standing still [at work here, but also evident in his films – The Immortal One in particular], signs that refuse to be significant. We are in a flat and discontinuous universe.” There is shape and pattern but no depth; things just “are”, they don’t “mean” anything. In Robbe-Grillet’s work man does not see himself reflected everywhere – there is no pathetic fallacy – and Jealousy is the logical endpoint of this, featuring as it does a narrator who does not even appear in his own story and, uncertain of the truth of Franck and A’s relationship, is unable to fix meaning to anything.

The narrator’s jealousy sours the relationship with his wife, even if his own obscuring of his role distorts our perception of this. He is, for example, unable to meet her gaze. When she turns to look at him, the observing gaze – which had been studying her intensely, as it does throughout the book – switches immediately to the balustrade. When she emerges one morning she says “hello” in what he at first describes as a “playful tone”, but then the worm of jealousy swiftly distorts this and she becomes “someone who prefers not to show what she is thinking” to the extent that the greeting shows “derision as well as affection” and ultimately, as he reaches the tightest spiral of paranoia: “the total absence of any feeling”.

David H Walker, speaking of a later book by Robbe-Grillet translated into English as Djinn, but in words equally applicable to Jealousy, says

“once we renounce the strategy of seeking to extract from the novel a world of represented facts, places, chronology and people which we could thereafter discuss without reference to the words on the page, we can read this novel properly. We can pay attention to what the realistic reading neglects: the text itself. Instead of being a transparent window onto a world that lies outside it [this novel is] a subtle construct of mirrors reflecting upon its own workings, its own conventions”.

Robbe-Grillet, as ever, draws attention to this, and to the artificial nature of any fiction: Franck and A are reading the same book, the characters and scenes of which they discuss “as if they were real”.

In Towards a New Novel, Robbe-Grillet defends the use of highly detailed description in his work, which initial readers found bewildering, and which was often misread as portraying an objective view of the world when in fact it provides the exact opposite: a purely subjective one. In a conventional book, he argues, a reader can skip descriptions: they are just a frame to hold within them the actions of the characters. To that end, conventional books don’t need any work on reader’s part: it’s all done for them. This isn’t the case with the nouveau roman, where frame and picture are indivisible: what is being described is significant because it signifies the mental state of the character.

Robbe-Grillet’s next novel, In the Labyrinth, although it restores a recognisable narrator to proceedings (albeit in an unconventional way), further develops the use of temporal distortion and repetition to create a world which in both form and content (“frame” and “picture”) is a maze.




Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Towards a New Novel (Calder, 1966)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (Calder, 1988)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: The Voyeur (Alma, 2008)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Jealousy (Alma, 2008)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain (Walker, David H (ed.)): Le Rendezvous (Methuen, 1981)

Photo: Getty Images

Construction Time

Someone – Google could tell me who – said “you never learn how to write a novel, just the one you’re writing now”.

I’ve tried a few ways. My first (adult) attempt at a novel can be discounted, as it was a make-it-up-as-you-go-along story of magical realism set among the homeless of Dundee. I really hope no copy of it still exists, but I fear my Mum has one somewhere.

My second try skirted the issue of writing an entire novel by comprising a book of interlinked short stories. This was much easier to deal with than a single overarching narrative. Several of the stories were taken up by magazines, and the collection was shortlisted for a national prize, which should have given me the confidence to try another “real” novel. But it didn’t, and I (almost) wrote only short stories for the next ten years.

But even short stories have to be constructed. I don’t mean the form of the narrative or the warp and weave of the strands of story. I mean the actual construction: not what the architect draws, but how the builders build.

The rarest of things, for any writer, is the work that seems to come from nowhere, is written in one go, and whose final draft is, but for some finessing and planing of rough edges, almost indistinguishable from the first. Like a band whose demos are good enough to release as a final product, this doesn’t happen often. But it does happen. It makes you suspicious: easy writing makes hard reading, and vice-versa, but sometimes the words come just as they should.

Sometimes, other techniques are called for. You can splice: the “A Day in the Life” technique. I wrote a story – long lost – featuring a man who grew a tail, and for some reason this necessitated grafting part of another story onto it. The result was a malformed beast, indeed. What worked for George Martin & The Beatles did so for a reason.

You can leave it in a drawer to mature. I began a story on a train to Lille in 2006 and abandoned it, knowing it had promise but that now wasn’t the time. Only the chance memory (while out for a bike ride in Midlothian) of the logos on the wall of an office in Dundee, last-seen a decade before, gave me the key to finish the rest of the story a year or so later. The final product, Little Angels, was published by New Writing Dundee.

There is, more brutally, the delete key. I began a story in 2003 about a teacher and her delicate relationship with an introverted beekeeper. After 10,000 words I realised it was going nowhere, and stripped it back to the extent that the teacher no longer existed. Thus pruned, I abandoned it entirely, and instead wrote a synopsis of it from the point of view of one of the minor characters. Recognising that this was a story in itself, it was submitted to and published by New Writing Scotland (2005). I took another look at the remainder of the longer work, re-focussed it, and turned it into a different version of the same story. This was published by Pulp.net. Bingo! Two short stories from one flailing novella.

The next novel I wrote – as-yet-unpublished – was a re-telling of the Robin Hood legend. Lacking the practice of writing a full-length work, I took some of the individual tales associated with Robin Hood and turned them into sequential events, stringing them together into a tale of rebirth and death, of the changing seasons and austerity politics. Anyone wanting to publish it can get in touch.

The book I’ve just finished writing is a choose-your-own-adventure type story, set in the milieu of professional cycling. The numbered paragraphs formed bite-sized chapters which were easy to write, with the action taking place on roads in Belgium on which I’ve both ridden and seen countless times on televised bike races. In hindsight some more careful mapping was needed to plan the structure of the various branches, but it was fun, which isn’t always the case.

The other novel I’m working on has taken a back seat while I finished the gamebook, but it’s almost time to dust it off again. This one started from a few images and concepts, and has only ever been planned a few scenes ahead. This is mostly because my writing time is limited, so I need to ensure I know exactly what’s going onto the piece of paper when I sit down. The advantage of this is that I never face writer’s block (famous last words); the disadvantage is that writing only a page or so at a time means it has taken two and a half years to get to two hundred pages, and scenes I envisaged on the day I started writing can take months until I get to the point of writing them. I agree with Clive Barker, who writes his books in order, and doesn’t skip ahead to the good bits. It may make for digressions and call for later editing, but I think it gives the story a more natural flow.

When I finally finish this one (this year?) then I can worry about how to write the next.

Claude Ollier’s “Law and Order” (1961)

I wrote a review recently of Ollier’s best-known (in English, which isn’t saying much) work, The Mise-en-Scene. As one of the less-publicised nouveau-roman authors, only four of his books have been translated into English, and the first of these – Law and Order (translated by Ursule Molinaro) – was published in 1971 by Red Dust in New York, and doesn’t seem to have been reprinted since.

First of all, that title. Law and Order suggests a police procedural, a crime novel, a daytime TV drama. It isn’t any of these, though unspecified violent crimes have taken place and corrupt police are responsible. The original title is Le Maintien de l’Ordre, the literal translation of which is “maintaining the order” or “the maintenance of order”. Either would have been a more appropriate – if perhaps less eye-catching – title. Because this is a story in which a narrator, trapped by circumstance and under surveillance, evidently in fear of his life, attempts – constantly – to impose a form of control upon his situation. He does this by means of the detailed description of the view from his seventh-floor apartment, in a (possibly) North African town. Everything the eye can see is documented, and, unlike The Mise-en-Scene, the narrative voice conjectures about what can’t be directly seen. That at times it does this by trying to account for the length of time certain actions may have taken, to fit hypotheses, immediately draws parallels with The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet, where a travelling watch salesman who has (probably) murdered a young girl, endlessly tries to stretch real and fictitious events to cover the time of the incident in order to provide himself with an alibi.

The dustjacket of Law and Order, obviously trying to hook readers of Robbe-Grillet, describes Ollier as “a friend and contemporary” which, given that his book is so similar in many respects to Robbe-Grillet’s masterpiece Jealousy, is slightly unfortunate, and risks painting Ollier as an epigone of the more rigorous, more experimental Robbe-Grillet. (There is another nod, within the story, to Robbe-Grillet in the naming of an establishment “Cafe des Allies”, the same as that in The Erasers.)

Jealousy uses a narrative technique which has since been dubbed “je-neant” (absent I). The story is told by a narrator so passive he effaces himself completely from the action, to the extent that the reader has to make inferences from the text in order to realise his existence. Law and Order almost – but not quite – does the same. Most chapters are bookended by third-person reports (“Without a moment’s hesitation I turned around”), which undermines the effect somewhat.

As in The Mise-en-Scene, the description of a map is given particular emphasis. In the earlier work, the gaps and empty spaces of an under-surveyed terrain create a highly ambiguous, and ultimately useless document, illustrating that work’s exploration of the impossibility of knowing anything for certain. Here the reader is treated to a stunning inversion of cartography, with a wonderful description of the town plan not as a network of streets surrounding built-up areas, but as a built-up area worked upon by lanes and alleys, much as a massif is eroded by streams, gulleys and rivers. This is done as part of the narrator’s epiphany, exactly midway through the text; a moment when he at last is able to impose order on the initially random features that make up the view of the town from above.

The narrator is watched by two corrupt ex-cops, Perez and Marietti. He describes their stakeout, their banal activities – reading the paper, polishing their car – as they hang around outside his apartment block. Similarly to Jealousy, where the jealous narrator husband can no longer meet his wife’s gaze, here, any time one of his observers raises their head toward his floor, the narrator’s view immediately switches focus as he retreats from their sight: “slowly he lifts his head toward the top floors…Below, the old section of the city looks shrunken”.

Of their surveillance we are certain (unlike much that takes place – or maybe doesn’t – in The Mise-en-Scene), but of the chronology of events we are not. A series of violent events has rocked the town – shootings, a bomb, fraud and corruption – but it is never entirely clear if the stakeout precedes the narrator’s discovery of Perez and Marietti’s activities, or follows it. Events that happen may only be being remembered (as with Robbe-Grillet, events in memory take as much precedence – they are as objectively real – as those happening “now”), giving the story a vaguely circular shape. Time is fluid, or ambiguous: “Six o’clock…Always, everywhere. Every day… Yesterday. Today…”. As a result there is no climax to the story; or rather, almost any chapter may be the climax.

Although it doesn’t reach the heights of Robbe-Grillet’s best work, Law and Order is, like The Mise-en-Scene, in many ways more accessible and worth tracking down.

Alain Robbe-Grillet: Early fiction (part 1)

If the nouveau roman (New Novel) had a driving force, it was Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008). The nouveau roman was an influential – if rarely best-selling – literary movement in post-war France. A number of writers, generally but not exclusively connected to the publishers Editions de Minuit, sought appropriate ways to take fiction forward in a world where, after Hiroshima and the Holocaust, there were none of the certainties which mankind had – however mistakenly – previously taken for granted. For Robbe-Grillet, the New Novel was being written by “those writers who are trying to find new forms for the novel which are capable of expressing (or creating) new relations between man and the world”. The world had changed; literature, too, had to change.

False starts and digressions: A Regicide (1949/1978)

Robbe-Grillet was born in Brest and raised in both Brittany and the Jura. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940 he was transported to Germany to support the occupiers’ war effort by working in a factory. His parents were “extreme right-wing anarchists” who venerated Marshall Petain even after the war, but their son’s own collaboration was unwilling. After the war he trained as an agronomist, and it was on the back of work documents that he wrote his debut novel, Un Regicide (A Regicide).

A Regicide is a confident debut which interweaves the superficially distinct stories of factory worker Boris (who, in a state of ennui, decides to kill the King) and whose tale is told in the third person, with that of a first-person narrator who lives on a dreamlike island haunted by mermaids and mysterious weather patterns, like Kafka by way of the surrealists.

I used the word “interweave” advisedly. The two stories do not alternate between chapters as in a conventional novel which may tell multiple strands of a story. A Regicide switches between the two stories between paragraphs, or even in mid-sentence. This dislocates the reader who, seeking narrative continuity, will be forced to establish a hierarchy of narrative: is one person’s story told by the other, or is one a figment of the other’s imagination? And if so, which one? That the more oneiric tale is told in the first-person (a mode which, while unreliable, aspires to authority by virtue of the lack of distance between narrative voice and reader: it is more “informal”) throws the stability of the text into doubt. Additionally, the actual murder of the king by Boris takes place (in true Robbe-Grillet style) not once but many times, and yet seems never to have happened at all. Typically, events which take place solely in the mind of the protagonist are given as much “reality” as those which happen outside that mind.

A Regicide, therefore, contains many of the techniques and tropes that Robbe-Grillet will use in his fictions over the next decade (and, in the use of the name Boris, the rest of his career), and which his subsequent works will expand on and embody.

Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day: The Erasers (1953)

A Regicide was amicably rejected by publishers, and Robbe-Grillet set it aside, following minor revisions, until 1978 when it was finally published, allowing readers the chance to view his career refracted through it (no edition in English existed until 2015). Although A Regicide had been rejected, Jerome Lindon at Editions de Minuit encouraged him to try again. The result was the publication in 1953 of Les Gommes (The Erasers).

The Erasers is the first (but not the last) instance of Robbe-Grillet exploring and subverting the conventions of a genre; in this case, the detective novel. A man – Daniel Dupont – appears to have been shot dead in his home at 7.30 one evening. A detective named Wallas is sent to investigate. What the reader knows, but Wallas doesn’t, is that the assassination attempt failed and Dupont is alive. However, returning to his home at 7.30 the following evening, Dupont is shot dead by Wallas, who is there expecting the arrival of the assassin. Thus the detective commits the crime he was sent to investigate. Adding to this the fact that Wallas’ watch stopped at the time of the “first” murder and only restarts upon the “second”, and that various characters are confused about which day it is, what we therefore have is a “hole”, a missing day of 24 hours. The concept of a hole in the text is one that Robbe-Grillet explores to its conclusion throughout his career, but here the “hole” (unlike the unseen murder in The Voyeur) forms the text of the novel, bookended – like a moebius-strip – by the same crime.

The Erasers contains Robbe-Grillet’s first reference to trompe-l’oeil: that is, a work of art designed to give an illusion of reality. The phrase recurs in each of his first four books, and first two films, as if he is winking at the reader/viewer to draw attention to the fact that fictional works may posit themselves as “real”, but are actually constructs. Tellingly, a view of the town in poor weather is described as if “the depth [loses] its natural look – and perhaps its reality”.

In the first labyrinth of Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre, Wallas gets continually lost and finds himself in the same place by accident on several occasions, and indeed those occasions appear to be repeating. The idea of text as labyrinth is another that the writer expands on over the next few years, to the extent that (in The Voyeur but also, inevitably, in In The Labyrinth) it is the reader who is in a labyrinth finding, again and again, moments in time that are revisited, or narrative paths which are rejected and the pathways to them retraced.

In this first published fiction, as with A Regicide, the signs are there of the techniques and obsessions that Robbe-Grillet will use time and again in his work. But crucially, from now on he perfected a particular narrative technique in each book. Throughout his career, each of his novels was structurally different as he sought to expand what the nouveau roman was capable of. After all, if form and content are as indivisible as he claimed, it is impossible to write two different works with the same structure. His next novel, The Voyeur, was a huge step forward and is a more mature, cohesive and disturbing work.


Robbe-Grillet, Alain: The Regicide (Alma Books, 2015)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: The Erasers (John Calder, 1987)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Towards a New Novel (John Calder, 1963)

After the Factory

(This post is an unpublished piece I wrote over a decade ago, about the village in Fife where I grew up. A few details have since been updated, but on re-reading I can’t believe I didn’t mention the huge hill figure of a bear above Parkhill which was carved – the lines set alight to better mark them out – around the same time as the factory burned down. You can just make it out in the photo above.)


Until the late 1980s, to anybody entering the town by road or river, Newburgh would have seemed a factory with village attached. From across the river Tay, on the low, berry-rich lands of the Carse of Gowrie, the view would have been striking. The factory was huge, a massive red-brick Victorian edifice dominating the shoreline.

On a clear evening in May 1980, my cousin mistook the thick black smoke sweeping low over our Gran’s rooftop for effluent from the recent eruption of Mount St. Helen’s. It was terrifying to think that this smoke had travelled across the Atlantic to wreak havoc on a small Fife town. But it wasn’t the volcano, it was the factory.

The factory. The former Tayside Flooring Company building had stood empty since the company stumbled into receivership in 1978, giving its workforce – several hundred strong – 15 minutes’ notice. It was founded in 1891 by one Thomas Greig who, in common with the public-spirited, or perhaps guilt-ridden, tycoons and philanthropists of the nineteenth century, gifted a tennis court, curling pond, bowling club and park to the town. The bowling green is still there, tucked into the southern corner of the park; the first thing you see as you enter the town from the west.

We watched the fire from the sloping lawns of the ex-council houses on the hillside street where my Uncle still lives. The town is spread along a hill that tumbles down to the Tay, and the factory was on the water’s edge. On the north side of the High Street, where we lived with my Gran, the long strips of orchard garden reach almost to the river. Her house was too close to the burning building to give a good view, and there were obvious safety concerns. Up the hill, the adults stayed indoors and gazed through windows; we went outside where – even at a distance – it felt more dangerous. The rumour spread fast, as rumours do among children: the fire had reached a storeroom containing petrol and gases, and explosions were imminent. Perhaps the adults safely indoors also framed guesses, more educated ones: half my family had worked there. The flames seemed mean and vicious against the proud orange brickwork and the thick column of smoke that rose high into the clear evening sky. The smoke would have been visible from both Dundee, 10 miles downstream, and Ben Vorlich, much further west. The explosions never came. The fire had, thankfully, taken no casualties.

The story, for such it was, appeared on TV the following night; Reporting Scotland or North Tonight. There was nobody on hand to capture live images, so viewers were shown half a dozen shots of the smouldering ruins and of a High Street deserted but for my other cousin and a friend dawdling home from school so slowly all the shops had shut. I still remember their wary backward glance towards the camera. It seemed the only evidence of life in a village suddenly paralysed.

I say ‘paralysed’: life goes on, of course. But small towns and villages take a longer and harder route to adapt to sudden change than cities do, especially when adapting to the loss of the largest single employer. The factory had been closed for two years, though I retain a memory of noises from inside that I couldn’t have formed at such an early age, so perhaps some further work was carried on in parts of the building. If ever there was the symbolic setting of a seal on a town’s past, then this was surely it. Like Banquo’s ghost1 pricking the conscience, the deserted shell was a reminder of what was gone, and that the future was suddenly an uncertain place. With hindsight, at this point in Scottish history – after the 1979 General Election – such desolation of heavy industry seems horribly prescient.

The factory was traditionally the heart of such towns. In the morning were pumped in workers from the town and surrounding villages; in the evening they were pumped out again, and this beating allowed a growth of contingent and ancillary industries to develop. Ships stopped at the quay to load and unload. After the fire, the other industries lingered on a while, expiring their final breaths slowly over a number of years. The quayside – once full of grey lorries with the sturdy red-and-yellow BELL’S logo of the local quarry company – fell into disuse and was demolished. A town in this position looks around for something to quickly fill the gap, but here, no substitute would be strong enough to prop up such a heavy body. The prevailing economic winds were blowing ill for British heavy industry. That said, there are no real parallels with the systematic destruction of the coalmining industry that hit south Fife so hard a few years later. Newburgh’s factory went into receivership, which is the result of bad management. Of course it is the workforce who suffer hardest, and their families, local businesses and the social life of the community. It is, however, the common outcome that Newburgh shares with Lochgelly, Cardenden, Polmaise, Thornton.

Private enterprise was one of the dogmas of the Thatcher government. Some locals started up small businesses alongside (and sometimes in the empty shells of) the established family-run shops, but few survived the repeated recessions. Now, despite the gloss of the fresh road signs and the speed reducing measures – a sure sign that your village is merely a nuisance to be passed through en route to somewhere else – it has become, inevitably, one of the surrounding villages of a larger town; a commuter base, even, for people who work in far-distant Edinburgh.


Until the 1950s, children were educated to secondary level at the local school. The bus that has since taken pupils to the local secondary (Bell Baxter, in Cupar) has always been infamous as the roughest and rowdiest. This has always been an independent town; it has always stood apart, distant from neighbouring villages and with no obvious kinship to any of them. It’s location in Fife sunders it from communities in Perth & Kinross by virtue of being in a different administrative district. But to Fifers, it’s hidden away, right on the border, practically abroad.

Cupar draws its school catchment from the villages of the agricultural Howe of Fife, or those beyond the reach of Dundee and St. Andrews: Auchtermuchty (‘Muchty’, home to The Proclaimers and Jimmy Shand) and Strathmiglo, Ladybank (an important railway junction: Newburgh’s abandoned station exists in a slow state of collapse at the top of the High Street), and the Pitlessie-Kingskettle-Falkland-Freuchie polygon that encompasses the pine forests and mushroom fields that litter the flat, fertile Howe. Newburgh stands apart from all of these: the North Fife hills, an extension of the Ochils, separate it from the others. Its view is not to the central peaks of the Lomonds, but out towards Dundee, Perth, the Trossachs and beyond. It looked outward: pleasure boats visited until the 1960s. For their shopping, its citizens visit Perth rather than Kirkcaldy or Glenrothes. Different outlooks, different habits. And it had industry.

Once, it boasted cinemas and a swimming pool, but its decades since the town has merited either. The ice-cream from Annie Divito’s café at the top of the High Street (recently an antique dealers, now a café once again), was a snow-white milky pleasure that garnered national recognition. The recipe was a jealously-guarded secret she took to her grave. She closed the café area down at the end of the 70s and though the sweetshop and ice cream were still hugely popular, Newburgh was no longer a place people wanted to stop in and eat. Cafés have sporadically opened, prospered briefly, and closed again ever since. The story is familiar across the UK: small towns and villages lose their garages, their pubs, their chip-shops, one by one. Newburgh is no special case.

Also common to small towns everywhere is an instinctive wariness of strangers, or ‘incomers’ as they were, and are, with slightly more irony, still known. This doesn’t just apply to the family of travellers who arrived seasonally for many years (openly called ‘the Tinkies’), but to settlers from outside the village boundaries. Indeed those same borders are re-affirmed every seven years in a good-natured day-long procession known as ‘the Riding of the Marches’ over hills, through fields, and across burns. Some of the more successful businesses since the 1980s have been those started up by ‘incomers’, possibly because the owners are unknown quantities and its harder to measure what exactly ‘getting above themselves’, in proper Scots fashion, would constitute.

One such ‘incomer’ who has quite happily made Newburgh her home is the poet Kathleen Jamie2. Her garden is one of many that stretch up to the railway line that cuts across the town like a belt, and covers the ground that was once entirely orchards: plum and apple trees that my Gran could recall dotting the slopes in endless numbers.


The only contemporary guide3 to the town was written and published over thirty years ago by the parents of my friend Will, themselves English ‘incomers’ (Newburgh: A Historic Trail, Linda Pinfold, Michael Pinfold & Malcolm Robinson; Pinprint). Even today, whole chunks of this book, put together by hand in the short-lived studio they’d converted from a former sweetshop, can be found copied without acknowledgement on websites that feature Newburgh as a possible tourist stop. The book’s final chapter is on the linoleum factory, referring to its plunge into receivership but not it’s gutting by fire. Perhaps the event was too recent; unnecessary to recount. The factory at that time still stood, blackened, silent and shamed, visible down every road that hurtles to the river. It may or may not be significant that this attempt at gathering together the town’s many strands of history was not done by locals but by a couple only just settled in the area. It is indicative, though, that for a long time only this, an ‘Old Newburgh’ photo book, and the cardboard-and-glue history projects of the local Primary School children appeared since the factory fire to portray an image of the town.

But print is not the only means of representation. The end of the 1970s saw the establishment of the Pageant, part of a week-long Newburgh Festival that ran in mid-August for a few years. The Festival featured daily (and nightly) events such as the pram race, in which grown men dressed as babies and pushed each other in prams the length of the High Street, and between each of the town’s (then) half-dozen pubs. The Pageant took the form of a play: there was a ‘Jungle Book’ in the superbly atmospheric setting of the ruined Lindores Abbey, and an ambitious ‘King Arthur’ in which the audience followed the action on foot throughout the village. The highlight was a real-life Lady of the Lake, whose arm rose from those silvery Tay waves, offering Excalibur to the King. Pageant and Festival dwindled, like so much else, as the 80s ran their course.


There is a working factory, still, in town. Construction began not long after the old one burned down, at the eastern end of the village. We watched from the school playground every lunchtime as it went up in sheets of grey metal. This was a new type of factory: light industry. Long and low and looking like it was built from plastic, it appeared to have been set down alone in a field next to the school car park. If people were pumped in and out we never saw them. Today this atrophied industrial estate is shared with a modern fire station. The car park has grown to meet them under the demands of the school run.

It took a decade for the old factory ruins to be pulled down. Another passed as the site became overgrown and filled with pools of stagnant water. Finally, a luxury development of riverside homes was built on the factory site, in response to the rising cost of houses across the UK. Handy commuter town and rural retreat. This bland new vision of Newburgh is that of developers and estate agents: their usual airbrushing of history.


Most of the factory’s old employees have by now retired, having long ago been forced into what other work they could find. Unemployment in the early 80s was higher than today, but you must travel further to find the work. It’s impossible to picture a factory there now, though the buildings fringing the site still seem to be on their guard against some threat from across the road. The landlord of a Dundee Bed & Breakfast, himself a retired carpet-fitter and once familiar with the town, upon hearing where I came from, reckoned ‘it hasn’t been the same since the factory; lots of unemployment’. He captured neatly the town’s standing in the local imagination: once a small town, now just a village whose day has passed, slumbering like so many others.



1 A mile outside the town, in a field next to the country road to ‘Muchty, stands the ancient carved stone rump of ‘Macduff’s Cross’. The head of the clan Macduff was historically Earl of Fife.


2 Kathleen is not Newburgh’s first poet. Up the hill, at the back of Mount Pleasant, where town meets whin-covered hillside, stands a small cottage built in the early nineteenth century by brothers Alexander and John Bethune. Weavers and poets, crippled by poverty and illness, neither of them reached 40. A single copy of Alexander’s edited collection of his brother’s poetry resides in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. They built – unaided – the cottage for their parents. It is shaken daily by blasts from the quarry which has, despite a spirited local campaign in recent years, spread its empire further and further west, coming gradually into view of the town, where the scars are less easily concealed.


3 The 50s and 60s saw versions of a Newburgh town guide, with map and illustrations, but for a deeper view of the history and customs, look to ‘A History of Lindores and its Burgh of Newburgh’. This 1876 tome reads like a parochial version of ‘The Golden Bough’ with its exploration of magic and myth. It boasts superb illustrations of local landmarks, notably Mugdrum Cross, an 11th century needle-like pillar of stone covered in what are believed to be Norse engravings, which stands hidden deep in the rhododendrons of Mugdrum estate, overlooking the Tay.