None the wiser: Claude Ollier’s “The Mise-en-Scene” (1958)

A confession: I’d never heard of Claude Ollier until a few weeks ago. Although I’ve read numerous mid-century French nouveau romanistes (Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Sarraute, Simon, Butor, Pinget) I had never come across any reference to Ollier, probably because his work had not been published by John Calder, and the few English translations of his work are not easy to find.

The Mise-en-Scene, translated by Dominic Di Bernardi, is published by the ever-reliable Dalkey Archive and is one of the most accessible nouveau romans I’ve read. The “story” tells of a surveyor, Lassalle, working on the plans for a new route through the mountains of French-held North Africa. Lassalle is following in the footsteps – literally – of a previous engineer, who seems to have been murdered. The novel is an account of his fortnight’s stay in the mountainous region, trying to plot a route for the new road. This being a nouveau roman, where the way the story is being told is as significant as the events within the narrative, the concept of “spoiler alert” is rendered meaningless. I could tell you what happens at the end because it doesn’t matter.

The Mise-en-Scene is a book about the impossibility of knowing anything, and the whole book is a sustained meditation on the futility of trying to attain definitive, objective knowledge.

Descriptions are highly detailed, and use of Arabic or local dialect words further dislocates the European reader, making it difficult to visualise the terrain being described. The amount of detail works against visualisation, in an ironic undermining of traditional realist attempts at verisimilitude.

When he first arrives in the largest local town, Assameur, Lassalle is puzzled at night by a picture seen on the wall of his room. He sees what he thinks is a map, but daylight reveals it to be an incongruous seaside print. This is the first example of things not only not being what they seem, but even when they are seen, offer no answers.

There has been a murder – a young girl has been stabbed – but there is confusion in Lassalle’s mind about the name of the victim, and though he has his suspicions, his local contact Ba Iken’s constantly shifting evasions get him no closer to an understanding of what has happened. No version of the events seems to properly fit, so at every step, ground which was by no means solid becomes even more unstable.

Additionally, without technological means of apprehending the world, he is at the mercy of his memory and his senses. An “imposing panorama would be worth photographing [i.e. recording objectively, but he]…is sorry for the first time that he forgot his camera.” Later, “only the binoculars could remove any doubt. But [they] are at the bottom of the clothing bags, in the minivan”. But even with assistance of civilisation’s tools, he is no better off: maps are “stingy with details” and are full of blank spaces. Notations become fewer in the mountainous areas, or are absent altogether.

Lassalle constantly tries to tie together names of people with their village, in an effort to impose order, and thus gain understanding: “Ichou…Ichou ben X…ben Schlomo, grandson of the maqadden of the Asguine”. On asking his young assistant Ichou’s age, in order to complete this mental picture, he is given an ambiguous reply.

He writes in his diary, purposely to avoid the unreliability of memory, but his daily entries – some of which, ironically, are written days afterwards anyway – are so brief and cursory as to be meaningless. This is especially notable given that Ollier’s book, as with those of Alain Robbe-Grillet, is written in the present tense. As Robbe-Grillet says in his autobiography Ghosts in the Mirror, the “past historic” tense imposes “definitive glaciation of the most incomplete gestures, the most ephemeral thoughts”. It would, therefore, be a self-defeating move to have written this work in the past tense: the whole point is that we do not know anything for certain; there is and can be no such “glaciation” or certainty. We are made constantly aware by use of the present tense of the passage of time, especially as marked out by the passage of shadows over the mountains and ravines, and in this regard Ollier’s work differs from that of Robbe-Grillet, whose books are full of moments of stasis.

The man Lassalle suspects – of everything and anything – is Idder, a belligerent local who appears each day holding a different implement, magnified in Lassalle’s mind into a weapon. On one of his forays into the mountain, Lassalle is shown rock paintings, and – disturbingly – they seem to portray a double murder by someone wielding a weapon. He attempts in vain to follow conversations in the local dialect in the hope of gaining some clue, especially as he becomes aware that Ba Iken is maybe not as truthful or reliable as he’d thought. But even if he can pick out proper names, his inability to ground them in the context of the conversation only creates ambiguity, and fosters more suspicion.

One scene in particular encapsulates the novel in miniature. As he begins his return, having successfully surveyed the region for a road whose future construction is by no means certain, he watches an army of ants devour a scorpion. “His curiosity came to the fore again…with the feeling that the action is going to lunge forward or that an event of capital importance is in progress. But everything that happens is only very normal and exasperatingly slow.” There are no epiphanies, and knowing any more about something reveals no “meaning”, but only more of the thing itself.

At the end, on his return to Assameur, his previous contact is on leave, and things have changed in his absence. Lassalle has fewer reference points than before. With no continuity, he is unable to talk over the details of either the girl’s murder or Lessing’s, with the man who he had previous been dealing with. He – and the reader – is denied any closure.

Ollier’s worldview is vertiginous. Like a fractal, looking closer only reveals more details – some of which may mirror those seen at a higher level (the drawings on the rock echo the murders in the region), and the same patterns recur. At the same time, there is no “big picture”: if you try to pull back to gain perspective, all that’s revealed are the gaps in your knowledge. It’s a dizzying perspective.

The Mise-en-Scene forms the first part of an eight-book series in French, and though I’ve now ordered one of his other works (Law and Order), I can only find evidence that two more of his novels have ever been translated into English. On the basis of this book, it would be great if Dalkey Archive (or Alma in the UK) were to commission translations of more of Ollier’s work.

 

Sources:

Ollier, Claude: The Mise-en-Scene (Dalkey Archives, 2000)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (John Calder, 1984)

 

photo: Jamie Gorman

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