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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

 

Sources:

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)

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