I’ve long wanted to read – or to write, and I’ve tried1 – something which marries the claustrophobic atmosphere of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories (such as ‘The Birds’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’ obviously, and also ‘The Blue Lenses’), with the formal experimentation of French nouveau-romaniste Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008).
Although they both published some of their best work around the same time, what similarities they have are largely incidental.
Take du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) and Alain Resnais’ 1961 film L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), adapted from a script by Robbe-Grillet. Both feature an unnamed female lead character, and the events of each text occur in the shadow of an uncertain past (which are ultimately resolved in Rebecca, but not Marienbad).
There is also du Maurier’s The Parasites, which is narrated in the first person by three different people, and at no point can we tell which of them is speaking. This technique echoes those used by Robbe-Grillet’s peers Claude Simon and Michel Butor. But the similarities end there.
Much of du Maurier’s work is rooted in a definite place: usually Cornwall, and even then in a very specific locale around Fowey. But Robbe-Grillet’s early work (by which I mean up to around 1963) takes place in eerily unspecified places: an island off the French coast; a northern town; a banana plantation; a grand hotel. But if the writers were too alike, what would be the point in bringing them together? It’s the space between them that makes a marriage of styles enticing.
In their own way, the labyrinths, gyres and mises-en-abyme of Robbe-Grillet create their own atmosphere, especially in works such as In the Labyrinth with its endless, empty snow-covered streets and the “sealed, stifling world”2 of Marienbad. As he explains in the introduction to that work, Marienbad shows
“a reality which the hero creates…out of his own words…among a perfect labyrinth of false trails, variants, failures and repetitions”3.
Robbe-Grillet strips his fiction of the psychological shorthand that denotes a state of mind (such as describing what a character “thought”). He avoids, too, any attempt to explain what a character is “feeling”. Instead, subjectivity is presented in such a way that the reader cannot easily distinguish a purely mental process (a memory, a fantasy, an obsession), from what is being “experienced” at any given time: all are treated as objective phenomena. His works (especially those post-1963) actively work to prevent the suspension of disbelief which is necessary for the creation of any sort of “atmosphere” as found in a gothic tale.
Du Maurier’s work, conversely, gains much of its power from the inner workings of her characters’ minds. Think of the wilful ignorance of Philip in My Cousin Rachel, the fear of discovery which haunts the imposter in The Scapegoat, or the paranoia of Rebecca’s anonymous narrator. This latter, incidentally, at one point slips into an extraordinary imaginary conversation as if it were being lived at that moment; what Robbe-Grillet calls an “objectivised hypothesis”: “an image, if it is vivid enough, is always in the present”4.
From memory, I’d assumed du Maurier’s work was full of charged landscapes that would be anathema to Robbe-Grillet, who loathed the use of pathetic fallacy. But there is little metaphor in The Birds, for example: when the marauding flocks are described in military terms, that’s because they act with the precision and deadliness of an army. They are what they appear to be. The Venice of Don’t Look Now is a labyrinth which leads John to his death. It need not take too large a mental leap to see this sort of locale as ripe for depiction in nouveau-romanesque forms. So what might a hybrid of these authors look like? Roads taken; roads not taken but imagined; backtrackings; and all the while a sense of terror grows. Cities, but also forests or moorlands. Or the corridors and rooms of Manderley, the de Winter residence in Rebecca. Places, then, with either too much horizon or none at all, are the most suggestive. Non-spaces like this are the most fertile for a marriage of these two authors. If anyone knows of a work which achieves such a synergy, I’d love to know.
2 Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Last Year At Marienbad (Grove Press, 1961), p.10
3 ibid, p.10
4 ibid, p.13
photo credit: Jamie Gorman