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)