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.

Read part 3


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

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