Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Homage to Alain Robbe-Grillet

Image found here.

French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet died today. That name may not mean much to some of you, and that's okay. His work was often ridiculed during the early years of his career; but even when the times caught up a bit with him, that work--difficult, demanding, moving glacially when it had a plot, excessively anal-retentive in its descriptions (a sample of which you'll see below)--would never be well-known by those who weren't aficionados of the avant-garde. He was a film-maker, too, but . . . well, let's just say that if the film of his that I saw, Last Year at Marienbad, is any indication of what his other films are like, he didn't exactly pack 'em in at the multiplex. Not that it's a bad film by any means, mind you--just that, like his novels, the audience for his films is a small one. He's not my favorite writer by any means. But it was through reading and (trying to) write about his work in my first-ever graduate class that I first thought seriously about the control a writer exercises over his/her material--technique, in other words. Indeed, in thinking back on that paper, it may have been the questions raised in my mind while reading Robbe-Grillet that led me to become interested in theories of narrative. So I am grateful tonight for this man and his art.

More below the fold.

My introduction to Robbe-Grillet was Jealousy (in this edition a two-fer with his novel In the Labyrinth). The novel is set on a banana plantation in Africa; there are three main characters: a woman known as A . . ., a neighbor named Franck, and, well . . . how about you read this passage, fairly representative of his style, and see for yourself:

It was A . . . who arranged the chairs this evening, when she had brought them out on the veranda. The one she invited Franck to sit in and her own are side by side against the wall of the house--backs against the wall, of course--beneath the office window. So that Franck's chair is on her left, and on her right--but farther forward--the little table where the bottles are. The two other chairs are placed on the other side of this table, still farther to the right, so that they do not block the view of the first two through the balustrade of the veranda. For the same reason these last two chairs are not turned to face the rest of the group: they have been set at an angle, obliquely oriented toward the openwork balustrade and the hillside opposite. This arrangement obliges anyone sitting there to turn his head around sharply toward the left if he wants to see A . . . --especially anyone in the fourth chair, which is the farthest away.
The third, which is a folding chair made of canvas stretched on a metal frame, occupies a distinctly retired position between the fourth chair and the table. But it is this chair, less comfortable, which has remained empty. (43-44)
In other words: there are actually three persons in this scene. The third is a presence in the world of the novel, unnamed and all but unseen--there is one moment when the narrator describes the silhouette of a man, not Franck, reflected in A . . . 's eyes--who also, we come to realize, also provides this novel's narrative perspective, even though the text makes no overt connection between this third person and that perspective. The office window mentioned in this passage is important in the novel because the narrator has several occasions to peer at A . . . and Franck through the slats of the office window's shutters (the novel's French title, La Jalousie, puns on the name for the slats).

Over time, we come to understand that this third presence is A . . . 's husband, who suspects that A . . . and Franck are having an affair. "Come to understand" is the proper way to put it. None of this is told to us directly. There are moments, facts, scenes that the narrator returns to again and again, obsessively--but "obsessive" only in the sense that he returns to them, and not in how he describes them (though there is that bit about the centipede the third presence kills and whose stain seems to grow larger each time the narrator describes it). The novel's language could not be flatter in its emotional range: I've often described its narrator as being like a camera, surveying the scene in front of it, noting, revealing, but never interpreting what it sees.

And yet. Out of all that flat, emotionless diction arises the emotion that never gets named in the novel yet which names the novel, just as surely as if the narrator had told us this was what the narrator/presence was feeling. How Robbe-Grillet pulls it off is a testament to his extraordinary technique: an iron control over narrative perspective combined with that perspective's above-mentioned obsessive attention to detail.

It would be fair to say that Robbe-Grillet wasn't a storyteller as we usually think about that term. Rather, his novels' technique is their subject. And, yes, putting matters in those terms makes his work sound chilly, and that, too, would be fair. But the payoff for the reader, in his best work, is the sense that absolutely nothing interferes between the reader and what the narrator depicts. It's difficult to think of a purer kind of writing than the one Robbe-Grillet practiced.


R. Sherman said...

It's amazing that the Wikipedia entry is already updated.

Thanks for another little bit of knowledge to stash away -- a perfect way to start the morning.


John B. said...

You're most welcome.
Re Wikipedia: I read somewhere that the entry for Heath Ledger was updated within half an hour of the first announcement of his death. I don't know how quickly R-G's entry was updated, but I imagine it was within a few hours (avant-garde folks being, you know, out in front and all).