Robbe-Grillet, Alain

Robbe-Grillet, Alain
Aug. 18, 1922-Feb. 18, 2008
French novelist, essayist and screenwriter


French novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and theoretician of the "new novel," was born in Brest, Finistere, of parents who had migrated there from the Jura. He is the son of Gaston Robbe-Grillet, an engineer, and Yvonne (Canu) Robbe-Grillet. His fascinated scrutiny of the plant and animal life of the Breton seacoast is no doubt one source of his preoccupation as a writer with the surface appearance of things, as well as of his choice of a career in agricultural engineering. He studied at the Lycee Buffon, the Lycee de Brest, and the Lycee St. Louis, eventually receiving his diploma at the French National Institute of Agronomy.

During World War II Robbe-Grillet was deported to Germany to work in a tank factory at Nuremberg. It was there that he began to form his literary attitudes in conversations with another French writer, Claude Ollier. After the war, from 1945 to 1948, Robbe-Grillet worked in Paris at the National Institute of Statistics, and for the next three years served the Institute of Colonial Fruits and Crops in Morocco, French Guinea, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. Since 1955 he has been literary director of Jerome Lindon's publishing house Les Editions de Minuit, which publishes his own books as well as those of Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon, Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute, Ollier, and others associated with the nouveau roman.

Robbe-Grillet has explained his views in the essays collected in Pour un nouveau roman (1963, translated like many of his books by Richard Howard and published in English as For a New Novel). The "new novel" is what is left when the writer has swept away all the delusions and dishonesties which encumber the traditional novel. It is first of all nonsense, Robbe-Grillet says, to try to interpret the natural world in human terms. A mountain is not "majestic"; it is not a challenge to the aspirations of mountaineers; it is not a symbol of God's finger pointing to heaven: "The world is neither significant nor absurd. It just is." Equally misguided is the writer who fabricates a neat plot and presents this as an accurate account of reality, or who pretends that he can explain the motives or the psychological processes of another person or creature.

With the rejection of the "pathetic fallacy," the tragic sense evaporates, leaving a literature of scrupulous and dispassionate report. The reader is presented with an account which is, ideally, totally complete and accurate, and which he will interpret for himself in the light of his own experience, intelligence, and sensibility. There is to be no preconceived "story" or "characters" as a starting point, only a structure. Bruce Morrissette believes that "to Robbe-Grillet, a literary work can only acquire its meaning, and hence its value, through form."

Trying to interpret the evidence provided by the senses, says Robbe-Grillet, the mind cheats itself. Much of his work illustrates the discrepancy between objective and subjective reality. In his first novel, Les Gommes (1953, translated as The Erasers), Wallas, a secret agent, is assigned to investigate the murder of Dupont, a recluse who has been a power in international politics. For twenty-four hours Wallas "enacts the odyssey of a precise-minded man at the mercy of a kaleidoscope created by false clues, mistaken identities, and the fanciful ruminations induced by fatigue." His investigations lead him back to the scene of the crime, where he kills a man whom he assumes to be Dupont's murderer; in fact it is Dupont himself, who has been not dead but in hiding. Thus an imaginary crime becomes reality, accomplished by the man who was to have solved it.

There are hints that Dupont may have been Wallas's father, and in many respects Les Gommes may be read as an ingenious transposition of the Oedipus myth into the framework of a modern detective story—a device which suggests an uncharacteristic concern with plot. But in many other respects the book is a prototype for Robbe-Grillet's later novels, marked as Morrissette says by "circular structure, use of nonlinear chronology, 'false' or imagined scenes, interior duplications of characters and events, concealed correspondences, serial objects, chosiste descriptions, 'troubling' or neosymbolic objects (such as the eraser that the protagonist vainly seeks throughout the novel), metamorphose …, psychopathology, a labyrinthine, almost surrealist decor, repetitions, 'frozen' scenes, echoes, verbal enigmas, and mythic allusions. All these are incorporated in a plot which, through the use of ellipse and implication, remains openended and ambiguous."

Critical attention focused in particular on Robbe-Grillet's obsessively detailed and mathematically precise descriptions of things, which Roland Barthes describes as chosisme, and Morrissette associates with the existentialist notion that the human consciousness can define itself only in relation to objects. A famous example of this kind of writing is the account of one of the objects Wallas finds on his plate in an automat: "A quarter section of tomato quite perfect and without defect, sliced by machine from an absolutely symmetrical fruit. The peripheral flesh, compact and homogeneous, of a fine chemical redness, is uniformly thick between a band of shiny skin and the semicircular area where the seeds are arranged, yellow, of uniform caliber, held in place by a thin layer of greenish jelly…. At the top, a scarcely visible accident has occurred: a corner of the skin, detached from the flesh over the space of one or two millimeters, sticks up imperceptibly."

Many of these devices recur in Le Voyeur (1955, translated as The Voyeur), which also illustrates the preoccupation with psychosadism that is another characteristic of Robbe-Grillet's work. Either Mathias, an apparently schizoid young salesman, or Julien, a young fisherman, has tortured and murdered a girl while the other watched. But who did which is not to be established from the novel itself, which includes no objective account of the crime.

In La Jalousie (1957, translated as Jealousy), chronology and conventional plot are abandoned. The book deals instead with the reflections, recollections, fantasies, and observations of a banana planter whose wife has gone on a shopping trip to the coast with a man who may be her lover. Time is irrelevant, because the mind of the "narrator" moves freely backwards and forwards in time, compulsively rehearsing and reinterpreting a few events that he regards as crucial. And the book is shaped not by actions but by the growing intensity of the planter's jealous imaginings, which dissolve as soon as the couple return, clearly unenamored of each other. Since the husband in his musings never specifically identifies himself, the reader ideally "becomes" the narrator, and is intensely involved in his feelings—an effect which has been compared to those "subjective camera" films which are photographed from the point of view of the protagonist.

Dans le labyrinthe (1959, translated as In the Labyrinth) is even closer to the "pure novel" advocated by Flaubert. It is an account of a soldier's wanderings through a maze of unfamiliar streets, carrying a box that he must deliver to an unknown person at an address he has forgotten. This story is being invented as it occurs by a writer whose room contains its elements—the mysterious box, an engraving of the soldier, etc. There have been many attempts to explain this novel in allegorical terms, though Robbe-Grillet himself had intended "a strictly material reality, which is to say a reality without allegorical force." Some found in the book an odd lyricism and pathos; others, like Henri Peyre, thought it "too puritanical in its fulfillment of Flaubert's dream: a novel made of and with nothing, a Mallarmean work of absence by an anti-poet."

Robbe-Grillet's interest in the aesthetics of sexual aberration, especially sadism, dominates La Maison de rendez-vous (1965, translated under the same title), which features a Hong Kong brothel where "highly bred and delicate dogs" strip the clothing from tethered ladies. Similar themes are explored in some of the short sketches collected in Instantanes (1961, translated as Snapshots), and the novel Projet pour une revolution a New York (1970, translated as Project for a Revolution in New York). Robbe-Grillet's New York is an imaginary city—an agglomeration of myths from a thousand B-pictures, a city of fearful dreams, wholly given over to muggings, sirens, torture, and rape. The deliberate fracturing in this book of chronology and psychological coherence was enjoyed by one critic as an "ontological romp," and dismissed by others as self-indulgent doodling. Robbe-Grillet's technique, which owes so much to the cinema, may also be studied in his profoundly influential (and controversial) scenarios for L'Annee derniere a Marienbad (1961, Last Year at Marienbad), L'Immortelle (1963, The Immortal One), and other films. The author visited New York in 1972, teaching at New York University and Columbia.

The author was married in 1957 to Catherine Rstakian. He received the Prix des Critiques in 1955 and the Prix Louis Delluc in 1963.

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