THESE days, the name Robbe-Grillet doesn’t ring many bells. A new chateau perhaps, whose grand cru goes well with meat? A deputy minister in Sarkozy’s government? An up-and-coming couturier?
How times have changed. Starting in the 1950s, the novelist, filmmaker and literary theorist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who died last week at 85, had a profound impact on international taste. An originator of the Nouveau Roman, or New Novel, and the screenwriter for Alain Resnais’s 1961 cult film “Last Year at Marienbad,” Mr. Robbe-Grillet was the very model of a postwar avant-gardist. His attempts to wrest fiction free from 19th-century constraints like plot and character, and to wrest objects free from imposed meaning, were never entirely popular with readers but had a decisive influence on critical theory and on the art of the novel, as well as on film, art and even psychology.
Mr. Robbe-Grillet’s first four novels — “The Erasers” (1953), “Jealousy” (1957), “The Voyeur” (1958) and “In the Labyrinth” (1960) — are “really the finest thing in French fiction of the second half of the 20th century,” said the poet and critic Richard Howard, who translated most of Mr. Robbe-Grillet’s early work into English for Grove Press.
Mr. Howard recalled his first meeting with the novelist, who was also a trained agronomist, in the mid-1950s. “He came into someone’s living room,” Mr. Howard said. “There was a bowl of narcissus bulbs in a dish, not doing very well. He started poking around and rearranging them, removing the water and the dirt, and he said, ‘Now they’ll be all right.’ I think he wrote novels in that way, making the situation pregnant with circumstances that would reveal everything that the novel was meant to reveal.”
The novel, Mr. Robbe-Grillet contended, was a 19th-century form, epitomized by the rich, naturalistic worlds of Balzac and Flaubert. The 20th century, though, was characterized by fragmentation and existential doubt, and the novel reached “a degree of stagnation,” he argued in his essay “A Fresh Start for Fiction.” He called for a radical departure: anti-realist, anti-naturalist, anti-descriptive, apolitical. “In this future universe of the novel, gestures and objects will be ‘there’ before being ‘something,’ ” he wrote. “They will still be there afterwards, hard, unalterable, eternally present, mocking their own meaning.”
Mr. Robbe-Grillet and the other so-called New Novelists, including Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon, wanted to do in literature what others had done in art — just as Marcel Duchamp had deconstructed human motion in “Nude Descending a Staircase” and the Abstract Expressionists had valorized gesture, the movement of a brush stroke itself, over representation. Mr. Robbe-Grillet believed that writing should reveal the archaeology of its own construction, should depict a mind unfolding its thoughts over time.
His first novel, “The Erasers,” is an inverted detective story, while “Jealousy,” set on a Caribbean banana plantation, reads at turns like scientific observation and stage directions. (“The moment has come to inquire after Christine’s health. Franck replies by a gesture of the hand: a rise followed by a slower fall that becomes quite vague.”) The effect “was for many people sterile, for others exciting,” said Tom Bishop, a friend of the author’s and a French professor at New York University, where Mr. Robbe-Grillet taught every other year for 25 years. “He put the reader in a position where he had to be the central part of the novel.”
The literary theorist Roland Barthes was an early champion. “Robbe-Grillet is important because he has attacked the last bastion of the traditional art of writing: the organization of literary space,” Mr. Barthes wrote. The novelist was trying to destroy “the adjective itself,” he added. “The realm of qualification, for him, can be only spatial or situational.” … more>>
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