Why you should read Robbe-Grillet

I shall never forget the opening pages of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel, Jealousy. From the first few sentences it was clear that the author was doing something very interesting with the novel as a form. Here they are, in Richard Howard’s translation:

Now the shadow of the column – the column which supports the southwest corner of the roof – divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts. This veranda is a wide, covered gallery surrounding the house on three sides. Since its width is the same for the central position as on the sides, the line of a shadow cast by the column extends precisely to the corner of the house; but it stops there, for only the veranda flagstones are reached by the sun, which is still too high in the sky.

The reader is taken into a physical world whose features are catalogued and described in obsessive, perhaps excessive detail, and when I first read this I felt as if I was hallucinating.

Robbe-Grillet’s is a universe of intense subjectivity, expressed with deadpan objectivity. Famously rejecting almost all of the conventions of the novel (including character, metaphor and story) in his 1963 collection of essays, For a New Novel, he created a fresh lexicon of fiction and wrote novels that are astonishing and compelling in their inventiveness.

Jealousy is narrated by a jealous husband, reduced to acts of voyeurism as he observes the behaviour of his wife with a man called Franck. The apparent objectivity of the novel’s many descriptive passages is in fact a near-delirious attempt by the fraught narrator to be a detective, to put together the clues that corroborate his destructive state of mind. Episodes are repeated, new details recalled or imagined. Nothing is certain. And it’s impossible to step outside the novel and answer the question, “Is the narrator’s jealousy justified?” There is only his story, his viewpoint. The world beyond it does not exist.

Robbe-Grillet’s later novels are more sinister and phantasmagoric, teaming with abductions, dreams, violence and narrators whose identity isn’t fixed; now the victim, now the villain, a Robbe-Grillet narrator never allows the reader to become complacent. Instead, your role becomes creative; like the narrator of Jealousy, you must put together the pieces of the narrative, deduce or invent your own story from them. I would particularly recommend Recollections of the Golden Triangle, whose source material was the author’s interpretation of some paintings by René Magritte.

Metanarratives are two-a-penny nowadays. Self-reflexivity is probably an overused trope, and one I parodied in a piece called “Insomnia”:

The artist intends you to make a connection between violent death and orgasm. Excuse me if you’ve heard this before…

In Robbe-Grillet’s hands, however, this technique (which at its best makes us question the narrator, the author, the novel, language itself) is electrifying.

I’m glad to say that most of his books are available in English translation, and you can get hold of the original French editions very easily through Amazon. His pared-down, unliterary style is refreshing and bold. Anyone who cares about the novel, its traditions and its future should read this author.

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One thought on “Why you should read Robbe-Grillet

  1. Brilliant, that’s all I have to say.

    “makes us question the narrator, the author, the novel, language itself” is the quintessence of writing fiction for me. Why am I writing this novel, in this particular way and expect/anticipate it to be read by a reader to what end? are the questions I ask myself of every book I sit down to write.

    As you know I think Brecht was doing something similar for theatre and which I look to bring to fiction writing.

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