By Mark Hamstra
Alain Robbe-Grillet is one of the most innovative novelists and filmmakers of the twentieth century. Frustrated about the lack of progress and innovation in the art of the novel since the nineteenth century, Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Saurrate began to write complex novels that interrogated and challenged conventional narrative modes, novels that altered or abolished fictional elements such as character, plot, setting, point of view, and chronological time in favor of repetitions, an absence of emotion, minute objective and sometimes geometric descriptions, the lack of authorial analysis, and the deconstruction of time. His films also reflect his desire to challenge the conventions of filmmaking, but he is recognized principally as a novelist.
After receiving considerable critical attention about his first two novels, The Erasers (Les Gommes 1953) and The Voyeur (Le Voyeur 1955), Robbe-Grillet wrote several essays and articles about the novel and the need for a new vision of the novel. His call for a new novel crowned Robbe-Grillet as one of the leaders of this artistic movement which became known as the nouveau roman or the New Novel. The essays were compiled into a book called Por une nouveau roman (1963) or For a New Novel. The book examines the state of the novel as an art form and explores why and how the art of the novel must progress or die of stagnation: "The art of the novel, however, has fallen into such a state of stagnation -- a lassitude acknowledged and discussed by the whole of critical opinion -- that it is hard to imagine such an art can survive for long without some radical change. To many, the solution seems simple enough: such a change being impossible, the art of the novel is dying" (17). The remainder of the book deals with the revitalization of the novel through the examination of innovative writers like Beckett and Sartre. The book is written in a delightfully conversational tone, and although the essays in the middle sag somewhat, For a New Novel is a timeless challenge for all artists to continue exploring and pushing the envelope of their art.
The novels of Robbe-Grillet all challenge their readers to re-evaluate the way they read, the way they think, and the way they visualize the world around them. The novels are vastly different from each other. The Erasers concerns a police inspector, Wallas, and his search for a man who has supposedly killed another man who, in actuality, was not killed. The novel is set in a small Belgian city, a city with a considerable network of canals and bridges and boulevards that all look the same; throughout the novel, the city becomes a type of labyrinth, adding an ambiguous complexity of space to the novel's non-linear chronology. The film noir mood of the novel combine with Robbe-Grillet's unique approach to fiction and develop a intriguing novel.
The Erasers is more accessible than his later novels like Jealousy and In The Labyrinth (Dans le labyrinthe 1959), both penultimate examples of the New Novel. The erratic chronology, suggested symbols, circular repetitions, and stylized description deconstruct time and space in these novels forcing the reader to reconstruct the plot. These writerly texts transport readers to complex fictional, hence illusory, universes. As the structuralist Roland Barthes insists, "the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text" (S/Z 4). In fact, both Bruce Morrissette and Barthes have incisive introductions to Robbe-Grillet's work and particularly his two novels, Jealousy and In The Labyrinth, in Two Novels by Robbe-Grillet translated by Richard Howard. The visual nature of Robbe-Grillet's books continue in his later novels, of which the collaborative novel La Belle Captive (1975), a novel written by Robbe-Grillet with paintings and illustrations by the surrealist René Margritte, is a perfect example where art informs art and the two mediums color the "reading" of each other. Recently, in 1995, Robbe-Grillet finished a trilogy: a fictional autobiography. Embracing the vogue genre of the autobiography and foregrounding its inherently subjective nature, Robbe-Grillet continues to brave the edge of his art in the same spirit of innovation that has marked all his work.
--Mark Hamstra, 2 October 1998
More on Robbe-Grillet
You may order Robbe-Grillet's works online through Amazon.com by visiting the Libyrinth's Robbe-Grillet Bookstore.
Check out this Robbe-Grillet Homepage, maintained by John Leo.
Here's a short biography at the Mystfest Web site.
Here's a hypertext project based on The Erasers.
An essay on "The New Novel" may be found at the Electronic Labyrinth, which also has something to say about In the Labyrinth.
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Northern Light -- This will search Northern Light for online articles and sites about Robbe-Grillet and his work.
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