BORN: 1922, Brest, France
DIED: 2008, Caen, France
GENRE: Novels, screenplays, nonfiction
The Erasers (1953)
The Voyeur (1958)
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet, Alain, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.
French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet is among the foremost proponents and theoreticians of le nouveau roman, also referred to as the new novel or antinovel. He strives for pure objectivity in his fiction, making camera-like use of point-of-view by spontaneously recording events without imposing subjective interpretation. He favors disjointed narratives, characters with vague or shifting identities, metafictional situations, and chosisme, the precisely detailed description of inanimate objects. Robbe-Grillet purposely leaves meanings ambiguous or contradictory to allow readers to exercise their individual perceptions, yet his fiction is not devoid of meaning, as objects elicit symbolic associations in the minds of readers. The major interest of Robbe-Grillet’s work lies in the collaboration between author and reader, the process by which objective reality acquires subjective meaning.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Sent to Germany by Vichy France. Alain Robbe-Grillet was born on August 18, 1922, in Brest, Finistere, in northwestern France, to Gaston Robbe-Grillet, the owner of a small manufacturing business, and Yvonne Canu Robbe-Grillet. He was educated at the Lycees Buffon and St. Louis in Paris and at the Lycee de Brest, where he initially studied mathematics and biology.
In 1940, during World War II, France was invaded by German forces. This resulted in the German occupation of much of France, with the rest of the country remaining ‘‘free’’ under a provisional government approved by the Germans and based in the city of Vichy. The Vichy government, in an effort to appease the Germans, sent hundreds of thousands of French citizens to Germany as forced laborers intended to aid Germany in their war efforts. Robbe-Grillet was one such worker, spending time in a German tank factory.
Wide Travels as an Agricultural Scientist. After returning to France, and having received his engineering degree from the National Agricultural Institute of France in 1944, he pursued a scientific career as an officer at the National Institute of Statistics in Paris from 1945 to 1948.
From 1948 to 1951 he worked in Morocco, Guinea, Guadeloupe, and Martinique for the Institut des Fruits et Agrumes Coloniaux, or Colonial Fruit Institute, but fell ill and had to be repatriated on health grounds. He never returned to his career as an agricultural scientist, becoming a full-time writer instead.
Literary Interests. Robbe-Grillet joined the publishing house Les Editions de Minuit as a literary consultant in 1955. Under the direction of the esteemed Jerome Lindon, the company drew a select literary group of such writers as Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Butor, Jacques Derrida, Nathalie Sarraute, and Claude Simon. Like Robbe-Grillet, they each possessed a distinctive style and voice, but together agreed the nineteenth-century social novel was on its way out.
Robbe-Grillet wrote his first, and one of the first, ‘‘new novels,’’ The Regicide (Un Regicide), as he worked in his sister Marie-Claire’s biology laboratory in 1949— though it would not be published until 1978. His next novel, however, would make him what most consider the leader of the nouveau roman movement.
Novel Form Innovation. Robbe-Grillet and his literary group opposed the bourgeois, or Balzacian (after nineteenth century novelist Honore de Balzac), novel of humanist tradition. Instead, they preferred the geometrical precision and clinical exactitude of a scientific-literary approach. Known as the first ‘‘cubist’’ novelist and a ‘‘chosist,’’ for his obsessive focus on inanimate objects ( chose is the French word for ‘‘thing’’), Robbe-Grillet initially described the nouveau roman and became the leading exponent of the New Wave in contemporary French literature. His revolutionary theories are based on the premise that man’s perception of his surroundings is distorted by his bourgeois background and its resulting emotionalism. Characterized by an objective accuracy in its detailed descriptions, Robbe-Grillet’s writing is free of intangible, inferential adjectives. It is bare and concrete instead, with little or no dialogue and with the objects in repetition as the central focus and movers of plot.
The Erasers (Les Gommes, 1953), for example, initially appears to be a conventional detective thriller. Instead, it reworks the themes of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Written when Robbe-Grillet fell ill in 1951, the work is intended as a comic parody, with a narrative that illustrates the chosist technique in its intense focus on the India rubber of the title. That rubber serves as an antisymbol for the author. Similarly, The Voyeur (Le Voyeur, 1955) explores the psychology of a rapist, but does so without either conversation or interior monologue. The exaggerated realism of the physical descriptions create a dreamlike air of surrealism in this work.
The next novels—Jealousy (La Jalousie, 1957) and In the Labyrinth (Dans le labyrinthe, 1959)—would confirm Robbe-Grillet’s place in literary history. Jealousy won the Prix des Critiques and the praise of fellow writers such as the eminent Vladimir Nabokov, who called the work one of the greatest novels of the century.
Parallel Careers. After marrying actress and photographer Catherine Rstakian in 1957, and after accepting a post as a member of the High Committee for the Preservation and Expansion of the French Language, the then forty-year-old Robbe-Grillet embarked on a parallel career as screenwriter and director.
Robbe-Grillet’s finest film effort may be Last Year at Marienbad (1961). The film, directed by Alain Resnais, created considerable critical controversy and captured the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. The surprising commercial success of the film permitted its author to undertake other cinematic efforts, notably The Immortal (1963), winner of the Louis Delluc prize, and the first film Robbe-Grillet both wrote and directed, Trans-Europe Express (1967).
Robbe-Grillet was a professor at New York University from 1971 to 1995. He died in 2008 from heart problems.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Robbe-Grillet's famous contemporaries include:
Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989): British novelist known for "sensation" novels like Rebecca (1938).
Ian Fleming (1908-1964): British writer famous for creating the spy hero James Bond.
Ronald Reagan (1911-2004): Former Hollywood actor who served as president of the United States from 1981 to 1989.
Jean-Luc Godard (1930-): French-Swiss filmmaker best known for being one of the pioneers of French New Wave cinema.
Norman Lear (1922-): American television writer and producer who has become a legend for producing such iconic shows as All in the Family, Good Times, Sanford and Son, and Maude.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The New Novelists, Robbe-Grillet among them, introduced experimental concepts into the French novel. Occasionally described as ''the school of sight'' or ''the pen camera,'' the form of writing Robbe-Grillet helped develop concentrates on vision and gives minute descriptions of matter-of-fact objects. Here are a few works by writers who also wrote in the style of or were associated with the movement of nouveau roman:
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), a screenplay by Marguerite Duras. The classic French New Wave screenplay that is rich in themes and innovative in its early use of the flashback device.
Hopscotch (1963), a novel by Julio Cortazar. A stream-of- consciousness novel that often defies categorization to the point of being called the ''novel without a genre'' as it plays with readers' minds and turns on itself.
The Flanders Road (1960), a novel by Claude Simon. A nouveau roman novel of thousand-word sentences and stream-of-consciousness style and a conspicuous absence of punctuation.
Works in Literary Context
The New Novel. The name Alain Robbe-Grillet is tied to the French avant-garde literary form known as the nouveau roman, or the New Novel, which he helped propagate. As the acknowledged leader and spokesman of the New Novelists in France, Robbe-Grillet had denounced those who talk of the novelist’s social responsibility; for him the novel is not a tool and probably has little effect on society. ‘‘For us,’’ he once wrote, ‘‘literature is not a means of expression, but a search. And it does not even know for what it searches.... [But] we prefer our searches, our doubts, our contradictions, our joy of having yet invented something.’’
Deconstructing Genre Conventions. The Voyeur is widely regarded as Robbe-Grillet’s finest work, an impressive and moving piece of fiction in which the technique of narration is exactly appropriate to the subject, a novel that owes something of its form, manner, and tone to the traditional detective story but that transcends its model. It handles a serious and emotional topic—rape followed by murder—without sensationalizing or trivializing it. In The Voyeur he handles the protagonist’s death with black humor, perhaps, but in such a way that the basic seriousness of her murderer’s sick mentality is not ignored.
If The Voyeur is Robbe-Grillet’s masterpiece, his next novel, Jealousy (1959), is the one by which he is perhaps best known. The title itself provides a key to the double meaning that lies at the heart of the book: in French, la jalousie not only means jealousy but also is the ordinary word for slatted shutters or blinds. In this novel a jealous husband spies on his wife from the wide balcony of their house as she sits behind the blinds in her bedroom; the blinds give him an uneasy sense of security and yet also a voyeuristic thrill. Thus Jealousy takes up where The Voyeur left off: the narrator and the voyeur are now one.
Influences. Robbe-Grillet claims as the inspiration for his novels ‘‘the first fifty pages of Camus’ The Stranger (1942) and the works of Raymond Rousset’’ (the latter a little-known author who died in the 1930s). Critical analysis has also recognized the profound impact of the novels of Franz Kafka and Graham Greene on his work.
Works in Critical Context
Robbe-Grillet’s literary preoccupation with inanimate objects has led critics, notably Francois Mauriac, to suggest that the author dehumanizes literature. Moreover, confusion for many readers results from the lack of distinction between a seen object and one that is imagined; reality for Robbe-Grillet is always flowing from one state to another. Descriptions are repeated with slight variations, leading to charges of obscurity and tedium. Nevertheless, of the early Robbe-Grillet novels, works such as Jealousy garner much respectful attention.
Jealousy. Jealousy is regarded by many critics as one of the writer’s more important efforts. Set on a tropical banana plantation (harkening to the author’s early vocation), the book involves an untrusting husband who spies on his wife, referred to as A, in an effort to confirm his suspicion that she is having an affair with a neighboring man. All indications of the subjective eye of the author are removed, resulting in a new literary mode. In the tradition of chosisme, noted Ben Stoltzfus in a Symposium essay, Jealousy ‘‘confines itself for the most part to situating, describing and defining objects and events in space.’’ And, adds John Fletcher in Dictionary of Literary Biography, the husband’s descent into perversity is what makes Jealousy ‘‘a tour de force as a psychological novel.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Make note of all the associations you thought of while reading The Erasers and compare your list to how erasers are used in the novel. If the nouveau roman style of the novel ‘‘dispenses with traditional elements such as plot and character,’’ what sensations do you get from the erasers? What sensations do you get from the other objects? What human sensations do you think they take the place of?
2. Using the Internet and library sources, research the nouveau roman style and write a paper about its history. What literary style came before it? How did that style affect the nouveau roman style? In your paper, be sure to name nouveau roman writers and their major works.
3. Look up the word bourgeois in the dictionary. Why do you think Robbe-Grillet and fellow writers of his time objected to bourgeois values? Do you agree with their assessment of the bourgeoisie?
Craige, Betty Jean, ed. Relativism in the Arts. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983.
Fragola, Anthony N., Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Roch Charles Smith. The Erotic Dream Machine: Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on His Films. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992, 1995, 2006.
Smith, Roch Charles. Understanding Alain Robbe-Grillet. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Books and Writers. Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-). Retrieved February 14, 2008 from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/grillet.htm.
Hamstra, Mark. Scriptorium, Alain Robbe-Grillet. The Modern Word. Retrieved February 14, 2008 from http://www.themodernword.com/scriptorium/robbe-grillet.html.
McGonigle, Thomas. Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet. BookForum. Retrieved February 14, 2008 from http://www.bookforum.com/archive/spr_03/interview_gril.html.