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Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008)


French author, literary theoretician, and representative of the nouveau roman. Alain Robbe-Grillet's work lack the conventional elements, such as dramatic plotting, coherent concept of time, and psychological analysis of the character. The novels are composed largely of recurring images, impersonally depicted physical objects and random events of everyday life. From his first published novel, Les Gommes (1953, The Erasers), Robbe-Grillet played with popular literary genres - several times with the traditional mystery novel, perhaps the most conventional literary form. The Erasers, which was based on the legend of Oedipus, mixes a detective story with changing perspectives and abundant descriptions of natural objects such as a tomato wedge. The book received the Fénélon Prize in 1954.

"But you know there's no such thing as the perfect crime; we must look for the flaw that has to exist somewhere."
"Where are you going to look? Make no mistake about it, monsieur: this is the work of specialists, they've obviously left few things to chance; but what makes the few clues we have useless is our inability to test them against anything else."
(from The Erasers)

Alain Robbe-Grillet was born in Brest, Finistère, in northwestern France, to a family of scientists and engineers. After moving to Paris, the family lived in an apartment on rue Gassendi in Paris from 1928 to 1933. During the German occupation of France, both of his parents supported Petain's Vichy regime. His father, Gaston Robbe-Grillet, was the founder of the Industrial Cardboard Society. He ran a small factory that made packaging boxes for dolls. Yvonne (Canu) Robbe-Grillet, the author's mother, who had strong right-wing convictions, refused to believe that the Holocaust had existed.

Robbe-Grillet attended the Lycée de Brest, and the Lyceés Buffon and St. Louis. From July 1943 to August 1944 he worked in a German tank factory near Nuremberg as part of the Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO). Living on rotten potatoes, he felt that he was there by mistake. When Robbe-Grillet returned to Brest, the city was in ruins. He was stricken with rheumatism.

In 1944 Robbe-Grillet received a diploma from the National Institute of Agronomy. He had a post at the National Statistical Institute in Paris, and then in 1949-51 at the Institute of Colonial Fruits and Crops. He also worked part-time in a research laboratory in Bois-Bourdan, where he "conducted cervical smears on female rats for a subsidiary of Unilever." ('French Force' by Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian, 15 September 2007)

While in Martinique, in the West Indies, Robbe-Grillet supervised banana plantations. Recalling this period in the autobiographical Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe (1994), Robbe-Grillet tells how his fictional companion, Henri de Corinthe, found himself drawn to a prepubescent girl "as pink and blonde as might be wished, who looked like a candy". (Understanding Alain Robbe-Grillet by Roch C. Smith, 2000, p. 141)

From 1955 Robbe-Grillet was as a literary consultant at Les Editions de Minuit. The famous publishing house - under the direction of Jérôme Lindon (d. 2001) - also attracted such writers as Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Jacques Derrida, and Pierre Bourdieu. Although these writers had their own distinctive voice, they all believed that the 19th-century social novel was dead.

His first novel, Un régicide (A Regicide), Robbe-Grillet completed in 1949 in Bois-Bourdan, but it was not published until 1978. The manuscript was rejected by Gallimard, a major French publisher. Set in two places, on an isolated island and in a mainland city, the dreamlike story told of a factory worker who decides to kill the King. It is possible that the assassination never actually takes place, but the novel ends with images of imprisonment. "Un régicide tells a metaphoric tale of continual renewal that Robbe-Grillet was to see as intrisic to the novel and was to make explicit in the New Novel." (Understanding Alain Robbe-Grillet by Roch C. Smith, 2000, p. 11)

While convalescing from a work-related illness, Robbe-Grillet finished The Erasers. This novel, which was published without delay by Minuit and made  Robbe-Grillet one of the leaders of the nouveau roman group, enabled him to begin writing full-time. It was followed by Le Voyeur (1955, The Voyeur), La Jalousie (1957, Jealousy), which Nabokov called one of the greatest novels of the century, and the Kafkaesque Dans le labyrinthe (1959, In the Labyrinth).

Robbe-Grillet's statement of how he thought novels should be written was published in Pour un Nouveau Roman (1963). "If in many of the passages that follow, I readily employ the term New Novel, it is not to designate a school, nor even a specific and constituted group of writers working in the same direction; the expression is merely a convenient label applicable to all those seeking new forms for the novel, form capable of expressing (or of creating) new relations between man and the world, to all those who have determined to invent the novel, in other words, to invent man."

Robbe-Grillet argued that the writer should content himself with the impersonal description of physical objects. Psychological or ideological analysis should be excluded - the reader must guess what hides under details and events. Robbe-Grillet's ideas had a crucial influence on the British born artist Martin Vaughn-James, whose visual novel, The Cage (1975), did not have human characters; their place had been taken by clothes and other objects. In fact, they are ghosts of post-World War II Britain.

Despite its focus on objective reality cleansed of human feeling, Robbe-Grillet insisted, the nouveau roman is entirely subjective; its world is always perceived through the eyes of a character, not an omniscient narrator. "The true writer has nothing to say. What counts is the way he says it," he once stated. In his essays For a New Novel (1963) Robbe-Grilled condemned the use of metaphors, because they anthropomorphize objects. This led to his attack on Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who, according to Robbe-Grillet, maintained 'a dubious relationship' with the world. "All my work is precisely engaged in the attempt to bring its own structures to light."

Several of Robbe-Grillet's works, such as The Voyeur, are mysteries in which the reader is left to solve the puzzle without "authorized" explanation. The title of the work refers to Mathias, a traveling watch salesman, who watches his wife obsessively. He is perhaps is a rapist and a murderer, or his crimes are merely the products of his imagination. The book was awarded the Critics' Prize in 1955 but part of the jury thought that it was not a "novel" at all. Jealousy is among the most famous nouveaux romans from the 1950s. It is set on a banana plantation in the tropics, and it also takes a detective-story-like theme. A husband spies on his wife and her alleged lover Franck, their neighbor, through the openings of a Venetian blind (jalousie in French). The plot is minimal and the nonexistent role of the narrator is developed to the utmost limits.

In Djinn (1981) Robbe-Grillet used another popular genre, the spy-story. The protagonist works for an androgynous American spy, and meets members of a secret society of latter-day Luddites dedicated to fighting the supremacy of the machine. The narrator is unsure of the external world; he is told that he is being dreamt, and after a while the story begins to fold back on itself. The bizarre logic crystallizes in an injured or perhaps dead child and remembers events that have not yet taken place. "My syllables fall, too, awakening neither response nor echo, like useless objects deprived of sense. And silence closes in again. Have I really spoken? Cold, numbness, paralysis begin to spread through my limbs."

La Maison de rendez-vous (1965), a parody of James Bond adventures, used several points of view, which contradicted each other. The story, focusing on a evening get together, folds back on itself various times. The apocalyptic Projet pour une révolution à New York (1970, Project for a Revolution in New York ) was written as if it were a film or the journal of a director. Some reviewers noted that there is no revolution in the novel, despite its title, failing to recognize its allusions to underground activists. "Right or wrong New York represents a place where, more than anywhere, nothing is natural any more," Robbe-Grillet said after the publication of the work, "where everything is constantly transformed into myth."

La Belle Captive (1975) was based on the myth of the beautiful captive, and took its themes from the paintings of the French surrealist René Magritte. Snapshots (1962) included an artistic homage to the painter Gustave Moreau (1826-98) in the story 'The Secret Room'. Its coldly narrated erotic scene with a chained woman is filled with sexual violence - a trait which is typical of Robbe-Grillet's later works. "The man is till standing about yard away, half leaning over her. He looks at her face, seen upside down, her dark eyes made larger by their surrounding eye-shadow, her mouth wide open as if screaming. The man's posture allows his face to be seen only in a vague profile, but one senses in it a violent exaltation, despite the rigid attitude, the silence, the immobility." (from 'The Secret Room')

Robbe-Grillet once told that since his teens his fantasies involved  the sexual domination of very young women. His wife Catherine (née Rstakian) became active in the BDSM community in the 1970s. The author met her in 1951 on a train bound to Istanbul, she was 21. Small and  light and thin, she "looked so young then that everyone thought she was still a child." Their unconventional marriage, in spite of his impotence, lasted over five decades. When Robbe-Grillet had dinner Vladimir Nabokov in a restaurant in Nice, his wife dressed up as Lolita. Nabokov, who had no taste for anti-novel movement, considered Robbe-Grillet the best French writer, but "incomprehesibly lumped together with all sorts of Butors and Sarrautes".

Le miroir qui revient (1984) was the first volume of an autobiographical trilogy, Romanesques. In his later works Robbe-Grillet acknowledged Claude Simon's dictum that "Everything is autobiographical, even the imaginary". According to Robbe-Grillet, life is not overtly meaningful or absurd, it is rather simple. The theme of the labyrinth links Robbe-Grillet to Borges; they both share the same fascination for interpretations inside interpretations. Labyrinths are also the terrain of spy fiction, and in (2001) a spy is sent to post-war Berlin on a mission which becomes for him a sado-erotic experience. "All my novels are comic. Perhaps La Reprise more so", Robbe-Griller once explained. Un roman sentimental (2007), in which the central characted is a 14-year-old girl, revelved around themes of paedophilia and sadism. The published wrapped the book in plastic with an advisory note. 

Robbe-Grillet's emphasis on the visual world led him in the 1960s to writing scenarios and directing films. Some of his novels have also been called ciné-romans (film-novels). These works have challenged the limits of expected narrative structures and conventional realism. Robbe-Grillet's thesis is that the physical world is the only true reality, and the only way to approach memory is through physical objects. The most famous dramatization of his literary theories is Alan Resnais's film Last Year at Marienbad, for which he wrote the screenplay with a knowlege of Resnais's favorite tracking shots. Sacha Vierny's task as a lightning cameraman was to realize the atmosphere of a "sealed, stifling world," as Robbe-Grillet describet it, "... a universe of marble and stucco, columns, mouldings, gilded ceilings, statues, motionless servants ...." Vierny began in 1985 a series of films with the British director Peter Greenaway, much influenced by Marienbad. (Making Pictures: A Century of European Cinematography, 2003, pp. 264-267)

The puzzle without solution presents a luxurious country house in which a stranger (Giorgio Albertazzi) meets a woman (Delphine Seyring), who may or may not have had an affair with him the previous year, perhaps in Marienbad, or somewhere else. The viewer never learns whether the meeting took place. The perfectly sculptured silent gardens, stately camera-work, and detached performances create a dreamlike atmosphere; the tiny humans in the landscape cast shadows while the manicured bushes do not. Are the persons the only "real" figures in the story? Robbe-Grillet's other early films include Trans-Europ-Express (1966), which circulated elements from Hitchcock films and gangster movies. His wife Catherine had roles in almost all of his films. L'Éden et aprés (1971), which has been described as a cross between Justine of Sade and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, launched Robbe-Grillet's color trilogy. While directing this film, he began an affair with the actress Catherine Jourdain. When it ended, he decided to give up all sexual activity.

In Topology of a Phantom City (1976) Robbe-Grillet used freeze-frame technique which he then set in motion. A French policeman investigates the death of a prostitute. David is the perpetrator of the murder or murders that have taken place. Sometimes David writes in first person. "I am alone. Walking at random. Wandering, as if at random, among the unrecognizable fragments of what were palatial homes, public buildings, private residences, gaming houses and houses of prostitution, theatres, temples, and fountains. I am looking for something."

In 1972 Robbe-Grillet was appointmented visiting professor at New York University; similar teaching appointments followed at other American univesities. He was elected member of the prestigious Academie Francaise in 2004. Alain Robbe-Grillet died on 18 February, 2008, at the age of 85.

For further reading: Robbe-Grillet: l'aventure du Nouveau Roman by Benoît Peeters (2022); Reading Robbe-Grillet by Fred Skolnik (2015); Reading for the Subject: Plots of Desire in the Work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras by Patricia Hodges (2014); Alain by Catherine Robbe-Grillet (2012); Intersexual Rivalry: A "Reading in Pairs" of Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, ed. by Julia Waters, Peter Collier (2000); Understanding Alain Robbe-Grillet by Roch Charles Smith (2000); Inventing the Real World by Marjorie H. Hellerstein (1998); Women in Robbe-Grillet by Lillian Dunmars (1994); Robbe-Grillet and the Fantastic by Virginia Harger-Grinling, Tony Chadwick, eds. (1994); Robbe-Grillet and Modernity by Raylene L. Ramsay (1992); The Erotic Dream Machine by Anthony N.Fragola and Roch Charles Smith (1992); Duplications et duplicité dans les 'Romanesques' d'Alain Robbe-Grillet by Roger-Michel Allemand (1991); Alain Robbe-Grillet by Ben Stoltzfus (1987, paperback); Alain Robbe-Grillet by Ilona Leki (1983); Alain Robbe-Grillet, l'éstange by Jean-Claude Vareille (1981); Films of Alain Robbe-Grillet by Roy Armes (1981); Robbe-Grillet, ed. by François Jost (1978, in Obliques 16-17); Robbe-Grillet by Jean Ricardou (1976); Les Romans de Robbe-Grillet by Bruce Morrisette (1975); Pour une théorie du un nouveau roman by Jean Ricardou (1971); Alain Robbe-Grillet and the New French Novel by Ben Stoltzfus (1964) - The theoretical premises of the Nouveau roman were collected in Robbe-Grillet's Pour un nouveau roman (1963). See also Michel Butor, Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras, Roland Barthes, and Nathalie Sarraute. The wave of experimentalism has been important mainly in France, but also Kafka, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Pirandello, and James Joyce among others have paved way for the literary movement. Later echoes of the anti-novel has been seen in the works of Uwe Johnson in Germany, Susan Sontag in America, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Rayner Heppenstall in England.

Selected works:

  • Les Gommes, 1953
    - The Erasers (translated by Richard Howard, 1964)
    - film 1969, dir. by Lucien Deroisy and René Micha, screenplay by Lucien Deroisy, René Micha, starring Claude Titre, Françoise Brion, Georges Genicot, André Gevrey
  • Le Voyeur, 1955
    - The Voyeur (translated by Richard Howard, 1958)
  • La Jalousie, 1957
    - Jealousy (translated by Richard Howard, 1959)
  • Dans le labyrinthe, 1959
    - In the Labyrinth (translated by Richard Howard, 1960)
    - Labyrintissa (suom. Olli-Matti Ronimus, Pentti Holappa, 1964)
  • L'Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961 (screenplay)
    - Last Year at Marienbad (translated by Richard Howard, 1962)
    - film 1961 [Viime vuonna Marienbadissa], dir. by Alain Resnais, starring Delphine Seyring, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff. "I got one clear impression from Last Year at Marienbad, and that was of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet grinning wickedly at each other above the heads of a trustful public that was flagging its poor little brain into some notion of what in hell the picture is all about." (Robert Hatch in Nation, March 24, 1962)
  • IInstantanés, 1962
    - Snapshots (with Towards a New Novel, tr. 1965)
  • Pour un Nouveau Roman, 1963 (rev. ed. 1970)
    - Towards a New Novel (translated by Richard Howard, 1965) / For a New Novel (US title; translated by Richard Howard, 1966)
  • L'Immortelle, 1963 (screenplay, director)
    - The Immortal One (translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith, 1971)
  • La Maison de rendez-vous, 1965
    - La Maison de Rendez-vous (tr. 1966) / The House of Assignation (translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith, 1970)
  • Trans-Europ-Express, 1966 (screenplay, director)
  • L'Homme qui ment, 1968 (screenplay, director; The Man Who Lies)
  • L'Eden et après, 1970 (screenplay, director; Eden and After)
  • Projet pour une révolution à New York, 1970
    - Project for a Revolution in New York (translated by Richard Howard, 1972)
  • Rêves de jeunes filles, 1971 (photograps by David Hamilton)
    - Dreams of a Young Girl (tr. 1971) / Dreams of Young Girls (tr. 1971)
  • N. a pris les dés..., 1972 (screenplay, director; N Took the Dice)
  • Les Demoiselles D'Hamilton, 1972 (photographs by David Hamilton)
    - Sisters (tr. 1973)
  • Glissements progressifs du plaisir, 1974 (screenplay, director; Successive Slidings of Pleasure)
  • Le Jeu avec le feu, 1975 (screenplay, director; Playing with Fire)
  • La Belle Captive, 1976 (with René Magritte)
    - La Belle Captive: A Novel (translated by Ben Stoltzfus, 1995)
  • Temple aux miroirs, 1977 (with Irina Ionesco)
  • Topologie d'une cité fantôme, 1976 (film)
    - Topology of a Phantom City (translated by J. A. Underwood, 1977)
  • Un régicide, 1978
    - A Regicide (translated by John Calder, 2015)
  • Souvenirs du Triangle d'Or, 1978
    - Memories of the Golden Triangle (translated by J.A. Underwood, 1984) / Recollections of the Gold Triangle (US title; translated by J.A. Underwood, 1984)
  • Traces suspectes en surface, 1978 (with Robert Rauschenberg)
  • Djinn, 1981
    - Djinn (translated by Yvone Lenard and Walter Wells, 1982)
  • Le Rendez-vous, 1981 (with Yvone Lenard)
  • Generative Literature and Generative Art, 1983
  • La Belle Captive, 1983 (screenplay, director; The Beaitiful Prisoner)
  • Le miroir qui revient, 1984
    - Ghosts in the Mirror (translated by Jo Levy, 1991)
  • Angélique ou L'enchantement, 1987
  • Taxandria, 1990 (screenplay, with Frank Daniel)
  • Les Derniers Jours de Corinthe, 1994
  • Un bruit qui rend fou, 1995 (screenplay, co-directed with Dimitri de Clercq)
  • La Reprise, 2001
    - Repetition (translated by Richard Howard, 2003)
  • C'est Gradiva qui vous appelle, 2006 (It's Gradiva Who Is Calling You; screenplay, based on the novel by Wilhelm Jensen)
  • Un roman sentimental, 2007
    - A Sentimental Novel (translated by D.E. Brooke, 2014)
  • Pourquoi j’aime Barthes, 2009
    - Why I Love Barthes (collected and edited by Olivier Corpet; translated by Andrew Brown, 2011)
  • La forteresse: scénario pour Michelangelo Antonioni, 2009 (edited by Oliver Corpet)
  • Correspondance, 1951-1990 / Alain et Catherine Robbe-Grillet, 2012 (edited by Emmanuelle Lambert) 
  •  Entretiens complices, 2018 (edited by Roger-Michel Allemand)
  • Réinventer le roman: entretiens inédits, 2022 (Alain Robbe-Grillet & Benoît Peeters)

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