A new DVD boxset shows how the French novelist went from author to auteurby David Anderson / September 5, 2014 / Leave a comment
An agronomist who specialised in diseases affecting tropical fruit, Alain Robbe-Grillet might once have seemed an unlikely candidate for the esteemed heights of the Académie francaise. It wasn’t until his late twenties that he began writing seriously. Yet in the 1950s he published a series of books—The Erasers, The Voyeur and Jealousy—that made him the figurehead and chief spokesman of the nouveau roman, or “new novel.” Conventional story-telling, Robbe-Grillet argued, was hopelessly old-fashioned, merely a sedative against the opacity and chaos of modern life. The nouveau roman sought to capture that chaos and render it in a fresh, authentic language: clinical, dense and oblique. Mainstream writers were weekend water-colourists; here was modern art.
It may be true that Robbe-Grillet’s work is the preserve of doctoral theses rather than book groups, but the nouveau roman was a capacious thing. It was, above all, a rallying cry for renewed modernism: for formal experimentation and deliberate difficulty; for an assault on the “obsolete notions” of character, plot and narrative coherence. Robbe-Grillet strove for a literature where Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury and The Castle were considered as revolutions rather than aberrations. For him, those who rejected his project were effectively saying that the world had not changed since the 19th century, when the “realist” novels of Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola were the dominant form.
Early fame came not through the bestseller lists, but with a helping hand from the critic Roland Barthes, who enthusiastically hailed what he called the radical “objectivity” of Robbe-Grillet’s first two novels—a perplexing observation, since Robbe-Grillet himself described his style as one of “pure subjectivity.” Yet the two ideas weren’t as different as it might seem, for the French word objectif can also mean “lens.” Robbe-Grillet’s writing was so oddly compelling because it replaced the conventions of novelistic “depth” with a kind of photographic flatness, the cool indifference of the camera-eye. His characters are not rounded individuals but flat abstractions, emptied of personality; the conventional omniscient narrator is nowhere to be found. In this way the writing is both objective (surgical, precise) and utterly subjective (leaving no room for ambiguity).
For a writer who was so concerned with the…