Spring/Summer 1994, Volume 11.2
Lain Robbe-Grillet and the Anti-Novel
Alfred Cismaru (Ph.D., New York University) is a Professor of Romance Languages and Comparative Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of books on Marguerite Duras, Boris Vian, and on Marivaux and Molière. He has published widely in scholarly journals.
1992 marks the seventieth anniversary of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the not-so-willing but still chef d'école of the anti-novel. Although he is now inactive, his anti-novel continues to flourish by the pen of other writers, some of whom he helped and influenced greatly, and some only marginally. At this juncture it may be of interest to assess his role within the context of French contemporary literary developments on which he left his mark and which continue to unfold on the way illuminated by him.
Alain Robbe-Grillet's first interest was geometry, a discipline in which he excelled in school, and which he pursued later as an agronomist at the French National Institute of Statistics. From that job he was transferred to the Research Institute where he specialized in tropical agronomy. This position afforded him numerous trips to Africa and to the Caribbean. In his early 30s, taking advantage of the time he had in the slower-moving tropical islands, he began to write and eventually became the literary director of the famous Editions de Minuit. It was easy for him then to publish the novels which made him notorious, from Les Gommes (1953), to Le Voyeur (1955), La Jalousie (1957), and Dans le labyrinthe (1959). His position as literary director also allowed him to encourage the not-yet-accepted anti-novelists, such as Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute. Gaining his reputation quickly, first by a succés de scandale among the literary elite, and then by solid and popular acceptance, Robbe-Grillet became chef d'école of the anti-novel, guiding new writers and rejecting, as his position at the Editions de Minuit allowed him to do, those who simply flirted with the new literary school.
What Robbe-Grillet maintained was that "the world is not significant [as Aristotle would have it], nor absurd or gratuitous [as the existentialists thought]; it is, that's all…. Things are just there, period. Their surface is precise smooth, without danger of gloss or transparency…. So let it be by heir presence that objects and gestures become known" ("Une voix pour le roman futur," Nouvelle Revue Française 325; all translations are mine).
Some objected that a writer could not merely be an inventory-taker, to which he responded that such a role would indeed be ideal. Failing the 'deal, the writer should try and remain as detached as possible from a reality over which, in any case, he has no control. His motto, which he repeated at every chance, "Things are just there, period," became sort of a battle cry. It spurred him, for example, to describe a wall from left to right, the same wall from right to left, and still again from top down and from down up (see "Le Mannequin" in Instantanés). The description lived without the observer narrator, who remained as neutral as a camera, as uninterested as a passerby who would never return, fully aware that he is only a recorder.
In this role he is not very reliable, though: The lens of the camera maybe blurred, or broken, and the transcription of what it sees may betray the vision through inattention, or through faulty choice of vocabulary. It is important to look again, then, from all perspectives. Hence the use of repetition in the anti-novel.
Another shortcoming of a mere recorder is contradiction, a lack of preciseness in spite of the effort to photograph and print with exactitude: a character may be said to be twenty-one years old on one page, twenty-two on another (the Maid, for example, in Marguerite Duras' Le Square); a heroine may be placed in Marienbad at one point, and the same town is later spelled Karlstadt, Frederiksbad, and even Baden-Salsa (in Robbe-Grillet's Last Year at Marienbad). In this context, relationships are of course vague and precarious: mother, father, children, and other relatives are juxtaposed and it is difficult to keep track of identities, to know who loves whom, who hates whom, who beds whom, and in general to whom happens what.
In Unc voix pour le roman futur Robbe-Grillet defended these realistic features of the anti-novel. He pointed out that in real life exactitude is absent, knowledge is presumptuous, and the well-ordered fiction of a Balzac, for example, can only be persuasive if one equates the author's toy soldiers with real people. (Balzac kept track of his characters by labeling toy soldiers and moving them from place to place on a huge table as he noted their development and peregrinations in his novels.) Robbe-Grillet maintained that the structure that ensued was as phony as the pretended logic of movement (327-328). Life is alogical, he and the other anti-novelists believed. It is a labyrinth in which all avenues lead nowhere, except one: the one that has no exit, allowing the wanderer not to escape, but rather to lose himself where he is, in the void, for it is his only home. Commenting on this aspect of Robbe-Grillet's view, Bernard Pingaud opined: "Literature cannot give us any other certitude except this [necessary] dizziness" (Ecrivains d'aujourd'hui 427).
This literary vertigo swept the public. The writers who were proceeding timidly and were even reticent to submit their manuscripts found a home at the Editions de Minuit, which was understandably eager to snare a major part of the market. After World War II the reading public was mostly loyal to the existentialists, the committed à la jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir who preached solutions for the meliorism of society. The cold war notwithstanding, and in spite of real atomic confrontations lurking in the background, these apostles pointed to action as a means of escape: do you part, espouse an ism, or invent a new philosophy, blame both America and the Soviet Union, support Cuba and other third-world countries, or send money to the starving children in Bangladesh? And infinitesimal as your role may be, the play is still the thing, and the stage can be changed for ever—with luck it may even become a better stage.
But luck is not a readily-available commodity, and doing one's part is monotonous and frustrating, maybe even foolhardy and presumptuous. Both the public and writers began to understand that no new ism is different from a previous one; that only the philosophers' names are new; that Batistas are always followed by Castros, who are Batistas in disguise. Inaction, then, while not a solution, was still an alternative: do not work for impossible meliorism, aquiesce to the inevitable, without accepting or feeling comfortable with it; and note what is going on as an historian, with this difference that you remain detached, unconcerned, and pragmatic enough to know that the past can never be altered. The existentialists, on the not worry about the past. They were historians of the present, elixirs of the future, with all the pomp and ceremony of pretentions prophets.
In the preface for he ciné-roman of Marienbad Robbe-Grillet stated that the new efforts of the anti-novelists consisted in
Building a space and a time based on cold-blooded observation: the space and time of dreaming, perhaps, but with the eyes open, in an affective existence, without worrying about the traditional chains of causality, nor about an absolute chronology of events [all this resulting in] a kind of solidity, of lethargy if you will, a rigidity of gestures, decor, and of words for their description. (39-40)
Thus, prophets are not needed. The text of Le Mannequin, for example, cps abruptly, but precisely where it should so that readers will not be deprived of the pleasure of fathoming their own continuation or their own ending of the story. Robbe-Grillet also believed that adjectives diminish nouns, or alter them. When describing a thing, one lends to it one's own sentimental values, so Robbe-Grillet advocated the omission of any notation that is too human, and the use of a vocabulary that is neutral: verbs, for example (especially to be). In so doing, the distance between the viewer and he viewed is maintained. Things remain what they are, "untainted powerful in their simplicity, like the Word, first and foremost, and still pure. Explanations, interpretations, are like scratches on a 24-carat piece of gold; c'est de la littérature" (43).
Literature, that is, writing in the traditional sense which in its best form makes poetry even of prose, is not what Michel Butor, Marquerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute, for example, wanted to do. If the text then risked being insipid for some, so be it. Robbe-Grillet had shown the way, and first he elite, and later the masses, crowned the anti-novelists and their efforts with the reward of huge sales, translations in dozens of languages, all sorts of literary prizes, including the prestigious Goncourt (to Marcluerite Duras, for example), and other numerous accolades.
What the anti-novelists did under the influence of the chef d'école was to replace description with dialogue. In the latter there was a bit of the former, but not enough to inject subjectivity or sentimentality. The speaker was always interrupted by the interlocutor just when vagueness was about to disappear. The speaker, then, had to abort when the shape of the subject of discussion became sharper and recognizable. By the time he had a chance to speak again, he had forgotten what he had said in the first place, making contradiction inevitable. The solid became fluid, and a new stab at solidity was frustrated by still another interruption. Three dots, then, abound in the anti-novel, but it is the blank, expressly designed, that traps readers and gives them the illusion of creating. Such are the quicksands of anti-fiction: not threatening but inviting; not to be avoided but to be sought; affording the salutory immersion into a black hole that can be filled, or that one can try to fill, partly if not totally, in an effort that is an end unto itself. This is contrary to the well-structured but often "artificial" conclusions of traditional fiction.
In Le Square one does not know if the Maid will see the Salesman at the next Saturday night dance. The Salesman does not have any idea if he will attend, nor if she will attend, nor if the two will dance if they meet, nor if they want to dance at all, let alone with each other. In Butor's La Modification, after an arduous journey to Rome, the hero decides not to bring his mistress to Paris after all. But he might change his mind again, after travelling again to Rome where he regularly goes on business; and then he might want to solidify, in Paris, the unstable relationship he now has with Ucile. In Sarraute's novels (Portrait d'un inconnu is a striking example), the lesson taught by Robbe-Grillet is always followed faithfully. In the 1958 special issue of Esprit on the new novel, Sarraute claimed that one must abandon the classic crutches of the traditional novel, namely "the personage geographically placed, shaped, identifiable; the story recounting events logically, linked; the conclusions first suggested and then carried out" (98).
Fiction writers, then, are no longer bound to keep the promises made a the beginning of the novel. Page 300 is not determined by page 3. An idea may be flashed by the pen of authors at the beginning, with the speed of lightening, but thunder must not necessarily follow, for in nature too there are many occasions of lightening without any audible explosion. If they are to compose effectively, writers must have as much freedom as possible. They must not be obliged to inherit in the epilogue the bequest they have created themselves, but only en passant, in the prologue. In the science of genetics, which manipulates and even alters genes, there is also an attempt to escape from unwanted or definitive legacies.
If dialogue is not 100 % effective in stripping away the inauthenticity of the well-made, ready-made, predetermined and indeed codified fictional accessories, then monologue can often do the job. Consider, for example, X's opening remarks in Last Year at Marienbad:
Once more, I advance once more, along these corridors, through these corridors, through these rooms, these galleries, in this building, of another century, this immense palace, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious, where interminable corridors lead to other corridors, silent, deserted, deserted, surcharged with a somber and cold decor, wood stucco, ornamented panels, marble, dark mirrors, paintings in black color, columns, heavy wallpaper, sculptured doorways, door after door, gallery after gallery, transversal corridors which lead, in turn, to empty rooms, rooms surcharged with an ornamentation of another century, silent rooms where the steps of the one advancing are absorbed by carpets so heavy, so thick, that no noise reaches his ears, as if even the ears of the one advancing, once more, across these corridors, these rooms, these galleries, in this building of another century, this immense palace, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious, where interminable corridors lead to other corridors…. (18-19)
In a monologue the speaker can provide his or her own interruptions without having to depend on an interlocutor. The interruptions are provided by one's eyes, which one controls, and which one can return at will to the same landscape, reviewing it from a different angle, or even from the me angle, again and again, repeating the description very little, or lowing it to remain the same, because the scene viewed did not change at I when exposed to the lens of the camera. Impassive, the scene continues exhibit its solidity, and the viewer does not change it with his or her probably false and certainly subjective interpretations. One might be tempted do that, but there is so little that remains constant or even quasi-eternal, at one would be best advised to let things as they are. For they are, after a 1, as they are, period. The frail and temporal observer can thus derive catharsis from the spectacle of the unremitting, concrete sturdiness of things. If one is mollescent, things at least are firm and strong.
In Portrait d'un inconnu, Nathalie Sarraute's narrator is tempted to impart her own logic to people and things encountered, to give them line, color, shape:
How I should like to see these shapeless rags, these trembling shadows, these specters, these insects, these larvae take reassuring and round forms, pure and strong contours. How sweet and appeasing it would be to see them occupy a place in the conventional circle of familiar faces…. But for that, I know it fully well, I ought to take a few chances, to give of myself a little, just so as to cause a beginning, any beginning, it doesn't matter. At least I ought to give them a name, for identification purposes. It would be the first step in isolating them, in giving them shape, a semblance of my consistency. That would place them somewhere…. But no, I can't. (34)
The reasons she cannot are many and all good. To begin with, the consistency she would lend would be hers, which is placid and fluid. Secondly, a name would simply be an arbitrary appellation, not necessarily having much to do with the object designated. Thirdly, any shape given would be the one the donor would want the thing to have, and would therefore be contrived and artificial. Fourthly, insects and larvae, minute' beings though they are, have their own identity and are, simply by virtue of their presence, independent of the viewer's desire to fit them "in the conventional circle of familiar faces." Moreover, any authorial classification or explanation would not change one single atom from what that atom really is, in its eternal and ethereal freedom. The "But no, I can't" of the narrator-Sarraute is an awareness that signifies "but no, I shouldn't; it is useless. There is more catharsis in contemplating the strong than in bestowing my frailty on it." The inconnu remains such, without a precise portrait.
Under the influence of Robbe-Grillet, this realization is also that of Marguerite Duras who, in Moderato cantabile, has the heroine soliloquize in breathless fashion, until final abortion of the plan stated:
People ought to live in a town where there are no trees trees scream when there's a wind here there's always a wind always except for two days a year in your place don't you see I'd leave this place I wouldn't stay all the birds or almost all are seagulls you find them dead after a storm and when the storm is over the trees stop screaming you hear them screaming on the beach like someone murdered it keeps the children from sleeping no I'll leave. (111)
But she does not. She remains glued to the landscape, for not even turning away will change it. There are no avenues of escape. There is only one home, that in which one finds oneself. In this context, it is hardly necessary to recall that both acts of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot end with the lines:
Well, shall we go?
Yes, let's go.
They do not move. (113)
One's home is not the best, to be sure, but one must make the best of it, for running away changes very little, or nothing at all.
In Dans le labyrinthe, Robbe-Grillet had already shown how the odyssey of the soldier who flees from a retreating army had lead him to an even darker night:
He went along the same streets, between similar facades on the right and on the left…. Anything that could distinguish a house from the others around it had disappeared or had been removed…. Over there there may be a fire station, or a convent, or a school, or an office building, or a one-family house…. And the snow continues to fall, slowly, vertically, uniform, and the white layer thickens unnoticed on the window sills, on the stoops of the houses, at the base of lampposts, on the road without traffic, on the deserted sidewalks, where the paths traced by the footsteps have vanished. And it is the same, but darker night that envelops everything. (9-10)
The hero might have better remained with his platoon, for in the end the escape brings him to death, which he encounters quite by chance, a burst of stray machine gun fire knocking him to the ground. In fact, the Prodigal Son of the Bible did not learn very much during his peregrinations, and the legendary travels of Odysseus had provided the voyager with more problems than solutions.
It is to the credit of Robbe-Grillet that he suggested the possible solace of accepting things as they are, of staying put, of avoiding the additional spasms of action which are inherent in the concept of engagement advanced by the existentialists. This he did by renewing the novel precisely at the time hen the post-World War 11 public was ready for a change. Faced with the disarray resulting from the war; finding reorganization and order difficult to establish quickly; seeing peace ruined by petty external and internal conflict; trembling with the earthquakes of atomic tests and from the fear of witnessing disappearance of the planet, the alternative of contemplation appealed immediately and continued to interest the elite and the mass audiences. The Goncourt granted to Marguerite Duras in 1985 for L'Amant is proof of the persistent vogue of the anti-novel. The prize is not simply a reward to the writer; rather it is given because the jury responds to literary efforts which re popular and are apt to result in huge extra sales (usually the Goncourt assures the sale of some half a million additional copies).
Other contemporary writers have benefited financially and have solidified their reputation by practicing Robbe-Grillet's dictum, "Things are just ere, period": Robert Pinget, Michel Leiris, Pierre Gascar, to mention only three of the authors who have received the coveted Prix de Critiques; Simonne Jacquemard, Alfred Kern, Gérard Jarlot, three of the many who have been recipients of the prestigious Renaudot Prize; and Francoise Mallet-Joris, Yves Bérger and Roger Vrigny, upon whom was bestowed the Prix Femina These writers supplied readers and also viewers (many of their novels have been transposed to the screen) with a landscape that is very sure, very constant, very unflagging, and therefore worthy of minute exploration: the landscape of things "untainted, powerful in their simplicity, like the Word."
Duras, Marguerite. Moderato cantabile. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1958.
Pingaud, Bernard. Ecrivains d'aujourd'hut: 1940-1960. Paris: Grasset, 1960.
Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Dans le labyrinthe. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1959.
—.Last Year at Marienbad. New York: Grove Press, 1962.
—.Teste cinématographique de l'année derniére à Marienbad. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1961.
—."Une voix pour le roman futur," Nouvelle Revue Française (November 1954).
Sarraute, Nathalie. "L'Anti-Roman," Esprit (March 1958).
—.Portrait d'un inconnu. Paris: Gallimard, 1957.