01 March 2008
I am late to the wake for Alain Robbe-Grillet but some thoughts in any case. I’ve read three of the four early novels that made his noveau roman name and wanted to speak to Jealousy (as The Erasers and In the Labyrinth seem less successful iterations of the same idea—Labyrinth in particular seems just a less inventive version of Jealousy).
Obsession dictates form in Jealousy. Robbe-Grillet total reliance on surface detail showed me how little emotional background is required to brilliantly portray a depth in characters. The protagonist is a husband that never identifies himself in the course of the novel but gives mathematically exact description of his wife’s actions with Franck, a neighbor from the next banana plantation. The narrator’s unspoken suspicion is that Franck is having an affair with “A…,” his wife. The simple statement, “He [Franck] has probably been delayed, as is not infrequently the case, by some incident occurring on his plantation, since he would not have put off this lunch [with A...] for any possible ailment of his wife or child,” becomes an accusation, both dark and hilarious. The precise circumstances of the affair are opaque; the narrator runs through the facts he knows elliptically, jerking back in forth in time. About a recurring supper he states “the table is set for one,” and then, a paragraph later, says, “the table is set for three.” After piecing together a timeline it is clear that the narrator is referring to two separate days, while remaining constantly in the present tense, as his particular fixation overtakes every thought. While the narrator describes no human violence directly, he refers to an many-legged insect Franck squashes approximately 30 times (we see the question mark of its mangled body from every angle) and in the last few pages he describes a “dark liquid” spreading across the flag stones of the house.
The repetitious detail in Jealousy is more captivating even than that in Duras’ Blue Eyes, Black Hair (and I’m a big fan of that book) because Robbe-Grillet changes the angle in his lens constantly, which demands my total focus. Even the infamous sequence where the narrator counts the rows banana trees for several pages is interesting because the author has the confidence to put such an unexpected section near the beginning of an already dense book. Vision is obviously the most vital sense for Robbe-Grillet; in the instances where the narrator uses his ears instead of his eyes he gets confused. The narrator is eavesdropping on Franck and says, “His sentence ends in ‘take apart’ or ‘take a part’ or ‘break apart,’ ‘break a heart,’ ‘heart of darkness,’ or something of the kind.” Here the mind is allowed to free-float into the similarly oppressive Heart of Darkness—a book famous for, among other things, Conrad’s complicated circular layerings. But it’s as if Jealousy is written by taking the grooved plate-shape of Darkness, smashing it, then recomposing the whole piece as a mosaic. Reading the book made me believe that Robbe-Grillet really was writing a new novel.
In an undergrad workshop one day we had to write as Robbe-Grillet would: just on the surface of things, no metaphor, no inherent narrative. We made a pile of belongings on a table in the center on the room and began to sketch away. I remember hating my piece, feeling others were successful only in short bursts. But just try trying to describe each snowflake as a storm floats by. I seem to have less time for these things than Robbe-Grillet. The final part of my fantasy is that young French students are forced to read Jealousy and that they fall into the same ditches of imitation that young American writers do with Hemingway. Just look at this dashing white beard:
As with many things on WHITE TANK TOP, part of my Robbe-Grillet affection comes from his location somewhere “just obscure enough that only in-the-know people have read and enjoyed him.” I once sent a conservative teacher, whose name cannot ever be mentioned in blogs, a copy of Jealousy in the French. I did not hear back from him. Ever.
Another old fool, John Updike, said Robbe-Grillet’s prose “is not so much written as scripted,” with its “splicing, blurring, stop-action, enlargement, panning, and fade-out.” Wait, is that supposed to be a bad thing, those filmic movements? Because I think they are awesome. Let me close with Barthes, who knows things: “Robbe-Grillet is important because he has attacked the last bastion of the traditional art of writing: the organization of literary space.” The novelist was trying to destroy, “the adjective itself,” he adds. “The realm of qualification, for him, can be only spatial or situational.” Boom.