Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1922-2008

The author wishes to make it clear that this novel is in no way intended to be an account of life in the British territory of Hong Kong. Any resemblance, in setting or situation, between the two is a matter of pure coincidence, whether objective or otherwise.

Should any reader, knowing his Far Eastern ports well, form the opinion that the places described here do not correspond to reality, the author, who has himself spent the greater part of his life there, would advise him to go back and look again: things change quickly in those parts.

So goes the twin (uncanny?) preface to Robbe-Grillet's The House of Assignation, a novel which, I think, stands as the high-water mark of his numerous achievements in the fields of fiction writing, literary criticism, and cinema. This isn't a conventional appreciation of his oeuvre: the smart money says that most would pinpoint Jealousy or, at a push, the theoretical screed of Towards a New Novel as the Breton's outstanding contribution to letters. I must confess a personal affection for The House of Assignation however, as it was the text on which my Masters dissertation turned and I nostalgically associate it- much as such an affect might earn the reproach of its author- with a long, hot summer of torturously close reading. On the barely more firm ground of critical justification, I would argue that it is also the novel in which Robbe-Grillet is most realised as a satirical humorist, what with its English characters caught in the unexplored hinterland between Bond and Python, and also the work which serves as the most successful execution of the anti-novel in the Nouveau Roman canon. Twisting time back on itself, repeating scenes in mise-en-abyme, coining irresolvable narrative paradoxes, employing devices which elicit the sense that the world itself is always already a text: The House of Assignation is a full set of tools for antirealists from Amis to Acker.

I consciously invoke the concept of the anti-novel here because it was this concept which drew me, as an unformed lump of Protean critic, to Robbe-Grillet's fiction. At the time- nineteen going on twenty- the iconoclastic appeal of the New Novel far outweighed, and indeed concealed, the serious philosophical groundings of the literary project undertaken in France from the Thirties onwards. Strangely, the principle of the anti-novel seemed at the time to be freighted with the inexhaustible possibility of all the literary forms still to come, all of which would somehow represent yet another leap forward from the restrictions of realism. Jealousy struck me as a radical break (an impression which I still think has some validity), a Year Zero for the imagination. Somehow, it passed me by that Robbe-Grillet's fiction militated in many ways against the literary imagination as, say, Henry Green might conceive of it. Nevertheless, I began writing myself sets of rules which I thought would liberate my own writing from what I now suspect to have been the dungeons of my own paranoid inclinations.

My relationship with Robbe-Grillet has changed substantially over the last few years, but I still retain a deep admiration for his work. I admire unreservedly his redefinition of what a literature of commitment might look like, a shift in terms which is implicit in his criticisms of Sartre. In the UK, we still find it hard to conceive of a politics of writing which is sited firmly in the text itself, working by exposing the subliminal ideological moves by which realist, and much modernist, fiction projects a world. Robbe-Grillet's writing is extremely attentive to the way in which power operates through language and through fiction. Additionally, we find it hard to appreciate the very real relationships that existed between elements of the literary avant-garde and the active Resistance in France during the Second World War. Robbe-Grillet, whose background was scientific rather than literary, was himself forced to perform unpaid work in a German labour camp during the conflict: it seems somehow rich that British critics should disparage his work on the grounds that its political operations are neither explicit nor accessible through the tried and trusted format of allegory. Understanding that realist fiction could be used as the vehicle for the articulation of the kinds of deterministic 'truth' so amenable to totalitarianism, the French anti-novelists produced, from the writing of Maurice Blanchot onwards, what Denis Hollier has called 'a paradoxical form of litterature engageé, a paradoxical form of the literature of commitment: literature committed to its own exclusion.' For Robbe-Grillet and some of his (nominal) fellow travellers, the idea that literature might be absolved of the responsibility to fulfil a social function was, in a period in which the motivations of anyone who purported to understand what was best for 'everyone' were at best suspect, a powerful political gesture in itself. Writing that at least sought to dodge the net of ideology was, in many ways, at least as effective as the much-lauded work of Orwell was in Britain.

I'm also drawn to Robbe-Grillet's writing for more traditional reasons. I might be contradicting myself by drawing attention to some of the more referential features of his novels, but I still find The Erasers (his first published novel) to be one of the most erudite working-outs of detective fiction that has yet been written. When I say 'referential' I don't really mean that it is a realist work, but that it re-appropriates and remotivates the iconography of Georges Simenon's literary Francophony. I love this world, this singularity which is not so: endless Boulevards Periphique and avenues lined with uniformly grey buildings, petty buereacrats, tabacs in the hours just after dawn, stuffily-dressed gendarmes and lackadaisical detectives. By taking the significations of the detective story and embedding them within a critique of anthropocentrism (the activities, often poetic, by which the human imagination imbues the external world with meaningfulness) The Erasers pulls off an auteurish appropriation of popular culture in the service of a phenomenological investigation which anticipates Godard. More simply, though, and perhaps in contrast to the position of the distinguished Robbe-Grillet scholar Stephen Heath, the novel's draw is through its well-maintained reality effect, which is put in the service of an unrealistic narrative structure.

Many would identify Robbe-Grillet's work as being reducible to three distinct periods. The first, and most notorious, is the set of works which crystallizes around Jealousy and the cine-novel Last Year at Marienbad. In these works, the narrative aims for a certain objectivity which is associated with the imperative to uphold the alienating condition of an external world with which we can have no real relation. The second period, to which The House of Assignation belongs, is driven by similar concerns to those being awakened by (amongst others) Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva. While the radical objectivity of the narrative voice is largely maintained in these novels, there is a shift to more open-ended ludic structures which demand that the reader play a significant role in the performance of the text. The story, such as it is, is peppered with half-disguised riddles and guessing games. What Gerard Genette calls the 'paratext'- the microtexts which exist on the fringes of the literary work and shape our reading of it, such as prefaces, titles, blurbs and dedications- comes to the fore to a greater extent, throwing the boundaries of fictionality into disarray. In this period, Robbe-Grillet's mischievous, often absurdist humour is allowed more reign to express itself. The third period sees an intensification of these methods with an additional focus on violence and eroticism: Project for a Revolution in New York is probably the most famous of these 'new New Novels'.

These are just scattered notes intended to suggest some of the ways in which Robbe-Grillet's writing has bestowed upon literature the dead ends that make it engage in a collective act of thinking again. His demand for fiction to be ontologically accountable has, predictably, been largely misconstrued in the Anglophone world just as his novels have often been described as unreadable. And yet I find it hard to imagine a literary landscape unscarred, or untested, by his body of work. Arguably, he was the last great modernist writer, whose negations of referentiality somehow constituted an act of representation in themselves. His work defines the problematics for virtually all of the fiction of the last fifty years.



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