PRINT Summer 2008


Alain Robbe-Grillet, Glissements progressifs du plaisir (Successive Slidings of Pleasure), 1974, color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Production stills. © Fonds Alain Robbe-Grillet/Archives IMEC.

SHORTLY BEFORE he passed away, Alain Robbe-Grillet was still thumbing his nose at society. His last published work, Un Roman sentimental (A Sentimental Novel, 2007), which he called a “fairy tale for adults,” describes young schoolgirls subjected to the worst sexual abuses—this in and for a paranoid France that detects a pedophile in any male teacher. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet made a habit of using his reputation as a great writer and his image as the learned representative of the nouveau roman to trigger the most extreme provocations. He often played around like a naughty boy. He and I were once invited to a conference in Bilbao, in Spanish Basque country, a region that is, as we know, stirred by nationalism, especially cultural nationalism. It was here that he calmly told a journalist who was interviewing him for television that there were no great writers in the Basque language.

But often what was understood as provocation may have been a kind of integrity, the writer’s desire to describe only objectively. When he began his series of autobiographical novels, starting with Le Miroir qui revient (Ghosts in the Mirror, 1984), he hid nothing about his right-wing family, or about his period of forced labor in Germany during the war—a common occurrence, but not often spoken of by Frenchmen ashamed of not having escaped and joined the Resistance. He laid out the facts without seeking to justify himself, and without masochism, either, and this made many uncomfortable in a country where the Pétain era was shamefully still kept under wraps.

It must have been in the mid-1960s that I first read Robbe-Grillet, more than ten years before meeting him. Because I am as much a voyeur as he was, I was very receptive to that objective world so scrupulously described in the novels. At first, I read him literally! Because I was pretty open-minded, his deconstruction of stereotypes—which set loose a horde of hateful critics against him—did not distract me in the least. I reveled in it in the way one revels in stereotypes. I took exquisite delight in the pseudo-crime-novel plots and the enigmatic stories about love and sex, first in his novels and then in his films. I particularly liked his 1965 book La Maison de rendez-vous. The first sentence is genius: “Women’s flesh has always played, no doubt, a great part in my dreams.” In French, the form is quintessentially classic, a kind of warped alexandrine. But why is flesh right at the beginning merely the stuff of dreams? And what’s “no doubt” doing in the opening line, where it inevitably instills doubt about all that is to come? For my generation, which in its teenage years impatiently awaited the explosion of May 1968, Robbe-Grillet, before being a theorist, was an erotic writer who demonstrated an extraordinary freedom.

I never dared tell him all this. If I had done so, how would he have reacted? Would he have burst out laughing, splaying his beard, adding nothing, and leaving me—precisely!—with doubts? Or would he have grown overly indignant in a way that was not entirely authentic: “Ah non! On ne peut pas dire ça . . .” And his voice would have lingered on the final syllable. He had a very beautiful voice. Very deep, but with all kinds of inflections that sometimes included nasal intonations, and sometimes, when lingering on open vowels, he would sound almost snobby, and unquestionably professorial. Using this voice, he once scolded me for the way I handled photographs and taught me how to pick them up—not with my fingers but with my nails, so as not to leave any marks.

This voice perfectly expressed his personality. He took pleasure in imagining readers falling into his novelistic traps, as well as in reading scholarly studies of the nouveau roman, which he liked to contradict. Regarding his own theories, one must recognize that the nouveau roman, while offering an alternative to the nineteenth-century psychological novel, is still a novel. It changes the rules—and the idea that every story must somehow self-destruct can be debilitating for the reader!—but it still plays the game. And I know that Robbe-Grillet therefore thought that strict autobiography and memoir did not fit into this newly developed narrative, that they could not really be literature. (I wonder, however, since the influence of psychoanalysis has made untenable old-fashioned psychological writing—which Robbe-Grillet so rightly despised—whether a certain kind of autobiographical form or autofiction is not now the new alternative to the novel itself.)

In his work and at home, Robbe-Grillet was obsessively neat, but he kept his beard shaggy, even when it took on the whiteness of a wise man’s beard. Was he wise, this man who, when invited to and honored by universities across the world, would astonish his hosts with his jokes and his hearty appetite? This man who, as a member of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival and president of the jury for the Venice Film Festival, could not find producers for his final film? (He eventually succeeded in making Gradiva [2007] thanks to the intervention of Bernard-Henri Lévy.) This man who, having shared almost his entire life in perfect concord with the same woman, Catherine, also a writer, was accused of peddling obscene pornography? My answer is yes. Because the ironic lens through which he viewed the world certainly allowed him to see that things and events have the potential to be reassembled in another order, that they can lead to a different ending, just as in his books. He believed this through and through, for, on the eve of his death, in his hospital bed, he asked for a bottle of Bordeaux.

Catherine Millet is a curator and writer based in Paris.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.