PRINT Summer 2008


Alain Resnais, L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), 1961, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 94 minutes.

SEVEN YEARS AGO, two decades after having publicly renounced the writing of novels and just shy of his eightieth birthday, Alain Robbe-Grillet returned with astounding, youthful energy to the genre he had most practiced and had significantly marked. Long after the nouveau roman’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, the publication of La Reprise (2001; Repetition, 2003)¹ proved that Robbe-Grillet’s place among the leading French writers of the past half century was, however contested, amply justified. The French press was dithyrambic, praising the work’s imagination, humor, and sophistication. Even the conservative Figaro waxed enthusiastic. Claiming that La Reprise amounted to a birthday telegram from the author declaring, “New Novel not dead,” the newspaper asked, What is left of the nouveau roman? Robbe-Grillet delighted in answering: “Quite obviously, me most of all.”

And he was right. Yet by the same reasoning, now that he has died, at age eighty-five, the nouveau roman becomes more clearly an aesthetic adventure of the past—still an exciting and fruitful adventure, to be sure, but no longer the frontier of fiction. The decline of the New Novel’s influence in France’s current literary production results probably from protracted resistance to its erstwhile hegemonic authority and especially to its attempts to overthrow the regime of literary realism. Yet in the decades since its zenith, no new current has been detected to take the place of the nouveau roman.

The leading French literary movement following the heady Existentialist years of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, the nouveau roman was in fact the only important development in the French novel for the rest of the century. It depoliticized the genre, which had been heavily in the service of politics under the Existentialists; it turned fiction ever further away from nineteenth-century realism; it reflected modernist and then postmodernist trends in other art forms such as painting, theater, and architecture.

If, however, the nouveau roman came to be considered a “movement” rather than merely a collection of immensely talented but disparate writers, including Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Marguerite Duras, Robert Pinget, and several others, it was not due to some common manifesto or a literary coterie but because they were all published at first by Éditions de Minuit, because they were famously photographed together in front of the company’s Paris offices with publisher Jérôme Lindon and fellow Minuit author and inspiration to all of them Samuel Beckett, and because Robbe-Grillet, whom Lindon named literary director in the mid-’50s, imposed himself as the “theoretician” of the group, most notably with a series of striking essays, Pour un nouveau roman (1963; For a New Novel, 1965)—and with an unfailing sense of publicity.

Robbe-Grillet, who not only didn’t view himself as a theoretician but shunned theory, especially structuralist and poststructuralist formulations, opens this quasi-manifesto with a disclaimer and an explanation: “I am not a theoretician of the novel. I have merely, like all novelists, no doubt, in the past as well as today, been led to make some critical reflections on books I had written, on those I was reading, on those I still plan to write.”² Rejecting the traditional, bourgeois novel, based on meticulous observation, as best exemplified by Balzac, which aimed at representing, at imitating the world faithfully, as if the world existed in a clearly definable manner, he championed fiction that refused the essentialism of “meaning” in favor of subjective and shifting realities, in defense of a novel that does not chronicle reality but creates its own, self-reflexive reality. “The world is neither significant nor absurd,” he famously wrote. “It is, quite simply.”³ The gauntlet was thrown down, not against “realism” as was commonly thought, but against nineteenth-century realism, no longer capable of dealing with twentieth-century realities and perceptions. But the new realism that Robbe-Grillet advocates with the nouveau roman is not the rendering of the “lifelike” and the “typical.” “In this new realism,” he writes, “it is therefore no longer verisimilitude that is at issue. The small detail which ‘rings true’ no longer holds the attention of the novelist . . . ; what strikes him . . . is more likely, on the contrary, the little detail that rings false.”⁴

As the recognized leader of the New Novelists, Robbe-Grillet became one of France’s most discussed, if not necessarily most widely read, novelists. Labeled “pope” of the nouveau roman, his celebrity amplified by his filmmaking, Robbe-Grillet became not only a major writer but a leading intellectual figure in an age that could boast of Barthes, Foucault, Lacan, and other giants, with a substantial following of young readers. Abroad, there was even more interest in his work, especially in the United States, where his early novels attained wide readership among college students and his films, though far less known, attracted the interest of hard-core cineasts. But Robbe-Grillet’s greatest American impact was probably in the art world, always more predisposed to experimentalism and aesthetic innovation than other creative fields.

Sarraute and Simon published novels that were highly esteemed and discussed yet sold few copies; Butor had a major success with La Modification (1957) but soon abandoned the novel for a striking, idiosyncratic poetic prose of limited appeal; Duras, whose inclusion in the nouveau roman was always problematic, developed a very personal fictional universe that retained some textual links to it but featured constructs of plot and character that reached out in new, singular, “Durassian” directions. And so Robbe-Grillet remained the permanent, steadying force of the New Novel. Les Gommes (1953; The Erasers, 1964), Le Voyeur (1955; The Voyeur, 1958), La Jalousie (1957; Jealousy, 1959), and Dans le labyrinthe (1959; In the Labyrinth, 1960) were hailed by many important critics as a new approach to the relationship of fiction to the world, puzzling, perhaps, but unquestionably in sync with contemporary aesthetic and philosophical concerns.

Les Gommes, Robbe-Grillet’s first published novel (Un Régicide was written in 1949 but only published in 1978), earned some positive reviews, a number of mixed ones, and a fair amount of outright bad ones. A reviewer in the respected newspaper Le Monde, noting that no other works by this writer were listed anywhere in the book, concluded: “Mr. Robbe-Grillet is therefore probably a beginner; that makes it less worrisome than if he were a veteran of the novel.”⁵ If at first this work appears to be a standard detective novel—a murder, a detective in search of the culprit, the unraveling of the mystery—the reader quickly finds him- or herself in unfamiliar territory. Nothing is as it appears. The victim is not really dead, the detective wades through endless contradictory information from which no privileged position emerges, and finally he accidentally kills the victim who, at the beginning of the work, had escaped being murdered by a hired killer. All this against the insistent background of the Oedipus myth: Like Oedipus, the detective seeks the criminal who turns out to be himself. What captivates the reader of Les Gommes is not a series of events, not “what happens” in some chronological time, but rather the characters’ perceptions of these events in a dislocated, fragmented time frame and, finally, our own perceptions and plot (re)constructions. Robbe-Grillet has done away with the omniscient narrator, has exploded the concept of plot, and has slyly focused his fiction on fiction itself, on the creation of literature.

Since the author was an unknown newcomer whose biography mentioned only that he was an agricultural engineer, certain critics latched on to his profession and thought that it “explained” his fiction, especially when it came to the ultraprecise description of things. In fact, it does not. Although the banana-plantation setting of La Jalousie is indebted to Robbe-Grillet’s years as an agronomist in the tropics, no link between his early profession and his literature can be sustained.

With Le Voyeur, Robbe-Grillet made his first breakthrough: countless and generally favorable reviews, by Barthes and Blanchot, among others; the attribution of the prestigious Prix des Critiques; ten thousand copies sold (Les Gommes had sold but a few hundred). Immediately, Robbe-Grillet emerged as a voice to be reckoned with in Parisian intellectual life. From its enigmatic opening line, “It was as if no one had heard,” Le Voyeur propels the reader into an unfamiliar realm. Although realistically set on a rugged island (like the Breton islands of the author’s childhood), and though (again) apparently relating a mystery story of murder and search for killer, the novel presents us with a deepening puzzle whose potential solutions are never clarified, whose clues point in conflicting directions, and whose “truth” is left squarely up to the reader.

Perhaps Robbe-Grillet’s leading contribution to the novel and to film is the ambiguity of his narrative strategies, tantalizing in their allusiveness and their “openness”—that is, their refusal to limit themselves to one “correct” reading. The prime device responsible is the particular novelistic or filmic narrative voice utilized. The novels make use of both the third and first person, frequently with shifting narrators and conflicting fields of vision. The films resort to similar techniques appropriate to cinema. Le Voyeur would seem to be a “normal” omniscient, third-person narration. But the reader soon realizes that the third person is in fact limited to the field of vision of the main character, a traveling watch salesman, Mathias, who sets forth from the mainland for a carefully planned day trip to a small offshore island (his childhood home) to sell his wares to the locals. And the trouble is that Mathias is a most unreliable witness.

A crime has been committed: An attractive young woman has been raped, tortured, killed, and thrown into the sea from a high cliff. But no, perhaps not. The girl is dead, but whether she has been killed or has met with an accident, and if killed, whether by Mathias or someone else, remain unanswered questions. Her death is not described; its place in the chronology is replaced by a blank page. Is it because Mathias, the “guilty” narrator, has repressed all memory of the killing? Since the narration reaches us through Mathias’s perception, we can readily identify him as pathologically obsessive, fixated on images of young girls in sexually submissive postures, on violence and fire. He certainly could have murdered the girl, but that doesn’t prove that he did, nor is it ever proved that she has been killed. We are likely to feel that she probably was and that he probably did it and that the blank page is not an author’s trick but the self-censorship of a guilty conscience. But then again, maybe not. Since the “crime” remains absent, uncertainty reigns. If there is to be a coherent pattern, it will need to be provided by the reader. The facts cease to matter; crime or not, guilt or not, Le Voyeur forces us to seek not the “truth” but the reflections of an event on a disturbed, seemingly psychotic consciousness. As in Les Gommes, the indefiniteness of the narrative evokes the meanderings of the creative process.

Reviewing his early novels, critics called attention to Robbe-Grillet’s remarkably, almost maniacally exact descriptions of things, in the absence of any human elements. Thus, for instance, in Le Voyeur: “The stone rim—an oblique, sharp edge formed by two intersecting perpendicular planes: the vertical embankment perpendicular to the quay and the ramp leading to the top of the pier—was continued along its upper side at the top of the pier by a horizontal line extending straight toward the quay.” This gave rise to labels such as roman du regard (the novel of the look), réisme (from the Latin res, or thing), and littérature de notation, before the anodyne term nouveau roman found favor.

The opening paragraph of La Jalousie is one of the most striking examples of Robbe-Grillet’s meticulous depictions:

Now the shadow of the column—the column which supports the southwest corner of the roof—divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts. This veranda is a wide, covered gallery surrounding the house on three sides. Since its width is the same for the central portion as for the sides, the line of shadow cast by the column extends precisely to the corner of the house; but it stops there, for only the veranda flagstones are reached by the sun, which is still too high in the sky. The wooden walls of the house—that is, its front and west gable-end—are still protected from the sun by the roof (common to the house proper and the terrace). So at this moment the shadow of the outer edge of the roof coincides exactly with the right angle formed by the terrace and the two vertical surfaces of the corner of the house.

We may notice first the initial “Now,” which situates the description (the narration) in an ongoing time continuum of successive presents, expressed from a vantage point that describes scrupulously the play of moving sunlight and shadow but makes no attempt to delineate the house or the terrace. We will realize that the narrator is not an impersonal, omniscient one but one of the three characters in the unfolding story—or rather, the fragments of possible events that may or may not add up to a story.

The titular jealousy is that felt by the narrator-husband, who thinks his wife, A . . . , is having an affair with their neighbor Franck. Events in the novel are few: The narrator watches his wife combing her hair, speaking with Franck; he notices a paper in Franck’s pocket and wonders whether it is a letter from A . . . ; all three have drinks on the terrace; a centipede is crushed on a wall by Franck and leaves a bright red spot; Franck announces he is going to the town for the day to buy a new truck, and A . . . decides to accompany him in order to do some shopping; the two do not return until the following morning, explaining that the car broke down and forced them to spend the night in a hotel; the narrator is consumed with jealousy during their absence and only calms down when they return. It is a banal story in a conventional setting, but neither banal nor conventional in the narration.

The several incidents (one cannot really talk of a plot) are related in a fragmented, nonchronological way, with each one spread out over the course of the novel, yielding a kaleidoscopic view that never jells into a whole. Real happenings are interspersed with anticipated and imagined ones, providing the reader with a complex view of the narrator’s mental process. The third-person narration reflects the husband’s reality every bit as much as Le Voyeur’s narration points to Mathias, but the narrator of La Jalousie is no psychopath, only an ordinary jealous husband who does not know the truth. No matter how much the reader may try, he or she will be no more successful than the husband. Are the two lovers? He doesn’t know, and we’ll never know. The reader’s pleasure stems not from finding out but from the reconstitution of a novelistic world that does not exist without him. It is the reader who gives shape and resonance to a novel devoid of psychology, depth, and transcendent meaning. It took some time for La Jalousie to be appreciated; on publication, it was scorned by the critics and sold a mere five hundred copies!

With the film L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), written by Robbe-Grillet and directed by Alain Resnais in 1961, the author gained international fame. Resnais had already created a sensation two years earlier with his first feature film, the very nouveau roman–ish Hiroshima mon amour, from a script by Marguerite Duras. Marienbad, a genuine collaboration between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 1961 and went on to enjoy substantial box-office success worldwide. Spectators of this film found themselves in the same fascinating yet uncomfortable position as readers of Robbe-Grillet’s novels: at the center of the fictional world. Nothing is given, nothing explained; the work of art exists only to the extent that the reader/spectator inserts him- or herself into the core of the fiction, makes order out of disorder, and gives it meaning. The same is true for the work of Antonioni, Beckett, Borges, Ionesco, Pinter, and so many others. The reader’s new role may be an uncomfortable one because it is so demanding, but the aesthetic and intellectual rewards can be uncommonly satisfying.

Alain Resnais, L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), 1961, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 94 minutes. A (Delphine Seyrig).

In a remote, vast, old-fashioned luxury hotel set in an immense garden and park, among well-bred, bored, anonymous guests, three people are involved in an enigmatic drama. A stranger attempts to convince a woman that they met a year earlier in Marienbad, that she agreed to wait one year before meeting again and going off together. A man, who may be the woman’s husband, watches over her with remote tenderness but does not try to prevent her from leaving him. The woman resists the man’s story, claims she did not meet him last year, does not know him, and does not want to abandon the security of her privileged if empty life to cast her lot with the stranger. Finally, she does leave with the unknown man. (In the published film script, the three, unnamed in the film itself, are referred to as “A,” the woman; “M,” her partner, possibly her husband; and “X,” the stranger.)

Robbe-Grillet termed the film “the story of a persuasion.” He went on to explain, “It deals with a reality that the hero creates through his own vision, his own words. And if his obstinacy, his secret belief finally win out, it is only in the midst of a veritable maze of false leads, of variants, of setbacks, of resumptions!”⁶ Marienbad no longer exists. Is X mad? or merely a seducer? or is he mistaking A for someone else? A is adamant in her refusal of X’s version of the past, but as he maintains his narration of their (supposed) earlier meeting and love, he becomes more and more convincing, and A slowly, reluctantly, yields to his certitudes. Beset with fears, haunted by flashes of imagined and anticipated scenes, A finally opts to go. She gives M a last chance to keep her from leaving, but when he makes no move, she joins X in the garden and they depart to who knows what future. “Love, poetry, freedom . . . or perhaps death,” speculates Robbe-Grillet. Where do they go, and what happens to them? “What do they do when they are elsewhere? One is tempted to answer: nothing! Elsewhere they don’t exist.”⁷ They are a presence while observed by the camera, whose mode of expression is that of the present. Pure Dasein. Beyond what is seen can only be absence, nonbeing—the mystery that the film does not choose to clarify.

With his next two novels, La Maison de rendez-vous in 1965 (La Maison de Rendez-vous, 1966) and especially Projet pour une révolution à New York in 1970 (Project for a Revolution in New York, 1972), Robbe-Grillet turned to a less solemn form of literary expression, humorous, tongue-in-cheek, deliberately two-dimensional in the manner of comic-book narratives, replete with conventional erotic and geographic stereotypes, akin to Pop art. The “nouveau” nouveau roman was born. The 1970s also witnessed more or less modest changes in the works of other New Novel authors, but the double “new” label stuck to them all for a while (it eventually disappeared altogether), even if it really made sense only for Robbe-Grillet.

Beyond a dizzying plethora of events depicting stylized crime, sex, and international intrigue that replace any traditional concept of plot, beyond the delectable whimsy of the writing, beyond shifting, multiple first- and third-person narrators, Robbe-Grillet focuses these two novels, at a deeper level, on the act of writing itself. As usual with the author, the beginning announces the novel’s modus operandi. La Maison de rendez-vous opens with two brief statements on separate, unnumbered pages, before page one of the novel. The first states:

Author’s note: This novel cannot, in any way, be considered as a document about life in the British Territory of Hong Kong. Any resemblance to the latter in setting or situations is merely the effect of chance, objective or not.

Thus informed, the reader turns the page:

Should any reader familiar with Oriental ports suppose that the places described below are not congruent with reality, the author, who has spent most of his life there, suggests that he return for another, closer look: things change fast in such climes.

The novel can then start, with a first-person narration that self-reflexively fuses with its own subject:

Women’s flesh has always played, no doubt, a great part in my dreams. Even when I am awake, its images constantly beset me. A girl in a summer dress exposing the nape of her bent neck—she is fastening her sandal—her hair, fallen forward, revealing the delicate skin with its blond down, I see her immediately subject to some command, excessive from the start. The narrow hobble skirt, slit to the thighs, of the elegant women of Hong Kong is quickly ripped off by a violent hand . . .

The initial, dreamlike erotic narration opens up onto an action that leaves the level of dream narration and becomes the action of the fiction—a microcosm of the creative imagination in the act of imagining.

Robbe-Grillet’s comic-strip Hong Kong incarnates the familiar Western myths of the East: drug traffic, espionage, luxurious brothels, beautiful Eurasian girls, shameful adventures, torture, etc.—a Pop-art paradigm of the two-dimensional quality of the narrative itself, presented at times like a succession of Terry and the Pirates panels. This flat and jagged movement gives the narration its particular texture; it is in the absence of physical and textual depth, in the absence of preexisting meaning, that we follow the itinerary of the literary production. The falsity and the theatricality of the Blue Villa (the maison of the title) and its stylized performances render the narrative and the narration ambiguous.

The text designates writing in the process of being written, the writer writing, selecting solutions from among the choices available to him. It questions itself within an artificial Hong Kong where all is play, all is unreal, including the very narrative that designates this unreality. Everything vanishes; what had been affirmed disappears. Even the madam of the maison de rendez-vous, Lady Ava, finally admits that she has never been to China, that the Blue Villa is merely a story that had been told to her. Through the false representation of a city elevated to the level of myth, we are at the center of the fictionality of fiction in the midst of the production of images that transform themselves, link up to one another, and revert to themselves thanks to the series of generators of fiction (receptions, theatrical performances, a ring, a Chinese illustrated magazine, etc.) that propel the story.

Project for a Revolution in New York starts with a series of scenes, all in the present tense, whizzing by as if an accelerated film:

The first scene goes very fast. Evidently it has already been rehearsed several times: Everyone knows his or her part by heart. Words and gestures follow each other in a relaxed, continuous manner, the links as imperceptible as the necessary elements of some properly lubricated machinery.

Then there is a gap, a blank space, a pause of indeterminate length during which nothing happens, not even the anticipation of what will come next.

And suddenly the action resumes, without warning, and the same scene occurs again . . . But which scene?

The answer comes immediately. The scene in question moves very quickly from the closing of a door to the description of that door and its varnish of “imaginary veins,” which the narration transforms into shapes, a girl’s body, a comic-book-like scene of stereotyped sexual violence (a static scene, like the present of a comics panel), before finally returning to the varnish, to the door, and ultimately to the narration itself. In this bravura passage, Robbe-Grillet shows with admirable clarity how generators function within fiction. We are far from the referential world of the realistic novel.

As was true for Hong Kong in the earlier novel, the New York of this work is a fake—the plot unfolds in a sham New York, a New York of myths and comic-strip images, a metropolis replete with murder, rape, and sadistic attacks, where the subway is a world apart, an underground no-man’s-land. But then, it is perfectly reasonable to have a fake New York serve as the setting for fake revolutions carried out by fake revolutionaries; it is against the background of the very idea of the modern metropolis as it exists in the popular imagination of Europeans that we find masked characters who play at being one another while playing at revolution.

In the novel, New York designates its own fictitiousness; the story does the same, refusing all attempts to signify or to tell a history—for it tells so many and such contradictory ones that none are left with any credibility. The fiction is at all times aware of itself, aware of being nothing other than a mere narrative element, without any privileged point of view. Thus, in a crafty mise en abyme, the torturer can say to the girl he is torturing: “Try to invent details that will be exact and meaningful.”

Robbe-Grillet’s next several novels were less well received than the earlier ones, just as the public for his later films declined. After the brilliant shared experience of Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet had turned to making his own films. His first feature, L’Immortelle (The Immortal One) in 1963, beautifully shot in Istanbul, followed by Trans-Europ-Express (1966) and L’Homme qui ment (The Man Who Lies, 1968), earned critical acclaim in France and abroad, but his later films, dominated by the writer-director’s private erotic fantasy world, though not without merit, failed to attract significant audiences. Robbe-Grillet’s somewhat waning fortunes—which in no way affected his fame or his public persona—rekindled conspicuously in 1984 with the publication of the autobiographical “romanesque” Le Miroir qui revient (Ghosts in the Mirror, trans. Jo Levy, 1991).

The author who had vehemently insisted on the fictionality of his novels, rejecting any attempt to link them to his life, stunned the Paris literary world by publishing this splendid, eminently readable—and widely read—autobiographical work. True to his taste for provocation, he writes at the outset of Le Miroir qui revient, “I’ve never spoken of anything but myself,” thereby contradicting years of denials. On the other hand, in the unsigned statement on the book’s back cover (undoubtedly penned by the author), we read, “This book by Alain Robbe-Grillet is very different from everything he has published until now. Undoubtedly because it is not a novel. But is it really an autobiography?” And indeed we wonder. It is written in the first person by Alain Robbe-Grillet and concerns many people and places in the author’s life, with references to his childhood in an ultra-right-wing Breton family, his early career as an agronomist, his stint as a laborer in Germany during the Occupation. But not everything is truthful. (What autobiography is?) We notably meet an important invented character named Henri de Corinthe, who also appears in the following two volumes of “romanesques,” Angélique ou l’Enchantement (1988; untranslated) and Les derniers jours de Corinthe (1994; The Last Days of Corinthe) untranslated). But never mind. Whether fictionalized autobiography or autobiographical fiction, these new, intimate books, consonant with the prevailing craze for “autofiction,” brought Robbe-Grillet countless new readers and high critical acclaim. More than three decades after Les Gommes, Alain Robbe-Grillet was, in a sense, rediscovered. It remained for the publication of La Reprise to prove once and for all that there had always only been one Robbe-Grillet: The “new” novels and the slyly fictionalized autobiography were part of the same creative continuity.

Given his history as consummate provocateur, was it really surprising that this eccentric paragon of the avant-garde would suddenly have wished late in life to be elected to that ultimate representation of cultural conservatism, the Académie Française? Perhaps no more surprising than that the academy would want to elect him. But, mirabile dictu, he did and it did; the whole affair turned out to be an unfortunate mutual misunderstanding. Robbe-Grillet accepted his election in 2004 with the idea that he would not follow the usual rules; that way, his iconoclasm would remain intact. He refused to pay the courtesy visits to the other members and announced that he would wear neither the formal green, gold-braided uniform nor the ritual sword for the initiation ceremony. The Académie Française, eager to rejuvenate its aging ranks and to include among its forty “immortals” one of France’s most acclaimed writers, reluctantly agreed to these terms, one after another, although it decided that the ceremony would not be the usual dazzling public event with fanfares and drums under the gilded cupola of the Institut de France but would be limited to a more private, low-key affair.

However, Robbe-Grillet would not let the academy off the hook. Possibly the most meaningful part of the initiation ceremony involves two speeches. A member of the academy gives a lengthy speech about the new member, who then responds with an equally extended, laudatory evocation of his predecessor—that is, the late member of the academy whose seat he is taking. The new member is expected to submit his speech to the academy beforehand. This is where the obvious mismatch finally broke down: Robbe-Grillet balked at the obligation because, he claimed, he improvised all his public utterances. That was the sorry stalemate when death intervened. Ever the individualist, even after death, Robbe-Grillet was the only member elected to the Académie Française never to be installed. While he frequently expressed delight in the whole botched affair, his friends, who thought he should have been a good sport and played the game he had, after all, initiated, were less delighted.

In his final years, Robbe-Grillet published several books, among them two splendid volumes of reflections on literature and art and one novel we could have done without. Le Voyageur (2001; untranslated) is a compendium of articles talks, and interviews from four decades that complement and extend Pour un nouveau roman. Préface à une vie d’écrivain (Éditions de Seuil, 2005; Preface to a Writer’s Life, untranslated) stems from a series of radio broadcasts in which Robbe-Grillet cast a probing retrospective look at his own work, at that of other writers and philosophers past and present, and at literature in general. Together, these two books offer stunning insight into Robbe-Grillet’s remarkable critical gifts over the course of his career and especially in his last years. Henceforth, they are essential reading for anyone even remotely interested in this author.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for Robbe-Grillet’s ultimate work, Un Roman sentimental (Fayard, 2007; untranslated). Although I have not tested out this theory, I would not be surprised if one could establish an inverse relationship between the quality of a novel or film by Robbe-Grillet and the degree of sadomasochistic pedophilia described. In Le Voyeur, for instance, the main character’s brutal erotic fantasies remain virtual in the text and most likely even in the narrative; they are a necessary part of a masterful work of fiction; in Project for a Revolution in New York, the violence done to nubile nymphets is more accentuated, but its comic-book naïveté renders it less conflicting. But in Un Roman sentimental, Robbe-Grillet finally pulls out all the stops. Much as he may call the book “a fairy tale for adults,” a number of readers not usually hostile to him have recoiled at this festival of violence practiced on pubescent girls, which, like most pornography, is also made boring through endless repetition. One wishes that it had remained in a drawer of Robbe-Grillet’s desk . . . or in his night table.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Trans-Europ-Express, 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 94 minutes. Elias/Himself (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

IF ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET knew “everybody” in France and many writers and artists in New York, where he came regularly for twenty-five years not to start a revolution but to teach at New York University, he had relatively few close friends, persons with whom he shared a degree of intimacy, whom he invited to his chateau in Normandy or with whom he traveled. Enjoying a relationship with him that spanned some forty-five years on both sides of the Atlantic, I was one of those friends. Apart from his strong personal qualities—being really concerned about others, giving unquestioned support, being available when needed—I learned to appreciate his remarkable intellect and veritable erudition, his deep-felt concern for aesthetic considerations, his ability to probe in depth literary and artistic positions, including those he did not share. He was a magnificent graduate professor of literature (“professeur de moi-même,” professor of myself, he would joke) whose devotion to his students and preparation for his courses took a backseat to no one I know. I always enjoyed his sly, sometimes self-deprecating humor. Alain was delighted when once, on arriving at JFK, a customs official looked at his declaration and said, “Oh, Mr. Robe-Gry-late, it is a pleasure to welcome you to the United States.” Or when the English-born editor of a major American art publication insisted on calling him Rub-Grill-it. In his mature years, he sported a wonderful beard that gave him the leonine look befitting a famous author. When I met him, in the early ’60s, he sported a small mustache that gave him a slightly shifty look, appropriate perhaps for an agronomist but not for a revolutionary novelist. Later, I told him that I never would have hired him to teach in my department if he had kept the mustache.

The beard was very appropriate, though, for one of our most memorable collaborative efforts: the 1983 production of Virginia Woolf’s play Freshwater, performed in French in New York, Paris, London, and Spoleto, Italy. The fun was that the production featured an all-star cast of nonactors that included, in addition to us, Eugène Ionesco, Nathalie Sarraute, the historian Jean-Paul Aron, France’s leading theater critic Guy Dumur, the novelist Florence Delay, and the Surrealist poet Joyce Mansour, plus Catherine Robbe-Grillet and Ionesco’s wife, Rodica, in walk-on roles. Alain played the English jurist Charles Hay Cameron, henpecked by his wife, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, played by Mansour. Alain looked splendidly Victorian in his (real) beard, and he did well onstage. Of course, the real fun was in not being good; Ionesco, with a fake beard as Lord Tennyson, not only couldn’t remember his lines, he couldn’t even manage to read them properly from a text inserted into a volume of “Tennyson’s Poems” that he was allowed to hold. A wild success! During rehearsals, Mansour announced she would perform only if she could light up a giant Havana cigar onstage. Reluctantly, director Simone Benmussa, agreed but she would not allow Alain, a lover and connoisseur of fine cigars, to do likewise. He never stopped grumbling about the favoritism shown his “wife” but did not stage a walkout. Everyone had a good time, but it was undoubtedly Alain who, more than anyone else, laughed both at himself and with all the others.

IT IS ALWAYS DIFFICULT to evaluate the status and work of an artist who has just died. With Robbe-Grillet, at this time, the exercise seems even riskier than for most others, because one needs to assess not only his accomplishments but the entire nouveau roman. In many ways, they are interchangeable, even if Simon and Sarraute, two literary giants, two writers’ writers, undoubtedly as significant as Robbe-Grillet, show at least as many dissimilarities with him as similarities. Perhaps the greatest testament to these writers’ powerful impact on French literature (not to mention the literatures of many other countries) is this: It is commonly said in France that after the nouveau roman, writers could no longer write the way they had before.

Still, it is no longer possible to see Robbe-Grillet or the nouveau roman as part of the literary vanguard. Ionesco, in the best definition I have yet to read of the dynamics of the avant-garde, defined it in terms of “opposition and rupture” and pointed out that any avant-garde, if successful by imposing itself on the mainstream, necessarily becomes spent and ceases to be an avant-garde. “By the very force of circumstances any system, the moment it is established, is already outworn,” he observed. “As soon as a form of expression becomes recognized, it is already out of date. A thing once spoken is already dead, reality lies somewhere beyond it and the thought has become petrified.”⁸

Nevertheless, the historical importance of Robbe-Grillet and the New Novel as a revolutionary literary movement is firmly established. They changed the rules of the game of fiction in a meaningful way, not once and for all, not with no possibility of return, but perhaps with no possibility of reverting to the status quo. Literature has been changed, not by Robbe-Grillet alone, not only by the nouveau roman, but by them more clearly than by others. For the moment, at least, the reactions against them have been more regressions to a pre–New Novel past than a transition to some new form of fiction that has claimed the throne. For me, reading Robbe-Grillet no longer elicits the thrill of discovery (though I suggest that it still can and does—I see it among my students—for readers who are coming across him for the first time) but yields the more “mature” pleasure of probing the yet undiscovered depths of familiar fictions, the same thrill one never ceases to have when renewing acquaintance with the other great novelists of the twentieth century. Alain Robbe-Grillet is one of them.

Tom Bishop is the Florence Lacaze Gould Professor of French Literature at New York University and director of the school's Center for French Civilization and Culture.


1. All works by Alain Robbe-Grillet originally published by Éditions de Minuit, Paris, except where otherwise indicated; all English-language translations of these works are by Richard Howard and published in the United States by Grove Press, New York, except where otherwise indicated.

2. Robbe-Grillet, “The Use of Theory” (1955/1963), in For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, 7–14, 7.

3. Robbe-Grillet, “A Future for the Novel” (1956), in For a New Novel, 15–24, 19.

4. Robbe-Grillet, “From Realism to Reality” (1955/1963), in For a New Novel, 157–68, 163.

5. Robert Coiplet in Le Monde, April 11, 1953. Translation mine.

6. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Le Voyageur: Textes, causeries et entretiens, ed. Olivier Corpet and Emmanuelle Lambert (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 2001), 58. Translation mine.

7. Ibid., 59.

8. Eugène Ionesco, Notes and Counter Notes: Writings on the Theatre, trans. Donald Watson (New York: Grove Press, 1964), 40–41.