PRINT Summer 2008


THE OBITUARIES Alain Robbe-Grillet received in the British press depicted him as a significant but ultimately eccentric novelist, whose work forswore any attempt to be “believable” or to engage with the real world in a “realistic” way. In taking this line, the obituarists displayed an intellectual shortcoming typical of Anglo-American empiricism, and displayed it on two fronts: first, in their failure to understand that literary “realism” is itself a construct as laden with artifice as any other; and second, in missing the glaring fact that Robbe-Grillet’s novels are actually ultrarealist, shot through at every level with the sheer quiddity of the environments to which they attend so faithfully. What we see happening in them, again and again, is space and matter inscribing themselves on consciousness, whose task, reciprocally, is to accommodate space and matter. As Robbe-Grillet was himself fond of declaring: “No art without world.”

This type of intense congress with the real can be seen even in the author’s shortest offerings. In the three-page story “The Dressmaker’s Dummy” (which opens the collection Snapshots [1962]), we are shown a coffeepot, a four-legged table, a waxed tablecloth, a mannequin, and, crucially, a large rectangular mirror that reflects the room’s objects—which include a mirror-fronted wardrobe that in turn redoubles everything. Thus we are made to navigate a set of duplications, modifications, and distortions that are at once almost impossibly complex and utterly accurate: This is how rooms actually look to an observer, how their angles, surfaces, and sight lines impose themselves on his or her perception. No other action takes place in the piece, which nonetheless ends with a quite stunning “twist,” as we are told that the coffeepot’s base bears a picture of an owl “with two large, somewhat frightening eyes,” but, due to the coffeepot’s presence, this image cannot be seen. What waits for us at the story’s climax, its gaze directed back toward our own, is a blind spot.

In Jealousy (1957), this blind spot is the novel’s protagonist. Through a meticulously—indeed, obsessively—described house set in the middle of a tropical banana plantation moves what filmmakers call a POV, or point of view, a camera-and-mic-like “node” of seeing and hearing. The one thing not seen or heard by this node is the node itself. Phrases such as “It takes a glance at her empty though stained plate to discover” and “Memory succeeds, moreover, in reconstituting” beg the questions: Whose glance? Whose memory? The answer, it can pretty easily be inferred from the novel’s context, is that it is the master of the house’s glance and memory, his movements and reflections that we are experiencing as he watches his wife, identified only as “A . . . ,” negotiate an affair with the neighboring plantation’s owner, Franck. The effect of stating the hero’s subjectivity negatively, by implication rather than by affirmation, is eerie and troubling: His gaze becomes like that of “The Shape” in John Carpenter’s Halloween, or the entity in David Lynch’s Lost Highway who stalks a maritally troubled house at night armed with a camera. When we read that “it is only at a distance of less than a yard” that the back of A . . .’s head appears a certain way, we realize with a shudder that her jealous husband is creeping up on her from behind. He is observing her, in this particular instance, through the slats of a blind (or jalousie in French); and we, through an ingenious if untranslatable linguistic duplication, are watching her through two jalousies: a double blind.

The novel is saturated with a sense of geometry. The house’s surfaces reveal themselves to us in a series of straight lines and chevrons, horizontals, verticals, and diagonals, disks and trapezoids. The banana trees, as green as jealousy itself, are laid out in quincunxes, as are the workers who replace the bridge’s rectangular beams. Geometric order is pitted against formlessness and entropy: On the far side of the valley, toward Franck’s house, is a patch in which the narrator tells us, using language reminiscent of Othello’s, that “confusion has gained the ascendancy.” As A . . . combs her hair, the struggle between geometry and chaos is replayed: With a “mechanical gesture,” the oval of the brush and the straight lines of its teeth pass through the “black mass” on her head, imposing order on it, just as the “mechanical cries” of nocturnal animals shape the darkness beyond the veranda by indicating each one’s “trajectory through the night.” Geometry usually wins: Even the “tangled skein” of insects buzzing around the lamp reveals itself, when observed at length by the husband, to be “describing more or less flattened ellipses in horizontal planes or at slight angles.” But an ellipse is not merely a type of orbit; it also designates a syntactic omission, a typographic gap. What’s missing from this geometry is A . . . , the char- acter whose very name contains an ellipse: During this particular scene, she is off in town with Franck. As the narrator waits for her to come home, the lamp hisses, like a green-eyed monster.

Enmeshed with the book’s spatial logic is a temporal one. The second time we see the shadow of the column fall on the veranda, it has lengthened in a clockwise direction, the geometry of the house effectively forming a sundial. In a filmed interview last year with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (Robbe-Grillet’s influence on contemporary visual art is enormous), the author ponders Hegel’s paradox that to say “Now it is day” cannot be wholly true if, a few hours later, one can equally truthfully declare “Now it is night,” and notes that, for Hegel, the only true part of the statements is the word now. Why? Because it persists. The same word punctuates Jealousy like the regular chime of a clock: “Now the shadow of the column . . .”; “Now the house is empty . . .”; “. . . until the day breaks, now.”

This is not to say that time moves forward in a straight line. Like Benjy in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Jealousy’s narrator experiences time—or times—simultaneously. For Robbe-Grillet, who also made films, writing is like splicing together strips of celluloid to create a continual present. There are prolepses, analepses, loops, and repetitions (a process slyly mirrored in the staggering of the plantation cycle through the whole year such that all its phases “occur at the same time every day, and the periodical trivial incidents also repeat themselves simultaneously”)—but the time is always “now.” A delightful exchange between the husband and the servant boy, in which the latter answers a question as to when he was instructed to retrieve ice cubes from the pantry with an imprecise “now” (discerning in the question “a request to hurry”), carries this point home: All the book’s actions and exchanges swelter in a stultifying, oppressive, and persistent present tense—what Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, calls “the pressant.”

The only escape route from this pressant, from its simultaneity, its loops and repetitions, would be violence: for the narrator to perpetrate a crime passionel against A . . . and, by murdering her, free them from the vicious circle of meals, cocktails, hair combing, spying. But this does not happen. Only the centipede dies: again and again and again. The venomous Scutigera serves as a meeting point for associations so overloaded that if it were a plug socket it would be smoking. During one of its many death scenes, the narrative cuts from the crackling of its dying scream as its many legs curl to the crackling sound made by the many teeth of A . . .’s brush running through her hair; then on to A . . .’s fingers clenching the tablecloth in terror; from there to the same gesture played out across the bedsheet; then, finally, to Franck “jolting” and “driving” violently—a sexual image that resolves itself into a putative crash in which the plantation owner’s burning car makes the bush crackle. As with Franck’s car crash, posited and then erased, it seems that A . . . has finally met a violent fate when, near the novel’s end, we’re shown a “reddish streak” running from the bedroom window to the veranda. But no sooner is it outlined than we are told that it “has always been there,” and that A . . . has decided it will not be painted out “for the moment.” So the moment, the eternal now, persists, and she returns to sit at her desk as before.

A . . . is a fantastic creation, a femme fatale to rival Lady Macbeth or Clytemnestra in terms of her castrating potency. Throughout the book, Robbe-Grillet associates her with the color green (“green eyes . . . green irises”) and coldness: She serves ice cubes “each of which imprisons a bundle of silver needles in its heart.” A twist rears its head when, after she and Franck return from their night in a hotel, she taunts Franck (whose sexuality has been associated with car engines from the outset) by saying, “You’re not much of a mechanic, are you?”—words that cause him to grimace. Later, as they sit side by side, our attention is diverted to the metal ice bucket, “its lustre already frosted over.” If A . . . retreats from the narrator, she retreats from Franck as well, remaining inaccessible to both. Perhaps the literary female she resembles most is another A . . . : Faulkner’s Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying, who, despite marriage and an extramarital affair, abides “refraining” and “recessional” beyond the reach of both husband and lover, and of words themselves. As Jealousy nears its end, A . . . , like Addie, slips away into the “blank areas” of the book’s geometry, spending more and more time “outside the field of vision,” as though commandeering the narrator’s blind spot for herself.

One of A . . .’s main activities throughout the novel is to read and write. She and Franck use a novel, which they both have read and the narrator has not, as a cover to discuss their own situation right in front of him. They also exchange letters. The small spasms and convulsions of A . . .’s hair as she sits at her writing table, busy hands hidden from view, lend the act of writing a sexual aura by implying that she could as easily be masturbating as “erasing a stain or a badly chosen word.” In this respect, there is something utterly perverse—doubly perverse—about her husband’s perusal of her writing’s residues, the fragments of letters left on the writing case’s blotter. These, too, are geometric figures—“tiny lines, arcs, crosses, loops, etc.”—but unlike the centipede whose form is marked so legibly across the wall (before being erased and reinscribed, over and over again), here “no complete letter can be made out, even in a mirror”; the text remains illegible.

In the interview with Obrist, Robbe-Grillet claimed that, whereas the novels of Balzac or Dickens do not require readers since they perform all the latter’s work themselves, his own writing calls for active readers who will piece everything together. Each work is like an Airfix kit—or, more precisely, an IKEA one, since there is always one vital piece missing. The final letter we see A . . . reading has come not from Franck but rather in “the last post from Europe,” from an unknown correspondent. As she sets a blank leaf on her green blotter, removes her pen’s cap, and bends forward to start writing, one more twist emerges: Within the self-reflexive geometries of Robbe-Grillet’s hall of mirrors, the ultimate blind spot just might be the reader.

Tom McCarthy is a writer living in London. “The Geometry Of The Pressant” will serve as the introduction for a reprinting of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, forthcoming this summer from Oneworld Classics, London.