PRINT September 2008


Alain Robbe-Grillet

In preparing the special focus on French novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet published in our Summer issue, we approached writer Michel Houellebecq, who many would say has taken up Robbe-Grillet’s mantle as the foremost literary provocateur in France today. His response, received only after that issue went to press, follows. —Eds.

EVEN THOUGH ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET’S BOOKS profoundly and radically bored me right from the start, I devoted hours, perhaps even days of effort trying to read them. I proceeded as one does in such situations: I skipped ahead fifty pages to see if things got better later on, I switched books, I told myself that I would just try my luck later on, at another time of day, under more favorable circumstances. But nothing eased my boredom, nothing overturned my initial conviction that it all was of no interest and had no meaning. I cannot remember ever having been so obliging with any other author.

The first explanation that comes to mind is our shared educational background (he studied at the same school of agronomic engineering that I did, although thirty years earlier). Being alumni of the same grande école forges, in the French education system, unspoken bonds—perhaps comparable (but I only know this through literature) to those between graduates of the same college at Oxford or Cambridge. If we were to ever have met each other—which thankfully never happened—we would have had to treat each other as “cher camarade”; and what’s more, I think we would have done it (mixing in, of course, an array of ironic smiles; but we would have done it). Although he displayed great insolence to institutions all his life (and with the Académie Française he was simply rude), Alain Robbe-Grillet was forever devoted and deeply grateful to the first institution in his life, the Institut National Agronomique (Paris-Grignon). I’m exactly the same way: Neither one of us ever renounced Agro.

I think he resented me because he was proud to be “the agricultural engineer in French literature”—until I came along. He was furious that he had to share this title. He did, it is true, have other reasons to be furious, and there were certain articles that aggravated the matter, especially abroad, which proclaimed that I was “the only thing to emerge from France since the Nouveau Roman.” He definitely didn’t want anything to emerge from France after the Nouveau Roman, which he had identified as his legacy.

A silent and coded battle ensued between us for several years. Was he declaring again, against all evidence, that Balzac represented a sterile, static period in French literature? I would immediately praise Balzac, asserting that he was the second father of every novelist, and that anyone who didn’t declare his allegiance and love to him could not pretend to understand the first thing about the art of the novel. Was I giving preeminence in my own writing to sociology over psychology? He would then at once lament how contemporary writing had renounced the formal ambitions of pure literature, how it had been reduced to the dimension of sociological investigation. To the end, the battle was waged indirectly; we always refrained from referring to each other openly.

We were, I must say, absolutely sincere; he in his abhorrence of Balzac, I in my love; he in his contempt for my literature, I in my contempt for his.

NOW THAT ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET has, in a way mechanically, preceded me to the grave, I can feel a bit freer to speak about my “cher camarade.” Because there was something else, I ended up realizing, other than the simple camaraderie of former students, in the stubbornness with which I attempted to penetrate his indigestible literature. Alain Robbe-Grillet, yes, reminded me of Agro, and he even reminded me of something much more precise, something that only former Agro students know: Alain Robbe-Grillet reminded me of soil cutting.

Pedology, or the study of soil, is clearly a fundamental subject in agronomy; it would be, at least, if it could take pride in reproducible results, lead to exact predictions, direct the agronomist to make well-reasoned diagnoses. Unfortunately, this is far from being the case. Pedology was in an embryonic stage, at least when I was studying (not to mention in Robbe-Grillet’s time). Even to call it a science would have been to give it too much credit; it was, at best, a discipline of observation.

The reigning method of pedology since its inception is soil cutting. It involves digging a vertical trench into the ground, its depth varying depending on the soil in question (generally, one continues down to the rock stratum). Once the trench is made, what does one do? Well, one observes. That is, one draws, as accurately as possible, what one sees (establishment of roots, presence of rocks, air pockets, animals, etc.), which usually varies quickly as one moves farther from the surface. One can also provide notes for the drawing. Few photographs are taken, which is interesting to note (these would serve but to make the drawing later, under more convenient conditions, and if possible, rather quickly; the intelligent eye of a land observer is always considered superior to a photographic reproduction). Chemical observations in situ remain rudimentary (during my time, they were limited to measuring pH levels at various depths). One can, of course, take soil samples to study later on; but this brings us into the domain of soil analysis, which is a whole other story.

Even if the aspiring agronomist hopes to find a known kind of soil in his observations (and if, generally, the observed soil is indeed what one expected, considering the geologic substratum and the climate), he must not, while he is observing, take this into account. His professors will firmly make this recommendation. He might, it is only human, expect to find a podzol in Siberia, a laterite in Madagascar; but under no circumstance should this affect the neutrality, the objectivity of his sketches and comments.

In this way, through soil cutting, the agronomy student is trained in this austere discipline consisting in casting a neutral, purely descriptive eye on the world; is this not precisely what Alain Robbe-Grillet later attempted to do in literature?

While this bias in favor of nontheoretical neutrality might be the accepted norm in soil cutting, it is far from being the unanimous opinion in the philosophy of science. “It is theory, and only theory, that decides what must be observed,” Einstein noted drily. Taking this argument further, sociologist Auguste Comte ended up concluding that without a preliminary theory, even if only a very vague one, observation, reduced to an “empiricism emptied of meaning,” is nothing more than a fastidious compilation of experimental facts, devoid of meaning.

“A fastidious compilation of experimental facts, devoid of meaning.” Is this not exactly how one could describe Alain Robbe-Grillet’s literature?

Having precisely defined his limitations, I would add that they are also his strengths—albeit entirely negative ones. Rejecting any preliminary theory before observation, Robbe-Grillet protected himself from every cliché (for all clichés contain a succinct theory, and are only recognized as such when the theory itself is seen as old and is considered to be outdated). On the other hand, in opening my literature to theoretical conceptions one might develop about the world, I am constantly vulnerable to cliché and, in truth, I’m doomed, my only chance at originality consisting of (to borrow Baudelaire’s intuition) developing new clichés.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.

Michel Houellebecq is a novelist living in Spain.