Monday, February 18, 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet Exits the Labyrinth

Novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet has passed away at the age of 85. This news saddens me, because he has been prominent on my short list of personal heroes for most of my life; but it also excites me because a great deal of his recent work -- including the second two volumes of imaginative autobiography begun with GHOSTS IN THE MIRROR -- has yet to be translated into English and the lack of new product, as well as the perspective his death will bring to his existing oeuvre, will doubtless compel this long-overdue work to be done.

I was introduced to Robbe-Grillet by my friend Robert Uth when I was still in my teens, with the famous Grove Press double of JEALOUSY and IN THE LABYRINTH, which pictured the author himself peering through the slats of a jalousie shade or venetian blind. This gesture was, in itself, instructive as it encouraged me, as a young reader and writer, to imagine the author as protagonist; he vigorously denied any such association, but as time has shown, he delighted in tweaking and provoking his audience. The two novellas, two of his greatest, were preceded by analytic essays by Bruce Morrissette and others, which helped me to contextualize these revolutionary, ambigous, objectivist works of fiction -- examples of the so-called "Nouveau Roman" ("New Novel"). I discovered them ten years or more after they were "new," but they remained absolutely unlike anything else I had read. They taught me, before I discovered Nabokov, about the value of scientific detail in description and word selection, yet they also went extraordinarily afield of the Flaubertian search for the mot juste ("right word"). It was Robbe-Grillet's example that taught me, more than either Burroughs or Ballard, that a novel can be a psychological playground where the narrative possibilities are limited only by the author's own imagination and capacity for candor. Robbe-Grillet delighted in slowing down time, collapsing it, having it swallow its own tail, and having key episodes repeat like a hiccup, subtly altering them with each repetition. He was similarly fearless in allowing aspects of the fantastic to encroach upon settings constructed with meticulous realism.

His first published novel, THE ERASERS, was a detective novel based on the Oedipus myth (its basic idea was later echoed by Lucio Fulci's film THE PSYCHIC), and his second, the award-winning THE VOYEUR (Polanski should have filmed this long ago), was an oblique investigation into the death of a young woman told from the perspective of her murderer. (Two ropes looped into figure-eights are found at the scene of the crime, and the novel's first printing by Editions Gallimard arranged to have the murder scene -- a blank page gap in the narrative -- printed on page 88.) JEALOUSY upped the ante by implying the murder of a woman by her jealous husband while leaving the reader absolutely unsure of whether or not the crime had been committed or merely contemplated; if the English translation by Richard Howard is any indication, it contains some of Robbe-Grillet's most beautiful writing. With LA MAISON DE RENDEZVOUS (which appeared in the UK as THE HOUSE OF ASSIGNATION), Robbe-Grillet began to more frankly explore his own erotic nature -- which he admitted in interviews inclined toward the sadomasochistic -- and, I believe, his personal interest in pulp fictional tropes and forms. (Brad Stevens' book on Monte Hellman reveals that LA MAISON DE RENDEZVOUS has long been an unfulfilled dream project of Hellman's.) My own personal favorite of Robbe-Grillet's novels is PROJECT FOR A REVOLUTION IN NEW YORK, a febrile dreamscape that occupies a nightmare version of the great city, which Douglas E. Winter and I believe is one of the great unheralded horror novels of the late 20th century. When David Bowie sang on his DIAMOND DOGS album of Hunger City, where shops sold "bulletproof faces of Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay," that's pure PROJECT FOR A REVOLUTION IN NEW YORK -- a novel whose malignant atmosphere I've only seen approximated on film by Dario Argento's INFERNO.
Robbe-Grillet's later novels, like REFLECTIONS OF THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE and TOPOGRAPHY OF A PHANTOM CITY, tended to be reworkings of texts originally written for limited editions and art installations; they're fascinating, but somewhat less than full-strength Robbe-Grillet. His last novel to be translated into English was REPETITION, which I haven't yet read, but which was praised by musician John Cale as offering perfection in every paragraph.

And then there is Robbe-Grillet's work as a screenwriter, director and actor -- which I suppose also diffused the energies he once applied solely to his fiction. His maiden effort at screenwriting, LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, was directed by Alain Resnais (whom AR-G grew to resent because he received great acclaim for "simply" following his script to the letter) and was received with great controversy, yet feted internationally. Robbe-Grillet proceeded to direct his own scripts; they are conspicuously more the work of LAST YEAR's auteur than anything Resnais directed subsequently, yet it was Resnais who gave that film its essential measure of quality, in terms of its casting, direction, and production value. All of Robbe-Grillet's dozen-or-so films were modestly budgeted, often cast with actors perceived as having the right look rather than adequate acting range (which made them more apparent as mere chesspieces in his various games), and lacking in the glorious style that Resnais and cameraman Sascha Vierny brought to their great collaboration, and which was always present on the pages he wrote. The highlights of Robbe-Grillet's film work are his earliest, the underrated L'IMMORTELLE (1963, starring Fran├žoise Brion) and TRANS EUROP EXPRESS (1966), the most approachable of all his works, in which he stars as himself, accompanied by his wife Catherine, an actress/dominatrix who wrote the S&M novel THE IMAGE with Robbe-Grillet under the nom de plume "Jean De Berg"). The movie finds him improvising a mystery story while travelling by train with his wife and editor, after spotting actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (who becomes the de facto protagonist) also aboard. Trintignant enjoyed the experience and worked with Robbe-Grillet again in other pictures like the extraordinary THE MAN WHO LIES (1968, which, like LAST YEAR, utilized an unreliable protagonist whose insistence on providing possible backstories generates the self-mythifying storyline) and PLAYING WITH FIRE (1975). The author himself occasionally appeared in small roles in other director's films, the most recent example being TIME REGAINED (1999), Raoul Ruiz's elegant distillation of Marcel Proust's seven-volume roman fleuve REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST -- a work whose unmoored handling of time and tendrilous sentence structure must have been influential to him. Only last year did the first of Robbe-Grillet's films arrive on DVD: LA BELLE CAPTIVE (1983) -- not one of his best, and an unworthy transfer in any case. One hopes that, with Robbe-Grillet's death, a stubborn wall will topple to make this body of work more accessible.
The emphasis placed by Robbe-Grillet's films on nudity, sadomasochism, fetishism, ghosts and vampires have led them to be included in written overviews of Eurohorror such as Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs' IMMORAL TALES -- an identification that the filmmaker resented and resisted. By the same token, throughout his career, he would consent to collaborate only with historians capable of discussing his work on the theoretical planes he approved, resisting any published form of popular appraisal. He also insisted throughout his career that there was no psychological content in his objectivist fiction, stories that were allegedly about places and things rather than people. But, as his fan Vladimir Nabokov happily brayed in response, "Robbe-Grillet's claims are preposterous!" -- their entire substance is psychological, in the best possible tradition.
My own first experiments in fiction, written in the mid-1970s, were highly imitative of him; I can remember embarking on a novel that was to be set entirely on a sparsely furnished street corner, its perspective rotating between a man passing a department store's display window and that of the mannequin inside. It hurt a little at the time, but Bob Uth did me the great favor of weaning me from those raw tendencies with some valuably blunt, constructive criticism. The funny thing is that everything I was going to use in that untitled project, except the imitative way in which I had approached the material, has come into play in my, shall we say, mature fiction. There are places in both of my published novels where time seems to liquify and the tense becomes delirious, and this is at least partly the influence of Robbe-Grillet, tenpered by my own voice and my own experience.

In all the years since I first discovered this author with the beautiful name, his alphabetically named characters, and his exotic ports of imagination, I doubt there have been many days when I haven't thought of Robbe-Grillet in passing, or reproached myself for not getting around to reading this or that unread book, or observed something through the perspective his work specifically shared with me. He left a brand, much more than a mark, on my own imagination. He shaped me -- not just the writer I am -- as much as any other teacher or life example I've had, and unlike the living agent of that influence, whom I never knew, these gifts are too deeply assimilated to ever be missed.

1 comment:

  1. It's something I could have written. We share many of the same experiences re: Alain Robbe-Grillet. I just finished reading his 'Topology of a Phantom City'. I'd bought it many moons ago (even a German version of same), but could never get into it. Now, after many years, I've suddenly re-discovered reading - all those books in my library of which I read the the first five pages and then put them back on the shelf: Kawabata, Conrad, Kafka, R.K. Narayan, le Carre, Hesse, etc.

    Ran across your essay on Grillet on the web. I can identify. I even managed to attend a reading of his at Seaton Hall Univ., in S. Orange, NJ. I sat right up front. I felt I was in the presence of a god. I was too shy to ask for his autograph. The others I met there (at various times) - Gordimer, Paz, Grass - didn't phase me. I walked right up and asked them to sign my program. With Alain I just couldn't do it.

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