Robbe-Grillet’s Selfies

It’s safe to say that the centenary of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s birth, this year, will not be widely celebrated even in France, other than by his wife, Catherine, who is still alive at the age of ninety-one. The outrage which greeted the publication of his final novel, Un roman sentimental (2007)— which the publisher issued with pages uncut, swathed in shrink-wrapping and with a warning sticker—damaged his already equivocal reputation almost beyond repair. There is no denying that his erotic fantasies were deeply unpleasant, and some of them, if translated to reality, would have put him behind bars: but the truth about his sexual life seems more comic-pathetic, to judge by the glimpses of it in Catherine’s published journal (Jeune mariée: journal, 1957—1962 [2004]), and in their correspondence between 1951 and 1990, published in 2012.1 He suffered from impotence, and they felt that the presence of mental instability in both their families made parenthood too risky. They made no secret of their addiction to sado-masochistic practices; Catherine published novels on this topic under the pseudonym Jean (or Jeanne) de Berg, and when, after Robbe-Grillet’s death, she was said in print to have been a professional dominatrix, she wrote to the paper, politely pointing out that she had never taken money for something which she did simply for pleasure.

It must also be conceded that, even before the recent surge of interest in Francophone writing, which emphasises more diverse cultural and gender issues, much of Robbe-Grillet’s work had dated badly. For me, his career comprises two peaks at either end, with a trough in the middle. The first peak consists of Les Gommes (1953), Le Voyeur (1955), La Jalousie (1957) and Dans le labyrinthe (1959), and the second, which will be my main concern, of three books which he called romanesques: Le Miroir qui revient (1985), Angélique, ou l’Enchantement (1988) and Les derniers jours de Corinthe (1994). In what follows, these will be abbreviated M, A and D (which I hope he might have found amusing). Standing slightly apart is his first novel, Un régicide, written in 1949 but published only in 1978. Looking back, Robbe-Grillet saw it as a bit of a period piece, influenced by Camus and Sartre. The movement between first- and third-person narration (sometimes within a single paragraph or even between sentences) creates a kind of dialogue between the plain and ornate styles, or between Sartre’s Roquentin and Camus’ Meursault.  The gap between consciousness and the external world alienates the self even from itself, creating a phenomenological dilemma (causality versus contingency) which is never resolved. Both Camus and Sartre, in Robbe-Grillet’s view, capitulated in the face of this problem, abandoning their earlier radicalism in favour of more conventional fiction. He himself continued to wrestle with it, dissenting both from Barthes’ interpretation of his early work as exercises in chosisme, and from the psychological approach of the American Bruce Morrissette, in his pioneering monograph Les Romans de Robbe-Grillet (1963). Despite his denunciations, in Pour un nouveau roman (1963), of subjective humanism and romanticism as critical approaches, he felt that his novels were less impersonal than Barthes made them, but less interiorised than Morrissette made them; rather, they were enacting a kind of dialectic between subject and object.

If we set aside Un régicide as an interesting first foray into territory which will later be explored with more subtlety, the novels up to Dans le labyrinthe strike me, in common with most readers, as vindicating Robbe-Grillet’s major standing. I am less convinced about Dans le labyrinthe itself, in which the tricksy game-playing which was ingenious and intriguing in its predecessors seems to become more of an irritant. Whatever its quality, however, Dans le labyrinthe marked a new stage in Robbe-Grillet’s writing. In “Un écrivain non réconcilié” (1972), an essay on himself published under a pseudonym and included in the indispensable compilation Le Voyageur: textes, causeries et entretiens (1947—2001) (2001), he singles it out as the novel in which he left behind his early teasing of the reader by blurring the boundary between the world as objectively existing and subjectively apprehended, and began to treat the novel as an exercise in structure rather than sequence. His ambition was to create a totally self-sufficient textual universe freed from the unholy trinity of “nature, humanism, tragedy” which provided the title of his 1958 essay included in Pour un nouveau roman.  Any question of correspondence between the world of a novel and “reality” is henceforth irrelevant: the novel, once written, is the reality.


Robbe-Grillet is sometimes thought of as the theorist of the nouveau roman, but this is misleading. If anyone held that position it was Jean Ricardou, one of the editors of Tel Quel.  He seems to me to have been a malign influence on some of the nouveau roman writers, particularly Claude Simon (although Simon later recovered). Ricardou expounded his views in Problèmes du nouveau roman (1967), Le nouveau roman (1978) and the published proceedings of the colloquia he organised at Cérisy, including one on Robbe-Grillet in 1975. He saw novels as linguistic laboratory experiments, manipulating formal properties to generate structural sequences: critical explication consisted of quasi-mathematical analysis of these. That, and that, alone was the “meaning” of the novel. Dans le labyrinthe is already moving towards this model, and worse was to come in La Maison de rendez-vous (1965), Projet pour une révolution à New York (1970), Topologie d’une cité fantôme (1976) and Souvenirs du triangle d’or (1978). There is something hard, unrelenting and ultimately sterile about these novels, which are difficult to read through without boredom.

Nonetheless, Robbe-Grillet never endorsed Ricardou completely—indeed he took mischievous pleasure in teasing him—and in “Sur le choix des générateurs” (1972, included in Le Voyageur) he warned that a purely morphological approach to the language of fiction failed to take account of the importance of semantics. The fact that we can make anagrams out of words does not make the denotations and connotations of the original words, or their socio-cultural context, irrelevant. The novelist is deprived of freedom to structure the fiction, and to highlight its artificial nature as construct, if its elementary tools are merely randomised. (One thinks of the Oulipo group here, but although Robbe-Grillet admired Queneau he was never of their number.) As Robbe-Grillet puts it in M, the novelist is caught between “illustrating prefabricated meanings” and “the useless gratuitousness of pointilliste pure chance”. The use of a limited repertoire of recurring objects or situations ideally serves to bring out the richness of their possible combinations—as happens in his best work—rather than to dull the reader by repetition.

Robbe-Grillet himself, then, didn’t reject the concept of theory— although he was suspicious of philosophical system-builders such as Sartre and Barthes—but insisted on its dynamic rather than dogmatic character: any theory requires experiment, and must expect to be tested at its weakest point, even disproved (Karl Popper’s Falsifiability Criterion is invoked in M). He resisted what seemed to him Ricardou’s aim of making the nouveau roman too respectable and “normal”. He describes the essays in Pour un nouveau roman not as manifestos but as “scaffolding” which must eventually be dismantled, even suggesting in A, rather charmingly, that their much-praised lucidity compensates for the obscurity of his novels. (A major reason for welcoming the romanesques is that they show Robbe-Grillet’s ability to write prose of great beauty and elegance.)

Robbe-Grillet was, however, consistent with his own theories in rejecting the concept of tragedy in the novel. As far as I know he never explicitly described his novels as comedies, but the predominance of elements of absurdity, farce, melodrama and togue-in-cheek contradiction work against too serious a response. The novels flaunt their own inscrutability in self-reflexive passages. In Les Gommes a murderer, after all, is a kind of eraser (the victim is “rubbed out” as the dated slang had it); the cinema poster at the start of Chapter III of Le Voyeur, which baffles Mathias by its multiple perspectives and indecipherability, stands in for the novel itself. La Jalousie has a richer array of such examples, from the African novel which A… and Franck are reading, which resists coherent interpretation and invites alternative hypotheses, to the mechanism of the window-blind itself, which screens out part of the viewer’s/reader’s field of vision (we never see the whole picture). Towards the end of Dans le labyrinthe comes a description of a crack in the ceiling which requires effort to follow its twists and turns, and of course the title describes both the novel itself and the reader’s situation as the novel is read. Later, such deliberately enigmatic strategies would constitute the entirety of the fiction.


Although it became customary to see Robbe-Grillet, and the nouveau roman, as occupying a radically subversive, even nihilistically revolutionary, place in literary history, he did not see himself in that way.  In 1994, he gave a talk (reprinted in Le Voyageur), “Du nouveau roman à la nouvelle autobiographie”, in which he reflected on his relationship to literary tradition. Far from being completely independent of the classics of the past, he insisted that he had been indebted to them as writers inevitably are; they build on the ruins (note he does not say the foundations) of their predecessors. He began to write, he explains, against the background of the literal post-war ruins of western Europe and its civilization, following a defeat regretted by his parents, whose extreme right-wing views are described with painful clarity in M (his father supported the Vichy government, his mother was a lifelong Holocaust denier). The prevailing climate was one of betrayed ideals, systematic deception, the helplessness of the individual against the State—elements reflected in Un régicide. All notions of order, stability, and progress were overthrown. Ethical principles and logical reasoning seemed fragile props at best. Crucially, the gradual revelation of the Nazi atrocities, and later of the Stalinist Terror, brought home to Robbe-Grillet the duplicity of all propaganda, the danger of trusting to appearances and assuming an identifiable “truth” (hence his hostility to Sartrian engagement). Given all this, the emergence of the nouveau roman, far from being an inexplicable irruption, was entirely predictable: it was “a post-genocidal [kind of] novel” (original italics).

This “causerie” of 1994 abbreviates the brilliant outline history of fiction, found towards the end of M. Robbe-Grillet there begins by arguing that the novel’s emergence, in the eighteenth century, with the work of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding,2 represented the replacement of the scholastic doctrine of universals by a view of the universe as consisting of particulars, “concrete details (which doesn’t mean objective details)”. The universe has no grand design, no overarching significance; experience is empirical, not a priori. Yet, despite this collapse of coherence, the narrative voice of fiction continued unperturbed, relating the story either from the third-person viewpoint of an omniscient narrator or from that of a first-person stable subject. In the absence of God, human beings became their own interpreters, endowed with knowledge of the meaning of their lives. It was only with Sterne and Diderot that scepticism about narration, and about the consciousness which it mediated, was incorporated into the novel itself, yet these benefits of the Enlightenment were lost after the 1848 Revolution, to be rediscovered only much later.

The triumph of the conservative bourgeoisie brought a new variety of absolutism, in which reality became once more a plenum, with logic, causality, and coherence all re-established as sacrosanct characteristics of fiction. Nowhere was this more so than in the novels of Balzac, Public Enemy No. 1 for Robbe-Grillet as for Nathalie Sarraute (but not Michel Butor, who rejected their criticisms as based on ignorance of most of Balzac’s work). Balzac’s ambition was nothing less than to “write the world”. So-called realism exalts the human ability to make sense of that world, and assumes the reliability of sense experience and the trustworthiness of the reporting voice. Even when Balzac rages against the depersonalisation of the individual by industrial capitalism (thereby earning the approval of a Marxist critic such as Lukàcs) he is still doing so, Robbe-Grillet maintains, from a bourgeois perspective; the novelist remains in charge, underwriting the concept of authority even while ostensibly preaching revolt.

After 1848, the old verities once again became unstable, until, as we might say, enfin Flaubert vint. The use of the present indicative at the opening and close of Madame Bovary situates the narrator inside the world of the fiction, not outside it in a position of Olympian detachment (but we shouldn’t forget Flaubert’s well-known pronouncements about the godlike stance of the author). Flaubert’s stated ambition to write “a novel about nothing” is behind Robbe-Grillet’s dictum, “The genuine novelist has nothing to say” (M). This rejection of Sartre’s insistence that the writer must be politically engagé earned him the hostility of the Temps Modernes crowd and the disapproval of the lady whom he naughtily dubbed “la duchesse de Beauvoir”. To write from a predetermined philosophical, political or ethical position was to commit the Balzacian heresy of a priorism. Sartre’s abandonment of the fourth instalment of Les Chemins de la Liberté was to be applauded, since it suggested he had realised the futility of his dream of an all-encompassing philosophy, which would have led, not to freedom, but to another kind of totalitarianism (D).

There is a wonderful Beckettian ambiguity here: “The novelist has nothing to say”, but “nothing” is what the novelist has to say. A passage in A, drawing on both Sartre and Heidegger, illuminates this point. To confront nothingness is to feel anguish, and the anguish issues in the act of writing: “while the everyday world collapses around me at every moment, imaginative writing creates from the nothingness itself, taken as a structure, an anti-world, over which the fundamental anguish will never have any hold, since it is precisely this anguish—and not words or syntax, contrary to what common sense believes—which comprises the material of which it [the anti-world] is built”. The novel (or autobiography) can be read as the text constructed around an absent centre or existential void. Robbe-Grillet has two striking analogies for this: on the last page of Madame Bovary, we are told that the doctor “ne trouva rien” on opening the corpse of Charles Bovary (D), and once Wells’s Invisible Man removed his clothing there was nothing to see: he could only be detected by his tracks in the snow (M).


The Balzacian novel was not killed off, indeed it flourishes more than ever and remains the staple diet of most readers, but the way was prepared for a kind of novel which should explore contradictions, gaps, fissures, fragmentation, the void: a kind of novel which insisted that “reality” (if we must use that term) begins at the point where our confidence in our sense-experience and the reliability of our memory break down.


The nouveau roman was the product not only of a shift in technique but also of historical circumstance: the wreckage of European civilization after 1945. To see Robbe-Grillet’s work as free of social context is a serious mistake: even though it resists assimilation to an external reality, it is no less shaped by shifting perceptions of that reality—perhaps actuality (le réel) might be a better word, he once suggested—than were the classic realist novels of industrial capitalism.3 The modern novel, like the modern world which it reflects, emerges from the ruins of its predecessors (contrast this with Proust’s image of the novel as a cathedral whose parts are constructed over time). It is to be “no longer [the novel] of duration, but, on the contrary, of the moment” (D). It issues from the realisation that “reality is discontinuous, composed of elements inexplicably side by side, each of which is unique, all the more difficult to grasp since they arise in an ever-unpredictable fashion, without rhyme or reason, by chance” (M). Robbe-Grillet turned from his early training in agronomy to fiction, he tells us, in order to “build, in despite of fear and without turning a blind eye, something solid on the debris” (D). If Balzac was the example to avoid, positive influences were diverse: Robbe-Grillet specifies Proust for Sarraute, Joyce for Butor, Faulkner for Simon, and Kafka for himself (D).4 Sarraute’s Tropismes (1939, revised 1957), Simon’s La Route des Flandres (1960) and Duras’ L’Amant (1984) are among Robbe-Grillet’s examples of the “novel in ruins”, “debris in motion” (D).

Robbe-Grillet is fascinated by ruins, above all the ruins of memory as it struggles with its tenuous grasp on the past and strives to render them adequately in writing. His thoughts on these problems can illuminatingly be read alongside such classic works of philosophy of history as Paul Ricoeur’s three-volume Temps et récit (1983-85)—in which Proust, predictably, is the sole French novelist to be discussed at length and Robbe-Grillet receives only a disapproving footnote—or Jacques Le Goff’s Histoire et mémoire (1988). Robbe-Grillet begins from the position that writing, whether of fiction or autobiography, involves a “task of reconstruction on the basis of disparate or contradictory fragments, all incomplete” (A). This applies literally to the drafting process; in D, we are given a description of disordered sheets of paper scribbled with erasures, alterations, expansions, “fragments of disintegrating rock, like pieces of mica torn off from the granite, half-transparent, half cloudy, furrowed with strips which criss-cross forming indecipherable and multiple networks”. The published text will retain this provisional, tentative quality; it will be less an attempt to piece the ruins together than a collection of the pieces (as in Simon). Beckett’s epigram about Joyce is pertinent here, although Robbe-Grillet doesn’t quote it: “His writing is not about something; it is that something itself” (original italics).  Memory is described, in A, in comparable terms: “a mobile fabric whose countless threads constantly change position so as to knit together, then unravel, vanish, re-emerge and recombine elsewhere in thousands and thousands of ways, almost identical or suddenly completely new, unforeseen or repeated, thereby forming at every moment new images, more or less alike, more or less different, whose number must be practically infinite”.


In the 1994 lecture quoted earlier, Robbe-Grillet notes the appearance, in quick succession, of Simon’s Les Géorgiques (1981), Sarraute’s Enfance (1983), and Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant (1984) in addition to his own trilogy. These books were widely taken to have created an impersonal form of memoir, whereas, according to Robbe-Grillet, they were saturated with personal experience just as much as the novels had been. They differed from conventional autobiographies—those of Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir for instance—in that, rather than constructing a self-portrait, they aimed to deconstruct the self, to reduce it, in turn, to ruins.5 Thus, Les Géorgiques takes place at three different historical periods with three different protagonists (one of them Simon  himself) whose experiences and identities blur into each other, while Enfance takes the form of a dialogue between two Sarrautes, one who recounts memories and anecdotes and another who calls their accuracy into question, sceptically undermining the whole concept of a settled past and a coherent sense of identity.

Such a project is incompatible with the pacte autobiographique, formulated by Philippe Lejeune in his book of that title (1975), according to which the writer undertakes to present the truth about him/herself, and the reader undertakes to form a fair judgement of the writer on the basis of the evidence. Such an approach ignores the peculiar phenomenological status of autobiography, in which the consciousness is both subject and object, both a thing in the external world and the mental perception of that thing. (Ricoeur, citing Lejeune, explicitly excludes autobiography from Temps et récit, while conceding that its treatment of time may situate it midway between history and fiction.) Towards the end of D there are some important pages on this topic. Robbe-Grillet explains that whenever he tries to set down memories, in the manner of a conventional autobiography, he feels (with a wink at Sartre) a certain nausée, not because the memories seem trivial—after all, what else does our life consist of?—but because of the gap between the instability of experience and the fixity of narrative. To record a memory is to rob it of what made it memorable, to drain its life, to erect a funerary monument to it. A given moment can no more be recaptured in writing than, in physics, a particle can be objectively observed, since the very act of observation causes minute changes in the particle (this is Robbe-Grillet’s own analogy). A given moment thus never exists in itself but as it was experienced; remembrance is a new and different experience. The autobiographer can report neither the self of the past nor the self of the present in a pure state, since they exist as shades along a spectrum: an autobiography, one might say, is intertextuality of the self.

Lejeune holds, in Robbe-Grillet’s paraphrase, that “one can only begin one’s autobiography if one has understood the meaning of one’s life”, whereas, to the contrary, the “new autobiographers” write because they don’t understand. Lejeune’s goal of authenticity is an illusion: if you feel yourself to be essentially a collection of bits and pieces, some of which are missing, you can’t hope to offer a neatly packaged, comprehensive picture of yourself even after the writing is finished. Your “self” is unstable, constantly in process; it includes too many things to enumerate or objectify, including all the books you have read—and the autobiography you have just written, which has passed from the state of imaginative magma to that of cooling lava.

The “new autobiography” belongs to the category of autofiction, a term coined by Serge Dubrovsky in 1977; it is produced from a mind “aware of its unawareness” (D). Its authors create the memories they record, in the act of setting them down: they become characters in the stories of their own lives, as Robbe-Grillet literally does at one point in D, and the stories make a kind of fiction out of the events they embody.  The significance of an object consists not in itself but in its life in our memories: its “meaning” is that of being what we remember. This applies equally to other people. The elusive personage of Henri de Corinthe, supposed friend of Robbe-Grillet’s father, appears and disappears throughout the trilogy, becoming its narrator at times (he also turns up as a character in the 1983 film La belle captive). His life story is riddled with uncertainties and contradictions; after two pages in M in which the accuracy of some reported episodes in his life is heavily undermined, it is even suggested that perhaps the person in question was not Corinthe, but someone else entirely! In interviews, too, Robbe-Grillet has been ambiguous about the existence of Corinthe, suggesting that he invented much of the “biographical” detail to solve riddles about the man that puzzled him as a child. The opening words of M, hence of the whole trilogy, are “Si j’ai bonne mémoire…”. This is a wonderfully sly joke; “Much virtue in ‘if”’, as Touchstone rightly observed.


Robbe-Grillet considers various ways in which the novelist or autobiographer can preserve the open-endedness of the narrative. Among the most interesting are his comments on the French tense system (to which his discussions of cinematic time are closely related), and on aporia or the centre vide, both matters also treated illuminatingly by Ricoeur. Experiments with tense are a feature of Robbe-Grillet’s novels from the start; again the turning-point comes with Dans le labyrinthe which uses almost exclusively the present, thereby accentuating the disorienting, hallucinatory experience of the protagonist and reader alike.6 Grammatically speaking, there is a crucial difference in French between the passé composé, used to narrate past events which, while complete in themselves, have present consequences, and the past historic or passé simple, which implies that the events are hermetically sealed off in the past. From the privileged viewpoint of the present, the author, narrator and reader can look back with detachment in the knowledge of what came later. Sartre’s abandonment of the passé composé, which he had used in La Nausée, for the “leaden cope” of the past historic in Les Chemins was a kind of admission of defeat (M).  Accordingly, as part of his objection to Lejeune’s “pacte autobiographique”, Robbe-Grillet rejects “the past historic, the sole accredited guarantee of coherence, of continuity, of chronology, of causality, of non-contradiction”, in favour of “the indefinite and the momentary” (A). The writer’s past produces, not a meaning, but a narrative, whose provisional character is indicated by the use of the passé indéfini—denoting a past without specific temporal location—and the imperfect (also favoured by Simon), with its suggestion of a world constantly in process. The romanesques also contain sustained passages in the present tense.

In his talk “Pour un nouveau cinéma” (1982, in Le Voyageur, partly recapitulated in A), Robbe-Grillet makes a comparable case against picture-window “realism” in the cinema, objecting that such “realism” actually represents, in its tidiness and consistency, the opposite of reality, which is incomprehensible. The business of art is to jolt us out of our unthinking acceptance of the world, by making it strange. Not for nothing, he adds, have Balzac’s novels been filmed so often; they minister perfectly to the realist heresy. He insists in D that he has always been against the idea of making films from novels, especially his own; his films have been conceived as screen plays or ciné-romans, subsequent narratives of the film. He suggests that cinema has two great advantages over literature in its representation of time: in a film, the image is continually experienced by the viewer in the present; it is happening now, in the present indicative, regardless of its place in any temporal narrative scheme (and unlike a photograph, which is always a record of a past event). A cut, or a switch of viewpoint, simply replaces one “now” by another, even if we are supposed to be in a different place or sharing another character’s experience. The screen gives instant access to immediate although mediated experience, not to a metaphysical or transcendental mode of being. “The cinema screen is by no means the world, still less a window opening onto it; it is only the meeting-place of forms and subjects proper to film (in just the same way as the painter’s canvas is the surface on which pictorial forms and subjects come together). …The camera does not reveal the world, it imagines it”.

As mentioned earlier, the “technique du ‘centre vide’” (M) is a key structural principle for Robbe-Grillet.  Just as nothing was found in the corpse of Charles Bovary, or beneath the bandages of the Invisible Man—and yet both depended for their existence on what was absent— so Wallas and Mathias are constituted by actions which are never described; Les Gommes and Le Voyeur are novels “which express a consciousness confined by its own emptiness, although wholly directed outwards” (D) while in La Jalousie what is absent is not, as so many critics have assumed, A…’s husband, but virtually consciousness itself (D). (However, on other occasions Robbe-Grillet has described the husband as the “narrator” of this novel.) The jigsaw is never complete, and there is no box with a picture to show what was missing. Henri de Corinthe, in M, is seen, similarly, as a walking corpse, a ghost or an unwrapped mummy, his disappearance an act of flight or “metaphysical annihilation”. As the romanesques unfold, there is a vertiginous abyss within the mind of Robbe-Grillet himself, who becomes interchangeable with Corinthe at times, and functions multiply as a historical person, a fictional character, and the author in some sense of both.


Although Robbe-Grillet recognised, in Pour un nouveau roman, that “Proust wrote the nouveau roman of 1910”, the complete absence of À la recherche du temps perdu from the history of the novel in M is noteworthy.  In fact, as shown by Robbe-Grillet’s published correspondence, Catherine was urging him to read Proust as early as 1954, but it was apparently not until 1982 that he tackled the first volume, admiring the structural complexities but bored by the passages of psychological analysis, and not until 1987 that he finished Le Temps retrouvé. His final reaction is interesting: coming back to Proust after Le Père Goriot (re-reading which must have been a masochistic exercise for him!) he finds “the same opinions on the human heart and society [as in Balzac], but amidst a flexibility, a fluidity, a constant reassessment of the issues, which gives the impression of the ocean rather than of pre-stressed concrete”. The textual uncertainties of the last volume, which Proust did not live to resolve, appealed to Robbe-Grillet’s liking for instability and his insistence on the provisional character of any fiction.

In the end, however, Proust never mattered to Robbe-Grillet as he did to Simon or Sarraute (for all their differences and divergences from him). There are mischievous allusions to Vermeer’s patch of yellow wall, evoking the scene of Bergotte’s death (M) and to the “jeunes filles en fleur” on Balbec beach (D)—the latter followed by an airy remark that he can’t remember where he has read that before—but his favourite among Proust’s books, as he told Jean-Jacques Brochier in a 1985 interview (reprinted in Le Voyageur), was Contre Sainte-Beuve, on account of its fusion, akin to that in M, of literary theory, autobiography and fiction. Proust’s psychological bent in his novel was a conclusive stumbling-block. John Fletcher, in his brief but telling Alain Robbe-Grillet (1983), makes a crucial distinction between Un Amour de Swann and La Prisonnière, which analyse jealousy, and La Jalousie in which “the jealous fit is the novel, and the novel a jealous fit”. There is a comparable difference between reflections on the workings of memory and the creative mimesis of memory. In D, Nietzsche’s story about Zarathustra and the tightrope-walker, and Kafka’s short prose piece “The Bridge”, are quoted to show the fatal consequences of looking back; one’s attempt to see son propre moi merely brings about son propre mort. Clearly, nothing could be further than this from Proust’s idea—akin to Wordsworth’s—that the past can be restored as it was, but with new understanding, through the catalysing experiences of involuntary memory. Proust’s epiphanic moments, in which we can transcend the flux of Time, are the products of a sensibility completely alien to Robbe-Grillet. For him, memory is a labyrinth in which we may lose our sense of our own identity (D); it is not an act of recovery but of alienation, disorientation, loss. In Robbe-Grillet’s reading of the end of Proust’s novel, expounded in detail in an interview with Jacques Henric for Art Press (included in Le Voyageur), “far from being time retrieved, resting firmly on certainty, [it] is an engulfing. One can apply Proust’s comments on Wagner’s Ring Cycle to his own work: Le Temps retrouvé is The Twilight of the Gods, in other words the moment when all the themes come back, magnified, amplified, splendid, and at the same time destroyed. Everything rolls over and breaks apart in the formidable ocean”. This reading is perhaps more illuminating about Robbe-Grillet than about Proust.


Robbe-Grillet is not a systematic or tidy writer, and many critics have argued that his novels contradict his theories. The romanesques appear to hover between theory and practice; there is nothing else like them in his oeuvre. In some respects they are his most successful works, in that they correspond to something we all actually experience, unless we either keep a detailed diary or have total recall: namely, the unreliability of memory, its gaps, fissures and distortions, our propensity to weave myths about our own past selves which we may come to take for the truth. The romanesques offer a different, and arguably deeper, reading experience than the novels, which keep us at arm’s length even while they intrigue and entertain. To find something comparable, we have to look elsewhere in literary tradition. Robbe-Grillet points to a highly suggestive parallel when, in A, he refers to the roman de chevalerie aspect of the book. He had warned us at the outset of M, “I am not a guru, but a travelling companion”; and, strange as it may seem, the romanesques resemble nothing so much as the medieval Arthurian romance, with its incremental repetition, branching sub-narratives, mysterious encounters with enigmatic figures, untrustworthy maidens, benevolent guides and malevolent supernatural beings in disguise; with its impenetrable forests which are symbols of the unconscious mind, and its technique of polyphonic, interlaced narratives which return us periodically to an earlier point with an enhanced understanding. Finally, the resolutely non-linear romanesques hark back to Robbe-Grillet’s Breton childhood—recalled in M in particular—with its folklore, its patois, and its penchant for the uncanny.7 Their ultimate purpose can be summed up in the brilliant title of an essay by the philosopher Michael Dummett: “bringing about the past”.


1 Catherine also published Alain (2012), a collection of brief anecdotes and memories arranged alphabetically.
2 Robbe-Grillet always lectured in French when abroad, and, to judge from the available evidence, appears to have been ignorant of most of the classics of English literature, even in translation.
3 Lucian Goldmann brilliantly demonstrated this in Pour une sociologie du roman (1964), although Robbe-Grillet wrote Goldmann off on political grounds.
4 These are not mutually exclusive. Proust is arguably more important than Faulkner to Simon.
5 In an interview with Art Press (1988), reprinted in Le Voyageur, Robbe-Grillet censured Les Mots as “the very epitome of intellectual dishonesty … the exact opposite of an existential undertaking”. We might also note that Ricardou considered biographical information of no importance to the reader.
6 The late novel Djinn (1981) is something of a curiosity in this regard; it was originally written as a textbook, Le Rendez-vous (1981), for learners of French, and each of its chapters introduces more complex grammar and vocabulary.
7 The medieval and the Breton come together, for instance, in the episode in A in which Robbe-Grillet’s father encounters, first the ankou, the messenger of death in Breton folklore, who drives a cart and carries a scythe, and then a mysterious young woman. Robbe-Grillet père is called “le chevalier à la charrette”, evoking the title of the romance Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette by Chrétien de Troyes.
Paul Dean

Paul Dean

Paul Dean is a freelance critic living in Oxford, U.K.He is a frequent contributor to The New Criterion. Previous essays on 20th-century French literature by him have appeared in The Hopkins Review.
Paul Dean

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Author: Paul Dean

Paul Dean is a freelance critic living in Oxford, U.K. He is a frequent contributor to The New Criterion. Previous essays on 20th-century French literature by him have appeared in The Hopkins Review.