I resume and I sum up

John Sturrock

  • La Reprise by Alain Robbe-Grillet
    Minuit, 253 pp, €15.09, November 2001, ISBN 2 7073 1756 X

The first novel that Robbe-Grillet wrote, Un Régicide, had a quotation at the start from Kierkegaard, an out of the way source for an agronomist turned writer who gave an impression of never having known a moment’s metaphysical unease in his life. It came from The Seducer’s Diary: ‘One might have said that this man passed through life without leaving any trace … and one might even claim that he had no victims.’

‘This man’ was Kierkegaard who, in the Diary, practised what he defended as a ‘necessary deception’ by misrepresenting himself there as a seducer. What Robbe-Grillet will have liked most about this is letting on that you’re a deceiver even as you go about your deceptive business.

In their new setting, Kierkegaard’s words served as a warning of sorts, to readers of Un Régicide, or any other of Robbe-Grillet’s subsequent novels: don’t expect ‘this man’, or the underdeveloped human beings who pass through life in the form it takes here, to leave anything permanent behind them, because this novelist believes that a trace made is a trace requiring erasure. Un Régicide wastes no time in living up to its epigraph: it opens on a beach, whose fine sand is waiting to receive the footprints of the as yet anonymous protagonist. And fifty years on from that novel, in La Reprise, we’re back on the sands almost straight away, with a protagonist who has already undergone duplication following what both are and aren’t his own footprints; they won’t survive, because the sea will shortly be back to wash them away.

The fact that Robbe-Grillet grew up close to the sea, in Brittany, is by the by. The footprints and other transient marks that appear in his fiction, as provisional impurities on one receptive surface or another, stand by extension for the marks that the writer himself is making. The inaugural sand in Un Régicide is also the hitherto blank sheet of paper that is about to be written on, with the difference that once they are made, the writer’s marks will not be washed out, even if he likes to pretend that in an ideal world they should be. The byplay between inscription and effacement points to the movement out of which Robbe-Grillet holds fiction as such to emerge. From the moment he began writing, in the late 1940s, he saw it as his task, or else his opportunity, to produce novels in which ‘reality’ was represented in an unstable, oneiric form such that it could hardly be mistaken for the reality we’re used to in fiction, with its reassuring constancy. Fiction isn’t for real, so why try and make it appear so? There are good answers to that question, but Robbe-Grillet had no time for those. In his hands, fiction would be made to display its fictiveness, and fictiveness implies impermanence, when we’re as free to unmake our fictions as we were free in the first place to make them.

The most teasingly graphic of all his demonstrations of this making/unmaking occurs in the book that has surely done best out of all those he has written, La Jalousie, which is structurally the simplest and least digressive. It’s a fiction transpiring in the mind of a man who suspects that his wife is having an affair with a neighbour. The title is punning: the husband is suffering from jealousy, but a jalousie in French is also the word for a Venetian blind. Look through a Venetian blind, and your visual field is interrupted: the slats ensure that there are gaps in it, and where there’s a gap there’s also an opportunity to replace what is there to be seen in fact with an invention. A suspicious husband whose line of sight is obstructed is peculiarly quick to supplement fact with fiction, whence La Jalousie. In the course of the book a centipede is squashed by the presumed adulterer against a white wall, not once but on a number of never quite identical occasions. The squashing must recur because the mark it has made isn’t consistently there: now you see it and now you don’t, as the feeling of jealousy comes and goes. The insect is a projection, on a par with everything else in the novel, and the novel as a whole is an imposition, a smudge on the wall that really oughtn’t to be there. Facts are what grown-ups should stick to, or so the scientistic young Robbe-Grillet affected to believe. There are a great and growing number of them in the modern world, certified by the various sciences, so there could be no serious case for going on writing fictions. There could, on the other hand, be a non-serious or at best semi-serious case for going on doing so, if you wrote fictions that made no pretence at being anything more. Life, the great Humphrey Bogart once observed, writes lousy plots, and Robbe-Grillet would write lousy plots also, ones that didn’t measure up if you tried to read them as happening in a world of common reference, rather than as the product of an over-active imagination that would eventually cool down, its passing agitation exhausted. Not for nothing did he call the first novel that he actually published Les Gommes (‘The Erasers’) – Un Régicide finally appeared in 1978, 30 years after it was written.

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