By the time he was elected to the Académie française in 2004, Alain Robbe-Grillet had suffered a cruel fate: he had all the renown he could have hoped for but few readers to show for it. The literary movement he’d launched half a century earlier – the nouveau roman – had ground to a halt. The new novel – anti-psychological and anti-expressive, stripped of individualised characters, temporal continuity and meaning itself – was no longer new. Like the total serialism championed by his contemporary Pierre Boulez, it seemed all the more dated for heralding a future that had failed to arrive. In the US, where he’d once enjoyed a cultish notoriety alongside Beckett and Genet, Robbe-Grillet was now to be found in second-hand bookshops. Passionately anti-clerical, a self-confessed sadist, Robbe-Grillet had always relished his unofficial title, the ‘pope of the nouveau roman’, but now the joke was wearing thin: no one wants to lead a church without a congregation. His parting gesture was to preside over a black mass. He called it Un Roman sentimental.
Published six months before his death in 2008, it is the story of a 14-year-old girl called Gigi, and her initiation into S&M under the tutelage of her father, lover and master, a man known as the Professor. That’s a sanitised summary of the proceedings, described in meticulous prose in 239 numbered paragraphs over little more than a hundred pages. Fayard, his publisher, was worried enough to have the book wrapped in plastic with an advisory notice. It’s not hard to see why. France had been rocked by a series of scandals over child pornography, and Robbe-Grillet’s novel was a work of unrelenting and graphic sadism, in which women – or rather, barely pubescent girls – exist to be raped, tortured and murdered. Some are eaten alive by dogs (‘so they conserve the memory of the delicious scent and flavour of the thing that it is their mission to hunt down’), while others are given a ‘commercially banned ointment’ that causes them to come so violently they die. Robbe-Grillet’s proclivities were well known – Fredric Jameson called his sensibility ‘sado-aestheticism’ – but they had never before found such gruesome expression.
Back in the news for the first time in years, Robbe-Grillet had a lot of explaining to do. Always a forceful spokesman for his own work, he took up the task with his usual gusto, describing Un Roman sentimental, with a wink, as a book of ‘Flaubertian precision’. (He never missed a chance to tip his hat to the canon, even as he seemed to ask us not to take him at his word.) His aim was to purge himself of violent fantasies that he claimed were widely shared. Yes, he had ‘loved little girls’ since he was 12, but he had never acted on his fantasies. In fact he had ‘mastered’ them. And he continued in this half-facetious, half-moralising vein: ‘someone who writes about his perversion is someone who has control over it.’ He warned of a new ‘literary correctness’ (‘when one writes something incorrect, it’s as if one were committing it’), and seemed hurt by an interviewer’s suggestion that he had written a ‘masturbatory’ novel. On the contrary, Un Roman sentimental was, ‘like all my novels’, a Brechtian work, written in a glacial style so as to distance the reader from the book’s infernal preoccupations.
Un Roman sentimental was greeted with derision in France. Its author was a dirty old man, or a lunatic, or both. Robbe-Grillet seemed shaken by the reception. He now insisted that, although the novel’s prose was ‘irreproachable’, it wasn’t really a part of his oeuvre: it grew out of erotic notebooks he’d been keeping since he was an adolescent. The notebooks were separate from his literary journals, he said, as if a fortress defended the one from the porno-guerrilla attacks of the other. He had a point. Although the prose is unmistakeably Robbe-Grillet’s, the questions raised by Un Roman sentimental were rather different from those raised by the novels that made his reputation. His early masterpieces were narrative puzzles; each revolved, teasingly, around a blind spot or cavity. In Le Voyeur, the 1955 novel that brought him to prominence, we never learn if Mathias, a travelling watch salesman, has killed the precocious Jacqueline or merely fantasised about doing so: the crime scene, but not his anxious search for an alibi, has been erased from the narrative (‘the abnormal, excessive, suspicious, inexplicable time amounted to forty minutes – if not fifty’). Not only are we denied a resolution, but our thwarted attempt to find one, to assign guilt and fill that maddening cavity, becomes the real story of Le Voyeur. The novel’s ‘clarity reveals everything except itself’, Maurice Blanchot wrote in his magisterial review. ‘It is as if we were seeing everything, without anything being visible. The result is strange.’ Robbe-Grillet’s mother said it was ‘a fine book’, though she would rather it had not been written by her son. ‘It’s a good thing you wrote that novel,’ a psychoanalyst told him. ‘If you hadn’t, you might have murdered a young woman.’ (Robbe-Grillet would often cite this diagnosis with approval; he enjoyed his role as the resident psychopath in the republic of letters.)
Olga Bernal, one of Robbe-Grillet’s most perceptive early interpreters (he had an army of them when the nouveau roman was still new), called her 1964 study of his work Le Roman de l’absence. ‘At the centre of Robbe-Grillet’s world,’ she wrote, ‘there is not something; there is an absence of something. His novels become, as a result, the story of an absence, of a “gap at the heart of reality”.’ They are full of intricate, almost fanatically clinical descriptions of the surfaces of everyday reality, but the crucial things are left to the imagination, as if he were bent on revealing – no doubt, mocking – our desire to make sense of a senseless world. In Un Roman sentimental, nothing is left to the imagination: it is a crime scene brazenly told from the standpoint of the perpetrators.
But the book is not an outlier in Robbe-Grillet’s work, or an old man’s folly. The boundaries between his two journals were more porous than he suggested. Un Roman sentimental was hardly the first time that he’d explored the topic of paedophilia, or of sadism. Sexual criminality lay at the heart of Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman: the original, unspeakable absence that drives his unresolved plots. Un Roman sentimental existed as an idea, and an inspiration, long before it was written. Consider Robbe-Grillet’s 1962 story ‘La Chambre secrète’, dedicated to Gustave Moreau. It begins: ‘The first thing to be seen is a red stain, of a deep, dark, shiny red, with almost black shadows. It is in the form of an irregular rosette, sharply outlined, extending in several directions in wide outflows of unequal length, dividing and dwindling afterward into single sinuous streaks.’ The red stain is blood, flowing from the breast of a woman in chains, whose long black hair is ‘spread out in a complicated wavy disorder over a heavily folded cloth, of velvet perhaps’. As her killer, a man in a cape, escapes, his face is ‘seen only in a vague profile, but one senses in it a violent exaltation’. When we read in one of the final sentences that smoke from an incense burner is ‘rising vertically, toward the top of the canvas’, we realise that what we’ve been reading is a description of a painting such as Moreau might have done. The ‘secret room’ is, literally, the chamber where S&M is practised, but it seems also to refer to the forbidden imagination that fuelled Robbe-Grillet’s writing, and which, by his own mischievous account, prevented him from committing murder. Until Un Roman sentimental, he allowed us only glimpses of his chambre secrète, but it was there all along.
As he confessed at the beginning of his 1985 memoir, Le Miroir qui revient (translated in 1988 as Ghosts in the Mirror), ‘I have never spoken of anything but myself.’ The Breton coast, with its dunes, cliffs and seagulls, so powerfully described in Le Voyeur, was his childhood lieu de mémoire. La Jalousie, the story of a love triangle on a banana plantation, was one that he himself had lived. Yet at the time it would have seemed crude to look for biographical clues in his fictions. (No one seemed to notice that he pilfered unashamedly from série noire detective fiction and other pulp genres.) For the Marxist critic Lucien Goldmann, Robbe-Grillet’s depiction of an inert object world reflected man’s alienation under late capitalism. For Barthes, the fiction reflected nothing except the surfaces of modern life, which it described with depersonalised accuracy, having dismissed individual psychology as an anachronism. Barthes argued that Robbe-Grillet had created an ‘objective literature’, one ‘turned towards the object’ (rather than to consciousness), but his use of the term ‘objective’ was widely misunderstood to imply that Robbe-Grillet was somehow impartial, or neutral. ‘One is entitled to wonder: what principle of selection guides Robbe-Grillet in choosing one object for description rather than another?’ Irving Howe asked in a mocking review. ‘Why a tomato rather than a cucumber?’ Another, related misconception, which Barthes was also responsible for spreading, was that Robbe-Grillet required ‘only one mode of perception: the sense of sight’. Never mind that his novels were nearly as rich in sounds as in images: he was the novelist of ‘the gaze’. His detractors, citing his training as an agronomist who specialised in the diseases of the banana, belittled him as a scientist implausibly moonlighting as a novelist. Robbe-Grillet particularly resented the insinuation that he wrote with a ‘scientific eye’, or – the ‘supreme injury’ – that his descriptions of place were ‘geometrical’: geometry, he protested, was an ‘exact science of measurements’, while he was interested in topology, the subjective properties of space, not topography, its quantitative ones.
Still, he didn’t protest too much: the confusion prompted by his work added to its aura, and he had a hand in stoking it. He boasted that he had ‘nothing to express’, and seemed to enjoy taunting readers who looked for meaning beneath the surface. ‘The reality in question is a strictly material one,’ he wrote in the mordant foreword to his 1959 novel, Dans le labyrinthe. ‘The reader is therefore requested to see in it only the objects, actions, words and events which are described, without attempting to give them either more or less meaning than in his own life, or his own death.’ Ever the unreliable narrator – and mostly an unreliable commentator on his books – Robbe-Grillet knew that he was asking the reader to do the impossible: as he admitted elsewhere, ‘no sooner does one describe an empty corridor than metaphysics comes rushing headlong into it.’
Empty spaces, resembling nothing in actuality yet described as if by a camera, were a Robbe-Grillet specialty. These labyrinths reminded some critics of Kafka, but they were deliberately drained of meaning: Robbe-Grillet revered Kafka but loathed Max Brod’s theological reading of his work. The opening line of his masterpiece, La Jalousie (1957), reads like an architectural diagram: ‘Now the shadow of the column – the column which supports the south-west corner of the roof – divides the corresponding corridor of the veranda into two equal parts.’ The prose seldom wavers from this sterile, descriptive rigour, yet its eerie rhythms and hypnotic repetitions – and its curious absence of affect – create a sense of mounting disquiet. A woman called A... has cocktails with her neighbour Franck, whose wife is never able to join them. This scene is repeated again and again, without any firm temporal indication, except that it is happening now; and with such slight variations that the reviewer from Le Monde thought he’d been sent a defective copy. Who is observing this scene? We’re never told, we never see more than ‘he’ sees, and we can never be sure whether he’s seeing, remembering or imagining it. The absent narrator is usually taken to be the woman’s jealous husband, spying on her and Franck through a slatted shutter (a jalousie), but he (or perhaps more precisely it) is never referred to in the first or third person. As Blanchot wrote, he is a ‘pure anonymous presence’, his role in the triangle implied by an empty place setting at the table. But what this phantom notices is hardly disinterested: A... and Franck drinking cognac and soda on the veranda, chatting about a novel set in Africa in which a white woman is sleeping with the natives; the number of banana trees on the plantation, which he counts for pages and pages; a crushed centipede that leaves a dark stain on the wall; the image (or perhaps a fantasy) of A... and Franck in a car crash that sets off a brush fire, making the same ‘sound the centipede makes, motionless again on the wall’. In La Jalousie, published the same year as the Battle of Algiers, the loss of control over a woman seeped into a more generalised fear of colonial disorder. Its dispassionate yet obsessional prose was expressive, almost in spite of itself. It suggested a latent violence, hidden by a great labour of repression.
In Robbe-Grillet, the gaze invariably belongs to a murderer or a madman. In his imagination, objectivity is a kind of derangement, a monstrous will to power. This scepticism had its roots in his childhood. He was born in 1922 in Brest, his mother’s hometown, but brought up in Paris. His parents were, in his words, ‘right-wing anarchists’: they read aloud from L’Action française at the dinner table, loathed Léon Blum and the Third Republic, and believed that France had to be protected from ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’; yet they had inherited from their own left-wing fathers a hatred of the ‘sacred union of the army and the church’ and were eccentrically non-conformist. Still, they preferred the Germans to the British, and when France fell to the Nazis welcomed the occupiers as defenders of ‘order’.
At the time of Vichy, Robbe-Grillet was in Paris at the National Institute of Agronomy (which Michel Houellebecq, who found his work ‘indigestible’, would attend).Unable to return to Brest, he ended up in Nuremberg as a forced labourer assembling Panzer tanks. He had never questioned his parents’ support for Pétain and found the war a shattering experience. He stood at a lathe in a factory for 72 hours a week and lived on rotten potatoes; he saw a group of soldiers arrest a man in hospital, who bawled ‘like a beast being led to slaughter’; he experienced ‘the fundamental strangeness of my own relation with the world’, a feeling of ‘exteriority, almost of extra-territoriality’, as if ‘I was there by mistake.’ After this ‘Bavarian interlude’, ‘a respect for order at all costs could now only make me profoundly suspicious … We’d just seen where that got us.’ When he finally returned to Brest, the town had been flattened and was being rebuilt as an American-style city. Yet ‘instead of crying over these ruins’, he recalled in Préface à une vie d’écrivain (2005), ‘we felt on the contrary a great euphoria. The world was there for the making.’
Like many of his peers, Robbe-Grillet hoped that socialism would rise from the ashes of fascism and war, but four days of ‘building socialism’ with a brigade of volunteers in Bulgaria left him suspicious of the left – and, he said, of any truth claims. He decided now that truth had ‘always and only served oppression’. The literature of commitment, whether socialist realist or existentialist, struck him as a moral luxury: ‘I had seen the face of death and didn’t feel I was in the best position to give my fellow citizens public moral lessons.’ For a few years after the war, he found relief from his all-pervading uncertainty in science, as a researcher with the Institut des fruits et agrumes coloniaux, studying diseases of the banana tree in Guinea, Morocco, Guadeloupe and Martinique. But there were ‘ghosts I couldn’t come to terms with’, and this ‘world of concepts, cleanness, virtue’ failed to exorcise them. Writing was ‘the most promising arena in which to act out this permanent imbalance: the fight to the death between order and freedom, the insoluble conflict between rational classification and subversion’.
After being hospitalised in Martinique with a variety of tropical diseases, Robbe-Grillet left his job and returned to Paris. He spent his days in an artificial insemination lab taking vaginal smears from sterile rats injected with urine from mares in foal; at night, in a tiny garret above his parents’ flat on rue Gassendi, he worked on his first novel, Un Régicide. Gallimard turned it down, but in 1953 his second novel, Les Gommes, was accepted by Jérôme Lindon at Editions de Minuit, Beckett’s publisher. Les Gommes was both a neo-noir and a modern rewriting of the Oedipus myth, about a police inspector investigating a murder that has not yet taken place: he ends up killing the suspect, who may be his father. The critic Jean Cayrol read Les Gommes as an allegory about the German occupation and the French Resistance: ‘sadly,’ Robbe-Grillet later wrote, ‘I had been on the other side.’
Les Gommes won the Prix Fénéon and the admiration of Barthes, who saw in its affectless prose a model of ‘writing degree zero’, ignoring what Cayrol and others took to be its allegorical dimensions. Le Voyeur and La Jalousie followed over the next four years. As an adviser to Lindon, Robbe-Grillet began shepherding to publication the novels of Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget and Marguerite Duras, who were soon known as the ‘école de Minuit’. These writers drew on different models, but with their detached sensibility and rejection of 19th-century dramatic conventions, they had enough in common for Emile Henriot of Le Monde to declare the birth of the nouveau roman in 1957, the movement’s annus mirabilis. ‘Henriot was kind,’ Robbe-Grillet recalled, ‘with a charming incomprehension, naive about what we were doing … He thought literature had ended with Balzac.’ Robbe-Grillet’s own view was that Balzac (‘an Ice Age in the history of literature’) had nearly destroyed the novel: ‘Who is that omniscient, omnipresent narrator appearing everywhere at once, simultaneously seeing the outside and the inside of things … knowing the present, the past and the future of every enterprise?’ he asked in his 1963 manifesto, Pour un Nouveau Roman. ‘It can only be God.’
One novelist accused Robbe-Grillet of wanting to ‘saw off the branch we’re sitting on’. He replied that ‘the branch in question actually died of natural causes.’ The ancestor of the nouveau roman, he suggested, was Flaubert, who had injected a revolutionary element of uncertainty and doubt into narration. What struck him most powerfully about Madame Bovary was the narrator’s opening reference to nous, ‘we’: ‘That nous … signified that there was somebody’ – not a God-like narrator – ‘who was speaking.’ Then came Proust, Kafka, Joyce and Faulkner. But the novel – the French novel, he meant – was now at risk of regression, thanks to the vogue for existentialism and committed literature, which emphasised political and ethical concerns over formal ones. Just as Boulez argued that composers had to ‘fight the past to survive’, so Robbe-Grillet argued that ‘the novel’s forms must evolve in order to remain alive.’
The chief obstacle to innovation was Sartre, who had opened the way for the nouveau roman with his phenomenological novel La Nausée, but failed to explore its radical implications, caving in to the old myth of ‘depth’: the idea that the ‘surface of things’ is a ‘mask of their heart, a sentiment that led to every kind of metaphysical transcendence’. Like Lévi-Strauss, Robbe-Grillet saw Sartre as a 19th-century hold-over, clinging to the fables of reason, historical progress and, worst of all, humanism. Sartre still thought the world meant something, and that it was the job of the writer to reveal its meaning; so did Camus, the philosopher of the absurd. ‘The world is neither significant nor absurd. It is, quite simply,’ Robbe-Grillet wrote in a passage with Heideggerian undertones. ‘That, in any case, is the most remarkable thing about it.’ The task was to liberate the novel from the ‘tyranny of significations’, an idea that Susan Sontag soon lifted in Against Interpretation. Depth, character and humanism, as Robbe-Grillet saw it, were ‘obsolete notions’ that stood in the way of what Barthes called the pleasure of the text, and Sontag the ‘erotics of art’. Robbe-Grillet denounced them with a Nietzschean delight. Character: ‘How much we’ve heard about character! … Fifty years of disease, the death notice signed many times over by the most serious essayists, yet nothing has yet managed to knock it off the pedestal on which the 19th century had placed it.’ Humanism: ‘Is there not … a certain fraudulence in this word human which is always being thrown in our faces?’ Fortunately, ‘the exclusive cult of the “human” has given way to a larger consciousness, one that is less anthropocentric.’ This was as much a philosophical project as a literary one. The critique of Western humanism, the attack on ‘transcendence’ and metaphysics, the assault on truth as a rhetoric of domination, the rebellion against the philosopher who was taken to embody these ideas, Sartre: Robbe-Grillet got there first, and Foucault among others would celebrate him as a radical thinker, a playful, nihilist maître à penser.
From the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, Robbe-Grillet enjoyed unmatched prestige as a champion and practitioner of the nouveau roman: an influence on Perec and Modiano, Calvino and Cortázar; the darling of the avant-garde literary journal Tel Quel. Grove’s combined edition of La Jalousie and Dans le labyrinthe sold forty thousand copies in the US, where Robbe-Grillet was taken on a widely publicised tour of ‘forty universities and 43 cocktail parties’. He also rose to prominence in the world of cinema, both as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad – in which a glamorously distressed couple talk endlessly about whether or not they met the year before in a deserted hotel – and as the director of his own kinky, enigmatic films. The unresolved mystery à la Robbe-Grillet acquired such avant-garde cachet – thanks above all to his friend Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura – that Pauline Kael grumbled about a ‘creeping Marienbadism’. When ‘The Talk of the Town’ told him ‘we didn’t feel we had completely understood’ the plot of Last Year at Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet replied: ‘Moi non plus.’ He was well spoken, well travelled, and, with his wavy black hair and moustache, rather dashing: the novelist as matinée idol, as likely to be seen at Cannes as at a literary festival.
The virile looks , however, were deceptive, as his wife Catherine discovered. She was the daughter of Armenians from Iran; they met in 1951 in the Gare de Lyon, as they were both boarding a train to Istanbul. He was instantly taken by her. Barely out of her teens, not quite five feet tall and only forty kilos, Catherine Rstakian ‘looked so young then that everyone thought she was still a child’. She inspired in him (as he later wrote) ‘desperate feelings of paternal love – incestuous, needless to say’. The relationship began immediately, but with one condition, imposed by Catherine: there could be no penetration, since she had undergone a painful clandestine abortion the year before and didn’t want to risk another. Six years later, on a boat from Zadar to Dubrovnik, she changed her mind, only to learn that her fiancé was impotent. He had other things in mind for his ‘petite fille’, as he called her. ‘His fantasies turned obsessively around sadistic domination of (very) young women, by default little girls,’ she wrote in her memoir of their life together, Alain. He gave her ‘drawings of little girls, bloodied’. (‘Reassure yourself, he never transgressed the limits of the law,’ she adds.) Shortly after they were married in 1957, they drew up a contract in five pages, outlining the ‘special rights of the husband over his young wife, during private séances’, where she would submit to torture, whipping and other humiliations. If she performed her duties with ‘kindness and effort’, she would be paid in cash, which she could use for ‘expensive holidays, private purchases, or lavish generosity on behalf of third parties’.
Catherine Robbe-Grillet never signed the contract, which ‘clashed with my erotic imagination’: ‘A Master imposed himself, he didn’t negotiate.’ Writing under the male pseudonym Jean de Berg, she had explored her erotic imagination in an S&M novel, L’Image, published in 1956 by Minuit. He respected her wishes, and never asked for an explanation. When they moved into the Château du Mesnil-au-Grain, a 17th-century mansion in Normandy, it was Catherine, not Alain, who became the house dominatrix – France’s most legendary practitioner – as if she were ‘substituting myself for Alain’. He was remarkably solicitous of her needs, and she of his. He welcomed her lover, Vincent, so long as Vincent agreed to be his disciple (there could only be one Master in the house). She also shared her mistresses with him, and dressed up as Lolita when they had dinner with Nabokov. She was ‘content, even proud’, when Alain fell for Catherine Jourdain, a stunning blonde who seduced him on the beach in Djerba, where he was directing her in his 1969 film L’Eden et après; she read every letter he wrote to Jourdain. The affair appears to have been the closest thing to a conventional heterosexual relationship he had, but he was overwhelmed by her ‘voraciousness’ in bed, and she failed to be ‘the docile slave he dreamed of’. When the affair ended, Robbe-Grillet lost interest in sex. He felt burdened when Catherine offered him a close friend of hers as a birthday gift in 1975; the next year he announced his retirement from ‘all erotic activity between two people or with several’. From then on, she says, he ‘isolated himself in an ivory tower populated with prepubescent fantasies, in the pursuit, in his “retirement”, of the waking dreams in his Roman sentimental – reveries of a solitary sadist.’
Renouncing sex seems to have liberated Robbe-Grillet to write about it more explicitly. His novels of the 1970s and 1980s were full of S&M subplots; so were his films, in which beautiful young women invariably appeared without clothes, often tied up, while older, intellectual men devised unusual (and humiliating) forms of ravishment, such as cracking eggs on their naked bellies. In what soon became known as the ‘nouveau nouveau roman’, he surrendered to fantasy and emphatically abandoned any attempt at realistic representation. Robbe-Grillet’s frustration with 19th-century convention, in Pour un Nouveau Roman, was that it ‘reconciled’ readers to their alienation from the world of objects; he wanted to depict this immutable rift between people and ‘things’ – and between people – without the consolations of humanism, and thus to recover a sense of reality. ‘The discovery of reality,’ he argued, ‘will continue only if we abandon outworn forms.’ There was always a tension in the earlier work between the deadpan and the deadly earnest – between the prankster and the scientist – but the nouveau nouveau roman took a more overtly playful, textual turn: the new work was a gleeful flight from the real, a fantastical jeu d’esprit that unfolded within the narrow confines of narrative practice, drawing on what he called ‘generative themes’: formal elements whose manipulation he compared to the techniques of modern music and painting. Narrators battle for control of the text; characters (who aren’t, of course, characters) appear under different names, defying our attempts to identify them. Even the sex is textual: the bodies we see are usually images of images – models on billboards, or mutilated mannequins.
The nouveau nouveau roman was launched by Robbe-Grillet’s zany 1970 novel Projet pour une révolution à New York, inspired by a three-day visit to Manhattan. An army of revolutionary rapists is carrying out attacks in the subway; ‘crime,’ one character explains, ‘is indispensable to the revolution … Rape, murder, arson are the three metaphoric acts which will free the blacks, the impoverished proletariat and the intellectual workers from their slavery, and at the same time the bourgeoisie from its sexual complexes.’ The allusion to these ‘metaphoric acts’ was a giveaway. Metaphor, for Robbe-Grillet, was the origin, and original sin, of fiction-making: a violation of the purely descriptive and thus a ‘rape’ of reality. The ‘revolution’ refers, above all, to the author’s failed attempt to write a novel that coheres; it begins and ends in metaphor.
But the metaphor of rape was not a random choice: Robbe-Grillet seemed peculiarly drawn to it. A girl called Laura is held hostage in a high-rise; another female prisoner is burned alive, her body ‘twisting in a paroxysm of suffering’. The pace is antic, yet circular, a sequence of looping repetitions of the novel’s ‘generative themes’: not only rape, but bondage, the nature of narrative, the relationship between art, crime and revolutionary violence. The story is a breathless sequence of false starts and ‘traps’, no doubt intended to expose the deceptive lure of narrative, and inviting us – if we haven’t given up – to compose our own novel. (The nouveau nouveau roman was a choose-your-own-adventure novel for theory-heads.) Robbe-Grillet studiously avoids describing New York in realistic terms: like Kafka’s America, it’s a phantom city – a figure of urban apocalypse. The noir elements that were so haunting in his earlier novels now incline to farce, amusing enough but in the end wearying. The writer who had parodied older forms – Greek tragedy, noir, the novel of matrimonial betrayal – now seemed to be parodying himself:
The first scene goes very fast. Evidently it has already been rehearsed several times: everyone knows his part by heart. Words and gestures follow each other in a relaxed, continuous manner, the links as imperceptible as the necessary elements of some properly lubricated machinery.
Then there is a gap, a blank space, a pause of indeterminate length during which nothing happens, not even the anticipation of what will come next.
And suddenly the action resumes, without warning, and the same scene occurs again … But which scene?
By now, most readers in France had ceased to care; even his intellectual champions lost interest, although Barthes stood by him. ‘Transgression’ had come to mean l’écriture féminine and gay erotica; Robbe-Grillet’s hetero-sadist fixations looked decidedly démodé, quite possibly reactionary. (Fredric Jameson wondered whether his books had become ‘unreadable since feminism’.) At the party for Barthes’s 1977 inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, Foucault confronted Robbe-Grillet: ‘I have told you this already and I will say it again, Alain: when it comes to sex, you are, and always have been misguided!’ Barthes rose to his defence, reminding Foucault that Robbe-Grillet was, at the very least, a pervert. Foucault replied: ‘Ça ne suffit pas!’
There was no denying Robbe-Grillet’s growing isolation from the Parisian avant-garde. He spent more of his time tending his cacti at the chateau in Normandy, while Catherine whipped her clients in the chambre secrète. America, where ‘French theory’ was all the rage on campus, proved more welcoming. He became a lecturer at New York University in the early 1970s and ended up teaching there for more than two decades. He found a new following among American practitioners of deconstruction and – a particular pleasure for him – artists and composers. (American writers had little interest in his work, and the indifference was mutual: Robbe-Grillet admired Burroughs and Nabokov but disdained the ‘pseudo-realism of Saul Bellow and Mailer’.) He had always had a predilection for modern painting and music, and his ambition for the nouveau nouveau roman was to win the same liberties that had freed painters from the obligation to represent ‘reality’ or to mine its surfaces for buried (psychological or political) meanings. Pop artists recognised a fellow Warholian in his deadpan descriptions of coffee pots, billboards and ‘things’ in the world; conceptual artists admired his juxtaposition of readymade forms as narrative collage; minimalist composers heard a literary analogue of Reich and Glass in his use of churning repetitions with tiny, flickering variations. (In Robbe-Grillet Cleansing Every Object in Sight, a homage by his friend the painter Mark Tansey, a figure appears in a desert, scrubbing stones as if to remove any ‘signification’.) There were intriguing collaborations with Rauschenberg, Johns and – most strikingly – Magritte, in a 1975 book called La Belle Captive.
After La Belle Captive, the best Robbe-Grillet novels appeared under the names of other writers: Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller), Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy) and, later, Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Tom McCarthy.In 2001 he published a sort of spy-thriller, a nouveau nouveau roman set in a ravaged postwar Berlin, but its title, La Reprise – ‘resumption’, ‘repetition’, even ‘rerun’ – captured all too well the experience of reading it. Most of the later novels seem tossed off, as fodder for dreary dissertations on ‘transgressive literature’.
A new voice emerged towards the end of his career in a trilogy of lightly fictionalised memoirs that he called ‘romanesques’. Having assailed the idea that anything might be beneath the surface of his prose, he now disclosed his autobiographical inspirations with self-deprecating wit and an affection for the world of which few imagined him capable. He wrote of how the music of the Breton waves had shaped his sentences, and, in a darker vein, of the perversions that lurked at the edges of his novels. The ‘beneficiaries of my first erotic practices’ were a collection of china dolls, which he would dress and undress. He ‘cheerfully dreamed of the massacre of my classmates’, reserving the pretty ones for ‘long, drawn-out torture sessions tied to the chestnut trees in the playground’. In Les Derniers jours de Corinthe, the second of these romanesques, he wrote that while working in Martinique he had become infatuated with a ‘pink and blonde’ girl who had ‘the air of a bonbon’; Marianne, the 12-year-old daughter of a local magistrate, would sit on his knee, ‘conscious without doubt’ of the effect these ‘lascivious demonstrations’ had on him.
Most striking of all, though, was his account in Le Miroir qui revient of growing up in a collaborationist family, a reckoning that was all the more powerful for being free of shame or apology. Robbe-Grillet made no secret of his parents’ prejudices, or of their enthusiasm for the Germans, yet he portrayed them with disarming tenderness. His father, a sapper in World War One, had returned home with a collection of scars and a limp, but otherwise ‘as elegant as ever, ready to throw himself wholeheartedly into the most dubious causes’. He founded a fascist groupuscule, the Renaissance Socialiste Nationale, in 1936, but when Pétain came to power he refused, out of pure obstinacy, to put up a poster of the Maréchal; he did put it up when the war ended, to spite the Americans. Robbe-Grillet’s mother was a lover of animals (and, it seems, of women) who kept molluscs as pets and hid a bat under her blouse,
to the great terror of uninitiated visitors, who thought they were hallucinating when at table they looked at their impassive hostess whose tea they were politely sipping, and saw the creature suddenly emerge from its hiding place through the narrow opening of a white collar with large lapels, to clamber awkwardly over her breast and neck spreading its huge, black, silky wings.
(He shared with his mother a passion for ‘nooks’, and for classifying things, like the ‘mouth parts of lobsters and sea urchins’.) The most memorable – perhaps the only – characters he ever created, his parents as they appeared here suggested what Robbe-Grillet might have done if he’d been a more conventional novelist.
This confessional turn caused a gratifying stir, although his scandalous success at an outwardly conventional genre soon left him uneasy. By the mid-1980s the French literary scene – partly as a result of the nouveau roman – had seen ‘a violent reaction against any attempt to escape the norms of traditional expression-representation’. Worried that he might be ‘sliding into the slippery slope of the prevailing discourse’ and jeopardising his reputation as an avant-garde prankster, he insisted that his romanesques were as elusive and unreliable as his novels. He noted that one of the recurring characters, Henri de Corinthe, was a fictional creation, inspired by Goethe’s ‘Fiancée of Corinth’, itself based on a Greek legend. Still, the romanesques had all the personality and warmth that he had foresworn, and gave ample display of storytelling gifts that he’d done his best to hide. He was now an establishment figure: a member of the Académie (though he was never inducted in an official ceremony, since he refused to wear the required uniform), the subject of an extensive portrait on the radio station France Culture, and even an actor – Raúl Ruiz cast him as Edmond de Goncourt in his 1999 Proust adaptation, Le Temps retrouvé. Perhaps it was ‘time to resume the terrorist activities of the years 1955-60’.
One way to read Un Roman sentimental is as a return to literary terrorism: an old man’s bid to be the bad boy again. The story is fairly typical Sadean fare. Gigi, a 14-year-old girl and a very eager student of sexual transgression, reads an obscene 18th-century novel with her father (and lover), The Professor. She’s bored by the ‘scenes of couplings according to conjugal norms’, but turned on by the tale of a ‘great feast … where a victorious sultan, for the sole pleasure of his court, tortured to death the nine hundred girls delivered the previous night as war trophies, almost all virgins’. As a reward for her ardour, the Professor gives her a ‘toy’, a 13-year-old girl ‘endowed with various precocious charms’, whom she submits to a number of sexual tortures before consigning her to a dungeon, her body covered with ‘artfully painted lash marks’. A harem of child sex slaves – virgin belles captives – are violently deflowered, in scenes described with Robbe-Grillet’s obsessional precision: murderously large dildos, seats made of nails, sliced and grilled breasts.
It’s hard not to be repelled by Un Roman sentimental. When it came under fire in France, Robbe-Grillet, who once compared his novels to uncommitted crimes, claimed somewhat disingenuously not to understand what all the fuss was about. He had never laid a hand on an underage girl; what harm, he asked with a grin, could he have done by writing about his fantasies? This was a reasonable enough defence: Un Roman sentimental is a work of fiction, not an incitement to crime, much less a criminal act. Or that was my view when I started the book; as the atrocities piled up, each more unspeakable than the last, I wondered what my reaction would have been if the novel had been set on a slave plantation or in a concentration camp. It is a severe test of any reader’s civil libertarian convictions.
On closer inspection, however, Un Roman sentimental is not simply an impotent man’s fantasy of dominance over a group of helpless girls. Robbe-Grillet’s novels were always laid with traps, and as Blanchot warned, the central illusion of his novels is their impression of total legibility. The secret of Un Roman sentimental is hiding in plain sight. The title is not, or not merely, a prank: this is, in fact, a sentimental ode to his two great loves.
The first is writing. An ‘adult fairy tale’, the novel opens in a void, perhaps the blank page of the novel we’re reading. ‘At first sight, the place in which I find myself is neutral, white, so to speak: not dazzlingly white, rather of a nondescript hue, deceptive, ephemeral, altogether absent.’ Suddenly, the (never identified) narrator’s eyes are drawn to a painting, a ‘forest landscape’ where a young, naked girl is bathing. This is the girl he calls Gigi. The world depicted in Un Roman sentimental is not only unreal, but an artifice, inspired by a painting and peopled by ghosts in the mirror. We are not far from Robbe-Grillet’s 1962 homage to Moreau, ‘La Chambre secrète’, also an elaborate staging of an imaginary painting. The passion Robbe-Grillet describes in such outrageous detail is, perhaps, less important than what he called his ‘passion to describe’: the solitary passion that defined the nouveau roman.
Robbe-Grillet’s other great love was his wife Catherine, his petite fille. Their marriage, an unbroken pact of complicity over more than half a century, bears a close resemblance to the relationship of the couple in Un Roman sentimental. It’s no accident that Gigi is also called Djinn, a word that sounds like the English ‘Jean’, which was Catherine’s pseudonym as a writer of S&M. Gigi/Djinn resembles Jean de Berg in other ways: she’s the brilliant pupil who absorbs the wisdom of her Master and surpasses him in the art of sexual cruelty. (She even seems to be the ideal Robbe-Grillet reader, impressed by an erotic novel’s ‘precise description, objective, without superfluous words’.) The ornate, almost comically rarefied prose here is less reminiscent of Sade than of the Robbe-Grillets’ unsigned marital contract. The last line of this, the last novel Robbe-Grillet published, is unexpectedly declamatory, and unexpectedly moving: ‘Thus shall we for ever live in celestial fortresses.’ His own celestial fortress was literature itself, the secret room of the imagination. Literature had been his freedom from truth and certainty, and a playpen for his criminal passions and victimless crimes. In her memoir Alain, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, who still works out of a chambre secrète at the Château du Mesnil-au-Grain, described her husband’s last novel as ‘his bouquet’. She knew the flowers were for her.