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.

La Reprise is Robbe-Grillet’s first novel for 20 years and, judging by the title, and all the backward glances it takes at his earlier books, the last that he means to write; the surprise perhaps is that – at only a month or two short of 80 – he wanted to write this one. It, too, starts with a quotation from Kierkegaard, this time from the curious autobiographical essay in psychology known in English as Repetition: ‘Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards.’ Repetition, for Kierkegaard, means willing yourself to repeat, or to relive an episode from your past rather than inertly recollecting it, because in repetition you may be spared the melancholy inherent in recollection. Repetition, for Robbe-Grillet, is more humdrum: it means reliving the act of writing a novel and reintegrating along the way small situations and favoured motifs from the books that made his name in the 1950s and 1960s. The new novel’s ‘prologue’ opens: ‘Ici, donc, je reprends, et je résume,’ or ‘Here, then, I resume and I sum up,’ which might well be thought of as the same movement, except in opposite directions, and one that his novels have sometimes slyly declared themselves to be engaging on in the past, when opening with an admission that the story that’s about to happen has been gone through innumerable times before, the implication being that so insistent are the obsessions of the imagination entrusted with spinning it that it has no choice but to reimmerse itself in them.

The element of repetition in the two Kierkegaard epigraphs is a nice opening joke, if one which only those readers who have a copy of Un Régicide to refer to will spot. But it was always worth keeping an eye out for jokes with Robbe-Grillet, whether in his novels or in the films he has made. He has never seemed much concerned about whether or not people got them. In the early days, people mainly didn’t, which was excusable, because he was slow to come out into the open as a humorous writer, and even now, when we have a clearer idea of how they work, novels of the 1950s like La Jalousie or Dans le labyrinthe seem to be taking a mainly sombre view of the emotions of which they’re offered as the effluent. Yet, rereading for present purposes another of the canonical 1950s novels, Le Voyeur, which could seem equally sombre, I caught a small gag that I must originally have read straight past. In that book a local girl of dubious reputation called Jacqueline Leduc goes missing, having perhaps been raped and thrown into the sea by a travelling salesman. As it overheats, the imagination revelling in this lurch into criminality refers to the victim as Violette – from violer, the verb for ‘to rape’. Assuming Violette and Jacqueline to be one and the same, you have a composite farm-girl called Violette Leduc, which was the name of a contentious woman writer of those years in France that the less than feminist Robbe-Grillet may well have decided to do nominally away with.

One small in-joke doesn’t make Le Voyeur into a comedy, however. Rather, it is satire, as all Robbe-Grillet’s novels and films have been satires. What they are making fun of is the stock form of narrative in which events follow one after the other, in an unambiguous chain such that once they have happened they can’t unhappen or re-happen, and the time-scheme is one of public reference, not that exclusive to the imagination of the writer, or his surrogates in the text. It took time for this extreme subjectivism to sink in among Robbe-Grillet’s readers, who, to the contrary, often found him too much of a chosiste, or a writer overinclined to dwell for reasons that weren’t apparent on physical objects undeserving of this unnatural degree of attention. Why should a small piece of string be so prominent in Le Voyeur, or a segment of tomato on a cafeteria tray in Les Gommes? The complainants mistook this for realism for its own sake. But Robbe-Grillet wanted nothing do with realism of that naive, supernumerary kind. The objects he dwells on are not random percepts but products of a troubled imagination. That is, they’re imaginary percepts and as such they pose questions, because we should want to know why at this point they’re being imagined, what their momentary significance is for the person doing the imagining. The objective world in a Robbe-Grillet novel is there as a potential safety-net, capable in its objectivity of protecting those unfortunates who are prey to fiction from being swept away by their (pseudo) psychoses. But objects, too, can be insidious, can turn suggestive, and end by colluding in the very fabrications from which they should have offered a means of escape.

Robbe-Grillet’s protagonists – they are too blatantly his playthings to rank as heroes – would like to escape but can’t, would like to be able to impose a lasting, sedative order on the events in which they are implicated. Mathias in Le Voyeur – it’s not he who is the voyeur but the unidentified presence, the novelist let’s say, who has his eye on him – is a watch salesman, on a sales trip to the island just off the coast where he was born. His plan is to devote every minute of the day he will spend there to selling his watches. He draws up in advance a timetable which is at once absurd and suspect for being so watertight, allotting so many minutes to each sale and so many more for getting from customer to customer. The frantic mental arithmetic is a giveaway: if the programme breaks down, as it’s bound to, fiction will rear its ugly head, in the unscheduled intervals of free time; and it’s an ugly fiction in this instance, the work of an imagination that can’t suppress its fantasies of raping and murdering young girls. Le Voyeur is echt Robbe-Grillet in exploiting fantasies drawn from stock in the contemporary imaginaire, an ample reservoir into which he was to continue to dip, to increasingly lurid effect, throughout his literary and cinematic career.

These first novels were received more portentously than they should have been, both by those who talked them up as an obviously radical if not immediately fathomable attempt at recasting the rules of narrative and by those who resented them because they traded in contradiction and seemed set on evacuating the novel of its foundational concern with human behaviour. These were polemical exercises in fiction, written by someone who’d trained originally to be an agricultural scientist and who began writing Un Régicide on the back of the pedigrees of the bulls whose sperm the laboratory where he was then working sold to farmers. (He had previously had to report on banana cultivation in the Antilles – a biographical fact which led some last-ditch realists to read La Jalousie, which is set on a banana plantation, as if it were somehow a guide to the growing of tropical fruit.) Once he had moved into literature, Robbe-Grillet had no wish for his fiction to do what fiction had long done but which he thought the physical and human sciences must now do: try to explain why people act as they do. In a number of tough-minded theoretical essays, he took the historicist line that you couldn’t write novels in the 1950s as if it were still the 1850s. His own were written to make the case: they were the most tightly planned of ‘anti-novels’, deliberately inconclusive dramas which undermined en route the familiar conventions of storytelling.

To create an entire oeuvre of anti-novels might seem to be overdoing things; Robbe-Grillet could have made his grand theoretical point and then withdrawn. Except that it proved harder to get people to understand what he was doing than he may have anticipated, and except also that he found the repeated attempts to do so both enjoyable and surprisingly marketable, as the nouveau roman whose most aggressive publicist he was grew to be an intellectual phenomenon. The upshot was that in the 1960s he offered his readers belated assistance in the elucidation of the earlier novels by coming further into the open as a humorist. In books like Projet pour une révolution à New York or La Maison de rendezvous, the goings-on are sufficiently wild and overripe to leave no one in any doubt that these were spoofs, with the New York setting of the first and the Hong Kong setting of the second both borrowed from the movie industry’s props warehouse, as fertile decors for the louche, variously criminal and/or pornographic activities of the human figures they secreted. It may be that, having now begun to make films – the first, L’Année dernière à Marienbad of 1960, was made with Alain Resnais, whose restraining hand is said to have kept Robbe-Grillet within decorous bounds, which were energetically overstepped in the films that followed – Robbe-Grillet was determined to make the most of the greater licence in respect of reality that print allows, when in the cinema he was forced to work in real locations and with flesh and blood actors, whose ability to comply with his sado-masochistic and other schemes had its limits.

Robbe-Grillet thus came finally to be appreciated as someone prepared to set literary theory in motion in order to amuse as well as to educate. It was a shock all the same to learn that the man once tarred as a vandal was receiving, and accepting, invitations to teach courses in the literature faculties of American universities. Not since Nabokov gave his brazenly heretical lectures at Cornell perhaps had anyone as academically untoward as this been entrusted with the literary formation of the young: Robbe-Grillet’s recuperation as a salaried pedagogue was proof of the freakish lengths to which the sudden popularity of literary theory could be taken. Indeed, the last novel that he published before La Reprise, Djinn of 1981, was written in response to an academic request, reportedly as a benign way of initiating American students into some of the complexities of the French language. Whether it works as that I have no idea, but it works well enough as an initiation into the complexities of Robbe-Grillet’s fiction, and as such, can be taken as a rehearsal for the present recapitulatory volume.

In Repetition, Kierkegaard’s narrator, Constantin Constantius, decides to put his theory of repetition to the test by doing something that he has done before: ‘I suddenly had the thought: you can, after all, take a trip to Berlin; you have been there once before and now you can prove to yourself whether a repetition is possible and what importance it has.’ It’s hardly a surprise, then, that La Reprise should also have someone taking a trip to Berlin, and that once there he should become aware that he has in fact made this journey once before, as a child. (There’s an autobiographical aspect to this pattern, inasmuch as Robbe-Grillet has claimed that the fantasies and fears that he exploits in his fiction are ones he first had himself as a boy.) The man doing the reliving in La Reprise is a ‘special agent’, despatched from France to Berlin four years after the end of the Second World War on a ‘mission’ whose exact purpose is both unclear and beside the point, since his true mission is patently to serve as the bearer of the narrative.

Novelist and protagonist keep unprecedentedly close company here. The first-person narrator might just as well be Robbe-Grillet himself when he writes in the ‘prologue’ that ‘for the first time in a very long while, I glimpsed the man I call my double, so as to simplify things, or else my counterpart, or again and less theatrically: the traveller.’ The ‘very long while’ is the 20 years that have passed since Djinn, which was the last occasion on which the novelist set out on his lonely travels. Now, having appointed his agent, he boards what a little later on is described as ‘the accursed train, populated by memories and by spectres’, as if he were already regretting having started on this wilful excursion, which is going to reacquaint him with the fictive monstrosities that are bred when reason sleeps. As if this liminal intrusion weren’t enough, he enters the text without any disguise at all a third of the way through, when, having described in detail the complicated structure of a bascule bridge, he compares it to that of the letter-scales he can see in front of him on the desk where he does his writing, which is as good as to say that the imaginary bridge is the real scales grotesquely magnified, such being the genetic history of fiction like his. This is a linkage he at once repeats, digressing to lament the ‘cataclysm’ suffered by the Normandy countryside around his house during a recent severe storm, so that the sight of broken trees that he has from his windows may be taken as the original of the ‘cataclysm’ that has struck Berlin in the novel. So are we to think: no storm, no stage-set of a ruined city? Hardly, but this surprising personal appearance reads like a final insistence by Robbe-Grillet that, as he protested in the nearest he has ever come to writing an autobiographical volume, Le Miroir qui revient: ‘I have never spoken of anything but myself.’

That was the book from which one learnt that during the Second World War he was deported to Germany, to work in a factory as a forced labourer. The factory was outside Nuremberg, not in Berlin, and if there are any references to that grim experience under the Nazis in La Reprise, they’re likely to go undetected. Even so history can’t but enter the novel, as I can’t recall it entering a Robbe-Grillet novel before. His Berlin, like the real one, is divided into the four occupation zones, is still largely in ruins, has just survived the Airlift; and for as long as the action remains out of doors, the topography is, I presume, as it should be, with the few landmarks that are called for in their correct places. Indoors, things are different, for there one can soon lose track of the relative disposition of rooms, doors, windows, beds and all the rest of it, the decor being as liable to abrupt transformations as the identity or the function of the human beings involved. The events that punctuate the agent’s stay are predictably and enjoyably excessive: a shooting, a kidnapping, druggings, encounters with pimps and teenage prostitutes, police interrogations, some elegantly staged torture.

And all the way through one can pick up echoes from Robbe-Grillet’s earlier books, notably Les Gommes, which was no doubt privileged when the resuscitation rights for this valedictory novel were allotted as having been the first one that he published. In Les Gommes a special investigator by the name of Wallas is sent to a provincial town to investigate a murder. As the prototype for Robbe-Grillet’s subsequent succession of ‘travellers’, he does a great deal of walking the streets and ends up committing the murder he had been sent to investigate, the 24 hours he has just spent being a fictive day inserted into the real calendar as it were. The victim may well have been Wallas’s father, making the crime into an inadvertent act of parricide and bearing out the numerous glancing allusions to ancient Greece and the Oedipus story in the novel. In La Reprise, the special agent goes (for a time) under the name of Wallon and he, too, slowly becomes aware that he was in this town once before as a child, with his mother, perhaps looking for his father, and there are the same anachronistic allusions to ancient Greece. That bits and pieces of the Oedipus myth should be built into the fiction once again is not, I think, Robbe-Grillet being sardonic but an acknowledgment that the urge to make up or be told stories goes a long way back and is not easily stifled, so that even an anti-novelist is paying it his dues in the act of subverting it.

It would be unwise to take on La Reprise without having put in some practice beforehand on the earlier Robbe-Grillet, if only because previous acquaintance is so regularly assumed in the text. For all the continuity one might choose to see between his jocular, self-referring methods and those in favour with Postmodernists, it’s likely that this late novel, read from scratch, would be found as pointlessly out of kilter as were Les Gommes or Dans le labyrinthe in their day, which would prove that for all the efforts that he and other French novelists made in the heyday of the nouveau roman, the expectations that readers bring to fiction haven’t evolved as far as he would have hoped. For initiates, there’s great pleasure to be had from being reminded of the Robbe-Grillet of old, and from doing one’s best to rationalise a stirringly erratic course of events – bearing in mind, as ever, that La Reprise is a fiction going nowhere. If, one day, the city fathers of his native Brest decide, in the best French municipal tradition, to name a street after him, I hope they have the nous to make it an impasse.