The Voyeur
by Alain Robbe-Grillet
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"The true writer has nothing to say," Alain
Robbe-Grillet once announced, in his
characteristically enigmatic fashion.   Yet this
controversial author never took advantage
of—in the parlance of the arresting officer—
the
right to remain silent.  Still it took him many
years before he found his vocation as a
leader of an avant-garde literary movement.
Robbe-Grillet first
studied agricultural
engineering, worked
as a machinist in a
compulsory labor
program at a Nurem-
berg tank factory
during World War
II, and later made a
living as an agronomist.  He didn't publish
novels until his thirties, when
The Erasers
(1951), followed up by
The Voyeur (1953) and
Jealousy (1957), announced the arrival of a
provocative writer who irritated many readers
with his disregard of the conventions of
narrative fiction, but delighted influential
critics such as Barthes and Blanchot for this
very same reason.  The essays collected in
Robbe-Grillet's
For a New Novel (1963)
solidified this author’s reputation for lingering
at the cutting edge, while his screenplay for
the deliberately cryptic film
Last Year at
Marienbad
(1961) proved that he could be
even more iconoclastic in a cinematic setting
and—perhaps equally surprising!—earn an
Oscar nomination in the process.  He later
went on to direct his own films, none of them
showing up at your local downtown megaplex
or on TV during sweeps week.  In truth,
Robbe-Grillet paid a price for his ostentatious
disregard of the rules other artists followed.  
His name eventually became emblematic of a
certain prissy pretentiousness.  When he is
mentioned in the movie
Sideways—the hapless
Paul Giamatti character, describing his failed
novel ("It evolves - or devolves - into a kind
of a Robbe-Grillet mystery - but no real
resolution"), the effect is to accentuate the
character’s pretentiousness and irresolution.   
And that film
did make it to your hometown
mall movie screens and on to the shelves at
Blockbuster.  Yet for others, Robbe-Grillet is
remembered fondly as an author from an age
in which certain grand expectations for
change and novelty still adhered to literary
fiction.  This author may ultimately be
remembered less for his body of work, and
more for that glorification of rule-breaking,
oddly enough both austere and expansive in
his case, towards which he always aspired.  
ROGUES GALLERY:
ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

For a few brief decades in the 20th century important
writers were expected to break the rules, violate all
conventions, and in general
rock the bloody boat.  
Instead of garnering praise by mastering the
techniques of the trade, they made their name by
subverting the accepted
methodologies.   In
Ulysses,
James Joyce inserted a single
sentence that ran on for
4,391 words—longer than
many short stories.  In
Gadsby
(1939) Ernest Vincent Wright
delivered a 260 page novel
without using the letter 'e'
at any point.  One of these
books became a classic and
the other merely an oddity,
but the same animating dis
-
regard for the accepted rules
is evident in both.

Alain Robbe-Grillet can hardly be understood outside
the context of this desire to trample on the norms of
narrative fiction.  There have always been new novels,
but he considered himself an exponent of
the new
novel.   He employed the term—and explicitly aligned
himself with the values of—the "
Noveau Roman," a
movement of creative spirits who, in Robbe-Grillet’s
words, were "seeking new forms for the novel, forms
capable of expressing (or of creating) new relations
between man and the world."  These writers were aware
that "the systematic repetition of the forms of the past is
not only absurd and futile, but that it can even become
harmful."

In this light, Robbe-Grillet almost took a sly pride in the
negative critical response to
The Voyeur, a novel that, in
his words, met with a "massive and violent rejection"
from the press.   How many basic rules of narrative are
violated in
The Voyeur?   Let’s start with the character
Jean Robin, who we learn died years ago in chapter one.  
But then he is alive—with no explanation—in the next
section of the book.  Then again, his name is no longer
Jean Robin;  it is now Pierre.  Or is it?   Meanwhile a
young girl on the island where the novel takes place is
murdered.  Or maybe she is not murdered, and has died
in an accident.  Her name is Jacqueline.  That is, except
when her name is Violet.  And the murderer is…..

The reader is forced into the role of detective here, and
can’t count on the author (or narrator) for much help.   
All the circumstantial evidence points to Mathias, the
traveling salesman who is the main protagonist of
The
Voyeur
, as the killer.   Since the omniscient narrator
allows us to eavesdrop on Mathias's thoughts, we can
follow as the suspect tries to construct an alibi and
explain the mounting evidence against him.   But in a
novel in which even the most tangible facts and
situations can change after the fact, no one—protagonist,
narrator, author—is entirely trustworthy.  The very
metaphysics of Robbe-Grillet's universe seem to run
counter to the notion of "guilt beyond a reasonable
doubt."

It’s hard to give credence to any amount of evidence
when even the basic facts can change from chapter to
chapter, or even from sentence to sentence, when the
past is open to constant revision, and the basic concepts
of logic—self-identity, non-contradiction, the excluded
middle—no longer hold.   Chronology is equally fluid
here, with flashbacks intruding in such a predatory
manner, frequently arriving unannounced in mid-
paragraph, that the reader struggles to tell when memory
or imagination substitute for direct observation.

If this is truly the new novel, you may find yourself
nostalgic for the old ones where hard facts don't change
and dead characters won't come back to life without a
good reason.  Robbe-Grillet adds to these various
misleading feints by pretending to follow an almost
geometrically precise description of reality, where
subjectivity is replaced by disinterested analysis of
sensory data.  No one has done more than this author to
try to reduce fiction to Euclidean description.   Here is
non atypical passage, where Robbe-Grillet is describing a
lamp:

It consists of two superimposed rings of equal tangent circles—
rings, more exactly, since their centers are hollow—each ring of the
upper series being exactly above a ring of the lower row to which it
is joined for a fraction of an inch.  The flame itself, produced from
a circular wick, appears in the form of a triangle deeply scalloped at
the apex, therefore exhibiting two points rather than just one.  
One of these is much higher than the other, and sharper as well;  
the two joints are united by a concave curve—two asymmetrical,
ascending branches on each side of a rounded depression…..

Did you get that?  Can’t you picture it in your head?  No,
this is not a question from the SAT, but an actual
passage from
The Voyeur. But don’t feel so bad, I can’t
follow it either.  Yet Robbe-Grillet believes that this
type of description gets us "beyond interpretation" and
directly cognizant of the object in itself.   

The peculiarity here stems from the sharp contrast
between the precise geometrical demonstrations of the
narrative and the fanciful unreality of the facts
presented.  Our author works hard to achieve a quasi-
mathematical accuracy while also undermining it at every
turn.   In the truest sense of the term, this novel is
self-
cancelling
at almost every juncture.

Other aspects of
The Voyeur present a similar clash
between precision and ambiguity.   For example, our
protagonist Mathias is a watch salesman, and literally
runs his own life by the minute, or even the second.  He
calculates the average time per sales call, and constantly
revises his forecast of the anticipated duration of every
activity of his work day.  This character trait figures
prominently in the plot, which increasingly turns on
Mathias's attempts to construct an itinerary for his
actions that will prove his innocence.   In almost any
other mystery novel, this would be a straightforward part
of the plot. But in a story where nothing can be
tabulated with confidence, an accounting of the minutes
and seconds is strange window-dressing indeed.    In the
context of a novel by Robbe-Grillet, who plays fast-and-
loose with the chronology and flashbacks of his
narrative, we can only view this preoccupation with
precise measurements of time as an ironic sidebar on the
main event.

In the final analysis,
The Voyeur will probably frustrate
more than engage you.   The very novelties of this
"new" novel call too much attention to themselves, and
will strike most readers as extrinsic to the story—forced
on us to show off the avant-garde credentials of Mr.
Robbe-Grillet rather than draw us into the story.    Then
again, that may be the inevitable result whenever an
author prides himself on advancing the new novel
before bothering to master the old one.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
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Further Clues:

Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet by Shusha Guppy
from
The Paris Review

Alain Robbe-Grillet's Facebook Page

Alain Robbe-Grillet's Lecture on YouTube

Robbe-Grillet's Last Year at Marienbad

How to Win the Robbe-Grillet Matchstick Game Every
Time
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia
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