The Voyeur
by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Essay 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 writes on music, literature and pop culture. His latest
book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford
University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011
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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
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Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency

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London Fields

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Leviathan
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Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
Noir

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

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The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

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Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

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Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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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