Saturday, May 17, 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy

Alain Robbe-Grillet died last year. He was the first and among the most famous of the "New Novelists" produced by France in the second half of the twentieth century. Jealousy is a short novel that some take to be his masterpiece. It was roundly panned when it first came out, but eventually came to be seen more kindly. What's pictured above is a map of the plantation house where the novel takes place. "Taking place," where Robbe-Grillet is concerned, is sort of a misleading phrase; Jealousy winds, folds in upon itself, repeats parts like a piece of music, deliberately doesn't cohere, and leaves us pretty much in the dark, so that non-linearity becomes not only a feature of the text but a distinguishing characteristic. That is what, for me, makes it exciting; Robbe-Grillet uses non-linearity the way Jimi Hendrix used the electric guitar; as a kind of mechanical mistress, a way to create a sense of stasis that is not static, sight that is not vision, affect that has no concrete correlative. A... is the muse of the text (if we can posit that there is a muse for the text), a beautiful woman, the implicit protagonist's wife. He suspects that she is having an affair with Franck, a neighbor who also owns a plantation. All the incredible sexual tension happens in a perpetual ellipse:

The hand with tapering fingers has clenched into a fist on the white cloth. The five widespaced fingers have closed over the palm with such force that they have pulled the cloth with them. The cloth shows five convergent creases, much longer than the fingers which have produced them.

Only the first joint is still visible. On the ring finger gleams a thin ribbon of gold that barely rises above the flesh. Around the hand radiate the creases, looser and looser as they move out from the center, but also wider and wider, finally becoming a uniform white surface on which Franck's brown, muscular hand wearing a large flat ring of the same type comes to rest.

Robbe-Grillet was apparently interested in creating objective prose; interiority, conventional psychology and character development were deemed passe. When Roland Barthes writes about Robbe-Grillet, he emphasizes "sight," the visual dimension of his work, that what we see (visualize) is what we get. However, it is part and parcel of Robbe-Grillet's peculiar magic that by being entirely objective and ocular, he manages to imply (and create by implying) everything else: character, interior detail, psychology, affect. It is in the dynamic tension between a streamlined surface and a convoluted, whirlpool-like depth that Robbe-Grillet achieves solidity. "Reading the surface" allows adequate pleasure, in and of itself; Robbe-Grillet is the most detailed novelist this side of Marcel Proust (though the details are invariably outward and objective); but a reading that does not acknowledge a subterranean level of activity would, I think, be missing part of the point.

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