‘David Shields recently dismissed most contemporary novels as “antediluvian texts” that “could have been written by Flaubert 150 years ago”. “In no way,” claimed the author of Reality Hunger, “do they convey what it feels like to live in the 21st century.”
‘He has a point – albeit one that Alain Robbe-Grillet had already made in 1965 when he deplored the fact that young French novelists were praised for writing “like Stendhal” but castigated as soon as they refused to abide by the “dead rules” of a bygone age. Along with Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon – the main proponents of the new novel (nouveau roman) – Robbe-Grillet stood resolutely in the second camp. In his essays, he returns time and again to the notion that the novel, from Stendhal to Joyce, has constantly evolved – hence the absurdity of using “the norms of the past” to judge the fiction of today. Far from representing a rejection of the past, the quest for a new novel was thus very much in keeping with the history of a genre which, by definition, must always be renewed.
‘Feeling that his work was too often misrepresented by the critical establishment (with a few notable exceptions including Barthes, Blanchot and Nabokov), Robbe-Grillet published a series of articles to set the record straight. In 1963 they were collected in Towards a New Novel – for my money, one of the most important works of postwar literary criticism. However, these “critical reflections” were never meant to constitute a manifesto. Every novel, according to Robbe-Grillet, is a self-sufficient work of art which cannot be reduced to some external meaning or truth that is “known in advance”. “The New Novel,” as he put it, “is not a theory, it is an exploration.” Why bother writing a book that illustrates a rule when “the statement of the rule would suffice”?
‘Quoting Heidegger at the beginning of an essay on Waiting For Godot, Robbe-Grillet writes that the human condition is “to be there”. In another essay, he states that it is “chiefly in its presence that the world’s reality resides”. So there you have it. Man is here, the world is there and the distance between the two lies at the heart of the new novel project. We endow the world with meaning (or meaninglessness) in order to control it. From this point of view, the writer’s traditional role was to excavate nature in order to unearth the “hidden soul of things”. Robbe-Grillet calls for the creation of a new form of fiction that reflects the “more modest, less anthropomorphic world” we live in today – one which is “neither significant nor absurd,” but simply is.
‘This seemingly anodyne observation has serious literary ramifications. Gone is the traditional hero of yore who believed the world was there to be conquered and whose hour of glory coincided with the triumph of individualism. Gone is the humanist “communion” between people and things: “Things are things, and man is only man.” Gone is the notion of tragedy, which Robbe-Grillet sees as a twisted ploy to reaffirm this solidarity: “I call out. No one answers. Instead of concluding that there is no one there (…) I decide to act as if someone were there, but someone who, for some reason or other, will not answer”. In the new novel, “Man looks at the world” but “the world does not look back,” which precludes any symbolism or transcendence. The novelist’s task now is to describe the material world, not to appropriate it or project himself onto it; to record the distance between human beings and things without interpreting this distance as a painful division. All this implies that the “entire literary language” be reformed. Similes and metaphors, which are often used gratuitously to confer literary status upon a text, are seldom innocent since they tend to anthropomorphise the world.
‘The new novel is routinely attacked for being inhuman and coldly descriptive. Robbe-Grillet responds that his work is in fact far less objective than the godlike, omniscient narrator who presides over so many traditional novels. Description here is purely subjective and takes centre stage, whereas in Balzac, for instance, it simply sets the scene by lending the plot an air of authenticity. Instead of referring to an external, pre-existing reality, Robbe-Grillet’s descriptions seem to create their own objects, their own hallucinatory reality. “Nothing,” he explains, “is more fantastic, ultimately, than precision.”
‘The reality of any work of art is its form, and to separate style from substance is to “remove the novel from the realm of art”. Art, Robbe-Grillet reminds us, is not just a pretty way of presenting a message: it is the message. Like the world out there, a novel is self-sufficient and “expresses nothing but itself”. Its “necessity” has nothing to do with its “utility”. Whenever an author envisages a future book, “it is always a way of writing which first of all occupies his mind,” which leads Robbe-Grillet to state – provocatively – that “the genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking”. Creative writing classes should always start and end on that note.’ — Andrew Gallix
Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Art of Fiction
AR-G @ Editions de Minuit
AR-G @ goodreads
POUR UN NOUVEAU ROMAN, d’Alain Robbe-Grillet
L’INFLUENCE DE LA NAZISPLOITATION DANS L’ŒUVRE D’ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET
Video: Soirée en l’honneur d’Alain Robbe-Grillet
Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Way Back
Alain Robbe-Grillet: Bucketfuls of semen
Video: Blow up – Vous connaissez “Les gommes”, d’après Alain Robbe-Grillet ?
Alain Robbe-Grillet se reflète à l’infini
Alain Robbe-Grillet, vous connaissez ?
ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET, PÈRE DU NOUVEAU ROMAN
Buy ‘For a New Novel’
Tom McCarthy on Alain Robbe-Grillet
Robbe Grillet, Experimental Fiction & Myth
Alain Robbe-Grillet Exhibition at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts
Apostrophes : Alain Robbe-Grillet et Robert Kanters “La création littéraire”
from Senses of Cinema
Back in 1958 Roland Barthes wrote that “there is no Robbe-Grillet school”. Decades on, aside from the nouveau roman, can you see a traceable influence of your work on the contemporary novel?
There is no such thing as a Robbe-Grillet school of thought! Barthes, in his articles on me, reduced my first two novels into something fascinating, but something which was closer to his train of thought than to mine. In his articles, one on The Erasers and the other on The Voyeur, he emphasised the projection onto the object, thus creating a paradox around the concept of objectivity. In this way he completely ignored the phantasms which were already playing such an important part in the works, and thus he ignored the projection onto the outside world of the personal inner world. He interpreted these two novels as representative of a literary statement, where objects were viewed purely as they were and nothing else. Barthes viewed my work from a very subjective point of view and projected his own value system in his interpretation, which, when all is said and done, he was perfectly entitled to do as a critic.
From my point of view, there never was a school; when I gathered around me a number of writers like Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, and later Marguerite Duras, there was never any intention of gathering people whose outlook was the same, and whose research aimed at the same objective. What in fact brought us together was that the same criticism was leveled at all of us, namely that we did not write like Balzac. Consequently, sharing the same criticism, we all made up the nouveau roman, or New Novel, as compared to the traditional style of writing. Each one of us had to strive in the direction each of us had chosen for himself or herself. I have always fought against the normalisation, the standardisation, of the New Novel — this is one of the reasons why I found myself in opposition to a younger generation of theoreticians who tried to structure the concept of the New Novel and excluded Marguerite Duras from the movement, for instance.
When we meet we are aware of a certain solidarity amongst ourselves, a type of brotherhood. During the last big gathering in New York we realized that we had a common language. For instance, when we talk about the notion of consciousness — the ‘Balzacian Conscience’, the 19th century concept of writing is a totalitarian concept, it is all comprehensive, inside man, it englobes everything, it is whole and stable, whereas in the New Novel we deal with a consciousness which is outward looking, as defined by the philosopher Edmund Husserl, in other words, a consciousness of something — a fragmented mobile consciousness.
Because the outside world is fragmented, consciousness must also be so, and this way it looses the overall coherence which it had a hundred and fifty years ago, and at the same time this consciousness is constantly changing, constantly struggling against itself, forever creating new images — Sartre called it “freedom”.
In its earlier development the nouveau roman was called many things — objective literature, école du regard, phenomenological novel, etc. — in hindsight do any of these descriptions seem more accurate than others?
When critics used the term “phenomenology”, they had no idea of what it could be. They liked the word, but when one looks closely at what they wrote one gets the impression that phenomena are external to man, fulfilling its own life independently from man — this is not what Husserl meant by phenomenology. He meant a moving consciousness, projected outward towards the phenomenon, this very phenomenon exists because of this projection outside myself. It is in this movement outside of me towards an object that the phenomenon appears. Phenomenology does not exclude man, as critics seem to imply. Already, you can see a different sort of consciousness appear in Albert Camus’ The Outsider, particularly in the first part of the novel.
Critical analysis has emphasised the role played by “the eye” in my novel Jealousy, but I would say that “the ear” plays an equally important part in it. As for the word “objectif” critics have made numerous mistakes. Barthes launched the concept but gave it a thwarted meaning. Barthes always liked controversy and enjoyed using words in a context other than the one usually used or understood. In his article on The Erasers he described the work as “objective literature”, and he immediately defined this adjective by referring to the dictionary and thus giving it the meaning of “projection towards the object”. As for the traditional school of criticism, they stupidly omitted Barthes’ definition of “objective” and described my work as objective in the sense of meaning that the subject had completely disappeared.
I would describe the type of literature I write as a subjective type of writing, but geared to the idea of “projected towards the object”.
When critics looked at what I was writing, which emphasized the subject, the subjectivity of a theme, they said that I was attempting to be objective but failed. They ended up with a complete contradiction of the original intention.
From the period of the film Last Year at Marienbad critics started to speak about the concept of surrealism, of phantasmagory. They spoke about the cinema of phantasms. There had been no change in my work, but the approaches to my work were divided, sometimes emphasising the subjective element, and at other times the objective element. Barthes even speaks about Robbe-Grillet No. 1, No. 2, No. 3; yet when one becomes aware of the symbols of Last Year at Marienbad, one should re-read my earlier novels and one would realize that the symbols were already there.
What do you think is the current state of the nouveau roman?
To understand a new form of literature is a difficult thing for people. For instance, I would say that Flaubert is better understood today than he was in his own time, during the period he was writing Madame Bovary. There have been profound changes in the world, and consequently in the outlook of readers.
The New Novel is doing well, better than ever, because now it has a lot of readers. Not only do books sell, but they are better read and understood. For instance, with the last of Marguerite Duras’ books, The Lover, I had the impression that the book had become “visible” (popular) yet it is as complex as her previous work. But it was better understood because these concepts had made their way.
Given the gradual dissemination of Barthes’ idea of “ecriture” over the course of time, do you think that the nouveau roman has lost some of its autonomy from other kinds of novelistic practices? Has it become more elusive to define or recognize?
No, I don’t think so, because Barthes has disappeared from the New Novel. He was connected to the idea of the New Novel, but during the fifties and sixties. Since Jealousy, In the Labyrinth and Last Year atMarienbad, Barthes distanced himself from the movement.
Barthes really has not had much effect on the New Novel. There were moments when our outlooks coincided and other moments when they did not. What harmed the New Novel was not Barthes’ views, but the simplification of what he had said, which reduced the whole impact to a bland, neutral, factual type of writing.
I address these questions in my latest book, Le miroir qui revient.
Could you comment on this quotation from Umberto Eco: “But the moment comes when the avant-garde (the modern) can go no further, because it has produced a metalanguage that speaks of its impossible texts (conceptual art). The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited; but with irony, not innocently.’
I am interested in your thoughts on the debate between modernism and postmodernism, and their relation to your work.
I never spoke of destroying the past. Flaubert has been my inspiration. As for Umberto Eco, he is a dual character. He was at the vanguard of the modernist movement, but he is now writing populist novels. He was the theoretician of the avant-garde movement, but he has come back to the past. He speaks in this quotation about himself.
The idea that the avant-garde has failed and that one must back track is absurd. The avant-garde must by definition fail, because each writer must go to the ultimate conclusion of his or her ideas. Each writer must continue to progress in his/her chosen direction.
As for Postmodernism, it is a bad description. It was created as a specific concept, situated in a precise context — that of German architecture. It means a reaction against the utilitarianism of the Bauhaus type of architecture. It was used in literature in the seventies, especially in American criticism. It was misunderstood and misapplied. I have not understood either, all the more that in some articles I was viewed as a postmodernist and in others I was viewed as a modernist. I do not like this word as its use is pretty much impossible.
You seem to share an interest with the Pop artists in the signs/images of popular culture and, like them, there is an ironic position taken in your work.
I like popular images when they are taken up by art. For instance, a tin of Campbell’s soup is not a work of art, it becomes so when Warhol has been inspired by it. Marcel Duchamp was the first to have taken ordinary objects and to have transformed them in his work.
The American School of painting, like the work of Robert Rauschenberg, is in fact a perfect example of the way Pop Art has been inspired by everyday objects.
In literature a book like La maison de rendez-vous, or Project For a Revolution in New York, are also inspired by popular imagery, but this imagery is completely transformed in the writing process. I don’t believe in naïve pop culture, the filtering process of art is essential to make it an artistic work.
When I deal with popular imagery as a source of influence in my work, I use it as a critically distancing process. I don’t use the word irony when I speak of my work, I’d rather use the word humour. Irony, in the French language, is a value judgement, whereas humour means that you stand back and it does not automatically imply a value judgement.
The humour in my work was understood only of late. For a very long time I was viewed as a novelist and film director lacking in humour. With Last Year in Marienbad very few people saw humour in it.
What of the erotic imagery in your novels and films?
The erotic imagery in my books and films are just that, materials drawn from the influence of pop images which I use. In Roland Barthes’ terms, I pick out certain elements which I simplify to the level of significant objects. I transform them, purify them and create a new semiotic system out of them, to communicate and create something else. It is true for all of my imagery. I use the pop art imagery as creative material to produce something else, to communicate another message.
Was there any relation between the French New Wave movement in the cinema and the nouveau roman?
The New Wave is even more difficult to delineate than the New Novel, because in the case of the New Novel we are dealing with innovators, whereas in the New Wave there have been remarkably academic filmmakers like Claude Chabrol, or others who are middle-of-the-road intellectuals, like François Truffaut; they were very successful immediately because they were intellectual in their approach. However, there have been pure innovators like Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard. Therefore a certain parallel can be drawn with the New Novel from only a section of the New Wave directors. We do feel a certain common interest with the innovators in their field. Cahiers du cinéma have criticised Rene Clair, but he is much more innovative than Truffaut or Chabrol.
Finally, what novels do you like of late?
The New Novel of course! Everything which interests me I call a New Novel. To me it is not a closed shop or world, new people come in all the time.
Alain Robbe-Grillet For a New Novel
Northwestern University Press
‘Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the leaders of the new French literary movement of the sixties, has long been regarded as the outstanding writer of the nouveau roman, as well as its major spokesman. For a New Novel reevaluates the techniques, ethos, and limits of contemporary fiction. This is a work of immense importance for any discussions of the history of the novel and for contemporary thinking about the future of fiction.’ — Northwestern University Press
‘Far from being a manifesto, For a New Novel is a releasing book, releasing in the fullest sense. It shows the possibilities of the novel, and possible ways of thinking about the novel; and it shows how little most of us . . . have dared to think, and why. Amazing. As for importance, I doubt that fiction as an art can any longer seriously be discussed without reference to Robbe-Grillet.’ –Eliot Fremont-Smith, New York Times
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. On grown men too. Here’s hoping. ** Damien Ark, Hi, D. Yes, Halloween’s mostly cancellation in the US (and elsewhere) is a very, very sad thing, and it makes my thematic post making more difficult, but I persist, and my Halloween posts under duress will start showing up here very soon. My pleasure re: your book gracing this blog, man. Whenever you’re ready. Thank you for saying that. Our interactions here about your work and everything else are very rewarding for me too. xo ** Sypha, Yes, and his prices are so reasonable. I’m sorry to hear about your strange recent weeks. I mean, general strangeness is the order of our current day, and the last thing one needs is personal strangeness on top. Always the greatest to have you here, pal, so just whenever you feel like it’s a boon on your end. ** Dominik, Hi, D! Ha ha, so true. Oh, I banged my foot against something a few weeks ago and seem to have broken my baby toe. Not the first time, but it’s taking forever to stop being swollen and painful, which is weird. So I might have to see a doctor even though doctors always say broken baby toes have to get better on their own. Anyway, it’s annoying. Any minute now, I think, on the new restrictions. They’ve already been imposed in the other two hot spots (Marseille and Bordeaux), and, in those cases, it’s not so, so bad: no gatherings of more than 10 people, no parties, no weddings, etc. Bars and restaurants closing earlier. No alcohol drinking in public at night. Some events cancelled. Things like that. We’ll see, gulp. Right, makes sense about your plan re: moving to Amsterdam. I hope the proofreading thing continues to interest you. Seems like it will. Yes, the new SCAB is super great, maybe the best one yet? Seems highly possible. You rule. Ha ha. Love that turns a Zoom call into a crawl-through secret international passageway, Dennis ** G, Hey, G. Steal away. I steal little things from those escorting authors all the time, but don’t tell them. Have a very mighty Wednesday! ** _Black_Acrylic, We had a mini-heatwave here yesterday too. Today as well but slightly less heated. Summer is being obnoxiously stubborn. I’m curious about ‘Des’. I’m gonna find a way to see it. The book is very good, definitely one of the very best books about serial killers. ** Steve Erickson, Wouldn’t surprise me. Oh, cool, always happy when a post helps lead an artist somewhere productive. Man, the ‘Antebellum’ reviews are brutal. Yours too, I assume. I’ll find out. Everyone, Here’s Steve Erickson: ‘My review of the dreadful slavery-themed horror film ANTEBELLUM came out today’. My Facebook survival method is to (1) stay apolitical there, (2) stay away from groups (except fun stuff like GbV and theme park lover ones and so on), (3) unfollow liberally. The ‘Cuties’ controversy is so fucking endemic of the utter knee-jerk unthoughtful shit swamping so many American brains. Urgh. ** Okay. I originally made today’s post to launch on Robbe-Grillet’s birthday, but then I fucked up and missed the date. So it’s kind of a rather late R-G birthday thing. I’ve done a fair number of R-G posts here, but I’ve never focused on ‘For A New Novel’, a book that heavily and permanently impacted the way I thought about fiction and wrote fiction when I read it in the early 80s. I highly recommend it, at least to writers who are content to never write popular, best selling novels. Or even fairly popular ones, ha ha. See you tomorrow.