The thing about Robbe-Grillet

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he was a novelist and film-maker, but he always insisted that the two should be considered separately – that his method in one medium wasn’t applicable for the other – that structural and aesthetic decisions should be made if they were right for the medium, not if they fit into some imagined nouveau roman way of doing things.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that his name in Britain has largely been evoked only as an example of how silly all that experimental, avant-garde stuff really was – we all know that his fiction is dull and a chore – nothing but a pointless exercise in ‘objectivity’ taken to a mind-numbing extreme – a bizarre relic of the earnest, hair-shirted modernist past, one whose pompous restrictions we are now fortunate to be free of – he told the Guardian in 2007 that “Nowhere in all the world has anywhere been less interested in my work than in Great Britain.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that – unlike in the UK – his work was well respected and studied in American universities – he used to travel to the US regularly to give lectures at colleges – and he (and other nouveau romanciers) had a big influence on a generation of American writers – like Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper – to the extent that in recent years there has been something of a backlash against the type of experimental fiction AR-G represents – either from a reactionary position (a return to the ‘classics’ of the 19th century) or – interestingly – from a feminist one.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that his work often included fantasies of the rape and murder of young girls.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he used the mood and exploratory drive of the detective story, but dispensed with the plot – this allowed him to explore his obsessions – the images that haunted him – without forcing a moral – without being subsumed within a political project.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that – strangely for an artist whose novels and films are full of sex and violence – his work is often criticised for being ‘dry’.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he was, after all, French – the French language is more strict than English when it comes to the rules of grammar – when it’s translated into English it can often seem formal – but AR-G’s smart and orderly prose is necessary to guide us through the hall of mirrors and false doors that make up the worlds of his novels – this isn’t your wild and hairy Beats telling conventional stories with hip slang, this is an exquisitely painted Surrealist landscape of fiction – think of the clean, crisp images of Marienbad – it is the aforementioned pulpish models – the detective, spy and murder mysteries – with their straight-forward language that allowed him to take the reader through these non-realist worlds.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet’s novels is that they exist within the plot holes of genre fiction – his worlds are made up of the paradoxes of fiction, of people trapped within the discontinuities of a glitch – instead of tying up loose ends he artfully arranges them for the eye to play over.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that his work has parallels to two other writers – one American, one English – who have been fully accepted and canonised in the UK – Burroughs and Ballard.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he used the detective story like Ballard used sci-fi and Burroughs used crime fiction – the rote structures (the same old story) were discarded as useless, leaving the exploratory mode as a tool to cut the images into a shape that the author felt got to the heart of the matter – and allowed us to see what was on the end of every fork – rather than focusing everything on the pleasure of the denouement, these writers eschewed climax and instead kept the reader tingling with uneasy and unfulfilled desire – this desire was driven by the aforementioned obsessions – simplified: with Burroughs it’s control, with Ballard it’s psychopathological sex, and with Robbe-Grillet it’s pain/pleasure – they shared themes: doctors, bondage, illusions of reality, drugs, murder, rape – not everything overlapped so easily, however – Ballard and Robbe-Grillet had a predilection for naked and injured women that Burroughs did not share – Ballard and Burroughs were both interested in futuristic technology – I can’t recall even a TV featuring in anything by Robbe-Grillet – interestingly, while all three authors were interested in science and the figure of the scientist, only Robbe-Grillet had a proper scientific background.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he filtered into British culture through Marienbad – Ballard himself was an admirer of Marienbad as a sci-fi movie – he qualified the categorisation as “not a capricious choice, its themes are time, space and identity, s-f’s triple pillars” – they were also both admirers of Surrealist painting and often included allusions to it in their work – another interesting parallel is that the protagonist of AR-G’s 1962 film L’Immortelle survives a car crash only to buy a similar car and inadvertently re-enact the accident – something very similar happens in Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash.

 JGB in front his reproduction of a lost work by the Surrealist painter Jean Delvaux – AR-G was also a fan – he worked on a book with the artist in 1975.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he is often taken for taking himself seriously – ‘dry’ – and yet the opposite criticism could be made – that he is too playful – his interviews were full of contradictory statements – said with a twinkle in the eye – his most famous work of criticism – Pour un nouveau roman – declared that anthropomorphic metaphor was a fictional trope that belonged to the past – but at that same time he published Jealousy – a novel with metaphor at its silently raging heart – this is typical of Robbe-Grillet’s puckishness.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is the enduring myth that his work is ‘objective’ – partly this came from Roland Barthes’ early review of The Erasers – partly from Robbe-Grillet’s criticism of Sartre’s anthropomorphism and metaphor in Nausea – but nothing could be further from the truth – his fiction and his films exist solely in the minds of his characters – as well as the author and reader, of course – who are themselves so lightly sketched as to be ciphers – the asynchronous time structures, contradictory events, the snapshot-deep portraits of other people, the sudden “slidings” (a key AR-G word) into different places and realities – all indicative of the way imagination and memory work subjectively within the mind.

Das Ding about Robbe-Grillet is this supposedly phenomenological interpretation of his work – he went through a phase of mentioning the term in his interviews – that led critics to see his work as being only about descriptions of objects and therefore ‘objective’ – but a split between the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’ is not so easy with Robbe-Grillet – just discerning who is talking – a Godlike narrator or a protagonist – is never easy because it is never always one or the other – it doesn’t help that Robbe-Grillet was never consistent in interviews – in this respect he is a bit like that other French Puck – Lacan – although on Lacan AR-G once said that in his later years “he really talked nonsense”.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that rather than being against subjectivity he was against realism – “I detest realism,” he said, “That is to say, the realist illusion. Reality is not realism. Reality is worrisome; realism is reassuring.” – realism – in AR-G’s conception of the word – means not only the reassuring narrative that the conventional novel gives to its readers, but any attempts to explain the world – this discounts all grand political projects, but leaves AR-G open to invisible, everyday ideology.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that – while he rejected political fiction – socialist realism, the engagé novel – his favourite filmmaker was Eisenstein – someone who no one can deny had a political message and made political films – but the important thing with Eisenstein is – while it is impossible to ignore his politics – his politics were inseparable from his aesthetics – that he was never about a kind of social realism that says that aesthetics must be subordinate to politics – as Robbe-Grillet wrote, “for the artist… despite his firmest political convictions – even despite his good will as a militant revolutionary – art cannot be reduced to the status of a means in the service of a cause which transcends it” – and – “Let us admit it quite frankly: the Socialist Revolution is suspicious of Revolutionary Art and, moreover, there is no reason to believe that it is wrong to be so.”

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is – lastly – that while his early work has been marginally accepted and appreciated – films like Last Year at Marienbad and Tran-Europ-Express and novels like The Erasers and Jealousy – it is his later work – especially from his 70s peak – that is still marginalised and ignored – dismissed by the art crowd as being too sexual and violent – dismissed by everyone else for being too confusing – one of his films was outlawed and publicly burned in Italy for not making sense – even though – as John Fletcher put it – his work is “puzzling only to the intellect” – what awaits a reader or viewer – if they aren’t too uptight about sex, violence and narrative continuity – is a hallucinatory world that slowly builds to a kind of delirium for – for what? – seemingly only that ephemeral thing – art.


Celebrity anti-politics

On Thinking Allowed this week, Laurie Taylor’s guest was Sanna Inthorn from the University of East Anglia. She was talking about her research into how young people think about politicians. She found that the young people she spoke to (aged between 16 and 17) said that they trusted celebrities like Eminem because they felt they knew about him and his life; they felt that they knew where he was coming from and that gave meaning and context to the things he had to say. Politicians, however, were seen as patronising and distant – just “rich, shouty men”.

Modern politicians (especially since Blair) have been at pains to seem normal, to carefully manage a touchy-feely image of themselves as – in Blair’s phrase – “a pretty straight sort of guy”. What most of them haven’t been able to do is become celebrities. As Inthorn said on the programme, politicians aren’t on Big Brother. (George Galloway serves as a warning to politicians who try to court just this sort of reality tv celebrity)

When politicians become powerful they have a kind of drab, default celebrity: they are newsworthy. But the celebrity that Inthorn is referring to – the celebrity of pop stars and reality tv detritus – alludes them. But imagine what a politician could get away with if he/she had that kind of celebrity, a more personal relationship with the public. We’ve seen a rehearsal of this in Britain with the popularity of Boris Johnson, but the real model for this type of celebrity politician is Silvio Berlusconi.

There is just as much a danger of some form of Berlusconism being the next phase in British politics as there is a chance for a left resurgence. And it would be worth reminding ourselves the repeated missed opportunities that the left-of-centre in Italy had to do away with Berlusconi, only to see their complacency blow up in their faces when Berlusconi bounced back. A celebrity anti-politics could easily catch the imagination of many disenchanted with politics, including the young. If that happened, any outrage over corruption would easily be absorbed by the illusion of familiarity people feel towards celebrities – a perfect libidinal position from which to complete the disembowelling of the social democratic state.