Alain Robbe-Grillet: A master of “pure invention”

by dollydelightly

The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s name is synonymous with the theory of the Nouveau Roman and the notion that a “true writer has nothing to say” but “what counts is the way he says it”. This statement may seem somewhat facetious, disingenuous even, but judging by Robbe-Grillet’s second novel it is one he firmly believed. The Voyeur  transgresses every conventional literary mode, subverting the story by way of circuitous narrative, character inter-changeability and stochastic chronological reversals. Robbe-Grillet skips back and forth from scene to scene, each time relaying it from a slightly different angle before moving the narrative languidly along to another listlessly plangent exposition. It is rather like a game of Pelmanism, not only for the reader but also for the protagonist. Mathias, formerly an itinerant electrician, now a hapless travelling watch-salesman returns to the unnamed island of his birth in order to try and shift some wares, under the guise of making “a harmless pretence of renewing friendships”. While fruitlessly touting his goods to the native dwellers, Mathias learns that a young girl by the name of Jacqueline Leduc has been found dead, “naked on a bed of brown seaweed” beneath a cliff. It is initially assumed that she missed her footing and fell to her death but as the investigation progresses Mathias finds himself unable to account for 50 minutes expended on his sales route. Struck by panic and a lapse in memory he begins to suspect that he may have brutally raped and murdered Jacqueline, and the only person who may or may not know for certain is a young man named Julien Marek.

The seemingly straightforward plot of The Voyeur is anything but as the line between place and time, reality and memory is not merely blurred but altogether obliterated. The writer forewarns the reader early on as Mathias arrives on the island. “They assured him that nothing had changed for 30 years,” writes  Robbe-Grillet, “[but] even supposing that everything, down to the smallest detail, had remained just as he had left it, he would still have to reckon with the errors and inaccuracies of his own memory, which experience had taught him to mistrust. More than any real changes on the island, or even hazy recollections – which were nevertheless numerous enough to prevent him from relating any precise image of the place – he would have to be wary of exact but false memories which would here and there have substituted themselves for the original earth and stones.”  This notion, as the book itself, falls in line with Robbe-Grillet’s argument that the new novel has to be “anti-realist, anti-naturalist, anti-descriptive, apolitical”. Robbe-Grillet called for a complete departure from consuetudinary 19th century prose as epitomised by the likes of Honoré de Balzac and Gustav Flaubert. He believed that writing should exhibit its own infrastructure, depicting the writer’s thoughts as they unfold.

It is perhaps no surprise then that chaos reigns supreme in The Voyeur. There is no linear cohesion or orderly structure, so much so that even Mathias gets confused between “what he saw with his own eyes and his recollections of the previous scene”.  Misperception is a defining feature of the book, which makes the coalescing of clues to reveal the perpetrator of the crime a rather tortuous process in this repetitive semi-narrative devoid of a sequential timeline. Robbe-Grillet deconstructs the novel, challenging the reader to revaluate it, to assimilate it and to immerse fully in the writer’s imagination. This is on occasion somewhat taxing, and only alleviated by Robbe-Grillet’s sedulous penmanship and his ability to conjure up an intense and pregnant atmosphere. As a pioneer of the Nouveau Roman, Robbe-Grillet was highly influential in the formulation of avant-garde practices that defied basic literary conventions. He spent his career experimenting with themes of repressed memory and nebulous identity, the ambiguous complexity of space and time and the intricate nature of truth. The Voyeur is an early example of Robbe-Grillet’s style, but the erratic chronology, mystic symbolism, incantatory narrative, rounded repetitions and stylised deconstructions of plot, later became his signature leitmotifs.

Reading this maddening yet captivating book I was struck by the writer’s attention to detail and his consummately rich imagination. When for example Mathias boards the boat, Robbe-Grillet masterfully evokes a sense of foreboding and melancholy often associated with travelling. “The ship moved ahead under its own momentum, and the only sound that could be heard was the rustling of water as it slid past the hull,” writes Robbe-Grillet, “A grey gull, flying from astern at a sleep only slightly greater than that of the ship, passed slowly on the port side in front of the pier, gliding at the level of the bridge without the slightest movement of its wings, its head cocked, one eye fixed on the water below – one round, indifferent, inexpressive, eye.” Similarly, Robbe-Grillet pays close attention to ostensibly inconsequential details such as Mathias’ reddish brown leather suitcase, for example, whose “solid manufacture inspired confidence…The handle, fastened with two metal clasps, was made of softer, imitation-leather material. The lock, the two hinges and the three big rivets at each of the eight corners looked like copper, as did the clasps of the handle, but even slight wear had already revealed the real composition of the four rivets on the bottom: slightly coppered tinplate, which was obviously what the other twenty rivets were made of – and doubtless the rest of the rest of the fittings as well.” And so on for another page, which could make for tedious reading but doesn’t.

The Voyeur is a truly new vision of the novel, with its ever-shifting levels of reality and enigmatic narrative, depicting a familiar yet numinous universe. Most of Robbe-Grillet’s fiction is guided by this practice – by the aspiration for a fresh literary perspective – as outlined in his book of essays called For a New Novel. It is perhaps therefore no surprise that much of his early work was largely ignored by the public on account of being too experimental, too obtuse.  It was only later, after he had scripted Alain Resnais’ famous film Last Year at Marienbad that Robbe-Grillet began to gain favour both with the literati and the reading public. He pandered, however, to neither. And there is something admirable in that and in his writing, which he always claimed was “pure invention”. And that’s the most remarkable thing about it; the sheer force of the human imagination.

Publisher: Alma Classics
Publication Date: 2012
Paperback: 178 pages
ISBN: 9781847492845