New Light on Dark Secrets; French Literary Hero Alain Robbe-Grillet Was an Impotent Sadist, According to His Wife's Journal ... esreviewThe Arts

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Byline: DAVID SEXTON

AT THE age of 73, the wife of France's most famous living novelist, Alain Robbe-Grillet, has just published a revealing diary of their early married life. In parts it is just as explicit as the shocking bestseller The Sexual Life of Catherine M. Yet in the French press, it has been received with studied politesse. "For the Robbe-Grillets, intelligence is a shared virtue," concluded Liberation. Le Monde hailed "the erotic connivance of an original couple". Such a response to such disclosures would be unthinkable in England. So what is going on here?

In the Fifties and Sixties, in novels such as The Voyeur, and Jealousy, Alain Robbe-Grillet established a new style of narrative, concentrating on external reality, shunning psychology and plot. The film he scripted, Last Year at Marienbad (1961), about a love triangle in a labyrinthine setting, brought mystifying abstractions to the screen. It became a cult, and Robbe-Grillet was treated as a leader of the "nouveau roman".

His novels, appreciated as sophisticated linguistic games rather than human dramas, were much in fashion in the era when Parisian intellectuals such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault were involved in the development of Structuralist theory.

Throughout the human and social sciences, individual human agency was discredited - and "systems" and " discourses" examined instead.

Debased versions of this "post-modern" occultism still thrive among lowg rade academics across the English-speaking world. In France, however, the comeback for common sense - the "retour du sujet", the return of the self - is dated to 1975 and the publication of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. By no means a straightforward memoir, consisting of fragments alphabetically organised, it was nonetheless revelatory of Barthes himself, what he as a man liked and didn't like. It transpired that advanced modernists could still tell the story of their lives. In the Eighties, even Robbe-Grillet published oblique, stylised autobiographies.

Other avant-gardistes experienced the retour du sujet in more drastic fashion. The influential Marxist Louis Althusser strangled his wife, Helene, in 1980 and spent the next 10 years in various clinics. After his death in 1990, there appeared a revolting autobiography called The Future Lasts a Long Time, which sought to justify him as the primary victim.

The ultrafashionable theorist Michel Foucault, who argued that the discourses of medicine were part of the construction of social power, died of Aids in 1984, in the very hospital, the Salpetriere, which he had assaulted in Madness and Civilisation. His first biographer, a French friend named Didier Eribon, was hesitant in 1989 about even attempting to write the life of a man who had challenged the very notion of an "author". An American rival, James Miller, took a more realistic approach, linking Foucault's death to his extreme sadomasochism and his passion for San Francisco bathhouses - as well as his stated contention that "sex is worth dying for".

Among Foucault's academic admirers, the book provoked indignation.

Still, the self keeps coming back.

Last month, in France, Catherine Robbe-Grillet surprisingly published the private journal, Jeune Mariee (Fayard), she had kept during the first five years of her marriage to Alain Robbe-Grillet, from 1957 to 1962.

Catherine was in her late twenties, Alain in his mid-thirties and entering the period of his greatest success.

The book is captivating. Robbe-Grillet describes her married life with simplicity and candour, in all its aspects, from sex to shopping. It was intended, she says in 1959, as a letter written to herself 20 years later (45, as it happened) and never meant to be read by anyone else. But times have changed and here it is.

Jeune Mariee has the direct appeal of those English diarists, from Samuel Pepys to Frances Partridge, who give us their days quite straight. …