How to Misread Robbe-Grillet: Jonathan Meades on the Supreme Novelist of France's Trente Glorieuses

Article excerpt

Alain Robbe-Grillet died in Caen in the early hours of Monday 18 February. By the end of that day le vioc terrible had posthumously established a thriving, pan-European cottage industry devoted to his valediction. Artisan moralisers, celebrity denouncers, AOC provocateurs, free-range score settlers, craft-based bashers, grand cru groupies. They all had their say and are continuing to have it. Precisely ... so long as he is being talked about, his shade can rest happy. As in death, so in life.

The daughter of Nathalie Sarraute and widow of Jean-Francois Revel, Claude Sarraute, responded to Robbe-Grillet's death with what she evidently reckoned to be righteous ire. In fact, she conducted herself like an idiote savante who unwittingly hits most of the nail on the head. She told the Nouvel Observateur that Robbe-Grillet had nicked everything from her mother, was a self-publicist who had exploited a literature invented by her mother for his personal profit in American universities, had based his Pour un nouveau roman on her mother's L'Ere du soupcon, and would go to any lengths to attract attention.

Now, this inventory of charges is both damning and broadly indisputable. But Sarraute has quite overlooked her late husband's dictum that there are no schools, only talents. A truth which should be self-evident but which is subjugated by the ineradicable tendency to classify, to ascribe artists to particular movements, to think in terms of genres, to survey creative endeavour in, so to speak, communitarian rather than individual terms. The question, as Duke Ellington pointed out, should be not whether it's classical music or jazz music but whether it's good music. This is difficult to ask when artists congregate in cosy squadrons, give themselves a collective name, publish manifestos, enact aesthetic legislation, issue compositional edicts.


Robbe-Grillet may have been proudly amused to be known as lepape du nouveau roman--a second-hand sobriquet borrowed from Andre Breton, lepape du surrealisme--but it caused him to be defined as a literary politician, a spokesman, a figurehead, an aesthetic tyrant whose theoretical essays had the disastrous effect of instructing an audience how to read his texts. Most of the best of these texts had appeared before Pour un nouveau roman was published and so, too, had his two greatest films. I had chanced upon L'Immortelle and then--thankfully, innocently, unsystematically--sought out L'Annee derniere a Marienbad, La jalousie, Dans le labyrinthe and La maison de rendez-vous before I was aware of the existence of Pour un nouveau roman. I didn't know what I was meant to make of these films, which had the movement of dreams and nightmares, or this wonderful insidious prose that seemed like it was releasing something that was already there, in your head, occluded in its deepest vaults.

I thus didn't know there was no psychology in his work, because the depiction of impotent jealousy in La jalousie seemed horrible, painful and psychologically acute. …