Magazine article Artforum International

The Geometry of the Pressant

Magazine article Artforum International

The Geometry of the Pressant

Article excerpt

THE OBITUARIES Alain Robbe-Grillet received in the British press depicted him as a significant but ultimately eccentric novelist, whose work forswore any attempt to he "believable" or to engage with the real world in a "realistic" way. In taking this line, the obituarists displayed an intellectual shortcoming typical of Anglo-American empiricism, and displayed it on two fronts: first, in their failure to understand that literary "realism" is itself a construct as laden with artifice as any other; and second, in missing the glaring fact that Robbe-Grillet's novels are actually ultrarealist, shot through at every level with the sheer quiddity of the environments to which they attend so faithfully. What we see happening in them, again and again, is space and matter inscribing themselves on consciousness, whose task, reciprocally, is to accommodate space and matter. As Robbe-Grillet was himself fond of declaring: "No art without world."

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This type of intense congress with the real can be seen even in the author's shortest offerings. In the three-page story "The Dressmaker's Dummy" (which opens the collection Snapshots [1962]), we are shown a coffeepot, a four-legged table, a waxed tablecloth, a mannequin, and, crucially, a large rectangular mirror that reflects the room's objects--which include a mirror-fronted wardrobe that in turn redoubles everything. Thus we are made to navigate a set of duplications, modifications, and distortions that are at once almost impossibly complex and utterly accurate: This is how rooms actually look to an observer, how their angles, surfaces, and sight lines impose themselves on his or her perception. No other action takes place in the piece, which nonetheless ends with a quite stunning "twist," as we are told that the coffeepot's base bears a picture of an owl "with two large, somewhat frightening eyes," but, due to the coffeepot's presence, this image cannot be seen. What waits for us at the story's climax, its gaze directed back toward our own, is a blind spot.

In Jealousy (1957), this blind spot is the novel's protagonist. Through a meticulously--indeed, obsessively--described house set in the middle of a tropical banana plantation moves what filmmakers call a POV, or point of view, a camera-and-mic-like "node" of seeing and hearing. The one thing not seen or heard by this node is the node itself. Phrases such as "It takes a glance at her empty though stained plate to discover" and "Memory succeeds, moreover, in reconstituting" beg the questions: Whose glance? Whose memory? The answer, it can pretty easily be inferred from the novel's context, is that it is the master of the house's glance and memory, his movements and reflections that we are experiencing as he watches his wife, identified only as "A ...," negotiate an affair with the neighboring plantation's owner, Franck. The effect of stating the hero's subjectivity negatively, by implication rather than by affirmation, is eerie and troubling: His gaze becomes like that of "The Shape" in John Carpenter's Halloween, or the entity in David Lynch's Lost Highway who stalks a maritally troubled house at night armed with a camera. When we read that "it is only at a distance of less than a yard" that the back of A ...'s head appears a certain way, we realize with a shudder that her jealous husband is creeping up on her from behind. He is observing her, in this particular instance, through the slats of a blind (or jalousie in French); and we, through an ingenious if untranslatable linguistic duplication, are watching her through two jalousies: a double blind.

The novel is saturated with a sense of geometry. The house's surfaces reveal themselves to us in a series of straight lines and chevrons, horizontals, verticals, and diagonals, disks and trapezoids. The banana trees, as green as jealousy itself, are laid out in quincunxes, as are the workers who replace the bridge's rectangular beams. …

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