Translator's Introduction to A Sentimental Novel
Brooke, D. E., The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Alain Robbe-Grillet's novel Un Roman Sentimental was published in France in October 2007. Less than six months later, on the 18th of February, 2008, Robbe-Grillet was dead. This last book of a writing and filmmaking career that spanned almost six decades was more or less roundly dismissed as obscene, the product of an octogenarian author possibly no longer in his right mind. On a French television show in 2007, the interviewer asked the author if, like Apollinaire's notorious, pornographic novel Les Onze Mille Verges, Un Roman Sentimental was not simply a literary curiosity. After expressing justified indignation at the comparison, (1) Robbe-Grillet replied that, to his way of thinking, every work is a literary curiosity, "La Jalousie was a literary curiosity." Curiosity or not, it seems odd that the last work by the man dubbed "the pope of the new novel" should be deemed so devoid of merit as to be of no interest to the American literary establishment, but an editor at the French publisher Fayard confirms that, indeed, all their publishing contacts in the US turned the book down in 2007 due to its subject matter, considered beyond the pale. This pious exhibition of moral opprobrium can be classified as, at best, wrongheaded; at worst, it's a business decision--a wish not to invite the kind of negative attention the book appears to go hand in hand with--parading as ethics
The novel purports to transform into a work of literary fiction the author's own avowed catalogue of perverse fantasies, which he claims have remained unchanged since the age of twelve, and that he has been taking notes on over the years, every one consisting of transgressions perpetrated against young girls. In the course of 239 numbered paragraphs, and in a series of theatrical set pieces evoked in sumptuous detail, we read about the education of Gigi, a girl of fourteen, by her father (also her lover) in matters erotic, more specifically sadomasochistic, with the assistance and participation of a chorus of girl children who are submitted to progressively more excruciating, savage, and brutal acts of torture and rape--the reader is spared no detail of organs lacerated, blood spilled, fluids propagated. There are also digressions, in the form of flashbacks and asides that fill in the story of this or that sundry character, each producing their own miniature hair-raising fable.
The unusual coupling produced by this wedding of the style Robbe-Grillet pioneered in the '60s to the narrative of a traditional libertine novel--that form wherein a tale consists principally of successive episodes and encounters culminating in orgasms for one or more characters--proves felicitous, achieving a Brechtian sort of distanciation. (2) The descriptions of the machinery of torture, in close-up--the pulleys and winches and their operation, the materiality of the gruesome dildos, seats of nails, the multiple parallel blades penetrating flesh, the virgins strung up in a circle by their feet, or the redheads fed to rabid dogs--all in lapidary, almost scientific language, with nary a hint of common morality, produce an unholy kind of terror and pity, and firmly relegate these scenes to the realm of the fantastic, from which they sprang. This feeling of unreality is furthered by the relentless pitch of the cruelties, mounting in intensity, and the fact that the reader is given virtually no notion of what sort of world might exist beyond the confines of the torture chamber. What we do learn leads, on the one hand, to a sense that the universe of Sentimental is indeed very different from our own, and then, on the other, a sickening sense that there may be more similarities than differences--these references being confined to the description of a global economy whose elaborate rules and regulations are all aimed at nothing more than collecting money, either to maintain social status or to support a corrupt state or government whose pecuniary interests are rivaled only by its own complicity and participation in the perpetration of sexual torture. …