WORLD-OBITS-L ArchivesArchiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2008-02 > 1203825733
From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [W-OBITS] ROBBE-GRILLET: Alain Robbe Grillet 2008
Date: Sun, 24 Feb 2008 04:02:13 -0000
Last Updated: 8:52am GMT 19/02/2008
Alain Robbe-Grillet, who died on Monday aged 85 was the leading light of the
"new novel" in post-war France, as well as a film director and avant-garde
critic whose theories were as influential as his novels.
Alain Robbe-Grillet: refused to wear the prescribed outfit on joining
Acadmie Franaise: 'it is I who am honouring them'
The mere mention of the author's name was enough to suggest hyper-modernity.
When John Fowles's narrator in The French Lieutenant's Woman announces, "I
live in the age of Robbe-Grillet," he is indicating that the book will be
The world of the Robbe-Grillet novel is anxious and unheroic. There is
usually a dark plot, a mystery, an obsessive chase or detective quest, but
resolutions are shrouded in ambiguity and the reader is left to piece things
together as best he can. The novels are freighted with a sense of trauma
which is left unexplained, flickering at the edges of consciousness.
Like so many Frenchmen of his generation, Robbe-Grillet's unheroic view of
the world was influenced by his country's collapse to the Nazis in 1940.
He described working as a lathe-operator in a Nazi work camp and
experiencing a "feeling of exteriority, almost of extraterritoriality.
(remaining on the outside, being there by accident, as the result of an
amusing rather than tragic misunderstanding)".
The experience is summed up in his account of being bombed by planes he was
not at war with.
Robbe-Grillet's characters exist at one remove from themselves. This
reflects his disillusionment with all forms of political commitment and
humanistic faith; in particular, those of the previous generation of
writers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.
The author erupted on to the literary scene with a succs de scandale. His
first published novel, The Erasers, was championed as the novel of the
future by the influential structuralist critic Roland Barthes, while his
second published work, The Voyeur, gained further support from avant-garde
Its coolly scientific attitude to a psychopathic subject electrified and
dismayed readers by turns. The Voyeur received the Prix des critiques, but
one member of the selection committee resigned in protest. Conservative
critics and book reviewers took up arms against the author and paradoxically
moved him into the mainstream of literary debate.
Robbe-Grillet was invited to have his say by newspaper and magazine editors.
The articles he wrote were literary manifestos, published in 1963 in book
form as Towards a New Novel, which the British critic Frank Kermode
pronounced "one of the really important contributions to the theory of the
Robbe-Grillet's training as a research scientist impelled him to look at the
novel afresh. His work as an agronomist and statistician in Guadeloupe and
Martinique influenced his inscrutable masterpiece, Jealousy (1957).
The book is set in a colonial house on a Caribbean banana plantation and
engages in a quasi-scientific inspection of human observation. The world is
seen from the distorted, obsessionally detailed perspective of a jealous
husband spying on his wife through slatted shutters (punningly, jalousies in
It was logical for a novelist whose prose captures the impersonality of the
camera eye to move into cinema. Robbe-Grillet directed eight films in all,
but his first foray into cinema was the most successful.
In 1961 he was scriptwriter for the "new wave" director Alain Resnais's Last
Year in Marienbad, which the critic Jean de Baroncelli said represented to
film-making what Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon had to painting.
At first it seemed that Last Year in Marienbad would not be shown to the
public at all. French distributors refused to release the film because they
deemed it "too difficult".
However, it ended up winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and
broke attendance records in spite of its surrealistically slow style. Like
Robbe-Grillet's novels, the film tapped into, or even created, a shift in
Alain Robbe-Grillet was born on Aug 18 1922 at Saint-Pierre-Quilbion, near
Brest in Brittany. His father was the founder of the Industrial Cardboard
Society which, in spite of its exalted name, made cardboard boxes for dolls.
Robbe-Grillet's mother is a potent figure in his 1985 autobiography Ghosts
in the Mirror. He alludes to the fact that she nursed him "till I was over
two years old, and able to walk and talk most fluently," and to the
precocity of his erotic fantasies as a child.
After reading The Voyeur his mother said: "I think it is an admirable book
but I would prefer that my son had not written it."
Robbe-Grillet began his studies in Paris in 1940, two months after the
German occupation. His first novel, A Regicide, completed in 1949 but not
published until 1978, is a reaction to the anonymity of his internment at a
work camp in Nuremburg in 1943 ("it was a very ordinary labour camp where we
were all cooped up together. But we weren't ill-treated nor locked behind
concentration camp barbed wire").
It strikes the authentic Robbe-Grillet note of bafflement and creeping
anarchy, with its story about the assassination of a king which does not
come off and is probably only a figment of the hero's imagination in any
Robbe-Grillet's dislike of all forms of political authority was confirmed
when in 1946 he went to Bulgaria to help build a railway line and became
disenchanted with the Communist propaganda which permeated the camp.
In 1946 he graduated from the National Institute of Agronomy with the
equivalent of a PhD and went to work at the National Institute of
Statistics. His career as a scientist continued for the next 10 years, even
though his time was increasingly taken up with novel-writing.
After the publication of The Voyeur in 1955, Robbe-Grillet was able to give
up science and go to work as literary director for his publisher, Les
Editions de Minuit. He was entrenched in the heart of Parisian intellectual
life in a turbulent era.
In the early 1960s he became involved with the literary review Tel Quel,
whose main contributors were stars in the burgeoning firmament of literary
theory: Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Derrida and Roland
Robbe-Grillet's emphasis on form over content appealed to the Tel Quel
group, who wished to reinvent literary history by reinventing its forms. But
it led critics to accuse him of having nothing to say.
In the end this may have been because, as Roland Barthes perceived so early
on in the author's career, Robbe-Grillet is a visual novelist for whom
perception is intrinsically fascinating but fraught with uncertainty.
In the course of his career he collaborated with numerous artists and
photographers, amongst them Magritte, Rauschenberg, David Hamilton and Irina
His films contained the same themes as his books: camp eroticism, violence
and self-deluding quests through labyrinthine cityscapes. His most popular
film was The Trans-Europ-Express (1966), a pseudo-Hitchcockian whodunnit
comedy that parodied detective films and international thrillers.
In 1961 he had a narrow escape when the aeroplane in which he was travelling
from Paris to Tokyo crashed on take-off after a stop at Hamburg airport.
Robbe-Grillet dictated his account to a journalist, who found (as so many of
the novelist's readers were to find) his version of events objective, but
lacking in drama.
This soon changed to a complaint that Robbe-Grillet's version was described
in clichd journalese. His protestations that the journalist was responsible
for these infelicities were ignored, though Umberto Eco rushed to his
Robbe-Grillet claimed that his taste for the sex, violence and mysteries of
popular genre was in the spirit of parody. His critics suggested that much
of his work in the 1970s was merely highly sophisticated pornography. His
1977 book, Temple With Mirrors, was banned in France because it contained
provocative photographs of young girls.
There was more scandal to come when, in 2004, his wife Catherine published
Jeune Marie, a memoir of the first five years of their marriage which dwelt
upon Robbe-Grillet's impotence and sadistic fantasies.
"He passionately loves beating, biting, hurting," she observed. They visited
sex clubs, and picked up strangers on the Metro.
Robbe-Grillet's best friend and publisher, Jerome Lindon, was not delighted
by the publication of the details of his liaisons with Mme Robbe-Grillet.
Lindon was, the book explained, allowed to sleep with Catherine, but only
Robbe-Grillet could beat her. Lindon seemed disappointed, according to
In 1964 Robbe-Grillet had made his first lecture tour of American
universities. Despite his reluctance (and severely limited ability) to speak
English, he was to continue appearing internationally at conferences and
screenings of his films. This served to reinforce his position as a great
man of literature.
He was not shy about explaining his position in the history of letters. "I'm
a bit like Jesus Christ," he explained. "I have to talk to the Pharisees!"
This was assumed by the interviewer to be a reference to academics, and
Robbe-Grillet was indeed constantly scrutinised by scholars.
He provided the raw material for endless doctoral theses, and Imec (a state
institution for preserving comtemporary manuscripts) bought up everything to
do with him. "I've been nationalised!" he declared.
"This flat, my home in Normandy, my cactus collection belongs to them. this
will all become part of the national heritage."
In the 1970s and 1980s he was increasingly active on the academic circuit,
and his novelistic theories were in some circles raised to the level of
Where the whole establishment was once against him, by this stage he was now
a leading member of that establishment himself. There was no younger
iconoclast to challenge his position; even past the age of 60 he was still
to the fore of the avant-garde.
The critic John Fletcher pronounced him "France's most significant - though
not necessarily greatest - living writer, a man who has changed the face of
world literature for better or worse".
In 2004 he was elected to the Acadmie Franaise, though he baulked at
wearing the plumed hat and green coat traditionally required for the
"They know it is I who am honouring them - not the other way around," he
He is survived by his wife, the actress Catherine Rstakian, whom he married
in 1957. They had no children.
|[W-OBITS] ROBBE-GRILLET: Alain Robbe Grillet 2008 by "Peter McCrae" <>|