Against Interpretation

Edmund White has written many novels, a long biography of Jean Genet and a short one of Proust. He teaches at Princeton University

When I first became aware of Alain Robbe-Grillet (who turns 80 next year) in 1962, it was through Alain Resnais' film "Last Year at Marienbad." I was 22 and about to graduate from the University of Michigan, and I saw the movie with a quizzical English professor, who was troubled because he was unable to identify the central theme. I had been so overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the film that I looked at Dr. Blake in astonishment as we left the cinema. The theme?

I was profoundly under the spell of so much controlled, elegant passion--the long corridors, formal gardens, beautiful gowns, the doubts about the reality of the past, the restless, traveling camera, the obsessive repetition of " Laissez-moi, laissez-moi tranquille." I felt ashamed because it had not occurred to me to probe the film as an enigma intended to be explored. Perhaps because I had grown up surrounded by abstract expressionist painters, I had always thought the search for meaning was vulgar; much later I realized that I was for that very reason an unsatisfactory reader of Robbe-Grillet, who counted on his audience's urge to solve puzzles, even though he did not always make them solvable: There was a good reason he'd declared he was the natural descendant of Kafka.

There were other strange aspects of the film Robbe-Grillet had written. We Americans were already so used to coffee-cup realism that we laughed at anything stylized, as if it were a mistake, and "Marienbad" was certainly artificial--Delphine Seyrig was required to hold one arm extended in a very particular gesture. Often, she and the leading man, Giorgio Albertazzi, spoke while looking in the same direction rather than regarding one another. The off-screen narrator sometimes described things that were happening on-screen but more often than not they were talking about events that would happen later or had already happened. Words and images appeared to be an out-of-sync Mobius strip. Black and white were fully exploited in this black-and-white film (night and day, white plumes and black plumes, black or white versions of the same room). Tiny glimpses of a white bedroom flashed on the dark screen as intimations of disaster. There were plenty of other such hints, including the horrible and primitive counting game that Seyrig's husband, Pitoeff, always wins, the formal but lethal target practice, and the shocking moment when she drops a glass that shatters onto floor in front of the other guests at the spa. For a young American in the '60s, that most self-consciously youthful of decades, and especially for an American who was routinely radical, there were other striking aspects to the movie. For instance, the characters weren't young, at least not Hollywood-young. The Italian leading man (how bizarre to have this most French of all French texts recited with an Italian accent!) was in his 30s, perhaps. The men, in any event, neutralized or rather standardized by evening clothes, were indifferently in their 30s, 40s or 50s, but all urbanely slender, clean-shaven, neatly coiffed and largely interchangeable. The women, despite their couture gowns and jewels, were similarly featureless. This was clearly the opposite of a Fellini film, with its grotesque, memorable muzzles.

Nor did the characters have an earlier or peripheral life that was always being remembered or alluded to, as in a Bergman film. As Robbe-Grillet himself has written in the introduction to the published form of his (slightly different) screenplay: " Que font-ils lorsqu'ils sont ailleurs? On serait tente de repondre: rien! Ailleurs, ils n'existent pas." ("What did they do when they are elsewhere? One would be tempted to respond, nothing! Elsewhere they don't exist.")

If an American film of the '60s had shown so many bored, rich idlers at a spa, it would have been to satirize them. We were used to the easy, pointed farce of the arrogant rich at the opera, but when it came to "serious" cinema, we expected deep, psychological dramas to take place in spare Swedish rooms, ringing with silence and nearly empty of furniture, just as the women's Protestant faces were scrubbed clean of makeup. But here were these stylish mannequins, these expressionless figurants, devoid of personal expression though moving about, perhaps, as pawns in some strange game devised by Resnais and Robbe-Grillet. The look of rebellion and artistic experiment in America was shaggy and tie-dyed, the bodies half-starved, not coiffed and costumed.

Later in the '60s, I read "Jealousy," which for me confirmed Robbe-Grillet's reputation as a cool, even cold avant-garde novelist, one who headed that most Gallic of all things, a literary movement or school. In the United States we had isolated experimental writers--John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon--but Barth's best-known experiment, "The Sot-Weed Factor," had been an act of mimicry, the re-creation of an English 18th-century novel, whereas Barthelme had worked out a Rube Goldberg sort of prose that produced brilliant non sequiturs, played freely over the whole keyboard of a cultured mind--and even reworked classic fairy tales (something Robert Coover also did). Pynchon, clearly the giant of the group, wrote with "Gravity's Rainbow" a homemade masterpiece in the line of "Moby-Dick" that, like Melville's book, mixed in technical information with apocalyptic visions and that, like Joyce's "Ulysses," proceeded through pastiche and collage. Pastiche--whether of early English novels, fairy tales or (in "Gravity's Rainbow") of Hitler's prose, Rilke, English World War II fiction, comic strips and bawdy songs--was obviously important to postmodernist American writing.

"Jealousy" at first seemed to owe nothing to anyone. Later, Robbe-Grillet pointed out his affinities with the authors of mysteries and crime stories as well as with Raymond Roussel and Kafka, and indeed the controlled, sinister atmosphere as well as the stripped-down prose sounded like Raymond Chandler just as the obsessive objectivity, the pleasure of describing things with maniacal detail, sounded like Roussel. And the complete absence of metaphors and the code civil prose did, upon reflection, remind the reader of the Kafka of "The Castle."

At first glance, however, I felt I'd never read anything quite like "Jealousy," with its out-of-sequence narrative repetitions (reminiscent of "Marienbad"), its absence of a chronology, its frequent use of the present tense, its prolonged, virtually scientific descriptions of banana trees, its lack of psychological analysis or interpretation. In fact, it was only on second reading that I finally understood that there was a nearly invisible narrator at the heart of the book, one who never says "I."

To be sure, there was another, competing French school of avant-garde writing, Oulipo, and there were certain similarities between them. Both attempted to go beyond the habits of traditional fiction writing by setting up constraints and by imposing new rules on themselves. But the Oulipo writers (especially Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau) had a playful, even wildly comic tone at odds with the suave seriousness of the nouveaux romanciers .

In 1965, I read the English translation of Robbe-Grillet's "For a New Novel" and I was irritated and challenged by its daring ideas and authoritative tone. In this collection of short, declarative essays, Robbe-Grillet argued that in a world without God and without a human essence (a world that was no longer anthropocentric), things could no longer be interpreted as reflections of the human spirit. In the future universe of the novel, gestures and objects will be there before being something, he argued; with one stroke he established chosisme and l'ecole du regard. As part of his battle against signification and interpretation, Robbe-Grillet also made a tough, sardonic attack on anthropomorphic metaphors and to the human-centered metaphysical system lurking behind them. The other day, I read excerpts from these essays to my students at Princeton, who still found them stimulating, not to say maddening.

Perhaps, at the time, what struck me the most was how a genuine impression of newness could be brought about by very slight modifications of fictional conventions. Banishing anthropomorphic metaphors and the cause-and-effect structure of the traditional plot doesn't seem all that revolutionary, any more than straightforward objective descriptions of objects seem extraordinarily innovative, but the effect of these few changes was dramatic indeed. I began to think that I could achieve unusual effects by manipulating the basic parameters of the novel--which I did in "Forgetting Elena," my first novel, written in the late '60s but published in 1973. In that book, I wrote in the present tense from the point of view of an amnesiac who is constructing himself and who attempts to convince the people around him that he remembers and understands everything. Like Robbe-Grillet, I was influenced by Kafka and the tone of mystery novels. And I was inspired by Robbe-Grillet's daring and rigorous example.

About 1971, I met Robbe-Grillet through his American translator, Richard Howard, and Tom Bishop, then director of the French department at New York University. I was working for a middlebrow literary magazine, Saturday Review. I couldn't speak to the great French writer in his language at that time, and he seemed to possess no English (perhaps, like a statesman, he preferred to pretend he needed interpreters in order to give himself time to reflect on his answers). I was struck by his youthful vigor and full head of hair, genial manner and general openness to the people around him. He was exploring 42nd Street, which was much more louche then than now, and he had lots to say about American attitudes toward pornography. In a moment of grandiosity, I offered to get him a commission from Saturday Review to write about the subject, but the project was doomed from the start. The publication and the subject were a highly unlikely marriage.

By now, Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman had become a scholarly industry in the United States. As early as 1959, Yale French Studies had dedicated an issue to what it called "Midnight Novelists," with articles by Bernard Don and Germaine Bree on Robbe-Grillet and the essays of other writers on Butor, Duras, Simon and Beckett. By 1973, there existed a book in English titled, "Alain Robbe-Grillet: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Studies, 1953-1972," containing hundreds of items in several languages.

Even as Robbe-Grillet himself was moving on to other challenges, including films he was directing, the critical establishment in the United States and England was concentrating on a massive study of his first five novels. Even a non-academic American reader such as me was aware of the debate over "Jealousy." Was it truly an objective novel in which things predominated and human actions took on no more importance than the death of a centipede or the arrangement of banana trees--or was it, as Bruce Morrissette had claimed, despite all appearances a "bourgeois" novel about extramarital love narrated by a jealous husband?

Some French editors and novelists were grumbling that the major push on the part of French departments in American universities, led by New York University, to sell the New Novel to the American public, had been a dismal failure--and had destroyed the audience in America for contemporary French fiction. Perhaps Albert Camus had been the last "serious" French novelist to enjoy an enduring American success, just as Francoise Sagan had been the last "popular" novelist to become even an ephemeral bestseller. Could it be that Robbe-Grillet had put off American readers? Certainly his later erotic books, his autobiographical works, his collaborations with painters--indeed all his texts after "Project for a Revolution In New York"--have received less attention in this country than his first novels.

Eventually, I moved to Paris in 1983 and learned French. One night, I watched a television program during which Joan de Berg, the author of the scandalous but elegant sadomasochistic novel "L'Image," spoke about her literary and sexual practices. I was watching with a Parisian friend who said that everyone knew that the woman on screen wearing a half-veil was really Catherine Robbe-Grillet. Her novel, "The Image," had been published in the United States by Grove Press in the wake of the success of Pauline Reage's "The Story of O." Indeed, the book was dedicated to Reage, who had signed the introduction as well (although some rumors had it that Robbe-Grillet himself had written the introduction and that after objections from the real Pauline Reage--the pen-name of Dominique Aury--he'd published it under just the initials P.R.).

As an American, I felt excited and intimidated by these chilling, metaphysical and always refined ventures into violence penned by women. In the United States, feminist theorists had coached men into believing that violence was something fantasized about and performed by men alone. Yet these detailed and sustained accounts in French suggested another reality altogether. And if Madame Robbe-Grillet was a sadist, what did that make her husband? Ah, I thought, remembering the title of one of his early masterpieces: "The Voyeur."

Years went by. I wrote a biography of Jean Genet and conducted much of my research in Paris at IMEC (Institut memoire de l'edition contemporaine). I'd heard that Robbe-Grillet had withdrawn his archives from the Bibliotheque National and conferred them on IMEC, especially after IMEC agreed to build a greenhouse to protect the writer's beloved cactuses. The cactuses and the papers were to be stored at IMEC's new center in a restored monastery of Ardennes outside of Caen, not too far from the small chateau where Robbe-Grillet and Catherine lived and worked.

And then a year ago, I met Catherine in New York and saw Alain again. We had all come together for a conference on Roland Barthes, who, after all, had written an important early essay on Robbe-Grillet. I was specially eager to see Catherine. In a vague way, I was a bit like Mme. Sazerat in Proust, who wants to catch a glimpse in Venice of Mme. de Villeparisis, the famous vamp who had ruined her father and reduced her family to poverty. Mme. Sazerat is appalled when she sees a little old grandmother instead of the famous beauty she'd imagined, and I was astonished by Mme. Robbe-Grillet's tiny size and great age, though she was still suitably beautiful and authoritative.

Now nearly 80, Robbe-Grillet is publishing two new books: his first novel in years ("La Reprise") and a collection of his selected interviews. From our perspective today, his early novels appear severe but unassailably canonical. They are far from our cynical postmodern notion of art as entertainment. They are not amusing costume jewelry but big, glittering diamonds. After all, that least trendy or persuadable of critics, Vladimir Nabokov, put "Jealousy" on his extremely short list of 20th century masterpieces. Perhaps he was attracted to its narrator who, like so many of his own, feels things so intensely he's become deranged.

Certainly, the launching of the n ouveau roman in the 1950s and early 1960s was the last internationally recognized avant-garde moment. An avant-garde movement cannot be simply an innovation; it must claim, as Robbe-Grillet argued in "For a New Novel," that it will "inevitably" replace all other fiction, which is no longer suitable to our times and which has become hopelessly demode.

Not long ago, Robbe-Grillet said in an interview that the period of the New Novel was the same one during which people still believed in the revolution. The presence of a genuine left "of course had an effect on the literary life, where the debates were of another dimension than today, but also on literature itself." Although Robbe-Grillet has always been more an anarchist than a man of the left, nevertheless he's perfectly right that if now we live in the aftermath of the idea of the avant-garde, our sense of "lateness" is partly due to our post-utopian politics. *

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