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An old master explores questions of identity

Special to The Times

An artist’s gradual metamorphosis from scourge of the establishment to Grand Old Person offers a paradox worthy of study. Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose first novel appeared in 1949 and whose second, “The Erasers” (1953), unleashed an enduring succes de scandale, who then went on to publish more than 20 volumes of primarily fiction and screenplays (e.g., “Last Year at Marienbad”), exemplifies the phenomenon.

Regarded as spokesman for and best-known practitioner of the nouveau roman or “new novel,” a sort of aesthetic (or counter-aesthetic) movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Robbe-Grillet might be considered today a figure of historical gravitas, no longer in step with literary fashion. But as he himself once noted (provocatively inviting comparison with the masters) “Flaubert wrote the nouveau roman of 1860, Proust [that of] 1910 ... [the writer’s works] survive only to the measure that they leave the past behind them, and announce the future.”

Now we have a new novel from the octogenarian meister: “Repetition,” first published in France in 2001 and ably translated by Richard Howard. Does Robbe-Grillet practice what he preaches? In large part, yes. Despite the tongue-in-cheek title and despite its noirish setting of Berlin 1949, “Repetition” exhibits a sensibility as nervous and contemporary -- not to mention witty -- as that of any novelist working today. “Because,” as Robbe-Grillet once wrote, “the function of art is never to illustrate some truth ... known in advance, but to interrogate the world through questions not yet known....”

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The speaker who opens his own story in “Repetition” is one Henri Robin, a loyal agent of the French secret service who is about to receive some serious lessons in multidimensional doubt and duplicity: “Here, then, I repeat, and I sum up. During the endless train journey

In addition to the questions of identity raised by Robin’s alternative IDs, he seems to suffer from a partial loss of memory about his origins and childhood that make the notion that he might not be who he thinks he is -- at first an absurd insinuation -- more and more possible as events unfold. (One might interject here: “It all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”)

Not that the protagonist is left a great deal of time to brood. The central span of the novel is five days, and in this brief time Henri Robin (or Boris Wallon or Franck Matthieu, or ...?) witnesses at least one apparent murder; is accused by the Berlin police of two or three killings (interrogations play a prominent role); is kidnapped and drugged; finds himself seduced by the lovely and mysterious “keeper of living dolls,” Joelle Kast; and is sensually ravished by her 14-year-old daughter, the blond, beguiling and disturbingly shameless Gigi. (A nickname short for “Gegenecke,” which is the author’s rather tortured Germanization of “Antigone” -- but then, professionally provocative little Gigi is no stranger to certain forms of torture herself.)

The protagonist isn’t the only one to feel the ground of basic assumptions begin to lurch underfoot. His account, apparently written for his superiors during or shortly after the increasingly hallucinatory chain of events, is periodically footnoted by an unidentified commentator.

At first these corrections sound merely pedantically admonishing: “3A and 3B. The detailed report in question calls for two observations. Contrary to the error concerning Kafka’s last stay in Berlin, the inaccuracy concerning the nature of the weapon ... in fact it was a 9 millimeter model bearing the Beretta trademark....” But by Day 4 this second narrator is confidently taking over whole pages and giving a full-blown alternative version of events, one that depicts our man (whoever he is) as a liar with a depraved agenda all his own. Until the ultimate unmasking of identities, the reader, much like Henri Robin, can’t be sure whom to believe.

Objects play as dramatic a role in “Repetition” as do characters. Gigi, the suave Police Commissioner Lorentz and the pedophile Dr. Juan come across more as wonderfully polished objects than as quotidian characters. Robbe-Grillet is not much interested in the labyrinths of personality; it’s real labyrinths he’d rather explore, such as the shadowy hallways and tunnels of the villa where Henri is held captive, with its discreet street sign advertising “dolls and mannequins bought and sold.” Things have the incandescence of dreams: a dagger broken from a champagne glass, a life-like painting behind a trompe l’oeil window, a sailboat rotting in a canal, a blue-sequined slipper that begins to bleed. Following the clues of objects and the evolution of their relationships is part of the pleasure of “Repetition.”

Of course, not everything can be made new all the time -- how exhausting that would be. As the preoccupation with objects and with narrative device attest, this novel packs in plenty of the old Robbe-Grillet, including erotic-sadistic passages decidedly not for the faint of heart. Although Franz Kafka is his repeatedly cited artistic mentor (“The Castle” meets “The Trial”), other modern writers also come to mind: the Vladimir Nabokov of “Pale Fire” and “Lolita” and the current medal-holder of unreliable narration, Kazuo Ishiguro. Not bad company to be in.

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Repetition

A Novel

Alain Robbe-Grillet

Translated from the French by Richard Howard

Grove Press: 178 pp., $23


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