Sunday Salon: Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grilllet
This very interesting book was sent to me by One World Classics. It is translated from the French by Richard Howard.
Alain Robbe-Grillet was born in 1922 and died last year. According to the note at the back of the book he was best known as the pioneering spokesman of the 'Noveau Roman' - a greatly influential movement in post-war French fiction. Vladimir Nabokov says that 'Jealousy' is the finest novel about love since Proust.
Robbe-Grillet seems to be a consummate example of the objective narrator. Everything is described from the outside. The setting (and there is, so far, just one - the house of a banana plantation owner) and the characters (just two - although there is another who I suspect to to be the narrator, although he never refers to himself. I just know he is there because three places are set, three chairs are drawn up but only the occupants of two are described) are described with a pointedly clinical precision - how many windows, where the shadow falls, the angles and shapes of the banana plots on view outside the window, the mark on the wall where a centipede was exterminated with a rolled up napkin, and the shape it makes....
It gives a cold impression, and yet because of what happens the reader feels the restraint of the narrator, and the heat that lurks beneath. I have the strong impression of something being held back as I observe 'A....' who I suspect to be the wife of the narrator, the plantation owner, sitting next to Franck, a neighbour who is married to Christiane (who herself rarely visits because of their child). I watch them as they sit - how closely their arms lie side by side, how their chairs touch - and I listen to them talk and learn how logical it is that A.... accepts a lift from Franck. Then, when Franck goes, I watch her leave the room, go up the corridor without speaking, close the door of her bedroom and bolt it, and then, through the window see her brushing her hair, one side and then the other - and the tilt of her head, the way it rebounds back as the brush finishes its sweep, and the way one eye keeps watching through the window.
Because the narration is so objective the reader is never invited into A...'s head. Because I am a witness I can only guess, and so sometimes, with the narrator, I get things slightly wrong and have to revise my account. A smile turns out to be a shadow on her face, for instance, or A....'s walk to the dresser turns out to be to the pantry instead.
It is oddly mesmerising...
Added a little later.
I have found a very interesting obituary in the Guardian on Robbe-Grillet. He was initially a scientist, and maintained an interest in botany all of his life. He was also an innovative film-maker - and his films and his novels are equally influential. The novel, he says, should not be about characters or telling a story, but should be about 'imagination at work' and 'should create a mental world, not to be confused with the real world'. Once he found one of his books rigorously annotated by an American lecturer who taught his works, and claimed that the 'unfortunate American had got everything wrong'. It makes me slightly wary of saying anything much more about his work, but I think I shall.
I have finished the book. It's very interesting and I've never read anything like it before. It reminded me of films I've sometimes seen in art exhibitions: a single scene looping around again and again, each cycle enabling me to something more - or something different. A.... brushes her hair, places the drinks on a tray, has the same conversation with Franck, arranges to go down to the port in his car. Each time it happens something more is added between the scenes already there. It is intense, and each time the scene is superimposed it is as if the pen digs deeper on the page or the light burns away, or the neurons in my brain fire with the same message again and again.
Overall I'm not sure what has happened in this book, but I suppose Robbe-Grillet would say that doesn't matter. Instead of a conventional story I have the impression of something being created on the page and that, I think, is entirely the point. It made me think of further possibilities for my own work, and I'm really glad I've read it - by learning about Robbe-Grillet's creativity I have discovered a little of my own.