Alain Robbe-Grillet begins his essay "From Realism to Reality" (in For a New Novel) with what must be a truism:
All writers believe they are realists. None ever calls himself abstract, illusionistic, chimerical, fantastic, falsitical. . .Realism is not a theory, defined without ambiguity, which would permit us to counter certain writers with certain others; it is, on the contrary, a flag under which the enormous majority--if not all--of today's novelists enlist. And no doubt we must believe them all, on this point. It is the real world which interests them; each one attempts as best as can to create "the real." (Translation by Richard Howard)
Robbe-Grillet believed himself to be a realist and his attempts at advancing a "new novel" an effort to preserve the possibility of realism in fiction against the insistence of some critics that the novel remain encased in its pre-modern form. "The discovery of reality will continue only if we abandon outworn forms," Robbe Grillet writes. "Unless we suppose that the world is henceforth entirely discovered (and, in that case, the wisest thing would be to stop writing altogether), we can only attempt to go farther. It is not a question of 'doing better,' but of advancing in ways as yet unknown, in which a new kind of writing becomes necessary."
This "new kind of writing" is necessary for realism's sake. Even if it is true that each succeeding generation of writers "has different ideas of reality," that "the classicists believed that it is classical, the romantics that it is romantic, the surrealists that it is surreal," the task of coping with "the objective modifications of reality" that have continued to develop at an ever increasing pace since the 19th century requires that the novel remain open to the kind of formal innovation that might--for the moment, at least--begin to "account for what is real today."
But Robbe-Grillet didn't think that the "realism" of novels consisted of merely reflecting the "real world" it encountered but that it actually worked to create reality:
The style of the novel does not seek to inform, as does the chronicle, the testimony offered in evidence, or the scientific report, it constitutes reality. It never knows what it is seeking, it is ignorant of what it has to say; it is invention, invention of the world and of man, constant invention and perpetual interrogation. All those--politicians and others--who ask of a book only stereotypes, and who fear above all the spirit of contestation, can only mistrust literature.
Robbe-Grillet comes a little closer to commenting on the kind of realism one finds in his own books when he reflects on a trip he once took to the Brittany coast:
On the way I told myself: here is a good opportunity to observe things 'from life' and to 'refresh my memory.' But from the first gull I saw, I understood my error: on the one hand, the gulls I now saw had only very confused relations with those I was describing in my book, and on the other hand it couldn't have mattered less to me whether they did or not. The only gulls that mattered to me at that moment were those which were inside my head. Probably they came there, one way or another, from the external world, and perhaps from Brittany; but they had been transformed, becoming at the same time somehow more real because they were now imaginary.
Those gulls inside the head are the gulls that make it into Robbe-Grillet's novels, even if they are described with a kind of obsessive exactitude that makes us believe they're a copy from "real life." Or, for example, we get this, the opening paragraph of Jealousy, which describes the south side of the house that will be the immediate setting for all of the novel:
Now the shadow of the column--the column which supports the southwest corner of the roof--divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts. This verana is a wide, covered gallery surrounding the house on three sides. Since its width is the same for the central portion as for the sides, the line of shadow cast by the column extends precisely to the corner of the house; but it stops there, for only the veranda flagstones are reached by the sun, which is still too high in the sky. The wooden walls of the house--that is, its front and west gable-end--are still protected from the sun by the roof (common to the house proper and the terrace). So at this moment the shadow of the outer edge of the roof coincides exactly with the right angle formed by the terrace and the two vertical surfaces of the corner of the house.
Already we can see Robbe-Grillet beginning to "constitute" the reality of the novel's setting, which will extend to the banana plantation of which this house is the center, all described in the same painstaking, concentrated manner. And it is a particularly literal-minded kind of description: no fussy, unnecessary adjectives, no figurative flourishes to get in the way of a full-on apprehension of the house and its wooden walls, its veranda flagstones and "vertical surfaces." Robbe-Grillet's approach has at times been called "cinematic," but what could be less cinematic than this description of the banana trees:
In the second row, starting from the far left, there would be twenty-two trees (because of the alternate arrangement) in the case of a rectangular patch. There would also be twenty-two for a patch that was precisely trapezoidal, the reduction being scarely noticeable at such a short distance from its base. And, in fact, there are twenty-two trees there.
But the third row too has only twenty-two trees, instead of twenty three which the alternately-arranged rectangle would have. No additional difference is introduced, at this level, by the bulge in the lower edge. The same is true for the fourth row, which includes twenty-one boles, that is, one less than an even row of the imaginary rectangle.
It is generally assumed that film provides a more immediate and more distinct rendering of perceptible objects (at least visually), but passages like this demonstate that verbal depictions of such objects are, potentially at least, capable of a far greater range of effects, of bringing us much closer to the palpable qualities of things. In his essay, Robbe-Grillet writes of Kafka that "if there is one thing of which an unprejudiced realing convinces us it is the absolute reality of the things Kafka describes. . .Perhaps Kafka's staircases lead elsewhere, but they are there, and we look at them, step by step, following the detail of the banisters and the risers. Perhaps his gray walls hide something, but it is on them that the memory lingers, on their cracked whitewash, their crevices." The same is true of Robbe-Grillets descriptions; they force our attention on what is there. We remember (or should) the arrangements and textures of the plantation house, the symmetries of the banana rows.
Some might say that Robbe-Grillet's descriptions don't qualify as "realism" at all, since they appear to reject the principle of selectivity of detail and renounce the effort to enhance the real through figurative language, both of which are believed by such guardians of literary realism to be among its most crucial enabling conventions. But this is to confuse the practice of a certain kind of commercialized storytelling with realism, the latter of which probably becomes more genuine the farther away it gets from storytelling. It is to pin the concept of realism down to a few customary gestures that assume a stability of reference to "the real" and denies that this is a state of affairs to be discovered rather than presupposed. In abandoning these gestures, Robbe-Grillet's "experimental" fiction is actually an experiment in the further possibilities of realism, a realism that accepts, as Robbe-Grillet puts it in his essay's conclusion, that "everything is constantly changing" and that "there is always something new."
The realism of Jealousy is about as far away from modern "psychological realism," and especially the mode of narration James Wood defends as the "free indirect" method, as it could be. Our access to the characters and their environment remains entirely on the surface, our knowledge of what they are "thinking" confined entirely to what we can infer through their actions. This, is, of course, faithful to the way we do in fact experience reality, and the spurious notion that fiction is some magical way for writers to open up consciousness to our direct examination beyond what people say and do is duly dispensed with in Robbe-Grillet's novel. This is not to say that we don't ultimately gain access to a character's mental state, but this character is neither A. . . (not further named), the plantation wife, nor her possible lover, Franck (we're never entirely sure they are lovers), the ostensible protagonists of Jealousy. One could say that the true protagonist of the novel is the emotion named in the title, which we finally come to understand is expressed by the narrator, who is not the detached omniscient narrator we first assume him to be (or at least is also more than that) but the husband of A. . . and an observer of her suspicious behavior.
Thus we do almost literally inhabit the consciousness of this character, and we are determined in our experience of Jealousy's fictional world by the skillful manipulation of point of view--in this case a third-person/first-person hybrid. But, since we can't rest comfortably in the author's probing of the character's mind in a "free indirect" way, the effect is if anything to provoke us into re-reading the novel in order to direct our attention more carefully on the details and the actions through which, and only through which, can our awareness of the narrator's jealousy be raised. Jealousy encourages the reader to be an active participant in assembling whatever "meaning" we're to get from it; it doesn't allow us to settle passively for the "insight" afforded us by Wood's preferred strategy of "inflected" narration.
What this hybrid point of view allows Robbe-Grillet to do most thoroughly, however, is to create an intimately "realistic" world that both mirrors the narrator's own fixated absorption in detail--his "perpetual interrogation"-- and uses that absorption to "invent" scenes and circumstances of dense realistic detail. So dedicated is Robbe-Grillet to the invention of these scenes that he repeats many of them, enlisting his narrator in a repetition and return to specific details and events--the remains of a centipede killed while walking across a wall, workers fixing a bridge, etc.--as if making sure they have been surveyed for all of the attributes they can be made to reveal. The ultimate effect is of a scrupulously observed, enclosed world that is wholly imaginary, constituted through the writer's determination to invoke it in his words, and thus also wholly real.