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.
IIAmong the many unsupportable assertions made by Stephen Marche in his semi-infamous 2008 diatribe against Alain Robbe-Grillet was the following:
The "new novel". . . as Robbe-Grillet defined and explained it in his famous 1963 essay, was high art at its unpalatably highest. It applied rules and regulations, opposed subjectivity and tried to dissolve plot and character into description.
I would challenge Marche to re-read Robbe Grillet's fiction, especially those novels written before the publication of For a New Novel, and try to make a case that any of these points can be sustained. Most of them, in fact, are precisely the opposite of what one finds in novels such as The Erasers, The Voyeur, and Jealousy, but I would like to focus in particular on The Voyeur as a work against which accusations such as Marche's simply aren't credible.
Like its immediate predecessor The Erasers, The Voyeur is essentially a detective story, although the earlier novel (Robbe-Grillet's first) literally includes a detective in its cast of characters while The Voyeur asks the reader to do the detective work its story calls for. It includes a murder of a young girl and a possibly psychopathic killer, both of them elements that would seemingly be attractive to the "popular" readers Marche believes Robbe-Grillet spurned and as far from the assumptions of "high art" as one could get. What is missing from its mystery plot is a firm resolution of the mystery, and while this refusal to accede to the conventions of the genre might be frustrating to some readers, it also manifests a commitment to the depiction of life's complexities, which are not reducible to the neat resolutions of mystery stories. This commitment is not a characteristic of "high art." It is a characteristic of art.
What most readers who find themselves alienated by The Voyeur would cite as their source of disfavor surely would not be its application of "rules and regulations" but precisely the absence of such rules. A proper novel of this kind (a proper novel in general) should establish a stable relationship between reader and protagonist, should lay out its plot as a discernable series of events and should ultimately fill in whatever gaps might be left over, should use description to fill out the narrative not to substitute for it, should leave the reader with the impression its narrative has been appropriately developed and completed.
The Voyeur does none of these things. Its protagonist, a watch salesman named Mathias, initially provokes a mostly impassive response, although eventually we are led to exchange this neutrality for a more decisive attitude: either we are appalled and think Mathias is a monster on the loose or we have some sympathy for a character who is clearly insane and can't even remember whether he committed the act or not. Given that finally we don't know which person he really is, the original more affectless reaction seems the right one, but many readers might find this unregulated drift in our disposition toward the character unsettling.
The Voyeur begins as a relatively straightforward account of a day the watch salesman spends on an island off the French coast, which is initially presented as the place where the salesman himself grew up. However, this item of information is not the first we come to suspect might be questionable. Soon enough the narrative begins to circle around itself--reflecting perhaps the figure-eight pattern that Matthias uses to navigate the island on his quest to sell watches--and to shuffle between past and present. We become uncertain whether Mathias is simply following his route or whether he is engaging in dissociative reveries. We become concretely aware of the murder of the young girl about two-thirds of the way through the novel, but there may be hints that something untoward has happened through these reveries or in the spaces opened up by disruptions of narrative continuity. The murder is the narrative's central event, yet it is the one episode in the novel that remains undescribed.
Description is indeed a dominant strategy in The Voyeur, but only a passive and inattentive reader would conclude that it is used to "dissolve plot and character." Both plot and character are revealed through description, not annulled by it. Although the point of view in the novel is ostensibly third-person, we would be mistaken to take a passage like this, a description of the island's harbor as Mathias's boat approaches it, as originating in an "outside" narrator:
The pier, which seemed longer than in actually was as an effect of perspective, extended from both sides of this base line in a cluster of parallels describing, with a precision accentuated even more sharply by the morning light, a series of elongated planes alternately horizontal and vertical: the crest of the massive parapet that protected the tidal basin from the open sea, the inner wall of the parapet, the jetty along the top of the pier, and the vertical embankment that plunged straight into the water of the harbor. The two vertical structures were in shadow, the other two brilliantly lit by the sun--the whole breadth of the parapet and all of the jetty save for one dark narrow strip: the shadow cast by the parapet. Theoretically, the reversed image of the entire group could be seen reflected in the harbor water, and, on the surface, still within the same play of parallels, the shadow cast by the vertical embankment extending straight toward the quay.
This is what Mathias sees as he stares as the scene from the ship, but, more importantly, it is the way Mathias sees it, complete with the attention to specific detail and obsession with geometric patterning. These qualities are not just those that are brought to passages of description like this--and the novel contains many, many more--but help to constitute Mathias's character, help constitute him as a character. He is precisely the sort of man who keeps careful watch of himself and his surroundings and whose apprehension of the world takes special note of its geometric attributes--its existence as "a series of elongated planes alternately horizontal and vertical," etc. The "plot" in which he figures as the primary character, furthermore, is not "dissolved" into description of this sort but is enabled by it, the "mystery" at its center evoked by it. Does the omission of description of the act itself signal that Mathias didn't do it, or that he did but can't bring himself to confront it? If the "real" is what is able to impress itself on Mathias's awareness, then the fact that the murder has not done so means he had nothing to do with it, or that there's only some reality he can face?
These questions are not answered by one's reading of The Voyeur, and that is because, far from "oppos[ing] subjectivity," Robbe-Grillet builds this novel on it. The descriptions offered are not "objective" renderings of a reality presupposed to exist but indeed the subjective perceptions of an ultimately very flawed and uncertain character. The reality he constructs is a vividly rendered one, and it is the reality we as readers must also inhabit, but ultimately it is a rendered one. There is no reason why an approach emphasizing description must therefore necessarily be an approach seeking objectivity. A novel like The Voyeur leaves us with the conviction that subjectivity is all.
In her book Inventing the Real World: The Art of Alain Robbe-Grillet (1998), Marjorie H. Hellerstein explains that Robbe-Grillet "began by looking into the possibilities of expressing subjectivity while seeming to be objective in descriptions without emotion." That Mathias's perceptions are related "without emotion" is probably what bothers someone like Marche, a characteristic he translates into a rejection of subjectivity. Marche believes that Robbe-Grillet "convinced a generation of talented novelists that there was something vulgar about attracting a popular readership," and presumably the lack of "emotion" in Robbe-Grillet's work acts as an impediment to this "popular readership." It's too "puritanical," too hostile to the "pleasurable" in fiction.
I doubt that Robbe-Grillet would have objected had his books managed to reach a wider audience. This audience would, of course, have had to accept the books on their own terms, as harbgingers of a "new" fiction that renounces the easy pleasures of traditional fiction as distortions and misrepresentations of the very reality it was purported to be portraying. But I don't see why these books can't be taken on those terms, why they can't be enjoyed for their own ingenuities and mischievous challenges to our expectations. There is pleasure to be had in allowing one's assumptions to be challenged and following a work's alternative logic where it will lead, especially if that alternative logic provides new insights into the still possible permutations into which fiction writers might shape their work, which I believe The Voyeur and Robbe-Grillet's work as a whole does. Finally it seems to me that Stephen Marche is being "elitist" when he assumes that "readers in the English-speaking world" are incapable of reading in this way.