Authors: Alain Robbe-Grillet

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French novelist and screenwriter


Alain Robbe-Grillet (rawb gree-yay) was the leading practitioner of the avant-garde movement in French fiction known as the New Novel. He was the son of Gaston and Yvonne Canu Robbe-Grillet. His father was an engineer, a profession that Robbe-Grillet later followed. The young Robbe-Grillet spent some time at a seaside locale much like the one he describes in perhaps his most famous novel, The Voyeur; the family soon moved to Paris, where Robbe-Grillet spent most of the remainder of his youth.{$I[AN]9810000842}{$I[A]Robbe-Grillet, Alain[Robbe Grillet, Alain]}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Robbe-Grillet, Alain[Robbe Grillet, Alain]}{$I[tim]1922;Robbe-Grillet, Alain[Robbe Grillet, Alain]}

The German occupation of France in World War II was a nightmare for the entire nation, but it was especially traumatic for Robbe-Grillet, whose parents embraced extremely unpopular, conservative political views. Eventually, Robbe-Grillet was sent to work in German factories as a virtual slave laborer. Yet these traumatic years are reflected in no direct way in Robbe-Grillet’s fiction; indeed, he vociferously objects to the use of fiction as a political tool.

Robbe-Grillet seemed to have been largely unfazed by this experience. Instead, he pursued studies at the Institut National Agronomique, and in 1945 became chargé de mission at the Institut National des Statistics in Paris. From 1949 to 1951 Robbe-Grillet was an engineer with the Institut des Fruits et Agrumes Coloniaux, working in Morocco, French Guinea, Martinique, and Guadeloupe–the tropical locales of the latter three prefiguring the setting of his novel Jealousy. Robbe-Grillet turned completely toward literature in the early 1950’s, publishing his novel The Erasers in 1953.

Robbe-Grillet was an immediate sensation in a society that values its literature highly. The Erasers won the Fénelon Prize in 1954, and The Voyeur won the prestigious Prix des Critiques in 1955. Robbe-Grillet’s influence on the direction of French literature was felt in another way when he became literary adviser to the avant-garde publisher Éditions de Minuit in 1954. With the publication of Jealousy and In the Labyrinth, Robbe-Grillet established himself as a leading figure–along with Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Michel Butor, and others–in the innovative New Novel movement. His position as unofficial chief spokesman for the movement was confirmed in 1963 with the publication of For a New Novel, a collection of criticism and reviews that Robbe-Grillet had published in newspapers and journals over the previous decade. At about this same time Robbe-Grillet’s talents as a screenwriter became evident; he wrote the screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad, which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Still, it is for his fiction that Robbe-Grillet is best known. An interesting phenomenon in post-World War II literature was the controversy that centered on the author in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Few movements have sparked such debates as the New Novel, which disregarded story and plot continuity and logical relationships, psychological character insights, philosophical arguments, political rhetoric, and externally imposed meaning. Along with arguments over Robbe-Grillet’s literary innovations, hostile reviewers criticized his depictions of women as victims, his alleged racism, his chauvinistic tendencies, and his seeming fascination with sadomasochism, dramatized in La Maison de rendez-vous and Project for a Revolution in New York.

Generally, in Robbe-Grillet’s early works, his fragmented representations are juxtapositions of sequences without obvious causal or structural links. Sometimes the narrative voice is ambiguous. Readers are forced to participate in the work to connect dislocated objects, experiences, and scenes, to accept and understand paradoxical similarities, and to impose thematic significance or meaning upon these relationships only when they come into temporary existence.

Robbe-Grillet’s 1957 novel Jealousy illustrates some of his early innovations. The reader discovers that the narrative point of view follows the gaze of a jealous husband as he spies on his wife and, intermittently, recollects or imagines suspicious scenes from his wife’s past. The word jalousie in the original French title describes a venetian blind; the word tropistically turns toward an alternate meaning only when the husband uses the jalousie for his jealous purpose.

In the mid-1970’s and 1980’s Robbe-Grillet’s novels Topology of a Phantom City, Recollections of the Golden Triangle, and Djinn evolved into increasingly complex blends of genres. In Djinn he combined, parodied, and played textual games with elements from detective fiction, myth, fantasy, and international spy thrillers. Objects such as paintings became metaphors or stereotypes for images of fear, sex, and violence; they elicited reader responses which in turn became collaborative parts of the novel’s interpretation. Other works, such as Ghosts in the Mirror and Angélique: Ou, L’Enchantement, blended humor, fantasy, fiction, reality, and autobiography–images, doubles, characters, and situations pointed to realistic parallels in Robbe-Grillet’s life and other works.

Moreover, the topical issues explored in these narrative combinations embodied Robbe-Grillet’s philosophical concerns. Thematically, he dramatized and exposed the psychological anxieties and behavioral problems of human existence in the modern world. His sophisticated artistic representations revealed that he could incorporate a multiplicity of meanings rather than the single meaning that many traditional novels attempt to convey. Any assessment of Robbe-Grillet’s work shows that he has extraordinary ability and depth and that his narrative skills and humanistic concerns place him among the literary masters who illuminate universal human dilemmas.

BibliographyFletcher, John. Alain Robbe-Grillet. New York: Methuen, 1983. This short study is by one of the best critics of French twentieth century fiction, who takes a thematic approach. Fletcher concludes that Robbe-Grillet has hastened the demise of modernism even though Robbe-Grillet felt that he had championed it.Fragola, Anthony N., and Roch C. Smith. The Erotic Dream Machine: Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on His Films. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995. Presents Robbe-Grillet’s ideas on film techniques and their similarities and differences from the elements of the novel.Harger-Grinling, Virginia, and Tony Chadwick, eds. Robbe-Grillet and the Fantastic. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Analyses of Robbe-Grillet’s work and experimental methods by critics and former students of Robbe-Grillet.Hellerstein, Marjorie H. Inventing the Real World: The Art of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Selinsgrove, Penn.: Susquehanna University Press, 1998. Discusses the real world as defined by Robbe-Grillet and how he creates it.Jefferson, Ann. The Nouveau Roman and the Poetics of Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. A survey of the French New Novel that covers Robbe-Grillet in several chapters, including two on The Erasers and Jealousy. Jefferson describes his narratives as “unnatural.” This study, although it covers novelists other than Robbe-Grillet, is useful for setting his writing into perspective and seeing Robbe-Grillet as a part of a French literary movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.Leki, Ilona. Alain Robbe-Grillet. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Leki takes each of Robbe-Grillet’s major novels and discusses it in turn, finishing with Un Regicide. She concludes that after the debate on subjectivity and objectivity diminished, the discussions focused on Robbe-Grillet’s use of narrative strategies. Excellent study for general survey of this work. Includes a good bibliography.Morrisette, Bruce. The Novels of Robbe-Grillet. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975. A translation of a French-language work by an American expert on Robbe-Grillet. Morrisette is, along with Fletcher, the dean of criticism on Robbe-Grillet, and in this study takes the reader through the major novels by examining such themes as the maze, the narrator and his doubles, and the cinematic novels.Nelson, Roy Jay. “Mental-Representation Fiction,” in Causality and Narrative in French Fiction from Zola to Robbe-Grillet. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990. Nelson approaches Robbe-Grillet by discussing the narrative, which he calls a description of mental representation.Ramsey, Raylene L. The French New Autobiographies: Sarraute, Duras, and Robbe-Grillet. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. Analyzes the genre of autobiographical fiction as practiced by three prominent French writers.Ramsay, Ralene L. Robbe-Grillet and Modernity: Science, Sexuality, and Subversion. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992. Ramsay discusses modernity, complementarity, myth, and sado-eroticism, all elements of Robbe-Grillet’s narrative. The study also includes interviews with Robbe-Grillet, which shed light on the creative process. Excellent survey. Contains a bibliography.Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Two Novels: “Jealousy” and “In the Labyrinth.” Translated by Richard Howard. Introductions by Roland Barthes, Bruce Morrissette, and Anne Minor. New York: Grove Press, 1965. The three introductory essays discuss Robbe-Grillet’s work in regard to theory of the novel and to development of the New Novel.Roland, Lillian Dunmars. Women in Robbe-Grillet: A Study in Thematics and Diegetics. New York: P. Lang, 1993. Views women’s roles in the novels, in particular the ways they provide a variety of perspectives.Smith, Roch Charles. Understanding Robbe-Grillet. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000. Excellent introduction and guide for the reader new to Robbe-Grillet’s fiction. Contains in-depth analysis of major novels. Selected bibliography. Indexed.Stoltzfus, Ben. Alain Robbe-Grillet: The Body of the Text. London: Associated University Presses, 1985. Stoltzfus contends that Robbe-Grillet exaggerates images of sex and violence in his novels in order to expose and undermine them.Unwin, Timothy, ed. Cambridge Companion to the French Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Contains a chapter on reality and its representation in the nineteenth century novel as well as theoretical discussions of the novel and its changes from nineteenth century to New Novel. Chronology, guide to further reading, and index included.
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