Alain Robbe-Grillet (French pronounced [alɛ̃ ʁɔb gʁiˈje]) (August 18, 1922 – February 18, 2008), was a French writer and filmmaker. He was along with Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor and Claude Simon one of the figures most associated with the trend of the Nouveau Roman, a type of 1950s French novel that diverged from classical literary genres. Émile Henriot coined the title in an article in the popular French newspaper Le Monde on May 22, 1957 to describe certain writers who experimented with style in each novel, creating an essentially new style each time.
Robbe-Grillet, an influential theorist as well as writer of the nouveau roman, published a series of essays on the nature and future of the novel which were later collected in Pour un nouveau roman. Rejecting many of the established features of the novel to date, Robbe-Grillet regarded many earlier novelists as old-fashioned in their focus on plot, action, narrative, ideas, and character. Instead, he put forward a theory of the novel as focused on objects: the ideal nouveau roman would be an individual version and vision of things, subordinating plot and character to the details of the world rather than enlisting the world in their service.
Despite the assertions of nouveauté, this vision of the novel can be construed as developing from earlier writers' suggestions and practice. Joris-Karl Huysmans, 90 years before, had suggested how the novel might be depersonalized; more recently, Franz Kafka had shown that conventional methods of depicting character were not essential; James Joyce had done the same for plot; and absurdist writers had engaged with some of the themes which preoccupied writers of the nouveau roman. The nouveau roman was an expression of the modern break with tradition, both the artistic and spiritual traditions of "traditional society."
The nouveau roman style also left its mark on screen as writers Marguerite Duras and Robbe-Grillet became involved with the Left Bank film movement (often labelled as part of the French new wave). Their collaboration with director Alain Resnais resulted in critical successes such as Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1958) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961).
Alain Robbe-Grillet was born in Brest (Finistère, France) into a family of engineers and scientists. He was trained as an agricultural engineer. In the years 1943-1944 Robbe-Grillet participated in service du travail obligatoire, or national service, in Nuremberg where he worked as a machinist. The initial few months were seen by Robbe-Grillet as something of a holiday, since in between the very rudimentary training he was given to operate the machinery he had free time to go to the theater and the opera. In 1945, Robbe-Grillet completed his diploma at the National Institute of Agronomy. Later, his work as an agronomist took him to Martinique, French Guinea,Guadeloupe and Morocco. He was married to Catherine Robbe-Grillet (née Rstakian).
His first novel The Erasers (Les Gommes) was published in 1953, after which he dedicated himself full-time to his new occupation. His early work was praised by eminent French critics, such as Roland Barthes and Maurice Blanchot. Around the time of his second novel he became a literary advisor for Les Editions de Minuit, occupying this position from 1955 until 1985. After publishing four novels, in 1961 he worked with Alain Resnais, writing the script for Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad), and subsequently wrote and directed his own films. In 1963, Robbe-Grillet published For a New Novel (Pour un Nouveau Roman), a collection of previous published theoretical writings concerning the novel. From 1966 to 1968 he was a member of the High Committee for the Defense and Expansion of French (Haut comité pour la défense et l´expansion de la langue française). In addition Robbe-Grillet also led the Centre for Sociology of Literature (Centre de sociologie de la littérature) at the University of Bruxelles from 1980 to 1988. From 1971 to 1995 Robbe-Grillet was a professor at New York University, lecturing on his own novels.
In 2004 Robbe-Grillet was elected to the Académie française, but was never actually formally received by the Académie because of disputes regarding the Académie's reception procedures. Robbe-Grillet both refused to prepare and submit a welcome speech in advance, preferring to improvise his speech, as well as refusing to purchase and wear the Académie's famous green tails (habit vert) and sabre, which he considered as out-dated.
He died in Caen after succumbing to heart problems.
His writing style has been described as "realist" or "phenomenological" (in the Heideggerian sense) or "a theory of pure surface." Methodical, geometric, and often repetitive descriptions of objects replace the psychology and interiority of the character. Instead, one slowly pieces together the story and the emotional experience of jealousy in the repetition of descriptions, the attention to odd details, and the breaks in repetitions. Ironically, this method resembles the experience of psychoanalysis in which the deeper unconscious meanings are contained in the flow and disruptions of free associations. Timelines and plots are fractured and the resulting novel resembles the literary equivalent of a cubist painting. Yet his work is ultimately characterized by its ability to mean many things to many different people.
Robbe-Grillet wrote his first novel Un Régicide (A Regicide) in 1949, but it was rejected by Gallimard, a major French publishing house, and only later published with 'minor corrections' by his life-long publisher Les Editions de Minuit in 1978. His first published novel was Les Gommes (The Erasers), in 1953. It has been argued that the novel superficially resembles a detective novel, but contains within it a deeper structure based on the story of Oedipus. The detective is seeking the assassin in a murder that has not yet occurred, only to discover that it is his destiny to become that assassin.
His next and most acclaimed novel is The Voyeur (Le Voyeur), first published in French in 1955 and translated into English in 1958 by Richard Howard. The Voyeur relates the story of Mathias, a travelling watch salesman who returns to the island of his youth with a desperate objective. As with many of his novels, The Voyeur revolves around an apparent murder: throughout the novel, Mathias unfolds a newspaper clipping about the details of a young girl's murder and the discovery of her body among the seaside rocks. Mathias' relationship with a dead girl, possibly that hinted at in the story, is obliquely revealed in the course of the novel so that we are never actually sure if Mathias is a killer or simply a person who fantasizes about killing. Importantly, the 'actual murder', if such a thing exists, is absent from the text. The narration contains little dialogue, and an ambiguous timeline of events. Indeed, the novel's opening line is indicative of the novel's tone: "It was as if no one had heard." The Voyeur was awarded the Prix des Critiques.
Next, he wrote La Jalousie in 1957, one of his only novels to be set in a non-urban location, in this instance a banana plantation. In the first year of publication only 746 copies were sold, despite the popularity of The Voyeur. Robbe-Grillet argued that the novel was constructed along the lines of an absent third-person narrator. In Robbe-Grillet's account of the novel the absent narrator, a jealous husband, silently observes the interactions of his wife (referred to only as "A…") and a neighbor, Franck. The silent narrator who never names himself (his presence is merely inferred, e.g. by the number of place settings at the dinner table or deck chairs on the verandah) is extremely suspicious that A… is having an affair with Franck. Throughout the novel, the absent narrator continually replays his observations and suspicions (that is, created scenarios about A… and Franck) so much so that it becomes impossible to distinguish between 'observed' moments or 'suspicious' moments.
Robbe-Grillet also wrote screenplays, notably for Alain Resnais' 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, a critical success considered to be one of the finest French films of the 1960s. It was followed by a number of films written and directed by Robbe-Grillet himself: Trans-Europ-Express (1966), his two French-Slovak films L'homme qui ment/Muž, ktorý luže (The Man Who Lies) (1968), L'Eden et après/Eden a potom (Eden and After) (1970), Glissements progressifs du plaisir (The Slow Slidings of Pleasure) (1974), Le jeu avec le feu (Playing with Fire) (1975), La belle captive (The Beautiful Captive) (1986) and many others.
Robbe-Grillet was an important figure in the French Nouveau Roman movement, which helped to introduce the idea of the antihero. Robbe-Grillet's work was part of the development of modern narrative. Rejecting many of the conventions of nineteenth century Realism, the modern novelists focused not on psychology but on the manipulation of the form, including manipulation of plot and even language itself. "Robbe-Grillet's is a world of objects, hard, polished surfaces, with only the measurable characteristics of pounds, inches, and wavelengths of reflected light. His narratives lack conventional elements such as plot and character and are composed largely of recurring images."
He worked as a screenwriter on the ground-breaking film, "Last Year at Marienbad." Together with fellow modern novelist Marguerite Duras, he would later go on to direct films.
Alain Robbe-Grillet was elected a member of the Académie française on March 25, 2004, succeeding Maurice Rheims at seat #32. The Australian composer Lindsay Vickery has written an opera based on the novel Djinn.
All links retrieved February 24, 2016.
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