In 1986 Alain Robbe-Grillet, accompanied by his wife Catherine, visited Australia as guest of the cultural institute Alliance Francaise to give a series of lectures and talks in a number of selected cities, most prominently Melbourne and Sydney. At the cocktail reception for him hosted by the Alliance Francaise in Melbourne he was formally introduced and greeted by the audience as a literary figure, with little mention made of Robbe-Grillet the filmmaker. Understandably so, given he was the public face of the nouveau roman – or “new novel” as it was also termed – as both practitioner, with novels such as The Erasers (1951), In the Labyrinth (1959) and Recollections of the Golden Triangle (1978), to mention but a few, and its principle theoretician with his collection of essays, written between 1953 and 1963, published as For a New Novel: Essay on Fiction (1963). No doubt, some of the gathered audience would have known of his association with director Alain Resnais on Last Year at Marienbad (1961), but few would have been cognisant of how extensively Robbe-Grillet’s filmmaking career developed over the ensuring decades, beginning in 1963 with L’immortelle and through to La belle captive in 1983.
There was a time when Robbe-Grillet’s work, both novels and films, were regularly found on undergraduate syllabi in university film studies departments; where, indeed, I first encountered his work and have more or less treasured ever since. His films were for a good time, at least in part, lost to film studies, so the recent release of the BFI box set, Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1963-1974, may renew interest.
Robbe-Grillet passed away in 2004, so there is something ghostly in reprinting an interview from decades past (though he, so beloved of phantoms and ghosts in the mirror, would likely find it amusing). The interview was conducted in Melbourne at the time of his visit and published under the title Confessions of a Voyeur: Robbe-Grillet and the Nouveau Roman in the arts magazine Tension (no. 10, September/October 1986) and reprinted here with an abridged title and slightly revised text and annotations added.
The discussion reflects the topics of the time and is weighted towards the novels – partly in due deference to Robbe-Grillet being engaged in a “literary tour”. However, he made it clear that he saw the novels and films in a symbiotic relationship, each flowing into the other.
Back in 1958 Roland Barthes wrote that “there is no Robbe-Grillet school”. (1) Decades on, aside from the nouveau roman, can you see a traceable influence of your work on the contemporary novel?
There is no such thing as a Robbe-Grillet school of thought! Barthes, in his articles (2) on me, reduced my first two novels into something fascinating, but something which was closer to his train of thought than to mine. In his articles, one on The Erasers and the other on The Voyeur, he emphasised the projection onto the object, thus creating a paradox around the concept of objectivity. In this way he completely ignored the phantasms which were already playing such an important part in the works, and thus he ignored the projection onto the outside world of the personal inner world. He interpreted these two novels as representative of a literary statement, where objects were viewed purely as they were and nothing else. Barthes viewed my work from a very subjective point of view and projected his own value system in his interpretation, which, when all is said and done, he was perfectly entitled to do as a critic.
From my point of view, there never was a school; when I gathered around me a number of writers like Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, and later Marguerite Duras, there was never any intention of gathering people whose outlook was the same, and whose research aimed at the same objective. What in fact brought us together was that the same criticism was leveled at all of us, namely that we did not write like Balzac. Consequently, sharing the same criticism, we all made up the nouveau roman, or New Novel, as compared to the traditional style of writing. Each one of us had to strive in the direction each of us had chosen for himself or herself. I have always fought against the normalisation, the standardisation, of the New Novel — this is one of the reasons why I found myself in opposition to a younger generation of theoreticians who tried to structure the concept of the New Novel and excluded Marguerite Duras from the movement, for instance.
When we meet we are aware of a certain solidarity amongst ourselves, a type of brotherhood. During the last big gathering in New York we realized that we had a common language. For instance, when we talk about the notion of consciousness — the ‘Balzacian Conscience’, the 19th century concept of writing is a totalitarian concept, it is all comprehensive, inside man, it englobes everything, it is whole and stable, whereas in the New Novel we deal with a consciousness which is outward looking, as defined by the philosopher Edmund Husserl, in other words, a consciousness of something — a fragmented mobile consciousness.
Because the outside world is fragmented, consciousness must also be so, and this way it looses the overall coherence which it had a hundred and fifty years ago, and at the same time this consciousness is constantly changing, constantly struggling against itself, forever creating new images — Sartre called it “freedom”.
In its earlier development the nouveau roman was called many things — objective literature, école du regard, phenomenological novel, etc. — in hindsight do any of these descriptions seem more accurate than others?
When critics used the term “phenomenology”, they had no idea of what it could be. They liked the word, but when one looks closely at what they wrote one gets the impression that phenomena are external to man, fulfilling its own life independently from man — this is not what Husserl meant by phenomenology. He meant a moving consciousness, projected outward towards the phenomenon, this very phenomenon exists because of this projection outside myself. It is in this movement outside of me towards an object that the phenomenon appears. Phenomenology does not exclude man, as critics seem to imply. Already, you can see a different sort of consciousness appear in Albert Camus’ The Outsider, particularly in the first part of the novel.
Critical analysis has emphasised the role played by “the eye” in my novel Jealousy, but I would say that “the ear” plays an equally important part in it. As for the word “objectif” critics have made numerous mistakes. Barthes launched the concept but gave it a thwarted meaning. Barthes always liked controversy and enjoyed using words in a context other than the one usually used or understood. In his article on The Erasers he described the work as “objective literature”, and he immediately defined this adjective by referring to the dictionary and thus giving it the meaning of “projection towards the object”. As for the traditional school of criticism, they stupidly omitted Barthes’ definition of “objective” and described my work as objective in the sense of meaning that the subject had completely disappeared.
I would describe the type of literature I write as a subjective type of writing, but geared to the idea of “projected towards the object”.
When critics looked at what I was writing, which emphasized the subject, the subjectivity of a theme, they said that I was attempting to be objective but failed. They ended up with a complete contradiction of the original intention.
From the period of the film Last Year at Marienbad (3)critics started to speak about the concept of surrealism, of phantasmagory. They spoke about the cinema of phantasms. There had been no change in my work, but the approaches to my work were divided, sometimes emphasising the subjective element, and at other times the objective element. Barthes even speaks about Robbe-Grillet No. 1, No. 2, No. 3; yet when one becomes aware of the symbols of Last Year at Marienbad, one should re-read my earlier novels and one would realize that the symbols were already there.
What do you think is the current state of the nouveau roman?
To understand a new form of literature is a difficult thing for people. For instance, I would say that Flaubert is better understood today than he was in his own time, during the period he was writing Madame Bovary. There have been profound changes in the world, and consequently in the outlook of readers.
The New Novel is doing well, better than ever, because now it has a lot of readers. Not only do books sell, but they are better read and understood. For instance, with the last of Marguerite Duras’ books, The Lover (4), I had the impression that the book had become “visible” (popular) yet it is as complex as her previous work. But it was better understood because these concepts had made their way.
Given the gradual dissemination of Barthes’ idea of “ecriture” over the course of time, do you think that the nouveau roman has lost some of its autonomy from other kinds of novelistic practices? Has it become more elusive to define or recognize?
No, I don’t think so, because Barthes has disappeared from the New Novel. He was connected to the idea of the New Novel, but during the fifties and sixties. Since Jealousy, In the Labyrinth and Last Year atMarienbad, Barthes distanced himself from the movement.
Barthes really has not had much effect on the New Novel. There were moments when our outlooks coincided and other moments when they did not. What harmed the New Novel was not Barthes’ views, but the simplification of what he had said, which reduced the whole impact to a bland, neutral, factual type of writing.
I address these questions in my latest book, Le miroir qui revient. (5)
Could you comment on this quotation from Umberto Eco: “But the moment comes when the avant-garde (the modern) can go no further, because it has produced a metalanguage that speaks of its impossible texts (conceptual art). The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited; but with irony, not innocently.’ (6)
I am interested in your thoughts on the debate between modernism and postmodernism, and their relation to your work.
I never spoke of destroying the past. Flaubert has been my inspiration. As for Umberto Eco, he is a dual character. He was at the vanguard of the modernist movement, but he is now writing populist novels. He was the theoretician of the avant-garde movement, but he has come back to the past. He speaks in this quotation about himself.
The idea that the avant-garde has failed and that one must back track is absurd. The avant-garde must by definition fail, because each writer must go to the ultimate conclusion of his or her ideas. Each writer must continue to progress in his/her chosen direction.
As for Postmodernism, it is a bad description. It was created as a specific concept, situated in a precise context — that of German architecture. It means a reaction against the utilitarianism of the Bauhaus type of architecture. It was used in literature in the seventies, especially in American criticism. It was misunderstood and misapplied. I have not understood either, all the more that in some articles I was viewed as a postmodernist and in others I was viewed as a modernist. I do not like this word as its use is pretty much impossible.
You seem to share an interest with the Pop artists in the signs/images of popular culture and, like them, there is an ironic position taken in your work.
I like popular images when they are taken up by art. For instance, a tin of Campbell’s soup is not a work of art, it becomes so when Warhol has been inspired by it. Marcel Duchamp was the first to have taken ordinary objects and to have transformed them in his work.
The American School of painting, like the work of Robert Rauschenberg, is in fact a perfect example of the way Pop Art has been inspired by everyday objects.
In literature a book like La maison de rendez-vous, or Project For a Revolution in New York, are also inspired by popular imagery, but this imagery is completely transformed in the writing process. I don’t believe in naïve pop culture, the filtering process of art is essential to make it an artistic work.
When I deal with popular imagery as a source of influence in my work, I use it as a critically distancing process. I don’t use the word irony when I speak of my work, I’d rather use the word humour. Irony, in the French language, is a value judgement, whereas humour means that you stand back and it does not automatically imply a value judgement.
The humour in my work was understood only of late. For a very long time I was viewed as a novelist and film director lacking in humour. With Last Year in Marienbad very few people saw humour in it.
What of the erotic imagery in your novels and films?
The erotic imagery in my books and films are just that, materials drawn from the influence of pop images which I use. In Roland Barthes’ terms, I pick out certain elements which I simplify to the level of significant objects. I transform them, purify them and create a new semiotic system out of them, to communicate and create something else. It is true for all of my imagery. I use the pop art imagery as creative material to produce something else, to communicate another message. (7)
Was there any relation between the French New Wave movement in the cinema and the nouveau roman?
The New Wave is even more difficult to delineate than the New Novel, because in the case of the New Novel we are dealing with innovators, whereas in the New Wave there have been remarkably academic filmmakers like Claude Chabrol, or others who are middle-of-the-road intellectuals, like François Truffaut; they were very successful immediately because they were intellectual in their approach. However, there have been pure innovators like Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard. Therefore a certain parallel can be drawn with the New Novel from only a section of the New Wave directors. We do feel a certain common interest with the innovators in their field. Cahiers du cinéma have criticised Rene Clair, but he is much more innovative than Truffaut or Chabrol. (8)
Finally, what novels do you like of late?
The New Novel of course! Everything which interests me I call a New Novel. To me it is not a closed shop or world, new people come in all the time.
1. The quote comes from the title of Roland Barthes’ essay “There Is No Robbe-Grillet School”, in Critical Essays, Richard Howard (tr.), Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972, pp. 91-95.
2. Aside from the fore mentioned essay, Robbe-Grillet has in mind the essays, “Objective Literature” and “The Last Word on Robbe-Grillet”, both collected in Critical Essays; see respectively, pp. 13-24 and pp. 197-204.
3. Last Year at Marienbad was released in 1961, directed by Alain Resnais from an original screenplay by Robbe-Grillet. A French edition of the screenplay was published by Les Editions de Minuit, and subsequently, in 1962, an English edition, translated by Richard Howard, was published by Grove Press in New York. It is a fascinating document, closer to a “shooting script” than a screenplay, as Robbe-Grillet himself confirms in his introduction to the Grove Press edition: “Then I began to write, by myself, not a “story” but a direct shooting script, in other words a shot-by-shot description of the film as I saw it in my mind, with, of course, the corresponding dialogue and sound.” Evidence enough that he was already thinking as a film director, so no surprise, then, that within two years after Marienbad his own first feature L’immortelle (1963) would be released, a film that shares much with Marienbad.
4. At the time of the interview, Duras’ The Lover (English edition, 1985; French edition, L’amant, 1984) had become an international bestseller. A film of the novel would be released in 1992, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud from a screenplay by Gérard Brach. Like Robbe-Grillet, Duras would maintain a dual career as novelist and filmmaker. She wrote the screenplay to Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), and the best known of her own films are Destroy, She Said (1969), Nathalie Granger (1972), India Song (1974) and Le camion (1979).
5. Published in English as Ghosts in the Mirror.
6. See: Umberto Eco, Reflections on the Name of the Rose, London: Secker and Warburg, 1985, p. 67.
7. For an expansive discussion by Robbe-Grillet on the erotic imagery in his films, see: Anthony Fragola and Roch Smith, The Erotic Dream Machine: Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on His Films, Cardondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.
8. In the ensuring years Robbe-Grillet’s position on the French New Wave hardened even further. By 1992, Rivette is no longer among the saved, only Godard receives qualified praised: “The Cahiers du cinéma group was a movement that was considerably regressive because Godard was the only important inventor among them – not so much in the area of audio counterpoint but certainly in the area of montage – and Godard found himself drowned by the realistic theories of Bazin.” See: The Erotic Dream Machine: Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on His Films, p. 133.