Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Three Works by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Alain Robbe-Grillet Les Gommes (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1953), translated from the
French by Richard Howard as The Erasers (New York: Grove Press, 1964)
Alain Robbe-Grillet Le Voyeur (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1955), translated from the
French by Richard Howard as The Voyeur (New York: Grove Press, 1958)
Alain Robbe-Grillet Pour en nouveau roman (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1963),
translated from the French by Richard Howard as For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction (New York: Grove Press, 1965) Alain Robbe-Grillet (writer), Alain Renais (director) L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) / 1961

If, as I describe earlier in this 2008 volume, I felt sad that I had missed out—in a somewhat abstract way—in experiencing the works of Kon Ichikawa during the years in which he lived, I felt even more specifically saddened when I read of the April 7, 2008 death of French novelist and screenwriter, Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Although I had long ago seen and very much enjoyed Last Year at Marienbad and had attempted to see it again, in a restored version, on my early 2008 trip to New York City, what I most recalled, with a stab of regret, was that I had missed out in seeing the man himself, who lectured at Chapman University in their Distinguished Writers Series in May 1998, organized that year by my close friend Martin Nakell.

I had not only been invited to attend Robbe-Grillet’s lecture—an event, because of the long distance from Los Angeles to Orange and my particular dislike of nighttime driving, for which I decided to decline the invitation—but I had been asked to join in what Marty later described as an amazing dinner afterwards, in which he had become quite intimate with the author, a dinner where I might certainly have gotten to know Robbe-Grillet as well as one can by sharing such a joyous evening.

Perhaps my reluctance to attend that event was also effected by the fact that, although I had read years before, Robbe-Grillet’s short stories Snapshots and short fiction Typology of a Phantom City, I had several times begun his novel The Erasers without being able to finish it; and had never even attempted to read his important The Voyeur. To be fair, I tried to buy the rights for his essays, For a New Novel from Grove Press, but they never replied, perhaps because they no longer owned those rights. However, I never followed up with contacting the agent Georges Borchardt, in fear, partially, of the amount of money he might expect of the advance against royalties.

In short, I knew little of Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre, and perhaps I was afraid that in meeting him my failures to become engaged in his works would be revealed.

On the other hand, I did most poignantly recall a discussion I had had decades before as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin with another young man who was an absolute devotee of le noveau roman, and who lectured me on the joys I was missing in never having read any of those works. It was one of the very few times during those years of my omnivorous reading habits that I felt I had been neglectful in my endeavors.

That guilt rose up in me once more upon reading of Robbe-Grillet’s passing, and I determined to finally read his major fictions and revisit Last Year at Marienbad.

Los Angeles, March 28, 2008

Murderer in the Dark

If Robbe-Grillet’s 1953 fiction, The Erasers, is a kind of metaphysical novel posing as a detective tale, it is also a dark comedy about the absurdity of trying to comprehend and intercede in the forces of human destiny.

As the novel opens a professor of economics, Daniel Dupont, has been shot by an intruder in his home. But the would-be murderer, Garinati, has failed in his attempt to murder Dupont, and the wound is superficial, producing only a few drops of blood.

Dupont, however, is certain that if it is discovered that he has survived the murder-attempt the murderer may return to kill him, and accordingly, he arranges with a local doctor, Juard, to be declared dead. Dupont, meanwhile, hides in the Doctor’s clinic until he can retrieve an important document he has left behind before he escapes into anonymity.

A new detective Wallas, on temporary assignment while proves his prowess, is assigned to the case, but from almost the moment he enters the strange neighborhood where the murder has supposedly occurred, he discovers not only a confusing landscape in he finds himself constantly lost, but begins uncover details so absurdly intertwined and labyrinthine that he is thwarted at nearly every turn.

He feels, moreover, a certain strange recognition of the place, and senses that he visited the location as a child with his mother. That vague feeling of recognition, despite his inability to easily find his way about, leads, in turn, to a feeling of lethargy. As he goes about his job, beginning with an interview with Dupont’s strange housekeeper, to be followed by numerous failures to meet up with Doctor Juard (each time he returns to the clinic, he is told that Juard has just left, and when Juard is found to be in his office, he as quickly escapes the premises), leads to other strange encounters at a stationery store—where he uncovers a postcard picturing Dupont’s house—and at the local post office, where he is mistaken for the man he believes may have murdered Dupont.

Wallas also perceives that the murder (attempt) may be related to a series of murders that may or may not be the acts of a mysterious group of business men who have determined to murder men at the same hour, night after night.

Laurent, his superior, moreover, refuses to find any of Wallas’s theories to be creditable. When another man, Marchant, reports to Laurent that he has seen Dupont at the clinic shortly before his death, and has been asked to return to Dupont’s home to retrieve a document—something he refuses to do, fearing for his life—Laurent declares him a mad man.

Later, when a neighbor suggests that Dupont has been visited by a young man who may be his son, who argued with him about money, Wallas suggests the possibility that Dupont has been murdered by this boy and another man accompanying him. Laurent dismisses both these and other theories, arguing again and again for the simplest of solutions: Dupont has been murdered by a thief.

By this time, as in Robbe-Grillet’s subsequent fiction, The Voyeur, the reader has grown so confused that he suspects Wallas himself. And when Wallas suddenly remembers that the home his mother visited with him in tow years before was Dupont’s house, we can only wonder if the son is not Wallas.

Strangely enough, when the reader has lost all confidence in Laurent’s ability as a chief of police, he perceives the truth: that Dupont has not been murdered at all, but remains alive in Juard’s clinic! His attempts to notify Wallas fail.

For by this time, Wallas has returned to the scene of the crime to await in the dark for the possible return of the murderer. Since Marchant has refused to retrieve the manuscript, Dupont has been forced to return to the house himself, and suddenly we foresee the inevitable ending: Wallas does shoot and kill Dupont.

Meanwhile, another murder has occurred nearby, the murder of a certain Antoine Dupont…. Perhaps Wallas has been correct, after all, in his speculations, but it now no longer matters. He has used up his future life, erasing his and Dupont’s life.

In short, although Robbe-Grillet has created a profound conundrum of sorts, he also presented us with a kind of boulevard farce played out in a world so confounding that the poor flat-footed detective hasn’t a chance of discovering truth.

Los Angeles, July 9, 2008

Murderer in the Mind

The reader of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s second fiction, The Voyeur (1955), is ultimately confused concerning the actions and motivations of the central character, in part because of the author’s intense description of landscape and actions—which the author has described in his critical writing as an attempt to establish “the presence” of objects and gestures—as opposed to and set against the few internal perceptions allowed the character. In the case of the central figure—one might say, the only significant character, of this work—Mathias, we learn quite early that he is an obsessive being, whose focus on what he witnesses and his daily plans of action parallel his profession: as a salesman of inexpensive watches, Mathias is entirely a man caught within the moment, a being trapped in present time. But it is a cut-rate time, a time that is never in sync with his experiences.

Even as he is about the embark upon the island where he has grown up, we see him literally attempting to mark his world, to fathom its meaning by relating whatever catches his attention to everything else around it. Such an intense focus often makes him lose sight of what he is trying to perceive:

Mathias decided on a mark shaped like a figure eight, cut clearly enough in
the steep, recessed embankment to make a good point of reference. The mark
was exactly opposite him, that is, ten or fifteen feet to the left of the point
where the landing slip emerged from the pier. When, after forcing himself to
keep his eyes in the same place for several seconds, he saw it again, he was not
quite sure he was looking at the same mark—other irregularities in the stone
looked just as much like—or unlike—the two little coupled circles whose
shape he still remembered.

Although he has, similarly, carefully planned out his day on the island, calculating time and time again the number of watches he must sell and the ground he is determined to cover, his journey through space is constantly going awry as he lingers too long in conversation with customers, miscalculates the amount of time he must spend with other individuals such as the man from whom he rents a bicycle, and loses track of his intentions. An attempt to sell a watch to the local bartender’s wife, for example, leads him to an upstairs bedroom which suddenly triggers vaguely sensual urges within him, and he leaves without even encountering the woman. A visit to the home of the only people he actually knows on the island, leaves him literally standing within a daze of confusion when he finds they are not at home.

It is this constant friction between the essence of things and actions and the inner and often unknowable emotions and desires of Robbe-Grillet’s character that creates a tension in The Voyeur that transforms it from a seemingly realist presentation of reality to a metaphysical mystery. Despite the detail of what we, through Mathias, observe and the evident simplicity of his travels, the reader is suddenly jolted into a sense of confusion and displacement. When a young shepherd girl goes missing, later to be found drowned and possibly sexually assaulted, the natives seem to suspect the salesman, who despite his birth into this world, is now a stranger. Sensing their accusations, Mathias internally recounts his actions, attempting to explain how certain of his movements—movements which we presumed we had shared with the character himself—cannot be accounted for. And soon, in his internal visions of the young girl and other sexually related objects (Mathias appears to be carrying with him a newspaper article about just such an attack), he seems to implicate himself in a murder of which we—if we are to believe the narrative voice we have willingly followed throughout—know him to be innocent.

The fact that, despite his precise organization of his day, he misses the boat which is to return him home, further complicates the issue, as Mathias suddenly seems to grow disinterested in time, spending several nights, coincidentally, in a room of the very house in which he grew up, wandering the island on foot as he searches for clues of his own involvement.

Robbe-Grillet further heightens our growing sense of the unreliability of our reading experience by presenting cinematic-like flashes of Mathias’ deviant behavior. For an instant, we suddenly witness, through the wanderings of his own mind, his struggle with the girl on the cliff and her drop into the sea. The young son of his island friend seems equally convinced of Mathias’ guilt, and it appears that we have no choice but to question the “reality” we have previously seemed to witness. Mathias appears to be resigned to his arrestment.

Late in the work, however, after refusing an offer to take a trawler back to land a day early, Mathias sits in he bar where he suddenly seems to recall violent acts he has committed against the barmaid:

After a final, roundabout inspection of the table service, she stretches
out her arm as if to move something—the coffeepot, for instance—but
everything is in order. Her hand is small, the wrist almost too delicate. The
cord had cut into both wrists, making deep red lines. Yet she was not bound
too tightly. The cord must have sunk into the flesh because of her futile
efforts to get free. He had been forced to tie her ankles too—not together,
which would have been easy—but separately, each one attached to the
ground about a yard apart.

We have seen Mathias throughout the work with ropes and cords (which even as a child he had collected), and suddenly we perceive that he is, in effect, guilty, that he is a perverted criminal—but in mind only. A voyeur, he can only imagine himself being involved in life, and in his anger for the permanent distance from all that he so carefully observes, he can only represent that involvement through sadomasochistic acts. The boat leaves, on time for once, with Mathias on it, returning him to the regular and regulated pattern of his meaningless life.

Los Angeles, April 5, 2008

Murderer of Time

As I have hinted in my discussions of The Erasers and The Voyeur, there is a significant amount of humor in Robbe-Grillet’s work. The ineffectual investigations of the detetctive Wallas in The Erasers and the highly organzied but internally rambling journeys of Mathias in The Voyeur may result in intellectually arresting conundrums, but the tensions that arise from their actions or lack of actions present us with several humorous twists of reality. Our very confusion in both of these works is based in part of the multiplicity of detail deflected by minds that can make no sense of the reality they are witnessing. The details overwhelm any sense of coherent narrative.

One can almost imagine, accordingly, when film director Alain Resnais began work of filming Robbe-Grillet’s script L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) the glee the two took is creating a work that so purposefully confuses its audience. Indeed the film has absolutely nothing to do with Marienbad, being filmed almost entirely at Nymphenburg and Schleissheim Palaces. X suggests to A only the possibility that they may have met at Marienbad. Moreover, except for vague whisperings and fragments of conversation, the only coherent sentences are uttered by X as he repeatedly recounts the background of “Empty salons. Corridors, Salons. Door. Doors, Salons. Empty Chairs, deep armchairs, thick carepts. Heavy hangings. Stairs, steps. Steps, one after the other. Glass objects, objects still intact, empty glasses. A glass that falls, three, two, one, zero. Glass partition, letters….” A says very little as X attempts to convice her—in a kind maddened version of the commonly used comeon: “Haven’t I met you somewhere”—that he has been waiting for A ever since their affair last year at….wherever that affair may have been.

Using eighteenth- and ninetheeth-century dramatic conventions such as melodramatic music that sounds as if it had been composed for a silent movie and tableaux vivants, in which the numerous visitors to the hotel are gathered in small groups and frozen in space as the camera passes, Renais creates a landscape that is almost hilariously stylized, at one point even painting in shadows for his characters trapped between shadowless, manicured trees—as if to point up the fact that the charcters of this film are so insignificant that they cannot even cast their own shadows.

Early on in the film we observe the hotel guests attending a play announed as Rosmer, presumably a production of Ibsen’s Rosmerholm of 1887, a work centered upon a dialectic between the opposing forces of Rosmer and Rebekka West, the first representative of conservatism and idealsm, the second of radical reality. Accordingly, we have evidence early on in this film that X and A are polar opposites, she clearly a passive dreamer, wandering through space, while X attempts to bring her into a real world where they might rediscover their love—or at least tranform his apparent rape of her into something in which she equally participated.

We also recognize in the Rosmerholm connection that Last Year at Marienbad is not so much a story about a man and a woman who may or may not have had a previous affair, as about a couple trying to uncover their own reality in a world that seems to have no solid past, present, or future—in a landscape which destroys time. All the guests have come here, we are told, for relaxation; no business is allowed. In such a desultory place, games such as Nim (a game based on mathematical principles, in which the the first player inevitably wins) and target shooting are the primary activities, reminding one of Renoir’s Rules of the Game; just as in that film, the only other entertainment available to the bored and wealthy guests is the game of love.

Finally, one perceives in the in the reference to Ibsen’s play that this is an extremely literary work, what film critic Thomas Beltzer has described as “an intertextual meditation,” a story not so much about a couple attempting to uncover love, but just as do authors, to create a world in which they might survive. Beltzer argues that the script is based, in part, on Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, a work, published in 1940, that was itself influenced by H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. In The Invention of Morel, a fugitive entrapped on an island, falls in love with a woman, Faustine, controlled, it appears by a tennis player, Morel. As in Robbe-Grillet’s script, when the fugitive attempts to speak to Faustine, she does not react, and the many other tourists around him seem not to notice him. Ultimately, he discovers that the figures he is seeing are holograms created from the original beings, now destroyed, trapped in an eternal mechanical reality that is repeated again and again.

Bioy Casares has, in turn, admitted that his character Faustine is based on the actress Louise Brooks, who, as he put it, “vanished too early from the movies.” And indeed, throughout Resnais’s film we see in actress Delphine Seyrig a kind of Brooks-like beauty, as she positions herself in various divans and beds.

Indeed, Beltzer goes on to cite other works that relate to Last Year at Mariendbad, creating what he describes as a kind of “ontological vertigo.” Yet the critic naively argues that Robbe-Grillet and Renais refused make public the relationship between their work and Bioy Casares because they are “Eurocentrics who think art should have nothing to do with the genre of science fiction/horror.” By not revealing the possibility that the characters in Renais’s film are holograms, Marienbad becomes, in Beltzer’s words, “merely surreal art for art’s sake.”

Obviously he has read little of the great Argentine writer’s work, and has little recognition that in Europe, indeed, Bioy Casares is far better known and respected than in the United States. My Green Integer press is the publisher of Bioy Casares’s Selected Stories, and I would hardly describe these metaphysical tales (or The Invention of Morel) as belonging only to the genre of science fiction or horror tales. I would suggest, rather, that Robbe-Grillet refused to tie his script down to a single work or even multiple sources, simply because he sought to make Marienbad a kind of Borgeian “library” (Bioy Casares wrote many works with Borges), a work which calls up numerous other fables of desperate love.

It is odd, given Beltzer’s own references, that he does not link Last Year at Marienbad, for example, to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo released just three years before Marienbad. Yet both movies deal with a relationship that previously existed, ending tragically, in which the male rediscovers his lover, but who is yet someone uncertain that it is the same woman. X must almost convince himself in his repetitious descriptions of their previous affair that A is in fact the same being. Like Scottie in Vertigo, X has despaired of ever finding her again, but has believed all along that their reunion was inevitable. X’s passionate despair strongly resembles the kind of madness Scottie has had to endure upon the apparent suicide of Madeline Elster.

A’s husband or lover M clearly has a control over her that is very similar to Gavin Elster’s relationship with Madeline in Vertigo, where he pretends to be her husband, but is actually her lover.

Even some of A’s lines resemble Madeline’s in the Hitchcock thriller: after X attempts to convice A to leave the hotel with him, she replies “You know it can’t be.” And there is throughout Marienbad, in Seyrig’s long narcistic-like reveries, similarities to the dream-like reveries of Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s work. Love lost and rediscovered, the attempt to make the “new” woman over into the one in the past, the dream-like world in which they both exist—these are all major elements of both Vertigo and Last Year at Marienbad. But then, of course, they are elements in most stories of love lost and found.

That is just what makes Robbe-Grillet’s and Renais’s work so powerful, that in the world they present, time has become so warped and shifting that there can be no reality, the characters cast no real shadows because they are ghosts who share their reality with numerous other figures of art.

Los Angeles, July 12, 2008