I just found out that Alaine Robbe-Grillet died on Monday. He was a favorite (they seem to be dropping like flies) and while I was hammering my head against graduate school I found his rules for a New Novel very compelling. Looking back on it now I realize that what I liked so much in his ruminations on the novel form was not that I wanted to write like him but that I wanted to write like me, and he was about breaking convention.
For him the key was that the word “novel” was originally applied to long writing in reference to its being “new.” It was a “new” form, a “novel” form; and in his and other French writers of the post-WWII period that “new” form was dead. He sought to revitalize it. His rules for a New Novel included removing the human element. I remember his essay in which he said his goal was to describe an apple in such a way that it didn’t matter whether it was seen by a character or not, that the description of a body on the floor should be removed of anything but its being. This makes for rather objective, and some would say cold, detached, writing. It’s also a helpful thing to keep in mind when watching French cinema. All those films where nothing seems to happen and people look at things? That’s Robbe-Grillet’s echo. He in fact became a film-maker, a successful one, and tried to accomplish in film what he did in literature: objectivity, removal of the human subjective clouds that stand between a thing and the viewer (or even the thing and the thing). The apple is only really an “apple” when it’s outside of anyone’s definition of what “Apple” is. Bit of a ramble, but that’s what reading his essays while buzzing on caffeine does to a guy.
A lot of people don’t like him. He’s cold. He can be confusing. But, that’s the point. He wants it to be a puzzle. It’s language, after all, and “meaning” is in how the words play off each other, not in how they reflect a genuine reality outside themselves. There is no “real” murder in his books, only the words that describe the murder. So he explores that exploration. He doesn’t limit his plot (if there is one) to a solution. He lets it unravel into more questions.
I haven’t read him in a while. The last time was probably five years ago. “The Erasers.” It was his first novel and started the trend to which he stuck so closely. It is the story of a series of murders in a small village. Or is it? Who’s investigating? Possibly the killer. It’s a giant circle filled with tiny loops of fantasy. It’s a who-done-it for people who don’t read who-done-its. I’ve another on my shelf, “In the Labyrinth,” which I’ll be getting to soon.