Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Readings: The Eyes Have It

Another recently departed (February 18th) writer whose work I am therefore sampling is French novelist, Alain Robbe-Grillet. I own a used copy of his first published novel, released in English as The Erasers. I began it, but never finished. Rather than start that one again, I borrowed his most acclaimed novel, The Voyeur, from the library.

Robbe-Grillet is an interesting writer, but to my taste, not a very entertaining one. His work is formulaic and rigidly structured by a technique that is described in the Wikipedia article on Robbe-Grillet as constructed of, “Methodical, geometric, and often repetitive descriptions of objects [which] replace the psychology and interiority of the character”. The article goes on to say that, “Timelines and plots are fractured and the resulting novel resembles the literary equivalent of a cubist painting.” As Wikipedia points out, Robbe-Grillet’s fiction is clearly influenced by the philosophical school of phenomenology, which, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.” The Stanford article continues, “Phenomenology has been practiced in various guises for centuries, but it came into its own in the early 20th century in the works of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others. Phenomenological issues of intentionality, consciousness, qualia, and first-person perspective have been prominent in recent philosophy of mind.”

While devoid of the usual plot devices that move a more traditional novel along from point A to point B to point C, usually while delivering some philosophical message of the author’s, either through a narrator, or in the words of the protagonist, Robbe-Grillet’s fiction instead embodies the philosophy with which Robbe-Grillet is concerned, presenting it without “editorial” comment.

Wikipedia sketches the “plot” of the novel thusly:

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 the novel so that we are never actually sure if Mathias is a killer or simply a person who fantasizes about killing.”

In a passage that is characteristic of the novel’s technique, Mathias here observes the movements of the barmaid in a café where he has stopped to have a drink:

Having reached a point near him—less than a step away—within reach of his hand—she leaned over to put the bottle back in place—presenting the nape of her neck from which, where it was exposed by her dress, protruded the tip of a vertebra. Then, straightening up, she busied herself drying the newly-washed glasses. Outside, behind the glass door, beyond the paving-stones and the mud, the water of the harbor sparkled in dancing flashes: undulating lozenges of flame forming transverse gothic arches, lines which suddenly contracted to produce a jagged flash of light—which as suddenly flattened, extending horizontally until it formed a line that broke once more into a brilliant zigzag—a jig-saw puzzle, a seamless series of incessant dislocations.

Already, at this point, only 46 pages into the text in the edition I’m reading, there has been enough repetition of the “nape of the neck” image, in both real-time and in the imagination of Mathias, to lend an ominous air to these visual images. The effects of light on the surface of the water have been subject to similar repetition.

Film buffs may also know that Robbe-Grillet wrote the celebrated filmscript of Last Year at Marienbad, one of the most acclaimed European films of the 1960s.

I am not able to predict, as of this writing, whether this will be the occasion upon which I finish a Robbe-Grillet novel, or not.

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UPDATE:

I can now report that I did finish The Voyeur--just today, March 29th. The plot tension builds too slowly for me, but I must say that the last 25% of novel is a very satisfying read. In the interim, I also read all of a very good novel by Pat Barker, entitled Blow Your House Down. It is the story of a group of prostitutes in a town in northern England who are being hunted by a serial killer. Recommended.

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