The French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet (born 1922) achieved fame for his innovative techniques in writing fiction. Influential in avant-garde Paris intellectual circles, his controversial critical theories regarding the concept of the modern novel were fulfilled in his own narratives.
Born in Brest, Alain Robbe-Grillet was educated at the Lycées Buffon and St. Louis in Paris and at the Lycée de Brest. Having received his engineering degree from the National Agricultural Institute of France, he pursued a scientific career as an officer at the National Institute of Statistics in Paris from 1945 to 1948. Later, as an agronomist for the French Institute of Colonial Agriculture, he traveled extensively in the tropics, particularly Morocco, Martinique, and French Guinea, for 3 years. Robbe-Grillet joined the publishing house of Minuit as a literary director in 1955, married 2 years after, and was subsequently named a member of the High Committee for the Preservation and Expansion of the French Language.
Robbe-Grillet and his coterie—a select literary group composed of Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Bruce Morrissette, and Claude Simon—opposed the bourgeois, or Balzacian, novel of humanist tradition, preferring the geometrical precision and clinical exactitude of a scientific-literary approach. Robbe-Grillet, in particular, demonstrates a post-Sartrean sense of the alienated character and claims as the inspiration for his novels "the first fifty pages of Camus's The Stranger and the works of Raymond Rousset" (the latter is a little-known author who died in the 1930s). Critical analysis has also recognized the profound impact of the novels of Franz Kafka and Graham Greene on his work.
Known as the first "cubist" novelist and a "chosist," for his obsessive focus on inanimate objects, Robbe-Grillet initially described the nouveau roman and became the leading exponent of the New Wave in contemporary French literature. His revolutionary theories are based on the premise that man's perception of his milieu is distorted by his bourgeois background and its resulting emotionalism. Condemning the metaphorical phrasing of many existentialists, Robbe-Grillet attempts to illustrate in his fiction that all illusionary language falsely indicates a possible relationship between man and the material universe. The world is not man's domain, the novelist's essays and narratives insist, and objects exist independently of the transitory emotional content of human life. Characterized by an objective accuracy in its detailed descriptions, his writing is bare of intangible, inferential adjectives.
The Erasers (1953), Robbe-Grillet's first novel, appears to be a conventional detective thriller but thematically reworks Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. Intended as a comic parody, the narrative illustrates the chosist technique in its intense focus on the India rubber of the title as an antisymbol. Le Voyeur (1955) explores, without either conversation or interior monologue, the psychology of a rapist. The exaggerated realism of the physical descriptions imposes a dreamlike air of surrealism on this work.
The past, present, and future are juxtaposed in Jealousy (1957), an experiment with time and space elements, and humanity is characterized by mere behavior patterns, the identity of individuals being refined out of existence. The potential lushness of its tropical setting, based on Robbe-Grillet's equatorial travels, is deliberately reduced to a monochrome of color, measured distance, and tone and shape, with photographic precision. The antisymbol appears again, this time in the form of a centipede that to the nameless hero represents the image of jealousy itself. All indications of the subjective eye of the author are removed, resulting in a new literary mode. In the Labyrinth (1959) emphasizes the cinematic play of light and shadow over an endless expanse of snow. The Antonioni-like monotony of the landscape is reflected in the rhythm of language, and an unconventional attempt is made to suggest inner reality through the external vision.
At age 40 he embarked on a parallel career as screen-writer and director. Robbe-Grillet's finest effort may be the film scenario Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which reads like a novel and is written in the "continuous present." The film, directed by Alain Resnais, created considerable critical controversy and captured the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. In this scenario, the most objectively pictorial of Robbe-Grillet's fiction, space has been created as a function of psychological time, and the internal conscious reality exists in terms of external objects with endless repetitions of long, empty corridors, baroque ceilings, mirrored walls, and formal gardens. The surprising commercial success of the film permitted its author to undertake other cinema efforts, notably The Immortal (1963), the first film he both wrote and directed and and winner of the Louis Delluc prize and Trans-Europe Express (1967).
A central figure in France's last literary movement, Le Nouveau Roman or New Novel, Robbe-Grillet published Towards a New Novel (1962), a widely acclaimed collection of essays in which he defends his literary thesis against those who say it lacks humanity; Snapshots (1962), a collection of short stories; Topology of a Phantom City (1976) and Recollections of the Golden Triangle (1978), which are primarily collages of collaborations with artists and photographers; and Djinn: a red hole between disjointed paving stones (1982), a light, humorous novel originally written as a textbook, titled Le rendez-vous (1981), with Cal State Domingues Hills Professor Yvone Lenard. Evolving from Robbe-Grillet's interest in film were two cinematic novels, The House of Assignation (1965) and Project for a Revolution in New York (1970), so called because they have the feel of a film, but are remarkably anti-visual. Robbe-Grillet also wrote and directed the films: The Slow Sliddings of Pleasure (1974), Playing with Fire (1975), The Fair Captive ((1983), and The Blue Villa (1995).
Further Reading on Alain Robbe-Grillet
A three-part imaginary autobiography of Robbe-Grillet includes: Ghosts in the Mirror (1991), Angéleque, or the Enchantment (1988), and The Last Days of Corinthe (1994). For Robbe Grillet in English, see Understanding Robbe-Grillet (1997); The Erotic Dream Machine: Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on his Films (1992) by Anthony Fragola and Roch Smith; John Fletcher, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1983); Ilona Leki, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1983), Ben F. Stoltzfus, Alain Robbe-Grillet and the New French Novel (1964). See also Bruce Morrissette, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1965). Robbe-Grillet is discussed in John Sturrock, The French New Novel (1969) and Raylene Ramsay, The French New Autobiographies (1996). English criticisms of his work, include: Marjorie Hellerstein, Inventing the Real World: the Art of Alain Robbe-Grillet (1998); Lillian Dunmars Roland, Women in Robbe-Grillet: a Study in Thematics and Diegetics (1993); Raylene Ramsay, Robbe-Grillet and Modernity: Science, Sexuality, and Subversion (1992); Bruce Morrissette, Novel and Film: Essays in Two Genres (1985); Patricia Deduck, Realism, Reality, and the Fictional Theory of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Anais Nin (1982); and Victor Carrabino, The Phenomenological Novel of Alain Robbe-Grille (1974).