Monday, March 21, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Alain Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy

The Erasers by Alain Robbe-GrilletImage by Crossett Library Bennington College via Flickr

Brief biographical notes

Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922 - 2008) was born in Brest, Finistère, in northwestern France, to a family of scientists and engineers. In 1944 he received a diploma from the National Institute of Agronomy, pursuing later advanced studies in agronomy, and actually working in that field in Martinique, West Indies.
But a decade later he turned into literary studies, working for Les Editions de Minuit, a famous publishing house which also employed writers such as Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, and Jacques Derrida. What these writers have in common is their distaste for the traditional 19th century novel, advocating an advance form of the novel later known as the nouveau roman.

How to become a writer

Jean Paul Sartre had already stated that for a novelist to be true to his work, the novelist had to own a personal philosophy. Robbe-Grillet developed his own personal philosophy about writing. In that, he showed disdain for the traditional structures of the 19th century novel. His works disregarded plot, psychological depth of characters —conscious or unconscious motivation, for example— and the strictures of linear time.
Instead, he focused on the chaotic presentation of images of cold objects through which readers could gather enough information to make their own judgments and inferences. All psychological narration he saw as intrusive and abusive of the readers’ time, and disrespectful of what readers could bring into the work. Objectivity was what mattered. To him the omniscient narrator was a thing of the past. Another peculiarity of his philosophy was his rejection of similes, metaphors, personalization, and other techniques he saw as tricks to depict human thought, which to him cannot be presented but only inferred.


Robbe-Grillet's novel Jealousy is an example of the nouveau roman ("new novel").
 Anyone familiar with Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon will recall that Hammett featured the objective, camera-like type of narration in which the narrator never entered the characters’ heads.  Robbe-Grillet took this objectivity to an extreme by almost eliminating the narrating voice; an impossibility for in the final analysis someone has to tell the story.

The voice has no ax to grind and limits itself to the visual description of flora, fauna, and objects and artifacts (planes, surfaces, shapes, shades, and colors) of the material world. The characters we get to know only through their mannerisms, gestures, and overt acts.

“Jealousie” may be translated as a type of venetian blind through which the cold eyes of the observer-narrator engages in a sort of voyeurism as he watches his wife carry on an affair with a neighbor. Yet neither feelings nor reactions of any kind are conveyed to the reader; the reader must infer the action and possible reactions. Like a subject under hypnosis, the nameless narrator obliterates the self, which often in novels is presented by the pronoun “I.” By the agglutination of pithy details, the deep emotion that is jealousy is unfurled, presumably touching the engaged reader.

Other works

The Erasers uses the legend of Oedipus and transforms it into a detective story. The Voyeur is a mystery novel in which the reader plays detective. Djinn (1981) is a spy story that reveals the works of a secret society of latter-day Luddites dedicated to fighting the power of the machine.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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