An arts journalism/literary detour: Alain Robbe-Grillet deserves better than the clip job and interview bites the New York Times’s Rachel Donadio afforded him on the editorial page last weekend. His cinematic and, yes, avant-garde jazz-like (fractured, abstracted, jagged, nagging, rhythmically repetitious, cool to the point of cruel) writing style and his frequent themes (the impossibility of certain knowledge and danger of pursuing it, the eroticism of violence and chill of eroticism) were breakthroughs in the ’50s but moreover exert obvious continuing influence on mystery writing and movies today.
“These days, the name Robbe-Grillet doesn’t ring many bells,” Donadio began her piece, headlined “He Was Nouveau When It Was New.” I’m far from an expert on contemporary French fiction but I find it shocking that the Times would run an expansive, presumably explanatory obit-hooked piece with a lede that screams “Isn’t modernism quaint?” and without its writer having explicitly turned to the books themselves or reported on how they’ve been cannibalized by more recent American pop culture.
The Erasers, Robbe-Grillet’s first published book, borrows from Oedipus and Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps, for its conceit of a detective who has large gaps of understanding that lead him to discover that (spoiler alert, dear readers) he’s committed the crime himself. This ploy has subsequently cropped up in popular movies including Angel Heart (starring Mickey Rourke) and Memento, and repeated in other writers’ fictions (such as the very good Oblivion by Peter Abrahams and Richard Neely’s 1978 The Plastic Nightmare, aka Shattered, filmed by Wolfgang Peterson in 1991). It seems like something ’50s noir writers Cornell Woolrich or Frederick Brown would have done, but I don’t think they or any other pre- R-G writers did.
The compulsiveness of Robbe-Grillet’s anti-hero Wallas in The Erasers is, as I recall , matched by the maddening loops of descriptive text in Jealousy, which is erotica a la de Sade and nihilistic in the manner Michel Houellebecq seems to my limited exposure to advance today. Among American authors, William Burroughs and Kathy Acker are two who followed Robbe-Grillet’s suit. Note that Jealousy was published in French in 1957 and English in ’59 by Grove Press, the same year Grove brought out Burrough’s Naked Lunch (R-G’s The Voyeur, also set as a mystery was published in French in ’55 and in English in ’58). Vladimir Nabokov hailed Jealousy as “one of the greatest novels of the century” (according to this anonymous blogger). It also features a centipede crushed on a wall, the kind of detail Patricia HIghsmith liked to mention in her short stories.
Project For Revolution in New York (1972, out-of-print) is sort of an extension or projection of Fantomas, the sociopathic French arch-villian who appeared in 43 books between 1911 and 1914. It’s prophetic in its depiction of terrorists staging random acts of chaos, spiced with sex, throughout Manhattan, and the cover art shows the Empire State Building as a looming target for destruction. It is more explicitly cinematic in its scene-setting and episodes than The Erasers, Jealousy or In The Labrynth.
None of these are rip-roaring yarns; they are all weirdly moody, superficially flat but ultimately frightening evocations of fragmented consciousness and discordant modern life. If Last Year at Marienbad (1962), the outrageously formal and simultaneously anti-classical film he scripted for Alain Resnais is considered in that light, it joins the lineage that Bunuel and Dali started with Un Chien Andalou (1928), that Hitchock tapped in Vertigo (1958), that David Lynch has expanded upon in Blue Velvet (1986), for instance, and Mulholland Drive (2001). That’s why Robbe-Grillet’s books seem so consistent with current fiction and film, and why the author ought to be remembered as an influential innovator whose work echoes loudly, across genres and cultures. If these days the name Robbe-Grillet doesn’t ring many bells, maybe its up to the arts reporters to use the big clapper.