Archive for February, 2007

A Handful of Rain

I’ve been thinking about the rain a lot lately. I’ve always liked it it. I like listening to it fall, especially when there’s a tree outside the window and you can hear it patter on the leaves. I know of no other sound I would rather go to sleep to. One of the things I miss about Canada is how it could sometimes rain for over 24 hours. You could go to sleep to it and in the middle of the night it would still be there when you woke up. It would still be there in the morning too. It was great if you didn’t have anywhere to go.

But I like walking in it without an umbrella. I bought a pair of good waterproof boots about a month ago. I like when the rain gets into my coat, yet not enough to reach the clothes underneath.

When I was a child the sound of somebody taking a shower would make me feel sleepy. There’s something womb-like about being in a room with all that water outside.

I love all those water scenes in Tarkovsky’s films, especially the one in Nostalghia when Gortchakov lies down on the bed in his hotel room and the rain begins to fall outside. You watch it stream down the decaying wall outside the window, collect on the sill, and spill onto the floor.

I think about how our children and grandchildren will value rain a great deal more than most of us do. N. and I are moving to Crete, which scientists predict will soon become a desert. Scientists have been predicting lately that all or most of the Mediterranean will become desert. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does sadden me. Greece is already a dry place, where vegetation seems to struggle to grow. But this struggle always seemed eternal to me. I wanted to think it would always be that way. I wanted it to stay eternal.

I went out for a short walk in the rain tonight. I wore a hat to keep my head dry. I only needed to go out and get a few things at a shop a couple of blocks away, but I wanted to keep walking for hours. I wanted to get drenched. I wanted to carry some of it home in my hands and put it on the table or on one of the bookshelves. I want to lie down and sleep with the window open and not care if the papers and notebooks on my desk get wet. I want to sleep for a long time to that sound and have my dream enter the room, like Gortchakov’s dog, which came and lay at the foot of his hotel bed. In my dream I am 17 or 18 again, walking along Queen Street again late on a Sunday night, in the rain, as far as the old Fox Theatre to see the poster behind the glass, with all the films that are playing that month. Behind the doors the lobby is empty and dark except for the weak yellowish light behind the snack bar. I am young still, with the illusion that I am old already, instead of old already, with illusion that I am still young. I walk back home, past the closed shops, each as dark as the lobby of the empty Fox Theatre, as dark as only memories and dreams are. I am impatient to be older, to start my real life, far from there, in a place where there is heart-breaking light on mountain and sea, and nothing my young mind could ever imagine as a desert.

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Reading Jealousy (4)

Dr Zen writes:

You are going to be joining the long line of readers of R-G who finish his work with a vague — and sometimes not so vague — sense of dissatisfaction.

He doesn’t do answers. I think that is because his belief is that the question is (or ought to be) unaskable, and consequently unanswerable.

I’m going to keep trying. Sometimes being tired from work puts me in a bad mood. I should just close the book and forget about it till I feel like reading it. At the moment, I’m in a much more generous mood.

When I closed the book last night at about two AM, I wrote some notes.

If the narrator is so obsessed that he revisits the scenes over and over again, how can he, at the same time, seem so ignorant as to their significance? And if he is not ignorant of their significance, why does he avoid confronting or discussing it on the page? Is it because he has something to hide? Whatever the reason, why then is he telling any story whatsoever? Why have the words been set down? Under what pretext do we find ourselves together, as reader and writer? Why would anyone sit and labour over not saying what could be said?

When somebody reads a story he knows is not true, about characters he knows are not real, told by a narrator who pretends to be omniscient, he enjoys this illusion that he willingly and momentarily pretends to believe in. To subvert this arrangement seems arbitrary to me. Why would someone want to make a point of not knowing what was really going on in the minds of characters everyone knows don’t exist anyway? Why write such fiction at all? I know that we must stick to one point of view, and be careful about not writing what a narrator doesn’t know. But a narrator who doesn’t even speculate?

There are no thoughts to be known. All is imagined.

* * * * *

A… sits at a table and does not speak. Her husband (we assume), the narrator, watches her. We cannot know what she is thinking, or what she does when she’s away from him. Why is this so? Because R-G has decided to restrict himself only to what the narrator can see or know. Fair enough, and quite common. He has also decided, it seems, to conceal a great deal of what the narrator knows as well.

But if the situation and characters are products of the imagination and not of knowledge, then it seems largely arbitrary. How do I know that A… is even sitting at the table? If I say I don’t even accept her existence, I sound as though I naively think the writer was out to hoodwink me all along. I go so far that the extreme of clever scepticism because naivete, the way objectivity becomes subjectivity if you take it far enough.

The above is just a record of my frustrations. I don’t know how valid the questions are. I haven’t finished the reading the book yet. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a record of the reasons why I gave up and joined the long line Zen mentions.

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Reading Jealousy (3)

Dr Zen wrote to me:

It is about only one thing. What is real? How does a writer describe what is real?

If Robbe-Grillet had other themes, they were purely incidental to that.

At first I wondered if I had been speculating about possible themes. “You ask why the narrator does not talk about what he seems to know.” I asked him why he didn’t make the comment on the blog and he said he didn’t want to sound too critical. I encouraged him to comment publicly, knowing that this would inevitably influence my reading, in one or another. I’ve glanced at the introduction of the book, and I read an article this weekend. They influence my reading too.

Last night when I lay in bed and tried reading, I felt discouraged, mainly with myself. What did I really have to say about this book? What interest was any of it to anyone who’s read the book themselves? Even the questions I’m asking have been asked and answered many times before. Then, when I wrote, “It can’t all be about catching the metaphors and understanding the narrative technique and the commentary about modern fiction”, Dr Zen wrote back and said:

Can’t it? Perhaps now you recognise that my comment was well aimed?

It was, although I don’t think I’m talking about themes. At least as I understand the word. The more that I want is for the illusion that there are real people and real action to continue, at least somewhat. I want the second half of the book to take that illusion forward, at least somewhat. The questions R-G poses come in the guise of character and setting and plot, and I want the two parts of the book — the questions and the “story” — to continue hand-in-hand. I don’t mind not getting, and don’t expect to get, answers, but half-way through the book, I want to want to look for them nonetheless. (That’s not a typo.)

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Reading Jealousy (2)

Yesterday I happened to look at somebody’s newspaper and I found a review of a new Greek edition of Jealousy. It touched on a lot of the things I wrote about in the first post. It’s occured to me I don’t have anything original to say about the book.

What’s more, two things struck me. One is that it’s the kind of book that could only be written once. How could someone write another book about someone who watches but is not seen?

The second thing is that if the book is largely about what can’t be known for sure, and what the narrator doesn’t (at least consciously) reveal to us, why should I keep reading? The book seems to be the demonstration of a point, and I feel that I’ve got it, more or less. What will be added to that point if I read the second half of the book?

Surely there must be some secret, perhaps some solution, buried deep in the details, some details that are part of the game of pretending that these characters are reveal, that I can add to the picture I’m forming. It can’t all be about catching the metaphors and understanding the narrative technique and the commentary about modern fiction.

When I revisit the scene with the centipede, what new details will be revealed, and will these details lead anywhere I haven’t been already?

* * * * *

Who’s the native who has twice been shown to be bending over the water, as if looking for something? Why’s he looking? Is he actually looking for something, although the narrative says it’s impossible to see anything in such water?

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Reading Jealousy (1)

I’ve started reading Jealousy, by Robbe-Grillet, and have been taking notes. It’s so far been one of the strangest reading experiences I’ve ever had.

I will be posting from time to time as I read.

* * * * *

A brief outline:

A… and Franck sit on the porch of a banana plantation somewhere in Africa. Franck is married, but his wife has stayed at home to look after their sick child. They sit, drinking, chatting. Nothing happens. During dinner A… sees a centipede on the wall, and Franck gets up to kill it. It leaves a mark on the wall. Some days later, A… and Franck go to town for the day, ostensibly because A… wants to do some shopping, and they do not return till the next day. Franck has been talking about car troubles, but when he returns he offers no explanation. There are minute descriptions of the house and the surrounding plantation, including two pages in which we are told precisely how many banana trees are in each field.These scenes are played over and over again. There is a fourth character. A…’s husband, the narrator. He never refers to himself directly. He never does anything. He does not seem to be present, except as a pair of eyes. He is nothing more than a witness, a narrator. But he is remarkably silent about a great many things.

* * * * *

There is a point where objectivity seems to become subjectivity.

Robbe-Grillet concentrates on what his narrator can see and makes no assumptions. We do not know what Franck and A… think, only what they do or seem to do or think. (Robbe-Grillet uses the word seem often but deliberately, perhaps as a crutch — since it solves a lot of potential problems for him — but surely to remind the reader that things may not be as they seem.) By concentrating only on what can be seen, we are stuck firmly, perhaps even trapped, in the consciousness and perceptions — the point of view — of the narrator, and so the attempt to be objective leads to subjectivity. We are resigned to the fact that we cannot know any more than what the narrator perceives and tells us — although he may slip and reveal things to us by omitting or misinterpreting details (and by misinterpreting I mean inviting us to interpret things differently). But this is now the writer working above or around his narrator, and the highest manifestation of art in this kind of writing.

* * * * *

Why is the narrator so invisible? Why does he take such pains to conceal himself? It seems pathological. Is he a passive person, who does not care if his wife is having an affair or not? Why does he not comment on what he seems to know?

* * * * *

The narrator gives countless details, he counts objects, like the banana trees in the fields, and precisely situates things, not because any of these details are important, but because his act of observing alone is important. Robbe-Grillet wants us to be aware of the narrator’s obsessive watching without drawing attention to it himself, without having to resort to characterisation.

Yet if the narrator is obsessed and jealous and seems to think that something is going on between A… and Franck, he is also deliberately avoiding saying so. He avoids any mention of what he is obsessed about. It is as though he is trying not to think about it, not to see it. He will count banana trees instead. He is a narrator who is trying not to see something and trying to convince himself (perhaps successfully) that nothing is happening, while Robbe-Grillet suggests that it’s there, that it is happening.

* * * * *

In the second section of the book, we see much of the action out on the balcony through the narrator’s window. He is hiding behind the blinds of his room. He can watch and not be seen. But he can’t hear. He can only guess at what is said, and sometimes the reader can’t help but feel he is guessing naively.

Throughout the story, the narrator reports to the reader what he sees and hears without ever referring to himself. We know nothing about him. We cannot see him. At first we don’t even realise he’s there. First we learn that the table has been set for four. A… and Franck are there, but Franck’s wife will not be coming. So one of the settings is removed. That leaves three. But no reference is ever made of a third person.

There is a map of the house on the first page. On the porch, where A… and Franck sit and talk, we can see four chairs and a table, if we look closely enough. The legend says

Veranda: 1) Franck’s chair. 2) A…’s chair. 3) Empty chair. 5) Cocktail table.

No mention is made of the fourth chair, where the narrator is sitting.

He is someone who watches without being seen.

The horizontal blinds that he hides behind are called jalousie blinds.

* * * * *

The narrator never seems to do anything. He never acts. When A… sees the centipede, he does nothing but watch her face. It is Franck who gets up and kills it. The only suggestion, so far, that he does anything but watch is on pages 46 and 47, when Franck is discussing buying a new truck:

But he is wrong to trust modern trucks to the Negro drivers who will wreck them just as fast, if not faster.

“All the same,” Franck says, “if the motor is new, the driver will not have to fool with it.”


[A…] has kept out of this discussion.

Since there has been a discussion, and since A… was not involved, that leaves only Franck and the narrator. But when the scene is revisited on page 63, there is no sign that the narrator was involved. It is as if he were fading out of the scene. The offer to take A… to town has been made for the first time, and the killing of the centipede is shown for the first time. Is the narrator’s inactivity caused by the shock of hearing the offer? He is definitely concentrating more on them now than on even the slightest hint of his involvement.

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