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.
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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.
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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.