When I finally finished Jealousy a few months ago, I wrote some notes but never got round to posting anything. I got more interested in it towards the end, but it still it didn’t leave me with much. Here are some of the notes I made. They are basically my thoughts straight onto the paper. Some of it is very obvious, because I like to spell out what’s obvious and make sure it’s understood. Strange ideas are usually hiding underneath somewhere. Sometimes I can’t really remember what I was going on about, but I type them up nonetheless.
When we read a work of fiction, we know the characters do not really exist. We don’t quite pretend to believe that they exist, because we don’t intend to fool anyone, not even ourselves, that we actually do believe this. Perhaps we pretend to have momentarily forgotten that the characters are not real, but again we don’t intend to fool anyone believing that we have forgotten. I am sure, however, that we are imaginatively hypothesising about the characters and the events: If this were true, how would he feel? What would she do next?
Can the reader or even the writer know the thoughts and intentions of a character in a fiction? This may seem like an odd question. How can thoughts and motives be off-limits to us if the person who has them doesn’t even exist? If the person doesn’t exist, then surely the thoughts and motives don’t exist.
And yet, sometimes the thoughts and motives of a character, who doesn’t even exist, are not revealed to us and cannot be known, but only when the writer has decided to draw a veil or curtain over them and to say, “This character, which doesn’t exist, had thoughts which don’t exist, and I’m not going to tell you what they are.” Or he might say, “I’m going to pretend I don’t know what they are.” He could if he wanted to, and if he did we would have to believe him because there would no way he could be wrong. To say that he was wrong would be to believe that the characters had a reality outside the fiction, that they really existed. And we know this is not so.
(I am, of course, talking about the third person narrative voice, where the voice telling you the story is not one of the characters in it. Otherwise we would have a narrator we know did not exist, telling us a story we know is not true.)
In fact, there are only two options. A writer will either pretend to know everything, or he will pretend not to know everything. Except that we cannot talk about pretending to know or really knowing when there is really nothing to know. You cannot pretend to know something that doesn’t exist any more than you can pretend not to know it. There is nothing to know or not to know. So a writer’s two choices are really to give us details or not to give us details.
A writer must still try to create the illusion of reality. Or maybe I should say “a story-teller”. He must create this even though no one will believe it — although they may momentarily forget that they don’t believe it. And this is often easier to do when he withholds information. When he says, “I know almost as little about this character as I do about you, reader,” then that suggests that the character is real outside and beyond the confines of the story and the writer’s mind, and that the character is almost as real as you and I, the readers.
In the greatest works of fiction, the narrator who claims not to know something is observant enough to quietly and accidentally give you the details you need so you can see for yourself what the narrator doesn’t or can’t see or understand.
How far can a writer take all this? How do we take Robbe-Grillet’s apparent point of nothing being knowable in his fiction when our first assumption, our premise, is that there is nothing to know anyway? We have only a writer who agrees or refuses to create details.
Is there any point in claiming not to know everything about something you yourself have invented? The point that that’s how life is is too obvious to need making. Besides, art is not life, and this sounds like art that is trying to preach or teach a lesson.
So, in the end, it’s a question of simply creating the illusion that there is something real beyond what we behold in the book. Writers who use this technique never actually say, “I am going to create an incomplete picture and thus make comments about how you perceive it.”
On page 96 of the Grove edition a centipede is killed in the bedroom, and not in the dining room. It is not stated who kills it — a sign so far of the narrator’s actions. Then the wall is cleaned with a hard eraser. It is not clearly stated that it has been crushed against the wall — only that “it is nothing more than a reddish pulp” on the floor — since it falls first to the tiles.
But then, on page 113, after the narrator has been describing the calendar and walls in the bedroom, the narrator seems to confuse the two scenes. Franck stands up with his napkin and kills it in the bedroom.
Does the second centipede remind the narrator of the first one, seen in the dining room? If he is confused, can we be sure there are even two of them?
There is yet another possibility. As the day progresses (the time is given at the beginning of each chapter, with the movement of the column’s shadow on the balcony) we are given descriptions of the same events over and over again. These events are, of course, not repeated, but remembered repeatedly during A…’s and Franck’s absence. Most of the events seem to have occurred the previous day, but since among this jumble of memories are both memories of their absence and their return, the remembering must be happening afterwards.
The other possibility: The narrator is in the house alone. (“A… should have been back long since.”) He is concentrating on the calendar and the walls of the bedroom. Perhaps there is a centipede on one of them, perhaps not. (The description is identical to the one in the dining room.) The narrator remembers the scene, which like a film, is projected onto the wall. He sees the memory of Franck killing the centipede, but in the bedroom where he is remembering it, not in the dining room where it happened.
If the narration occurs when the narrator is alone in the house (since he cannot be sitting on the balcony with them and remembering events which come later, after they have left) and since he also remembers their absence and return, it is quite likely that the narrator goes over all the events during a later absence.
But then on pages 113-114 the narrator describes the accident that presumably kills A… and Franck. But how has he seen it? Only what he actually sees is described, and not what he “knows”.
After this, he returns to his usual circling around the same scenes: the centipede, the balcony, the dinner, the conversations. In retrospect, it seems the crash was described once and so unexpectedly for its shock value. Why would this obsessive narrator forget or neglect to mention it through the rest of the book? If he’s trying to forget it, why mention it even once?
Another detail. Two or three times, the narrator mentions a man, perhaps a worker, bent over some water (a river?), looking into it, as if at something underwater. (In the calendar photo or painting, someone is looking at something in the water, some flotsam. It is mentioned twice.) I thought perhaps there is evidence of a crime, something the narrator has thrown in the water and is afraid the worker will find. But nothing comes of it.
In A…’s bedroom the narrator finds the leather writing case, from which she took paper to write a letter. (The narrator has described watching her write it.) He opens the case and tries to read from the indentations in the paper, from the ink blottings, but can’t. Is he simply trying to learn what the letter said, or is he looking to see if A… wrote something that incriminates him?
Then it settles back into the same repetition and ends. I’m left with the feeling that there must be some clue to the narrator’s state, even his actions, some suggestion or possibility about what he has done, if indeed he has done anything. But I read it rather carelessly, and probably missed a lot. The question of whether A.. was having an affair with Franck does not concern me, and I’m sure that it shouldn’t. The narrator himself probably doesn’t know. In that sense, when we read the book we are in the same position as the narrator is, looking and searching and suspecting and never finding an answer.
And there is the problem of Franck’s wife Christiane, who never appears. Is that because her relationship with Franck has spoiled, as the narrator’s and A…’s has? Why does the narrator give us her name, but never his own or his wife’s? Is there some secret history between her and the narrator? Does the undercurrent of guilt come from that?