Posts Tagged ‘Robbe-Grillet’

Reading Jealousy (6)

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?

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Reading Jealousy (5)

My problem with Jealousy was mainly one of motivation: my reasons for picking the book up again once I’d put it down. Generally speaking, I felt as if Robbe-Grillet had put his cards down on the table too soon. I had heard enough about the book to know it was one where nothing “happened” in the usual sense of the word. The obsessive quality of the narrator and narrative, the repeated examination of the same details, albeit with an increasingly sharpened focus, and the fact that I believed (had read and heard) that the “truth” would never be revealed, that there would not be a typical (or any) resolution, all created a sense of stasis. The book wasn’t going anywhere. Or rather, the only movement was the obsessive circling around the same details. Apart from the narrative, what interested me was Robbe-Grillet’s technique — his narrator’s evasiveness and apathy. But here especially I felt, or believed, that Robbe-Grillet had revealed things too early, that there was no reason to read on.

I was quite willing to admit that I was misreading the book, that I was expecting from it something it was not meant to give me, but I could not face reading a book that (I believed) had stopped developing or progressing. I was also willing to admit that I was wrong about everything, but I simply could not stay interested enough to find out. The one compromise I could not force myself to make was to give up my expectation that a book progress or develop in some linear fashion. In other words, the second chapter should do something that the first chapter didn’t do.

I mentioned the problem to Jamie, who read the book when he was studying French Literature in university and loved it. He urged me to finished it, and I said I’d try. But in the course of our conversation it occurred to me that there was, in fact, something in the book that I could concentrate on, something that moved forward and was developed: the state of the narrator himself, his mental or emotional health, and the possibility that his apathy and obsessiveness might wear him down or break him in the end.

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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 (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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