French author and literary theoretician Alain Robbe-Grillet, considered one of the founding fathers of the nouveau roman – the new novel—an unconventional literary style that was born in France, died in France at the age of 85. Robbe-Grillet was admitted to the Caen University Hospital in western France over the weekend for cardiac problems, officials said. He died there Monday morning.
Together with other avant-garde luminaries of France such as Claude Simon and Jacques Derrida, Robbe-Grillet was at the vanguard of a movement born in France that re-invented not only the French novel but also the experiences of writing and reading themselves.
Alain Robbe-Grillet did not start life in the literary world. He was born in Brest, Finistère, in northwestern France, to a family of scientists and engineers. He attended the Lycée de Brest, and the Lyceés Buffon before he graduated from the prestigious Lycée Saint-Louis in Paris. In 1944 he received a diploma from the National Institute of Agronomy. Between the years 1945 and 1949 he studied at the National Statistical Institute in Paris, and then in 1949-51 at the Institute of Colonial Fruits and Crops. Robbe-Grillet worked as an agronomist in Martinique, in the West Indies, where he supervised banana plantations. But along with the banana trees, the seeds of France’s newest novel and novel form would be born. In 1953, Robbe-Grillet’s first novel, The Erasers, was published in France.
Starting in 1955, Robbe-Grillet worked as a literary consultant at Les Editions de Minuit, one of the most famous publishing houses in France. This prestigious French publisher also attracted such writers as Claude Simon Nathalie Sarraut, Michel Butor, Jacques Derrida, and Pierre Bourdieu. Although these French writers each possessed a distinctive voice, they all believed that the 19th-century social novel in France was dead.
Alain Robbe-Grillet’s works purposely eschewed conventional elements such as dramatic plotting, a coherent concept of time, and psychological analysis of the character that were part and parcel of the novel before, particularly in France in the works of Balzac for example.
With a conviction perhaps born from his connection to the earth during his studies and work as an agronomist, Robbe-Grillet argued that the writer should restrict himself to the impersonal description of physical objects. He reasoned that psychological or ideological analysis was subjective and should be excluded from writing. Like other thinkers of the Semiotics movement that was born in France, he believed the reader should assign any underlying meaning to details and events. Contemporary French semioticians such as Roland Barthes frequently analyzed and referred to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s works.
True to his artistic principles, Robbe-Grillet’s novels are composed largely of recurring images, impersonally depicted physical objects and random events of everyday life. However, beginning with his first novel published in France, Les Gommes (1953, The Erasers), Robbe-Grillet used and manipulated traditional and popular literary genres – working several times with the mystery novel from. (Robbe-Grillet’s first novel, A Regicide, was not published until 1978.) The Erasers mixes a detective story with Robbe-Grillet’s signature changing perspectives and detailed descriptions of natural objects such as a tomato wedge. The book received the Fénélon Prize in France in1954. Robbe-Grillet was elected member of the prestigious Academie Francaise in 2004, the highest honor in France for a French artist, writer or intellectual. However, he never sat in any meeting of the Academie.
Some of Robbe-Grillet’s other novels include Le Voyer (1955, The Voyeur) a crime novel with multiple and shifting points of view in which the mystery is left to the reader to solve, La Jalousie (1957, Jealousy), which was set on a banana plantation and which Nabokov called one of the greatest novels of the century, and Dans Le Labyrinthe (1959, In the Labyrinth).
In 1960s France, Robbe-Grillet’s emphasis on the visual world led him to writing screenplays and directing films. Some of his novels have also been called ciné-romans (film-novels). The most famous dramatization of his literary theories is French director Alan Resnais’s film Last Year at Marienbad, for which he wrote the screenplay.
In 1963, Robbe-Grillet published “Pour Un Nouveau Roman,” (Toward a New Novel). This short work was a critical essay highly acclaimed in France that explained the theoretical foundations of the “new novel” and condemned conventional devices such as metaphors as too sentimental and subjective. The article became the credo of the Avant-Garde in France, and made Robbe-Grillet an overnight star among Paris Left Bank intellectuals. However, in the essay, Robbe-Grillet rejects any iconic status: “If in many of the passages that follow, I readily employ the term New Novel, it is not to designate a school, nor even a specific and constituted group of writers working in the same direction; the expression is merely a convenient label applicable to all those seeking new forms for the novel, form capable of expressing (or of creating) new relations between man and the world, to all those who have determined to invent the novel, in other words, to invent man.”
Robbe-Grillet was a member of the High committee for the defense and the expansion of the French language (1966-1968), after which he directed the Center of Sociology of Literature at the University of Brussels, (1980-1988). He also taught in the United States, in particular in New York, Washington and Saint Louis.
In his final novel, La Reprise (2001) a spy is sent to post-war Berlin on a mission which devolved into a sado-erotic experience. “All my novels are comic. Perhaps La Reprise more so”, Robbe-Grillet once said of his best-selling book.
“The Academie Francaise today loses one of its most illustrious members, and without a doubt its most rebellious,” mourned President of France Nicolas Sarkozy.
Despite the New Novel’s focus on objective reality swept clean of human feeling or bias, French author Robbe-Grillet always insisted that the nouveau roman is entirely subjective – its world is always perceived through the eyes of a character, not an omniscient narrator. “The true writer has nothing to say. What counts is the way he says it,” he once stated.
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