Reading a Robbe-Grillet book is like watching a 1940s noir thriller with the reels in the wrong order – and with the reels shot from different versions of the same script. Similar characters are played by different actors; scenes are repeated but seen from different viewpoints; antagonist and protagonist seem to swap roles or to merge. Given the parallels between literary and cinematic techniques, it was a natural development when Robbe-Grillet took up filmmaking as screenwriter and director.
Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) was one of principal exponents of the nouveau roman movement, which emerged in France in the 1950s. Robbe-Grillet’s typical Möbius-strip narratives are intended to replicate the experiences of memory and obsession, but they can provoke boredom and frustration for readers expecting linear stories. (Repetition, doubling, jump-cutting, appearance of unintroduced characters and other dislocation techniques actually mimic, to an uncanny degree, the experience of reading while drunk, as described by Kingsley Amis.) In the film Sideways, when the pretentiousness of writer-character Miles needed to be underlined, there was no better way of doing it than for him to slip in a reference to Robbe-Grillet.
While In The Labyrinth is perhaps Robbe-Grillet’s most sustained achievement, the most accessible book for a newcomer is the short Jealousy, a love-triangle mystery set in the Caribbean.
Now we have A Sentimental Novel (2007), the author’s last novel, newly translated into English. In France, the book was sold sealed, with a warning that readers might be offended. The story is of a father who tutors his teenaged daughter Gigi in the ways of torture, murder and incest. During the course of the book we observe in graphic detail the degradation, humiliation, sexual abuse, mutilation and murder of children. The father’s harem is of girls aged from 15 down to seven. Even a bald description of several of the scenes is not possible here.
This book does not exactly come out of left field. Robbe-Grillet had dwelt upon sexual torture in Project for a Revolution in New York (1970) and child prostitution in Repetition (2001). He is part of a French tradition that uses sex as an area in which to explore philosophical and political issues. The tradition started with De Sade and runs through Bataille to Houellebecq, all of whom can accurately be described as writers of novels of ideas. For intensity and extremity, A Sentimental Novel ranks alongside De Sade and will shock readers used to Robbe-Grillet’s previous work. (Critical responses to it in France included the strongly negative and the dismissive.)