Alain Robbe-Grillet

05/01/2018

The Anxiety of the Inscrutable

It is not so much that Alain Robbe-Grillet is unreadable. It is that he asks to be read in a new way. This is perhaps what Michel De Certeau was alluding to when in The Practise of Everyday Life he says “whether it is a question of newspapers or Proust, the text has a meaning only through its readers: it changes along with them; it is ordered in accord with codes of perception that it does not control.” De Certeau finds in Descartes this interest in a reading that is not quite the same as the written. “And if someone in order to decode a cipher written with ordinary letters, thinks of reading a B everywhere for each letter the one that follows it in alphabetic order and if, reading it this way, he finds words that have a meaning he will not doubt that he has discovered the true meaning of this cipher in this way, even though it could very well be that the person who wrote it meant something quite different, giving a different meaning to each letter.” What is important in Robbe-Grillet’s work is the degree to which the writer and the reader exist in their own worlds. One can always read a paper looking only for the words that we don’t understand, just as we can read Proust for the gossip of late nineteenth/early twentieth century Paris life. But most reading the newspaper will be looking for the day’s news, and most reading Proust will be seeking in the work a complexity of thought they won’t find in a Shirley Conran novel. However, the reader of a Robbe-Grillet book doesn’t easily know what they should do with it, and hence the unreadability. When he says the “world is neither significant nor absurd. It is, quite simply. That, in any case, is the most remarkable thing about it” we begin to understand how this gap between writer and reader is created. Robbe-Grillet adds, “around us, defying the noisy pack of our animistic or protective adjectives, things are there. Their surfaces are distinct and smooth, intact, neither suspiciously brilliant nor transparent. All our literature has not yet succeeded in eroding their smallest corner, in flattening their slightest curve.” (For a New Novel)

Though Robbe-Grillet is famous for the specificity of his descriptions, that doesn’t mean they are realistic. The reason they might be deemed so rests on the idea that in description rests objectivity while in cogitation resides subjectivity. We assume for example Milan Kundera is a much more subjective writer than Robbe-Grillet as the Czech writer happily expresses and explores ideas through his characters. No such thing takes place in Robbe-Grillet’s work, but the imaginary is still more important than the realistic; it just takes the form of description over analysis. He explains that when working on Jealousy he was trying to describe precisely the flight of seagulls and the movement of waves. Making a brief trip to Brittany in winter, he thought this would be a great opportunity to observe these details very carefully, but instead saw the problem of the “realistic Illusion”. “The only gulls that mattered to me at that moment were those which were inside my head. Probably they came there, one way or another, from the external world, and perhaps from Brittany; but they had been transformed becoming more real because they were now imaginary.” (Paris Review)

Thus for Robbe-Grillet the problem with realism isn’t that it is objective but that it is oppressively subjective: it assumes a perception of the world that is taken for the real one and this undermines the properly subjective responses of a reader interested in finding within the work their own perspective on it. As Robbe-Grillet says: “it is not a question of evoking but of piercing the world…the world is not a sensible continuity that can be comprehensively explained but a perpetual aspiration to sense, perpetually disappointed.” (Paris Review) Or, to it put another way, the novel has the capacity to be a perceptual aspiration to sense that ought to be perpetually countered. The more the novelist frustrates the sense the reader demands, the greater the need on the reader’s part to find the sense it refuses to make and the more evident is the coding process, a la Descartes. Alternatively of course the reader is defeated in the search and arrives at boredom and frustration: the subjective space isn’t opened up by the ‘objective’ approach to the material. How to find the balance between an invitation that generates curiosity, and an oppression that demands obedience? For Robbe-Grillet what many take to be realistic is too adamant in its presentation of the real and thus undermines reality rather than finding it. In Paris Review he talks about the price Balzac will not pay: that the great French realist constantly opines, defines and narrates so that the real as Robbe-Grillet would define it has little place. The real in this sense is not the common assumptions of the culture, but the anxiety that will not allow for any common assumption at all. As Robbe-Grillet says when the interviewer asks him about the tension and anxiety in Jealousy. “It is interesting what you point out about Jealousy, because it is the book of mine which has been described as the most dehumanized, where nothing happens: a serene, whitewashed world in which man seems perfectly reconciled with his environment. Yet it is exactly the opposite: it is an experiment with anxiety.” (Paris Review)

However, there is the danger that the writer’s experiments with anxiety can seem closer to flirtations with boredom. Robbe-Grillet is a paradoxical figure whose importance is undeniable but whose work is supported by a superstructure beyond the text. For all the Kafkology surrounding the great Czech writer, we can imagine someone reading a story by Kafka like ‘Metamorphosis’, or ‘In the Penal Colony’ and believing it talks to them: that the idea of feeling like an insect or being tortured to death with a newfangled machine doesn’t require justifications beyond the text. Even though few writers more than Robbe-Grillet have insisted on the importance of the text itself, he more than most has theorised beyond it. It is why the essays in For a New Novel are so important. When he says in Paris Review that he is troubled by George Lukacs’s criticism because it doesn’t attend enough to the text – that Lukacs doesn’t distinguish between Flaubert and Zola on the level of the prose – we might wonder if Robbe-Grillet’s importance rests on a contradiction: the paramount importance of the text whose paramount importance is evident because of the arguments outside the text made in its defence. Robbe-Grillet was never a writer like his contemporary Michel Tournier whose books were popular in themselves; Tournier’s Erl King was described as an international bestseller. Robbe-Grillet’s were lauded as a new mode of literature that relatively few people wanted to read. As Paris Review notes, “Robbe-Grillet’s first two novels, The Erasers (1953) and The Voyeur (1955) were ignored by the public…” but Roland Barthes’ favourable review of Jealousy in 1957, and a context that saw Robbe-Grillet as part of a movement that included Claude Simon, Michel Butor and Robert Pinget, turned him into a spokesperson for modern, original French literature.

It is ironic then that a writer who talks up the text so much became successful through context, yet this irony needn’t be easy: it is one of the problems of creating a new literary space occupied by much more easily assimilable prose. While failure shouldn’t be seen as a guarantee of literary merit, success in fiction is often evident by the use of conventions that make it popular. There is little of the anxiety Robbe-Grillet talks about because the book is generic enough to give us a sense of where it is going, and offers a perspective firm enough for us to feel phenomenologically ensconced: comfortably placed with a point of view within the text, whether it happens to be first person, occasionally second-person or third person. Yet part of the coldness we find in Robbe-Grillet’s novels lies in the relationship with perspective. Robbe-Grillet’s novels aren’t objective, they are problematically subjective, and we can see this very clearly by looking at a few passages from different works.

In Jealousy the narrator notes a character “has turned slightly to smile at the photographer, as if to authorize him to take this candid shot. Her bare arm, at the same moment, has not changed the gesture it was making to set the glass down on the table beside her.” Shortly afterwards we have this passage: “the window, facing east, on the other side of the office, is not merely a window opening, like the corresponding one in the bedroom, but a French door which permits direct access to the veranda without passing through the hallway.” In From Project for a Revolution in New York: we note “…the three actors, on the dais, have now come to the second panel of their triptych, in other words, to the murder, and the demonstration can this time, on the contrary, remain on a perfectly objective level while being based on the blood spilled, provided nonetheless it is limited to methods provoking a sufficiently abundant external bleeding” and then “the spectators seated in parallel rows on their kitchen chairs are as motionless in their religious attention as rag dolls.” This is from In The Labyrinth, “the man is standing outside, in full sunlight, because there is not enough light inside the apartment; he has simply stepped outside the door and decided to stand near the lamppost. In order to be facing the source of light, he has turned in the direction of the street, having behind him on the right (that is, on his left) the stone corner of the building; the street light on his other side is brushed by the bottom of his overcoat.”

Even if the work is often in the first person (In the LabyrinthProject for a Revolution in New York and Jealousy too (though ‘I’ is never mentioned) the presentation of events is aloof, less a narrative perspective than a drone-eyed angle. While most fiction offers omniscience, third person restricted or first person necessarily limited, Robbe-Grillet’s novels often find a place between these options to create a very unusual form of unease, which is nevertheless distinct from the Heideggerian anxiety he talks about. For Heidegger man is absolutely central. As George Steiner puts it: “He does not question objects or ideas or logical-grammatical relations. Like Husserl before him, he turns completely to man.” (Heideggger) Robbe-Grillet turns towards and away from man at the same time, creating odd perspectives that leaves the reader unsure not only of their place in the world but in the world as a place. Even when the space is specifically mapped out as we find in the map of the plantation after the contents page to Jealousy, everything remains vague and frequently repetitive. As translator Bruce Morissette says: “A first person narrator who, however, never says ‘I’ and whom one never sees or hears, draws us into an identification with him, installs us in the “hole” that he occupies in the centre of the text, so that we see, hear, move and feel with him.” Yet this is very different from feeling, hearing and moving with Marcel in Remembrance of Things Pastor Roquentin in Nausea. There is a conscious centre at the centre of Proust’s book; a conscious sense of its collapse in Sartre’s. In Robbe-Grillet something else is going on despite Robbe-Grillet’s insistence on the new novel aiming at total subjectivity, thenouveau roman that would include, Butor, Simon, Nathalie Sarraute and Margaret Duras. Here in For a New Novel he says “it is easy to show that my novels – like those of all my friends – are more subjective in fact than Balzac’s, for example? Who is describing the world in Balzac’s novels? Who is that omniscient, omnipresent narrator appearing everywhere at once…It can only be God. It is God alone who can claim to be objective. While in our books, on the contrary, it is a man who sees, who feels, who imagines…”

This is man, however, caught between the first person and third person, neither the limited figure trying to make sense of their world, nor the figure contained by a master third-person narrator, but one with neither agency nor its absence, determined to make sense of his world but at the mercy of a subjectivity that is not free. From this perspective, Morissette’s synopsis of Robbe-Grillet’s second novel captures well the writer’s subjective objectivity, this objective subjectivity. “The detective Wallas arrives in an Amsterdam like Flemish city, traversed by canals and surrounded by a Circular Boulevard”. “Wallas is seeking an assassin; he does not know, as we do, that there has been no murder. Twenty four hours after this imaginary crime, Wallas believes that he has found the criminal. He fires at this ambiguous murderer, and kills him. But it is not the assassin, it is the presumed victim, finally slain by the very hand which sought to effect a premature vengeance.” (‘Surfaces and Structures in Robbe-Grillet’s Novels’) There are elements of Poe and Borges here. Poe was brilliant at registering the terrible fears occupying a person’s mind that would then become manifest in actions that blur the line between personal responsibility and fatalistic inevitability. Borges was an astonishing writer of metaphysical conundrums with selves dreaming others into existence, and the impossibility of literature as a consecutive form capturing the simultaneity of all things. But if Robbe-Grillet is so important a writer it isn’t because he shares with Poe and Borges various thematic preoccupations. It resides in the style that he gives to these fascinations.

Here we are reminded of his comment on The Outsider: “it suffices to change the tense of its verbs, to replace that first person in the perfect tense (whose quite uncustomary use extends throughout the narrative) by the usual third person in the past tense, for Camus’ universe to disappear at once, and all the interest of his book with it…” (For a New Novel) For Robbe-Grillet this isn’t a shallow remark about style, but a profound comment about the question of meaning. It returns us to his statement about Heidegger and anxiety, and towards the problem of finding a form that doesn’t make his fiction objective but problematically subjective. We can think of the opening passage from In the Labyrinth, “I am alone here now, under cover. Outside, it is raining, outside you walk through the rain with your head down, shielding your eyes with one hand while you stare ahead nevertheless, a few yards ahead, at a few yards of wet asphalt; outside it is cold, the wind blows between the bare black branches; the wind blows through the leaves, rocking whole boughs, rocking them, rocking their shadows swaying across the white roughcast walls.” We have the shift from the first person to the second, and with little sense of anyone taking responsibility for the description. Yet is this objective literature or the problematically subjective novel? Two of France’s most important commentators on the writer offered very different perspectives. As Robbe-Grillet noted in Paris Review, for Maurice Blanchot his work was that of a “fantastic who was interested in a world at the limit of visibility. Barthes was the exact opposite – anchored in reality, speaking of the object.” In ‘Objective Literature’ Barthes discusses the presence of ham. “Ordinarily we would say, ‘So and so’s dinner was ready: some ham.’” This would be an adequate representation of some ham. “Here is how Robbe-Grillet says it: “’On the kitchen table there are three thin slices of ham laid across the white plate.’ Here function is usurped by the object’s sheer existence.”

Barthes sees the ham less as food than part of an organisation of space: a useful way of seeing Robbe-Grillet’s work without necessarily feeling it is at the same time objective. It seems neither quite one thing nor another, and this will account for numerous passages in Robbe-Grillet’s work that doesn’t quite attach itself to a point of view, but doesn’t quite arrive at an objective description either. “The sheds are located on the other side of the house, to the right of the large courtyard. The voice must therefore come around the corner occupied by the office and beneath the overhanging roof, which noticeably muffles it though some sound can cross the room itself through the blinds (on the south facade and the east gable-end.” (Jealousy) “As soon as they arrive, M has closed the entrance to the corridor by pushing shut a heavy iron grille, then turning the key in the lock (the key was in the lock, but he then puts it in his pocket)…” (Project for a Revolution in New York). Perception is trapped between the two possibilities of objective and subjective and this is partly why we suggest the unreadability of Robbe-Grillet’s work. It is as if an aspect of diegetic subjectivity has been removed all the better to invite a non-diegetic subjectivity on the part of the reader. Balzac’s work is full of objects too, Robbe-Grillet will insist, but he believes his are more open to subjectivity than the nineteenth-century French writer’s as he says “object, according to the dictionary once again: whatever preoccupied the mind” (For a New Novel)

But whose mind does it preoccupy? In Proust’s work, for example, we know that Odette occupies Swann’s mind and Albertine the narrator’s: both the character Swann and the narrator are clearly delineated characters with worlds we can readily comprehend. The narrator can hear about Swann’s actions through various third parties, and he can tell us of his own preoccupation with Albertine. But Robbe-Grillet doesn’t allow such concrete access to the narrator’s and others’ thoughts, so that the book possesses a dimension of indecipherability itself while in Proust’s work the indecipherable remains mainly within the text as the narrator tries to make sense of others’ actions. “By his exclusive and tyrannical appeal to the sense of sight,” Barthes says, “Robbe-Grillet undoubtedly intends the assassination of the object, at least as literature has traditionally represented it.” (Objective Literature) Yet this assassination Robbe-Grillet would insist is to allow for a renewal of the subject. The novelist reckons his approach to description is not at all neutral; the reader must activate their relationship with it while a Balzac novel does not require such subjective input. It is already there in the narrator’s prose.

In this sense Robbe-Grillet’s novels can be codes to crack and this might be why there is confusion between the objective and subjective towards the writer’s material. When someone decrypts something, like Alan Turing during the war breaking the German codes, we regard it neither as objective nor subjective, but intentional: a very high degree of intent and concentration goes into working out what the messages actually mean. They possess meaning from one source to another, but those seeking to intercept the message cannot know the meaning and must find out its secret text. From ancient Chinese civilizations, to Egyptian hieroglyphics understood by modern man, to Indian smoke signals, to WWII encryption, making sense of the obscure has been a constant. Of course, Robbe-Grillet’s work is not encoded in such a way, but they are not readable like a Balzac novel would generally be. This doesn’t mean that classic fiction issimply readable either; otherwise why the many interpretations and different perspectives, and the notion of subtext? It is more that Robbe-Grillet’s work removes the hermeneutic impulse (the will to interpret) with the will to decode. He wants us to work out what is going on rather than impose ourselves into the text. If Robbe-Grillet refuses the imposition of a narrator who forces him or herself on the words we read, then he would seem to wish that the reader does not busily interpret either. “Our books are written with the words, the phrases of everyone, of every day. They afford no special difficulty to those who are not trying to paste on them a grid of dated interpretations which have already ceased to be valid.” (For a New Novel).

This is the paradox: they are books Robbe-Grillet would say are written simply but that the prejudices and expectations of the reader get in the way of our ability to make sense of them. It is not that Robbe-Grillet’s books are written in code but that most othernovels happen to be. By analogy, the secret code is not secret at all; it is the assumptions that there is a code to be deciphered that leads everyone to miss what is in plain sight. This is why Robbe-Grillet can claim “before the work of art, there is nothing – no certainty, no thesis, no message. To believe that the novelist has “something to say” and that he then looks for a way to say it represents the gravest of misconceptions.” (For a New Novel). This new way of reading that we suggested at the beginning of the piece asks us to ignore many of the precepts of what makes a literary work, while also, however, absorbing other precepts. Part of the difficulty of Robbe-Grillet’s fiction is that the precepts he is rejecting are rather better known than the ones he is accepting. The precepts he rejects would include the importance of character, the development of plot and the verisimilitude of description. The major one he would accept is showing rather than telling. Yet this is not at all a Hemingwayesque insistence on sub-text, on accepting that the surface of the text is obviously hiding deeper meanings. No, Robbe-Grillet’s remains on the surface but paradoxically so. We need to decipher them not because they are coded, but that the society in which we live is so coded that we cannot quite comprehend them without letting go of many preconceptions.

Maybe this can best be explained by thinking of a newspaper review of a book. The reviewer says that the novel under review is arguably the finest work of a young writer in two decades. The prose is beautifully written, the characters so wonderfully drawn and the plot nail-biting as the reviewer goes on to describe what the plot is about but without at all justifying the statements he or she has made concerning how this is the finest work etc. Yet people reading the review wouldn’t be scratching their heads wondering what the reviewer meant: its meaning would be embedded in the social codes of the review format. The statements are empty but the codification is rich. In other words, while the reviewer uses superlatives and comparatives that are not intrinsically justified with examples, they are extrinsically justified by the format of the review that often uses superlatives and comparatives without justification. Robbe-Grillet would extend this to the novel form. As he says in an interview with David Hayman, “usually, when speaking of the novel we date it from Flaubert. That is, we have the impression that between Flaubert and Balzac something occurred, that Flaubert was the first novelist who asked himself the capital question, “Why and for what do I write? What is the power that I exploit? Who is speaking in my books?” etc. It is almost as though Flaubert was the first to realize that writing is not innocent, that it is an activity in which both writer and public are fully engaged, not only by virtue of the anecdotal content but also by virtue of the manner in which it is written.” (Contemporary Literature) The newspaper has no sense of the reviewer taking responsibility for the writing: it is the social codes out of which the material comes that are responsible. If someone accused the reviewer of using too many superlatives he could ‘justifiably’ attack the attacker by saying that everybody else does that too: how naïve of the attacker not to realize that this is how reviews are written. The emptiness of the text is explained away by the conventions of the form, and the reviewer feels under little obligation to justify the work itself. Here is a useful example of the code imposing itself on meaning. The review is meaningless but the code is significant. It is very far away from ‘writing’ as Robbe-Grillet or Barthes would see it. This is “rather a matter of what [Roland] Barthes has called “ecriture.” That is, we have the impression that for Balzac the problem of ecriture did not exist. He used the third person past tense, writing a continuous and chronological causal narrative in a natural manner, or as if it were natural. He acted as though he believed it was natural. Flaubert, on the other hand, seems to have realized that nothing is natural, that there is nothing natural in the act of writing (I’exercise de l’criture) just as there is nothing natural in the use of any power.” (Contemporary Literature)

This is central to our initial claim concerning the unreadability of Robbe-Grillet’s work, and our purpose here is not to defend the novels, to make a case for their affective importance as one might wish to do with Proust, Kafka, Handke, Coetzee and other writers one admires. These are writers whose existence somehow impacts on one’s own so that is as if an aspect of ourselves would not exist without the existence of their works. To defend Robbe-Grillet is instead to argue for a stance, to see that he wants to push for a literature that does not quite know how to be read, because it refuses many of the codified assumptions that underpin it; that give it meaning within the text because of how it fits into the world beyond the text. If we return to our early point about being able to read a newspaper or Proust in our own way, to read Proust for gossip and a newspaper looking for the big words, we would be reading them in our own way but not in their way. The newspaper editor will generally be looking for his journalists to use simple words, and Proust will be seeking to create the subtlest of portraits within the context of the social milieu he is so describing. Robbe-Grillet, however, would seem to want us to read his books in our own way, and hence the objective literature on the one hand; the subjective nature of it on the other. His books are unreadable by the standards set by most written material because we cannot find the ‘code’. Yet this is not the code of Bletchley Park, nor a symbolic interpretation the reader must uncover within the text, but instead the absence of the codes by which society allows the writer to be legible, and thus ‘readable” The resistance to this type of readability is evident in Robbe-Grillet’s remark in response to his interest in the erotic: as “a matter of fact it has appeared more frequently and it has become increasingly distanced from what we’ve traditionally called erotic. That is, for all practical purposes amorous relationships, sexual relationships, are absent. What we find is not bodies but images of bodies. They are quite often not even images but images of images …” (Contemporary Literature) InDjinn the narrator says “a young woman, tall and slender, with pale, blonde hair, was standing in the doorway, as though she had been waiting for someone’s arrival. she was wearing a white dress, of some light fabric, gauzy, translucent, whose folds, floating at the whim of an unlikely breeze, caught the reflections of that blue light that fell I knew not from where.” In La maison de la rendezvous, the novel starts: “women’s flesh has always played, no doubt, a great part in my dreams. Even when I am awake, its images constantly beset me. A girl in a summer’s dress exposing the nape of her bent neck – she is fastening her sandals -hair, fallen forward, revealing the delicate skin with its blond down.” These are erotic images but they pass through the tentative and the oneiric. 

Rather than telling a story that will contain an erotic dimension, Robbe-Grillet will allow the erotic to contain a dimension of story. This is partly why in his books (and also in his films, like L’ImmortelleThe Man who Lies and Eden and After) he will rely on repetition. This is not the type of repetition that will remind us of where the story is going, or the thriller reveal that comments again on a detail from a new angle that we couldn’t have noticed otherwise, this is a repetition that is important initself asrepetition. As he says in Paris Review ”it is not because something is important that it is repeated, but by being repeated it becomes important.” He emphasises the form as he undermines the ‘meaning’ that would underpin it. Robbe-Grillet doesn’t have anything to ‘say’ about the erotic; he is fascinated by the geometry of bodies that can generate what he sees as mesmerising images. Of course, many people looking back on his work will see in the books and films many problematic aspects: the interest in young girls, the caged women, the brutal sadism and so forth. Yet we must acknowledge this is a superimposition on the text, not meaning within it. A detective thriller might also have caged women and young girls being seduced by older men, and the private eye uncovers a case and shows the horror of the abuse. That is not Robbe-Grillet’s interest. We might have a problem with the writer’s ‘objective’ attitude to such things, but the diegesis itself will not demand that we do so. It is in this sense an amoral literature, one that does not coincide with moral codes but wants to leave the reader to decide for themselves what to make of them. It is partly what he so admires in The Outsider, and partly what he respects in Meursault. “Doesn’t the hero of L’etranger (The Outsider) actually struggle (perhaps lost in advance) against the world’s adjectivity.” (Ghosts in the Mirror)

Some will see in this a libertine sense of entitlement, and a provocative determination to counter prevailing social mores. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet, along with Sartre, Derrida, Barthes and de Beauvoir signed petitions in the seventies looking for looser laws concerning the age of consent The petitions were issued after a 1977 trial that saw three men jailed for non-violent sex offences against children aged 12 and 13. “Three years in prison for caresses and kisses: enough is enough,” one petition said, according to Jon Henley in the Guardian. Yet whatever Robbe-Grillet’s personal opinions in this area, it would be too easy to then claim the meaning resides in the autobiographical: that we have in our midst a dirty pervert and should judge his literature accordingly. In the LRBAdam Shatz says, “Robbe-Grillet’s hetero-sadist fixations looked decidedly démodé, quite possibly reactionary. (Fredric Jameson wondered whether his books had become ‘unreadable since feminism’.)” Yet to read his work too readily through the codes of the early 21st century would be to read into them a code that would defy the purpose of the work for the safety of a moral authority in the reading. Yet perhaps that would be the final irony of a writer who tried so hard to create fiction where nothing would exist outside of the text, who could say in For a New Novel: “the genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking. He must create a world but start from nothing.” Yet even the use of the masculine pronoun here shows that few writers can avoid a preconception appearing no matter how hard they try to generate the objective. This is partly why we suggest that reading the unreadable Robbe-Grillet is not an insistent demand for the objective, but a quiet insistence on the subjective. If we impose on Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre the sexual politics of the early 21st century we wouldn’t be responding to the subjective invitation, but settling for the societally normal: the very values Robbe-Grillet wanted not so much to counter as problematise.

To conclude, we can return once again to our initial gambit: that Robbe-Grillet’s works are unreadable, and change the wording slightly and suggest that he wanted the work to be inscrutable, with all the connotations the word conjures up: enigmatic, mysterious, opaque, cryptic. If we find the work hard to read and yet easy to criticise, if we decide that it should be read as an example of an outdated male perspective, then perhaps within that assumption a couple of preliminaries should be entertained. Have we attempted to understand the work on its own terms or our own, attended to its relative objectivity and our demand for subjectivity, or have we settled for a watered down state between the two that will pass for the societally acceptable? That, one suspects, would be to become the worst reader of all. To do so would be to deny the anxiety that the work seeks out for the easiest of assumptions that can be extracted from it.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Alain Robbe-Grillet

The Anxiety of the Inscrutable

It is not so much that Alain Robbe-Grillet is unreadable. It is that he asks to be read in a new way. This is perhaps what Michel De Certeau was alluding to when in The Practise of Everyday Life he says "whether it is a question of newspapers or Proust, the text has a meaning only through its readers: it changes along with them; it is ordered in accord with codes of perception that it does not control." De Certeau finds in Descartes this interest in a reading that is not quite the same as the written. "And if someone in order to decode a cipher written with ordinary letters, thinks of reading a B everywhere for each letter the one that follows it in alphabetic order and if, reading it this way, he finds words that have a meaning he will not doubt that he has discovered the true meaning of this cipher in this way, even though it could very well be that the person who wrote it meant something quite different, giving a different meaning to each letter." What is important in Robbe-Grillet's work is the degree to which the writer and the reader exist in their own worlds. One can always read a paper looking only for the words that we don't understand, just as we can read Proust for the gossip of late nineteenth/early twentieth century Paris life. But most reading the newspaper will be looking for the day's news, and most reading Proust will be seeking in the work a complexity of thought they won't find in a Shirley Conran novel. However, the reader of a Robbe-Grillet book doesn't easily know what they should do with it, and hence the unreadability. When he says the "world is neither significant nor absurd. It is, quite simply. That, in any case, is the most remarkable thing about it" we begin to understand how this gap between writer and reader is created. Robbe-Grillet adds, "around us, defying the noisy pack of our animistic or protective adjectives, things are there. Their surfaces are distinct and smooth, intact, neither suspiciously brilliant nor transparent. All our literature has not yet succeeded in eroding their smallest corner, in flattening their slightest curve." (For a New Novel)

Though Robbe-Grillet is famous for the specificity of his descriptions, that doesn't mean they are realistic. The reason they might be deemed so rests on the idea that in description rests objectivity while in cogitation resides subjectivity. We assume for example Milan Kundera is a much more subjective writer than Robbe-Grillet as the Czech writer happily expresses and explores ideas through his characters. No such thing takes place in Robbe-Grillet's work, but the imaginary is still more important than the realistic; it just takes the form of description over analysis. He explains that when working on Jealousy he was trying to describe precisely the flight of seagulls and the movement of waves. Making a brief trip to Brittany in winter, he thought this would be a great opportunity to observe these details very carefully, but instead saw the problem of the "realistic Illusion". "The only gulls that mattered to me at that moment were those which were inside my head. Probably they came there, one way or another, from the external world, and perhaps from Brittany; but they had been transformed becoming more real because they were now imaginary." (Paris Review)

Thus for Robbe-Grillet the problem with realism isn't that it is objective but that it is oppressively subjective: it assumes a perception of the world that is taken for the real one and this undermines the properly subjective responses of a reader interested in finding within the work their own perspective on it. As Robbe-Grillet says: "it is not a question of evoking but of piercing the world...the world is not a sensible continuity that can be comprehensively explained but a perpetual aspiration to sense, perpetually disappointed." (Paris Review) Or, to it put another way, the novel has the capacity to be a perceptual aspiration to sense that ought to be perpetually countered. The more the novelist frustrates the sense the reader demands, the greater the need on the reader's part to find the sense it refuses to make and the more evident is the coding process, a la Descartes. Alternatively of course the reader is defeated in the search and arrives at boredom and frustration: the subjective space isn't opened up by the 'objective' approach to the material. How to find the balance between an invitation that generates curiosity, and an oppression that demands obedience? For Robbe-Grillet what many take to be realistic is too adamant in its presentation of the real and thus undermines reality rather than finding it. In Paris Review he talks about the price Balzac will not pay: that the great French realist constantly opines, defines and narrates so that the real as Robbe-Grillet would define it has little place. The real in this sense is not the common assumptions of the culture, but the anxiety that will not allow for any common assumption at all. As Robbe-Grillet says when the interviewer asks him about the tension and anxiety in Jealousy. "It is interesting what you point out about Jealousy, because it is the book of mine which has been described as the most dehumanized, where nothing happens: a serene, whitewashed world in which man seems perfectly reconciled with his environment. Yet it is exactly the opposite: it is an experiment with anxiety." (Paris Review)

However, there is the danger that the writer's experiments with anxiety can seem closer to flirtations with boredom. Robbe-Grillet is a paradoxical figure whose importance is undeniable but whose work is supported by a superstructure beyond the text. For all the Kafkology surrounding the great Czech writer, we can imagine someone reading a story by Kafka like 'Metamorphosis', or 'In the Penal Colony' and believing it talks to them: that the idea of feeling like an insect or being tortured to death with a newfangled machine doesn't require justifications beyond the text. Even though few writers more than Robbe-Grillet have insisted on the importance of the text itself, he more than most has theorised beyond it. It is why the essays in For a New Novel are so important. When he says in Paris Review that he is troubled by George Lukacs's criticism because it doesn't attend enough to the text - that Lukacs doesn't distinguish between Flaubert and Zola on the level of the prose - we might wonder if Robbe-Grillet's importance rests on a contradiction: the paramount importance of the text whose paramount importance is evident because of the arguments outside the text made in its defence. Robbe-Grillet was never a writer like his contemporary Michel Tournier whose books were popular in themselves; Tournier's Erl King was described as an international bestseller. Robbe-Grillet's were lauded as a new mode of literature that relatively few people wanted to read. As Paris Review notes, "Robbe-Grillet's first two novels, The Erasers (1953) and The Voyeur (1955) were ignored by the public..." but Roland Barthes' favourable review of Jealousy in 1957, and a context that saw Robbe-Grillet as part of a movement that included Claude Simon, Michel Butor and Robert Pinget, turned him into a spokesperson for modern, original French literature.

It is ironic then that a writer who talks up the text so much became successful through context, yet this irony needn't be easy: it is one of the problems of creating a new literary space occupied by much more easily assimilable prose. While failure shouldn't be seen as a guarantee of literary merit, success in fiction is often evident by the use of conventions that make it popular. There is little of the anxiety Robbe-Grillet talks about because the book is generic enough to give us a sense of where it is going, and offers a perspective firm enough for us to feel phenomenologically ensconced: comfortably placed with a point of view within the text, whether it happens to be first person, occasionally second-person or third person. Yet part of the coldness we find in Robbe-Grillet's novels lies in the relationship with perspective. Robbe-Grillet's novels aren't objective, they are problematically subjective, and we can see this very clearly by looking at a few passages from different works.

In Jealousy the narrator notes a character "has turned slightly to smile at the photographer, as if to authorize him to take this candid shot. Her bare arm, at the same moment, has not changed the gesture it was making to set the glass down on the table beside her." Shortly afterwards we have this passage: "the window, facing east, on the other side of the office, is not merely a window opening, like the corresponding one in the bedroom, but a French door which permits direct access to the veranda without passing through the hallway." In From Project for a Revolution in New York: we note "...the three actors, on the dais, have now come to the second panel of their triptych, in other words, to the murder, and the demonstration can this time, on the contrary, remain on a perfectly objective level while being based on the blood spilled, provided nonetheless it is limited to methods provoking a sufficiently abundant external bleeding" and then "the spectators seated in parallel rows on their kitchen chairs are as motionless in their religious attention as rag dolls." This is from In The Labyrinth, "the man is standing outside, in full sunlight, because there is not enough light inside the apartment; he has simply stepped outside the door and decided to stand near the lamppost. In order to be facing the source of light, he has turned in the direction of the street, having behind him on the right (that is, on his left) the stone corner of the building; the street light on his other side is brushed by the bottom of his overcoat."

Even if the work is often in the first person (In the Labyrinth, Project for a Revolution in New York and Jealousy too (though 'I' is never mentioned) the presentation of events is aloof, less a narrative perspective than a drone-eyed angle. While most fiction offers omniscience, third person restricted or first person necessarily limited, Robbe-Grillet's novels often find a place between these options to create a very unusual form of unease, which is nevertheless distinct from the Heideggerian anxiety he talks about. For Heidegger man is absolutely central. As George Steiner puts it: "He does not question objects or ideas or logical-grammatical relations. Like Husserl before him, he turns completely to man." (Heideggger) Robbe-Grillet turns towards and away from man at the same time, creating odd perspectives that leaves the reader unsure not only of their place in the world but in the world as a place. Even when the space is specifically mapped out as we find in the map of the plantation after the contents page to Jealousy, everything remains vague and frequently repetitive. As translator Bruce Morissette says: "A first person narrator who, however, never says 'I' and whom one never sees or hears, draws us into an identification with him, installs us in the "hole" that he occupies in the centre of the text, so that we see, hear, move and feel with him." Yet this is very different from feeling, hearing and moving with Marcel in Remembrance of Things Pastor Roquentin in Nausea. There is a conscious centre at the centre of Proust's book; a conscious sense of its collapse in Sartre's. In Robbe-Grillet something else is going on despite Robbe-Grillet's insistence on the new novel aiming at total subjectivity, thenouveau roman that would include, Butor, Simon, Nathalie Sarraute and Margaret Duras. Here in For a New Novel he says "it is easy to show that my novels - like those of all my friends - are more subjective in fact than Balzac's, for example? Who is describing the world in Balzac's novels? Who is that omniscient, omnipresent narrator appearing everywhere at once...It can only be God. It is God alone who can claim to be objective. While in our books, on the contrary, it is a man who sees, who feels, who imagines..."

This is man, however, caught between the first person and third person, neither the limited figure trying to make sense of their world, nor the figure contained by a master third-person narrator, but one with neither agency nor its absence, determined to make sense of his world but at the mercy of a subjectivity that is not free. From this perspective, Morissette's synopsis of Robbe-Grillet's second novel captures well the writer's subjective objectivity, this objective subjectivity. "The detective Wallas arrives in an Amsterdam like Flemish city, traversed by canals and surrounded by a Circular Boulevard". "Wallas is seeking an assassin; he does not know, as we do, that there has been no murder. Twenty four hours after this imaginary crime, Wallas believes that he has found the criminal. He fires at this ambiguous murderer, and kills him. But it is not the assassin, it is the presumed victim, finally slain by the very hand which sought to effect a premature vengeance." ('Surfaces and Structures in Robbe-Grillet's Novels') There are elements of Poe and Borges here. Poe was brilliant at registering the terrible fears occupying a person's mind that would then become manifest in actions that blur the line between personal responsibility and fatalistic inevitability. Borges was an astonishing writer of metaphysical conundrums with selves dreaming others into existence, and the impossibility of literature as a consecutive form capturing the simultaneity of all things. But if Robbe-Grillet is so important a writer it isn't because he shares with Poe and Borges various thematic preoccupations. It resides in the style that he gives to these fascinations.

Here we are reminded of his comment on The Outsider: "it suffices to change the tense of its verbs, to replace that first person in the perfect tense (whose quite uncustomary use extends throughout the narrative) by the usual third person in the past tense, for Camus' universe to disappear at once, and all the interest of his book with it..." (For a New Novel) For Robbe-Grillet this isn't a shallow remark about style, but a profound comment about the question of meaning. It returns us to his statement about Heidegger and anxiety, and towards the problem of finding a form that doesn't make his fiction objective but problematically subjective. We can think of the opening passage from In the Labyrinth, "I am alone here now, under cover. Outside, it is raining, outside you walk through the rain with your head down, shielding your eyes with one hand while you stare ahead nevertheless, a few yards ahead, at a few yards of wet asphalt; outside it is cold, the wind blows between the bare black branches; the wind blows through the leaves, rocking whole boughs, rocking them, rocking their shadows swaying across the white roughcast walls." We have the shift from the first person to the second, and with little sense of anyone taking responsibility for the description. Yet is this objective literature or the problematically subjective novel? Two of France's most important commentators on the writer offered very different perspectives. As Robbe-Grillet noted in Paris Review, for Maurice Blanchot his work was that of a "fantastic who was interested in a world at the limit of visibility. Barthes was the exact opposite - anchored in reality, speaking of the object." In 'Objective Literature' Barthes discusses the presence of ham. "Ordinarily we would say, 'So and so's dinner was ready: some ham.'" This would be an adequate representation of some ham. "Here is how Robbe-Grillet says it: "'On the kitchen table there are three thin slices of ham laid across the white plate.' Here function is usurped by the object's sheer existence."

Barthes sees the ham less as food than part of an organisation of space: a useful way of seeing Robbe-Grillet's work without necessarily feeling it is at the same time objective. It seems neither quite one thing nor another, and this will account for numerous passages in Robbe-Grillet's work that doesn't quite attach itself to a point of view, but doesn't quite arrive at an objective description either. "The sheds are located on the other side of the house, to the right of the large courtyard. The voice must therefore come around the corner occupied by the office and beneath the overhanging roof, which noticeably muffles it though some sound can cross the room itself through the blinds (on the south facade and the east gable-end." (Jealousy) "As soon as they arrive, M has closed the entrance to the corridor by pushing shut a heavy iron grille, then turning the key in the lock (the key was in the lock, but he then puts it in his pocket)..." (Project for a Revolution in New York). Perception is trapped between the two possibilities of objective and subjective and this is partly why we suggest the unreadability of Robbe-Grillet's work. It is as if an aspect of diegetic subjectivity has been removed all the better to invite a non-diegetic subjectivity on the part of the reader. Balzac's work is full of objects too, Robbe-Grillet will insist, but he believes his are more open to subjectivity than the nineteenth-century French writer's as he says "object, according to the dictionary once again: whatever preoccupied the mind" (For a New Novel)

But whose mind does it preoccupy? In Proust's work, for example, we know that Odette occupies Swann's mind and Albertine the narrator's: both the character Swann and the narrator are clearly delineated characters with worlds we can readily comprehend. The narrator can hear about Swann's actions through various third parties, and he can tell us of his own preoccupation with Albertine. But Robbe-Grillet doesn't allow such concrete access to the narrator's and others' thoughts, so that the book possesses a dimension of indecipherability itself while in Proust's work the indecipherable remains mainly within the text as the narrator tries to make sense of others' actions. "By his exclusive and tyrannical appeal to the sense of sight," Barthes says, "Robbe-Grillet undoubtedly intends the assassination of the object, at least as literature has traditionally represented it." ('Objective Literature') Yet this assassination Robbe-Grillet would insist is to allow for a renewal of the subject. The novelist reckons his approach to description is not at all neutral; the reader must activate their relationship with it while a Balzac novel does not require such subjective input. It is already there in the narrator's prose.

In this sense Robbe-Grillet's novels can be codes to crack and this might be why there is confusion between the objective and subjective towards the writer's material. When someone decrypts something, like Alan Turing during the war breaking the German codes, we regard it neither as objective nor subjective, but intentional: a very high degree of intent and concentration goes into working out what the messages actually mean. They possess meaning from one source to another, but those seeking to intercept the message cannot know the meaning and must find out its secret text. From ancient Chinese civilizations, to Egyptian hieroglyphics understood by modern man, to Indian smoke signals, to WWII encryption, making sense of the obscure has been a constant. Of course, Robbe-Grillet's work is not encoded in such a way, but they are not readable like a Balzac novel would generally be. This doesn't mean that classic fiction issimply readable either; otherwise why the many interpretations and different perspectives, and the notion of subtext? It is more that Robbe-Grillet's work removes the hermeneutic impulse (the will to interpret) with the will to decode. He wants us to work out what is going on rather than impose ourselves into the text. If Robbe-Grillet refuses the imposition of a narrator who forces him or herself on the words we read, then he would seem to wish that the reader does not busily interpret either. "Our books are written with the words, the phrases of everyone, of every day. They afford no special difficulty to those who are not trying to paste on them a grid of dated interpretations which have already ceased to be valid." (For a New Novel).

This is the paradox: they are books Robbe-Grillet would say are written simply but that the prejudices and expectations of the reader get in the way of our ability to make sense of them. It is not that Robbe-Grillet's books are written in code but that most othernovels happen to be. By analogy, the secret code is not secret at all; it is the assumptions that there is a code to be deciphered that leads everyone to miss what is in plain sight. This is why Robbe-Grillet can claim "before the work of art, there is nothing - no certainty, no thesis, no message. To believe that the novelist has "something to say" and that he then looks for a way to say it represents the gravest of misconceptions." (For a New Novel). This new way of reading that we suggested at the beginning of the piece asks us to ignore many of the precepts of what makes a literary work, while also, however, absorbing other precepts. Part of the difficulty of Robbe-Grillet's fiction is that the precepts he is rejecting are rather better known than the ones he is accepting. The precepts he rejects would include the importance of character, the development of plot and the verisimilitude of description. The major one he would accept is showing rather than telling. Yet this is not at all a Hemingwayesque insistence on sub-text, on accepting that the surface of the text is obviously hiding deeper meanings. No, Robbe-Grillet's remains on the surface but paradoxically so. We need to decipher them not because they are coded, but that the society in which we live is so coded that we cannot quite comprehend them without letting go of many preconceptions.

Maybe this can best be explained by thinking of a newspaper review of a book. The reviewer says that the novel under review is arguably the finest work of a young writer in two decades. The prose is beautifully written, the characters so wonderfully drawn and the plot nail-biting as the reviewer goes on to describe what the plot is about but without at all justifying the statements he or she has made concerning how this is the finest work etc. Yet people reading the review wouldn't be scratching their heads wondering what the reviewer meant: its meaning would be embedded in the social codes of the review format. The statements are empty but the codification is rich. In other words, while the reviewer uses superlatives and comparatives that are not intrinsically justified with examples, they are extrinsically justified by the format of the review that often uses superlatives and comparatives without justification. Robbe-Grillet would extend this to the novel form. As he says in an interview with David Hayman, "usually, when speaking of the novel we date it from Flaubert. That is, we have the impression that between Flaubert and Balzac something occurred, that Flaubert was the first novelist who asked himself the capital question, "Why and for what do I write? What is the power that I exploit? Who is speaking in my books?" etc. It is almost as though Flaubert was the first to realize that writing is not innocent, that it is an activity in which both writer and public are fully engaged, not only by virtue of the anecdotal content but also by virtue of the manner in which it is written." (Contemporary Literature) The newspaper has no sense of the reviewer taking responsibility for the writing: it is the social codes out of which the material comes that are responsible. If someone accused the reviewer of using too many superlatives he could 'justifiably' attack the attacker by saying that everybody else does that too: how nave of the attacker not to realize that this is how reviews are written. The emptiness of the text is explained away by the conventions of the form, and the reviewer feels under little obligation to justify the work itself. Here is a useful example of the code imposing itself on meaning. The review is meaningless but the code is significant. It is very far away from 'writing' as Robbe-Grillet or Barthes would see it. This is "rather a matter of what [Roland] Barthes has called "ecriture." That is, we have the impression that for Balzac the problem of ecriture did not exist. He used the third person past tense, writing a continuous and chronological causal narrative in a natural manner, or as if it were natural. He acted as though he believed it was natural. Flaubert, on the other hand, seems to have realized that nothing is natural, that there is nothing natural in the act of writing (I'exercise de l'criture) just as there is nothing natural in the use of any power." (Contemporary Literature)

This is central to our initial claim concerning the unreadability of Robbe-Grillet's work, and our purpose here is not to defend the novels, to make a case for their affective importance as one might wish to do with Proust, Kafka, Handke, Coetzee and other writers one admires. These are writers whose existence somehow impacts on one's own so that is as if an aspect of ourselves would not exist without the existence of their works. To defend Robbe-Grillet is instead to argue for a stance, to see that he wants to push for a literature that does not quite know how to be read, because it refuses many of the codified assumptions that underpin it; that give it meaning within the text because of how it fits into the world beyond the text. If we return to our early point about being able to read a newspaper or Proust in our own way, to read Proust for gossip and a newspaper looking for the big words, we would be reading them in our own way but not in their way. The newspaper editor will generally be looking for his journalists to use simple words, and Proust will be seeking to create the subtlest of portraits within the context of the social milieu he is so describing. Robbe-Grillet, however, would seem to want us to read his books in our own way, and hence the objective literature on the one hand; the subjective nature of it on the other. His books are unreadable by the standards set by most written material because we cannot find the 'code'. Yet this is not the code of Bletchley Park, nor a symbolic interpretation the reader must uncover within the text, but instead the absence of the codes by which society allows the writer to be legible, and thus 'readable" The resistance to this type of readability is evident in Robbe-Grillet's remark in response to his interest in the erotic: as "a matter of fact it has appeared more frequently and it has become increasingly distanced from what we've traditionally called erotic. That is, for all practical purposes amorous relationships, sexual relationships, are absent. What we find is not bodies but images of bodies. They are quite often not even images but images of images ..." (Contemporary Literature) InDjinn the narrator says "a young woman, tall and slender, with pale, blonde hair, was standing in the doorway, as though she had been waiting for someone's arrival. she was wearing a white dress, of some light fabric, gauzy, translucent, whose folds, floating at the whim of an unlikely breeze, caught the reflections of that blue light that fell I knew not from where." In La maison de la rendezvous, the novel starts: "women's flesh has always played, no doubt, a great part in my dreams. Even when I am awake, its images constantly beset me. A girl in a summer's dress exposing the nape of her bent neck - she is fastening her sandals -hair, fallen forward, revealing the delicate skin with its blond down." These are erotic images but they pass through the tentative and the oneiric.

Rather than telling a story that will contain an erotic dimension, Robbe-Grillet will allow the erotic to contain a dimension of story. This is partly why in his books (and also in his films, like L'Immortelle, The Man who Lies and Eden and After) he will rely on repetition. This is not the type of repetition that will remind us of where the story is going, or the thriller reveal that comments again on a detail from a new angle that we couldn't have noticed otherwise, this is a repetition that is important initself asrepetition. As he says in Paris Review "it is not because something is important that it is repeated, but by being repeated it becomes important." He emphasises the form as he undermines the 'meaning' that would underpin it. Robbe-Grillet doesn't have anything to 'say' about the erotic; he is fascinated by the geometry of bodies that can generate what he sees as mesmerising images. Of course, many people looking back on his work will see in the books and films many problematic aspects: the interest in young girls, the caged women, the brutal sadism and so forth. Yet we must acknowledge this is a superimposition on the text, not meaning within it. A detective thriller might also have caged women and young girls being seduced by older men, and the private eye uncovers a case and shows the horror of the abuse. That is not Robbe-Grillet's interest. We might have a problem with the writer's 'objective' attitude to such things, but the diegesis itself will not demand that we do so. It is in this sense an amoral literature, one that does not coincide with moral codes but wants to leave the reader to decide for themselves what to make of them. It is partly what he so admires in The Outsider, and partly what he respects in Meursault. "Doesn't the hero of L'etranger (The Outsider) actually struggle (perhaps lost in advance) against the world's adjectivity." (Ghosts in the Mirror)

Some will see in this a libertine sense of entitlement, and a provocative determination to counter prevailing social mores. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet, along with Sartre, Derrida, Barthes and de Beauvoir signed petitions in the seventies looking for looser laws concerning the age of consent The petitions were issued after a 1977 trial that saw three men jailed for non-violent sex offences against children aged 12 and 13. "Three years in prison for caresses and kisses: enough is enough," one petition said, according to Jon Henley in the Guardian. Yet whatever Robbe-Grillet's personal opinions in this area, it would be too easy to then claim the meaning resides in the autobiographical: that we have in our midst a dirty pervert and should judge his literature accordingly. In the LRBAdam Shatz says, "Robbe-Grillet's hetero-sadist fixations looked decidedly dmod, quite possibly reactionary. (Fredric Jameson wondered whether his books had become 'unreadable since feminism'.)" Yet to read his work too readily through the codes of the early 21st century would be to read into them a code that would defy the purpose of the work for the safety of a moral authority in the reading. Yet perhaps that would be the final irony of a writer who tried so hard to create fiction where nothing would exist outside of the text, who could say in For a New Novel: "the genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking. He must create a world but start from nothing." Yet even the use of the masculine pronoun here shows that few writers can avoid a preconception appearing no matter how hard they try to generate the objective. This is partly why we suggest that reading the unreadable Robbe-Grillet is not an insistent demand for the objective, but a quiet insistence on the subjective. If we impose on Robbe-Grillet's oeuvre the sexual politics of the early 21st century we wouldn't be responding to the subjective invitation, but settling for the societally normal: the very values Robbe-Grillet wanted not so much to counter as problematise.

To conclude, we can return once again to our initial gambit: that Robbe-Grillet's works are unreadable, and change the wording slightly and suggest that he wanted the work to be inscrutable, with all the connotations the word conjures up: enigmatic, mysterious, opaque, cryptic. If we find the work hard to read and yet easy to criticise, if we decide that it should be read as an example of an outdated male perspective, then perhaps within that assumption a couple of preliminaries should be entertained. Have we attempted to understand the work on its own terms or our own, attended to its relative objectivity and our demand for subjectivity, or have we settled for a watered down state between the two that will pass for the societally acceptable? That, one suspects, would be to become the worst reader of all. To do so would be to deny the anxiety that the work seeks out for the easiest of assumptions that can be extracted from it.


© Tony McKibbin