Alain Robbe-Grillet and the French Nouveau Roman Movement

Photo of Thomas Moran
4 November 2016

France’s Nouveau Roman movement anticipated postmodernity by questioning the limitations of perception. Thomas Kendall argues that by doing so, writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet sought to return to a mythic understanding of man’s relation to an ineffable reality.

“When a novelist has ‘something to say,’ they mean a message. It has political connotations, or a religious message, or a moral prescription. It means ‘commitment,’ as used by Sartre and other fellow-travelers. They are saying that the writer has a world view, a sort of truth that he wishes to communicate, and that his writing has an ulterior significance. I am against this.”

If traditional novels rely on the slow dissection of the imagined psychology of their characters and their subsequent interactions with the ‘world’ — a world of explicable if unlikely events that test and alter the characters in a manner universal enough to approach a grail of meaning — the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and of other Nouveau Roman writers makes no such claims. It does not assail meaning through these forms but instead inverts them and seeks to exteriorize meaning and view it through a transparently subjective lens.

“It is not a question of evoking, but of piercing the world. Suddenly a fundamental meaninglessness appears in the world. One is in the middle of a failed revolution in which the principal characters are involved, and one becomes aware that something much more serious is happening — namely, the world is not a sensible continuity that can be comprehensively explained, but a perpetual aspiration to sense, perpetually disappointed. It is human existence that has to create sense at every instant. Not to describe a sense that already exists, but to create a sense that doesn’t exist yet.”

The Nouveau Roman like all movements, literary, artistic, topographical or otherwise is difficult to trace or define. The first nouveau roman book is said to be Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms but it was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel as well as his involvement in Alain Resnais’ formalist classic Last Year at Marienbad (the cinematic equivalent of a ‘new novel’) that both cemented the movement’s aims and popularized it.

The Nouveau Roman was an attempt to radically shift the focus from novels of social manners towards the exterior world; it eschews metaphorical language because of metaphor’s intrinsically dishonest relationship with the world of phenomenon and it resolutely refuses a moralizing perspective.

Borges said that all the great novels of the twentieth century were detective novels and several of Robbe-Grillet’s novels play with the form of the pulp detective novel in order to draw out the metaphysical implications of Borges’ assertions.

“The difference is that in the traditional detective novel there must be a solution, whereas in ours there is just the principle of investigation. Detective novels are consumer products, sold by millions, and are made in the following way: there are clues to an event, say a murder, and someone comes along and puts the pieces together in order that truth may be revealed. Then it all makes sense. In our novels what is missing is ‘sense’. There is a constant appeal to sense, but it remains unfulfilled, because the pieces keep moving and shifting and when ‘sense’ appears it is transitory. Therefore, what is important is not to discover the truth at the end of the investigation, but the process itself.”

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels often read like Kafka — divested of the allegorical interpretations imposed upon them. This literature provides a radical prism through which to experience the world, one not alternate to our usual prescribed relationship with reality but hidden within it, in the liminal and marginal minutiae; crouching in the slightly chipped cup, in the stiffly articulated bars racked against a window, in the accretion of discarded clothes found along a street during a midweek morning or in the uncanny repetition of faces discarded in memory.

The ‘world’ in the Nouveau Roman novels is stripped of symbol, reduced to prosaic evidence and yet irreducibly strange and bewildering. It suggests a lineage with mythology, in which the hero is always cast into a reality beyond rational comprehension. The estrangement engendered by the Nouveau Roman is not to be equated with an existentialist sense of alienation but rather something older, more profound, dreamlike.

What we call estrangement here is perception attaining reality at a mythic level, beyond the rational, and the subsequent discontinuity of our link to the world. Our minds bandage this discontinuity, staunch the flow as we become filled with the blood of history; such things as symbols, accepted truths, interpersonal relationships so atavistic and primeval they border on a biologic obscenity.

The affect of the Nouveau Roman is not a question of impact but a revelation that the multiplicitous and indefinable flow of inner and outer space are quite inseparable, even as we piece the world together inside of ourselves.

The Nouveau Roman achieves this revelation in the reader through a reactionary shift, an excising of the personal, which in turn exposes the fatuousness of much bourgeois literature. It is a movement aimed at redressing the balance of mysteries through a profound respect for those mysteries.

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