It is said that a few decades ago, the 6th arrondissement of Paris was buzzing with delight at the supposed failure of Robbe-Grillet's novel Jealousy. The novel had been withdrawn from bookshelves and the literary critics of the day had decimated it into near oblivion. But much water has flown down the Seine since then and Robbe-Grillet's reputation as one of the pioneers of the novel roman, as an experimental writer par excellence is legion in itself. This speaks much of literary fashion as it does of reviewers and critics.
In his characteristic way, Barthes' essay on Robbe-Grillet called Objective Literature, Barthes talks about a place for Robbe-Grillet as a novelist, in spaces unoccupied since Balzac, Zola and Proust. He situates him in a place where the new novel as exemplified by Robbe-Grillet moves from the interior to the exterior. The thrust of his writing or its "whole purpose is upon an object, its being there and to keep it from being something". Like a photographer's image, the object in front of us is described but only from the surface without any intentionality, without it falling back to having a meaning, surface or hidden. The object exists on its own, for itself. As Barthes says, for Robbe-Grillet, "the object has no being beyond phenomenon, it has no allegory, not even opaque, for opacity somehow implies a corresponding transparency, a dualism in nature. His language does not explode but is a progression of names over a surface".
It is quite true that Robbe-Grillet's prose is not seemingly poetic, it is not prose poetry but it has a haunting aesthetic to it. The solidity and carefulness of description has a brooding air, the almost mathematical geometry of his character's movements have the unforgettable symptoms of melancholy about them. Anyone familiar with Last year in Marienbad can discern that. At the same time, Robbe-Grillet returns again and again to his objects, till he seemingly exhausts their surface or their surface meaning ( though meaning has no place in his order). This endless repetition works in a different way too for it ultimately serves a purpose in his fiction which is to convey the essence of circularity, that of time. For instance, in Marienbad, we end up where we began and so too in The Erasers. Under his gaze, the objects, as Barthes says, "undergo mutation".
"Visually", says Barthes,"it is impossible for a man to participate in the internal process of dilapidation.......no matter how fine you slice the units of decay......the visual dispensation of the object is the only one that can include within it a forgotten time, perceived by its effects rather than by its duration, and hence deprived of its pathos". The circularity of his time does not allow his objects to fade, they lie insistent for further gazes. Even though the lack of any metaphysic or allegory or inner meaning is repeatedly highlighted by Robbe-Grillet's critics, The Erasers is generally considered open to various meanings of form and allegory and the author seems to have planted clues for those who can unravel them. The geometric patterns of the place where this novel unfolds has the plan of Thebes and thus whether his fiction is entirely one of surfaces, of a surface metaphysic must be questioned too. From the phenomenon to the phenomenological, he can quickly traverse to the metaphysical. I also personally feel, and here I dare to disagree with Barthes, that the objects exemplified and described by the writer have lost something with the passage of time and some hints of that loss are not left entirely untouched by Robbe-Grillet.
This post has been prompted by my reading Robbe-Grillet recently and at present. It also is clear that some of his books are badly titled in English, for example The Voyeur which may however have some commercial reasons. I am currently reading his novel Jealousy and plan to read his other works too and hopefully write in more detail soon. His death, at the beginning of this year is truly a great loss to the world of literature and cinema.