Friday, November 14, 2008

Robbe - Grillet : Jealousy

In Robbe-Grillet's world, the object is supreme. Any object. It has everything because inside it, we have no access. The surface is all. We move in this world of objects and some of these happen to be living. The characters that inhabit that world do speak, but so do the other sounds that we are supposed to hear, of tropical kinds, like the noises of crickets. The arm is raised, the hair is combed, people shift positions, they eat and move but the unending gaze is constant in its gaze. It sees all various trajectories, from different angles, giving the eye different vistas to comprehend. The blinds make up this world. Sunlight falls at certain angles, shadows shift, light changes, it gets dark. The outside is different from the inside because there is no access to the inside.

In distinction from the classical narrative, with which we are generally familiar, Robbe-Grillet offers a narrative that might appear broken but is not so. On a closer careful reading, what is seemingly vague and difficult is earnestly very easy to comprehend. This is a world where we are forced to see after we hear. In a straightforward conventional narration, the images that are offered are unique to each reader, for the substance of each reading conveys different meanings to us all. Here, the text is actually an image. Thus different images are presented before us, each preceding one linked in a circular manner to the one that follows. As we proceed, the passages are repeated at intervals, with the addition of another detail that had not been furnished previously. Thus what we thought we had seen was incomplete, for it has been completed now, after another look. Thus the outside object has been restored as it is, in time.

The above is evident in Jealousy, a beautifully crafted novel by Robbe-Grillet. We are introduced or seduced into this mathematical world by the unknown narrator or in this case by the absent narrator. There is only the gaze or the camera, as scenes and projections are made visible to us. The images are thrown at us, one after the other in a tropical plantation but not in Africa. The gaze, his wife perhaps called simply A, her friend Franck, and her servant boy, a native. The plan of A'a house is described in the minutest detail but most of the action takes place on her veranda, witnessed by unseen animals, birds, insects, sounds and smells. A sits next to Franck who is their neighbour. The action mostly describes Franck visiting A quite often, having dinner, drinks and casually talking of some mundane things. Then they decide to go together to town for a day, he looking for a new truck and A for shopping. However, truck trouble delays their return and they spend the night in town only to return the next day. The gaze waits and then nothing happens. The novel ends.

But is that all? No. Against this sparse "story", Robbe -Grillet weaves a web, a web in which the reader has to eventually fall, reluctantly at first and then, with a wilful abandon. The gaze of narration describes everything in detail and it seems, suspecting A's supposed infidelity and whilst waiting for her or having dinner with the two of them or while simply sitting, the narrator describes everything that he sees, everything that the surface of any object could possibly show in the most clinical manner. And to it are added the constant refrains, the going back, narrative shifts, repetitions, the addition of new details to previously described things, again, another time, yet again, once more, once more, till the reader, I at least, longed for more, more of the same, the same paragraph, the same object. Running through the novel is the returning back to a stain on the veranda wall, left by a centipede that Franck has crushed. This incident is described many times, over and over again till assumes a central motif.

There is a passage from this novel which has become notorious and in an essay on Robbe-Grillet, Bruce Morrissette says that it was read and parodied on radio many decades ago. I might copy it on my blog soon but the passage below is really brilliant:

"The brush descends the length of the loose hair with a faint noise something between the sound of a breath and a crackle. No sooner has it reached the bottom than it quickly rises again toward the head, where the whole surface of its bristles sinks in before gliding over the black mass again. The brush is a bone coloured oval whose short handle disappears almost entirely in the hand firmly gripping it.
Half of the hair hangs down the back, the other hand pulls the other half over one shoulder. The head leans to the right, offering the hair more readily to the brush. Each time the latter lands at the top of its cycle behind the nape of the neck, the head leans farther to the right and then rises again with an effort, while the right hand, holding the brush, moves away in the opposite direction. The left hand, which loosely confines the hair within the wrist, the palm and the fingers, releases it for a second and then closes on it again, gathering the strands together with a firm, mechanical gesture, while the brush continues its course to the extreme tips of the hair. The sound, which gradually varies from one end to the other, is at this point nothing more than a dry, faint crackling, whose last sputters occur once the brush, leaving the longest hair, is already moving up the ascending part of the cycle, describing a swift curve in the air which brings it above the neck, where the hair lies flat on the back of the head and reveals the white streak of a part.
To the left of this part, the other half of the black hair hangs loosely to the waist in supple waves. Still further to the left the face shows only a faint profile. But beyond is the surface of the mirror, which reflects the image of the whole face from the front, the eyes......doubtless unnecessary for brushing......directed straight ahead, as is natural".

The whole art of Robbe-Grillet lies in inviting the reader, initially reluctant, hesitant and slightly unsure into this mathematical world of descriptions, mirrors, windows, blinds and doors, shadows, each exactly described and charted. But is that all. Robbe-Grillet would feel offended if any hidden meaning was ascribed to his fiction or in this case this narrative. The stain has been variously interpreted but I find it closed to myself and think of it as a device to draw us towards an unforgettable central motif of this novel.......this relentless obsession of the narrator or the hidden gaze in analyzing everything in detail. Various reviews suggest murder or impending murder but I am compelled in only seeing this maze of shadows, of the most acute and the most brooding of descriptions.

Robbe-Grillet's style is extremely addictive, enchanting and yes, hypnotic. The sentences, in one repetitive rhythm and strain after another leave you asking for more for, the more the repetitions, the more sinister the effect, the more desperate the narration and the more hideously invisible the gaze. Consider the below:

"The lustrous black curls fall free to the shoulders. The flood of heavy locks with reddish highlights trembles at the slightest movement the head makes. The head must be shaken by tiny movements, imperceptible in themselves, but amplified by the mass of hair, creating gleaming, quickly vanishing eddies whose sudden intensity is reawakened in un-looked for convulsions a little lower......lower still......and a last spasm much lower".

The mundane nature of the word "amplified" is instantly negated by the hypnotic trance of what follows, of spasms that are lower, much lower. One must learn to read this fiction, this art. We get lost in the eddies of Robbe-Grillet's words, each intense, a bit more intense......and towards the end, much more.


Adam Humphreys said...

I read Jealousy in the summer and was blown away by some of it. I felt like I was being lulled into boredom with the descriptions and then he would reveal a piece of 'plot' and I would plod along.
Like a tiny detail about A's behavior, or a muted death threat or something like that. I could empathize with him by the end.
This blog is interesting.

Kubla Khan said...

The new bits that are revealed are important, they lull us out of sameness into a new facet of the same surface. the prose induces a welcome trance.

thanks for visiting.