Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jealousy (1957)

I had been aware of Robbe-Grillet for a long time, of course; first from before I'd overcome my distrust of experimental fiction and viewed him with deep suspicion, and then after with the idea that, hey, maybe I should read him sometimes, what? but never doing it.  But after that fairly stultifying E.H. Young Novel, I wanted to read something that I REALLY WANTED TO READ, not just something I'd picked on an inexplicable whim.  Hence, this.

For an avant-garde novel that a lot of people, hate the plot is actually easy to describe.  This isn't like your spikier Brooke-Rose novels (hey, does it mean something that two of the most prominent advocates of experimental literature both have hyphenated last names? No? Oh, you're no fun anymore).  So, the book: it takes place at a colonial banana plantation (not clear where, but French Guiana certainly seems like a logical guess).  The narrator thinks that his wife, A..., is having or is going to have an affair with a neighboring plantation owner, Franck.  

Um...that's it?  Well, yeah, kinda, now that I think about it.  But how the hell does one even begin to describe this?  So this is one of those books that exists in space rather than time.  It's not that there's literally no forward movement in the narrative (this isn't Life a User's Manual), but there's no overall narrative movement.  A number of scenes recur in similar or very slightly different form: A... and Franck are having a drink with the narrator, Franck squashes a centipede against a wall, he and A... are planning a visit to a nearby town to do individual business.  

Also important to note is that the narrator here is invisible: you know, or will by the end, that it IS a first-person narrator, but he never refers to himself in any way, no pronouns, and the only way you know he exists is indirectly when, eg, A... pours a drink for him.  Also, he never expresses any kind of emotion in so many words.  He is purely analyzing these scenes, often through a distorted lens, and relating what is happening or might happen in a neutral tone.  It also becomes apparent that we really can't tell how much of this is real and how much in his head.

There IS a sort-of climax to the book, however, really does come across as rather shocking after all we've seen.  So tell me: is this a sex scene?

The hand with the tapering fingers has  clenched into a fist on the white sheet.  The five widespread fingers have closed over the palm with such force that they have drawn the cloth with them: the latter shows five convergent creases...But the mosquito-netting falls back all around the bed, interposing the opaque veil of its innumerable meshes where rectangular patches reinforce the torn places.

If so...hot stuff!  At any rate, the narrator clearly is imagining it as such, and the next paragraph, we hear that A... and Franck were driving home when their truck went off the road and exploded in flames, and THAT is the point at which, even if the book weren't called Jealousy, you would, if you were paying attention, get what was going on, and the theme would become clear.  An incredible emotional climax, really.

The other part I want to highlight--possibly even more amazing--is right near the end, A... and Franck are discussion a novel ("set in Africa") that they had been reading.  We'd heard about this novel before, but hadn't gotten any plot details.  But then we get this:

The main character of the book is a customs official.  It is not an official but a high-ranking employee of an old commercial company.  This company's business is going badly, rapidly turning shady.  This company's business is going extremely well.  The chief character--one learns--is dishonest.  He is honest, he is trying to re-establish a situation compromised by his predecessor, who died in automobile accident.  But he had no predecessor, for the company was only recently formed; and it was not an accident.  Besides, it happens to be a ship (a big white ship) and not a car at all.

To be clear, there hasn't been anything like this previously in the novel.  It is so palpably the narrator losing the pretense of objectivity he'd been trying to keep up throughout.  It's so bracing, and as the novel ends you can just FEEL it.  

Well, if it's not apparent (or even if so), I loved this.  I thought it was a magnificent work of art (I feel a little self-conscious saying that, but I give unironic superlatives like that rarely enough that I think it's okay once in a while for effect). Fucking breathtaking in its artistry.  The "absent narrator" conceit is brilliant, and, I mean, seriously, that truck crash--it really does create a shocking effect, one I'm honestly not sure I've seen in literature before.  It's true that books in this milieu CAN be emotionally barren, but it's real tribute to Robbe-Grillet that he's able to transcend that so masterfully.  I dunno.  I know a LOT of critics hated it when it first came out (and still do, probably), but come on, man: it's a hundred pages, it's not hard to follow (even if it seems a little baffling sometimes), and if you're reading with ANY kind of critical eye, you ought to at least be able to discern SOMETHING there.


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