A roving camera soaks in the Old World opulence of an unnamed castle. Handsome, trim men in evening attire and jeweled women expressionlessly stare at a refined entertainment. A Chanel-clad Delphine Seyrig emerges at the top of a rococo staircase looking like the most desirable elegant object in the world that you’re never going to be able to touch. The 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad perfectly pitches an idea of black-and-white European artiness, urbane sophistication, and cold intellectual eroticism that holds to this day. And while New Wave director Alain Resnais is partly responsible for that attitude, a wealth of the movie’s illogic sensibility was supplied by screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the leading lights of the avant-garde postwar nouveau roman who died February 18 at the age of 85.
The “new novel” was rooted in Paris’ idea powder keg after World War II, when the Left Bank became a bohemian stomping ground and a youthful French generation imagined the possibilities of life after such a wretched time. A loose group of writers emerged from the publishing house Les Éditions de Minuit — Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Robert Pinget, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon — who desired to liberate the novel from the prison of Balzacian realism and forge a new style partly inspired by modernist forebears such as Faulkner, Flaubert, Joyce, and Kafka. Out went causal narrative and conventional psychological probity. In came fragmented realities, repetitive structures, and symbolic obsession with ritualistic, underground sexualities.
At least, such is the world of Robbe-Grillet. Ever since the publication of his 1953 debut Les Gommes (the Erasers), he articulated in fiction, criticism, autobiography, and movies his ardent beliefs in an alternative storytelling, one that strived to create an imaginative world that exists only in the artist’s mind. Born in Brest in Brittany, Robbe-Grillet trained and eventually worked in botany, studying fruits and vegetables in Morocco, French Guiana, and Martinique and Guadeloupe. Writing was something he did on the side, penning his first novel in 1949 (it wasn’t released until later) and turning to it full time when he became an editor at Minuit in 1955.
Enthusiastically admired and loathed in equal measure, Robbe-Grillet’s novels — especially his later forays into the ordinary sexism of sadomasochistic play — continued to be misunderstood as purely sangfroid intellect, failing to recognize that Robbe-Grillet was as linguistically sensual as Nabokov; Robbe-Grillet just didn’t indulge in the same sort of pyrotechnics. His 1960s and ’70s novels, especially the streamlined Project for a Revolution in New York, so freed storytelling from novelistic space and time that they read as experimental movies, ordered collages of images and ideas, even though they’re written in controlled, measured sentences. Robbe-Grillet found a way to write depersonalized informational sentences that created surreal, cubist alternative realities. That he didn’t try to explain them away in conventional wisdom wasn’t pretentious elitism, merely an invitation to find your own way through his imposing labyrinths.