Robbe-Grillet, Alain 1922–

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Robbe-Grillet, Alain 1922–

PERSONAL: Born August 18, 1922, in Brest, France; son of Gaston (a manufacturer) and Yvonne (Canu) Robbe-Grillet; married Catherine Rstakian, October 23, 1957. Education: Institut National Agronomique, ingenieur agronome.

ADDRESSES: Home—18 Boulevard Maillot, 92200 Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. Office—Editions de Minuit, 7 rue Bernard-Palissy, 75006 Paris, France. Agent—Georges Borchardt, 136 East 57th St., New York, NY 10022.

CAREER: Institut National des Statistiques, Paris, France, charge de mission, 1945–50; engineer with Institut des Fruits et Agrumes Coloniaux, Morocco, French Guinea, Martinique, and Guadeloupe, 1949–51; Editions de Minuit, Paris, France, literary advisor, beginning 1954. Has traveled and lectured in Europe, Asia, and North and South America. Visiting professor, New York University and University of California, Los Angeles. Writer and director of films.

MEMBER: Legion d'Honneur (Officier du Merite, Officier des Arts et Lettres; France).

AWARDS, HONORS: Prix Feneon, 1954, for Les Gommes; Prix des Critiques, 1955, for Le Voyeur; Prix Louis Delluc, 1963, for L'Immortelle; best screenplay, Berlin Festival, 1969, for L'Homme qui ment; Premio Internazionale Mondello, 1982, for Djinn; elected to Academie Française, 2004.


Les Gommes (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1953, translation by Richard Howard pub-lished as The Erasers, Grove (New York, NY), 1964, new edition edited by J.S. Wood, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1970.

Le Voyeur (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1955, translation by Richard Howard published as The Voyeur, Grove (New York, NY), 1958, published under original French title, edited and with an introduction by Oreste F. Pucciani, GinnBlaisdell (Waltham, MA), 1970.

La Jalousie (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1957, translation by Richard Howard published as Jealousy (also see below), Grove (New York, NY), 1959, published as Jealousy: Rhythmic Themest (limited edition), pen and ink drawings by Michele Forgeois, Allen Press, 1971, published under original French title, edited by Germaine Bree and Eric Schoenfeld, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1963.

Dans le labyrinthe (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1959, translation by Richard Howard published as In the Labyrinth (also see below), Grove (New York, NY), 1960, published as Dans le labyrinthe [and] Dans les couloirs du Metropolitain [and] Le Chambre secrete, with an essay by Gerard Genette, Union Generale d'Editions (Paris, France), 1964.

L'Année dernière à Marienbad: Cineroman (screenplay), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1961, translation by Richard Howard published as Last Year at Marienbad, Grove (New York, NY), 1962, published as Last Year at Marienbad: A Cine-Novel, J. Calder (London, England), 1962.

Instantanés (short stories; also see below), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1962, translation by Bruce Morrisette published as Snapshots, Grove (New York, NY), 1968, new edition, 1972.

Pour un nouveau roman (essays), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1963, translation by Barbara Wright published as Snapshots [and] Toward a New Novel, Calder & Boyars (London, England), 1965, translation by Richard Howard published as For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, Grove (New York, NY), 1966.

La Maison de rendez-vous (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1965, translation by Richard Howard published by Grove (New York, NY), 1966, translation by Sheridan Smith published as The House of Assignation: A Novel, Calder & Boyars (London, England), 1970.

Two Novels by Robbe-Grillet (contains Jealousy and In the Labyrinth), introductory essays by Bruce Morrisette and Roland Barthes), translated by Richard Howard, Grove (New York, NY), 1965.

Projet pour le révolution à New York (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1970, translation by Richard Howard published as Project for a Revolution in New York, Grove (New York, NY), 1972.

Rêves de jeunes filles, photographs by David Hamilton, Laffont (Paris, France), 1971, translation by Elizabeth Walter published as Dreams of a Young Girl, Morrow (New York, NY), 1971, translation by Elizabeth Walter published as Dreams of Young Girls, Collins (London, England), 1971.

Les Demoiselles d'Hamilton, photographs by David Hamilton, Laffont (Paris, France), 1972.

Glissements progressifs du plaisir (screenplay; also see below), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1974.

Construction d'un temple en ruines a la déesse Vanadé, etchings by Paul Delvaux, Bateau-Lavoir (Paris, France), 1975.

La Belle captive (novel; also see below), illustrations by René Magritte, Bibliothèque des Arts (Lausanne, France), 1975, reprinted, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1995.

Topologie d'une cité fantôme (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1976, translation by J.A. Underwood published as Topology of a Phantom City, Grove (New York, NY), 1976.

Temple aux miroirs, photographs by Irina Ionesco, Seghers (Paris, France), 1977.

Un Régicide (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1978.

Souvenirs du triangle d'or (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1978, translation by J.A. Underwood published as Recollections of the Golden Triangle, Calder (London, England), 1984, Grove (New York, NY), 1986.

Djinn: Un trou rouge entre les paves disjoints (novel; also see below), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1981, translation by Yvone Lenard and Walter Wells published as Djinn, Grove (New York, NY), 1982.

Generative Literature and Generative Art: New Essays, York Press, 1983.

Le Miroir qui revient (memoir), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1985, translation by Jo Levy published as Ghosts in the Mirror, Calder & Boyars (London, England), 1988, Grove (New York, NY), 1989.

Angélique; ou, L'Enchantement, Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1988.

Les Derniers jours de Corinthe, Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1994.

La Reprise (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 2001.

C'est Gradia qui vous appelle (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 2002.


L'Année dernière à Marienbad, Cocinor, 1961.

(And director) L'Immortelle (produced by Cocinor, 1963), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1963, translation by A.M. Sheridan Smith published as The Immortal One, Calder & Boyars (London, England), 1971.

(And director) Trans-Europ-Express, Lux-C.C.F., 1966.

(And director) L'Homme qui ment, Lux-C.C.F., 1968.

L'Eden et après, Plan Films, 1970, adapted for French television and produced as N'a pris les des, Channel 3, 1975.

(And director) Glissements progressifs du plaisir, Fox, 1974.

(And director) Le Jeu avec le feu, U.G.C., 1975.

(And director) La Belle captive, Argos Films, 1983.

(With others) Tax andria, Iblis, 1996.


The Erotic Dream Machine (interview with Alain Robbe-Gillet on his films), Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 2003.

Also author of Traces suspectes en surfaces, lithographs by Robert Rauschenberg. Contributor to books, including Le Rendezvous (textbook; includes Djinn), Holt (New York, NY), 1981; George Segal: Invasion Blanche, Galerie Beaubourg, 1990; and Mark Tansey, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Chronicle Books, 1993. Contributor to periodicals, including L'Express, Evergreen Review, New Statesman, Nouvelle Revue Française, Critique (Paris, France), and Revue de Paris.

SIDELIGHTS: The name Alain Robbe-Grillet is tied to the French avant-garde literary form known as the nouveau roman, or the New Novel, which he helped propagate. This is a mode characterized by the deconstruction of narrative authority, metafictional techniques, and chosisme, the last a literary technique by which objects or actions are described to meticulous length. As the acknowledged leader and spokesman of the New Novelists in France, Robbe-Grillet has denounced those who talk of the novelist's social responsibility; for him the novel is not a tool and probably has little effect on society. "For us," he once wrote, "literature is not a means of expression, but a search. And it does not even know for what it searches…. [But] we prefer our searches, our doubts, our contradictions, our joy of having yet invented something." The New Novelists under Robbe-Grillet's leadership introduced new, experimental concepts into the French novel. Occasionally described as "the school of sight" or "the pen camera," the form of writing Robbe-Grillet expounds concentrates on vision and gives minute descriptions of matter-of-fact objects.

For Robbe-Grillet and his school, phenomenology replaced traditional psychology; personality was rendered indefinable and fluid; and objective description became the primary goal. Moral judgments are avoided: "The world is neither significant nor absurd," said Robbe-Grillet. "It simply is." Furthermore, "our concept of the world around us is now only fragmentary, temporary, contradictory even, and always disputable. How can a work of art presume to illustrate a preordained concept, whatever it might be?" Robbe-Grillet's preoccupation with inanimate objects has led critics, notably François Mauriac, to suggest that the author dehumanizes literature. Moreover, confusion for many readers results from the lack of distinction between a seen object and one that is imagined; reality for Robbe-Grillet is always flowing from one state to another. Descriptions are repeated with slight variations, leading to charges of obscurity and tedium.

At university Robbe-Grillet studied agriculture, focusing his energy on studying the diseases of banana trees in the tropics. He brought this same sense of scientific detachment to his first widely read novel, the thriller homage Les Gommes. The book, according to an essay by H.A. Wylie in the Bucknell Review, "studies one man's attempt to penetrate misleading appearances and circumstances in order to arrive at a true understanding of a relatively simple situation." Indeed, the third-person narrator of Les Gommes and the author's other early novels suggests "a unified source of information," which "becomes the theoretical basis for an image of the world; the voice seems to speak in absolutes," as George H. Szanto wrote in Narrative Consciousness: Structure and Perception in the Fiction of Kafka, Beckett, and Robbe-Grillet. The story opens in a provincial café, where the proprietor "is preparing mechanically for the day and ruminating on the murder the previous evening of a neighbor, Daniel Dupont" as John Fletcher described it in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Meanwhile, a customer named Garinati asks about Wallas, a lodger of the café owner; as it turns out, Garinati is an assassin who killed Dupont. Or did he? Garinati "fired one shot at Dupont," Fletcher noted, "but missed, wounding his victim only slightly. But he does not know that Dupont has survived: the morning papers carry the news that Dupont died from several shots" to mislead the shooter and track him down. Wallas's place in the story becomes clearer when a revolver of his is discovered at the crime scene. In Fletcher's view, Les Gommes is "shaped like an ancient tragedy, with a prologue, five chapters like acts in a play, and an epilogue."

Le Voyeur, Robbe-Grillet's follow-up novel, is set in the Breton coastal region of France, where the author had spent part of his childhood. The book centers on Mathias, a traveling watch salesman who finds himself unaccountably attracted to a teenage girl of questionable moral behavior. The girl, Jacqueline, reminds Mathias of his youthful infatuation for a girl named Violette—significant, said Fletcher, because the French word for rape is viol. Jacqueline disappears; her battered body washes ashore the next day. "The reader quickly notices that something in the story has been left out," Fletcher commented. "Mathias's schedule has a gap in it, a period of time … which is not accounted for in the otherwise detailed exposition of his activities." Mathias is nearly clinically removed from awareness of his own actions; as Szanto described it, the character has an "inability to differentiate between 'real' and 'imaginary' events." Indeed, "the time during which Mathias kills Jacqueline is a blank both in the book and in Mathias's mind," Szanto wrote. "The latter position must be assumed by the reader for him to realize the existence of this empty space."

Of the early Robbe-Grillet novels, La Jalousie is regarded by many critics as one of the writer's more important efforts. Set on a tropical banana plantation—hearkening to the author's early vocation—the book involves an untrusting husband who spies on his wife, referred to as A, in an effort to confirm his suspicion that she is having an affair with a neighboring man. The French word "jalousie" means both jealousy and slatted shutters, a double reference that alludes to the blinds through with the husband peers. Again the characters remain connected to, yet distant from, their actions. In the tradition of chosisme, La Jalousie, noted Ben Stoltzfus in a Symposium essay, "confines itself for the most part to situating, describing and defining objects and events in space." Fletcher pointed to a scene in which the obsessed husband watches his wife and her lover, Franck, together; Franck is killing a centipede as A watches, "herself scrutinized for her reactions by the jealous narrator, is paralleled later in a passage in which the solitary husband imagines Franck killing another insect in a hotel room he has rented with A. The analogy between the episodes—the one described and the one imagined—is assisted by another double meaning in French: the word serviette can mean both table napkin and hand towel." Franck has used a napkin to crush the centipede; the insect's bloody residue on the wall drives the husband to ponder sexual relations between his wife and her lover. The husband's descent in perversity, added Fletcher, is what makes La Jalousie "a tour de force as a psychological novel."

The 1959 novel Dans le labyrinthe completes the quartet of early Robbe-Grillet novels that helped define the author's style. Again a detached narrative voice calls the action in this story of a "fever-wracked solider … who wanders hopelessly in search of somebody's father," as Szanto described it in Narrative Consciousness. The unfortunate protagonist becomes "trapped in the labyrinth of history, war, mythology, language." Szanto added, "He becomes lost in a maze of familiar things which he expects to mean something, but which in fact are disorienting, as the author-protagonist explores one street after another, one dead-end after the next, opens doors that lead nowhere, ascends, descends staircases that, as in a Kafka novel, will never lead him to the place where he is supposed to meet the father."

In an entry for the book Novel and Film: Essays in Two Genres, Bruce Morrisette saw an element of game-playing in Robbe-Grillet's early novels. Beginning with Les Gommes, he suggested, the author "employs myth as hidden structure and establishes ingenious correspondences between myth and the semioccult 'game' of tarot cards." And "while there are no outright or hidden references to games" in Le Voyeur and La Jalousie, Morrisette noted, "both novels show serial patternings with analogies to the general conception of game structure." But it is with Dans le labyrinthe that Robbe-Grillet "offers, for the first but not the last time …, outright analogies with those board games that depend for their effect on multiple attempts, with advances and retreats, with side excursions into dead ends, with repeated efforts to find the 'right' path to the center and win the game." In Morrisette's view, even the novel's title "invites the comparison, and the paragraphs of the text often give the effect of a throw of the dice permitting no movement … or of frantic turnings from right to left."

La Belle captive, according to Albert Mobilio in the Voice Literary Supplement, is "a great place to sample [Robbe-Grillet's] clinical lyricism." The surreal novel, with seventy-seven reproductions of paintings by René Magritte interspersed, involves a dream narrative with disjointed unconscious imagery inspired by Magritte."La Belle captive offers a deviant eroticism," wrote Lynne Diamond-Nigh in American Book Review. "The heretofore dominant mode of novelistic presentation, realism, also gives way to a proliferating, intermeshing, and digressive narrative that owes more to its Other, the romance, than to the novel." "There's a good deal of voyeuristic, not to mention fetishistic back-and-forth involved," Chicago Tribune Books contributor Nicholas Delbanco observed. "Stones and roses, mirrors and mermaids recur…. What we have are dream sequences, cross-cuts and riddles, the stuff of fantasy, not fictive fact."

Recollections of the Golden Triangle, set in a South American city, describes a sex cult whose male adherents rape and sacrifice adolescent girls. The novel, characterized by "misogyny, paranoia, hallucination and vampirism" according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, is alternately narrated in first and third person, including the voice of a deranged medical doctor who participates in the sadistic killings. The nonlinear plot juxtaposes events in the labyrinthine corridors of an opera house, jail, and private club, while various minutely described objects related to the murders allude to the geometric shape of the triangle. "All of this is in the most literal sense a pretext for one of Mr. Robbe-Grillet's most brilliant and hypnotic textual games," said New York Times Book Review contributor William W. Stowe.

In Ghosts in the Mirror, the first volume of a projected three volume autobiographic series, Robbe-Grillet recounts childhood experiences in Paris and Brest, including affectionate portrayals of his parents, and offers insight into his artistic sensibilities. Michael Wood stated in New Statesman & Society, Robbe-Grillet "does collect details, miniatures, miscellaneous objects, does long for the order which will result from their classification…. He wants us to see the monsters and the ghosts which lurk in the ascetic landscape of his novels and films." Commenting on Roland Barthes, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Robbe-Grillet defends his art while eschewing ideology and Truth. "Truth," he wrote, "in the final analysis, has only ever served oppression." Paul West concluded in the New York Times Book Review that "Robbe-Grillet reminds us that language, that uniquely human thing, is subjective to begin with and can never with authority reveal the nature of anything."

In 2001 Robbe-Grillet, at age eighty, published La Reprise, his first novel since 1981's Djinn. Set in postwar Berlin, the book follows "the increasingly disorienting report of an [aging]spy," as New Statesman reviewer Gerry Feehily put it. The main character, Henri, is assigned to investigate mysterious happenings in the Soviet-controlled sector of Berlin. He witnesses a murder and finds incriminating evidence against a former Third Reich officer on the body, but the corpse vanishes before Henri can file his report. His search of Berlin takes Henri on a voyage of memory to his youth. "As the title suggests," Feehily added, Le Reprise "is a return of sorts, not only of the addled spy to his lost origins, but also of Robbe-Grillet to the themes and motifs of his early masterpiece."

Robbe-Grillet's style has been to a great extent borrowed from the cinema; indeed, his book-turned-film Last Year at Marienbad is considered a classic. According to critic Peter Cortland this style "concentrates on distorted visual images because it is representing mental life, which is of necessity different from the physical 'life,' or arrangement, of things in the material world." John Weightman believed Robbe-Grillet wants his books to have "the solidity and independent existence of a statue or a picture, which resists any anecdotal or intellectual summary." As Robbe-Grillet once noted: "It seems that the conventions of photography (its two-dimensional character, black and white coloring, the limitations of the frame, the differences in scale according to the type of shot) help to free us from our own conventions."

In a retrospective essay published in Three Decades of the French New Novel, Robbe-Grillet pointed out of his favored literary form that in its maturity the word "nouveau" is "somewhat comical. It is comical, however, in a way which, all in all, suits me rather well and, aside from the fact that the New Novel has continually renewed itself …, it may be said that its novelty remains intact since the revolution which it started in the 1950s never really materialized. Contrary to what I naively hoped as a young man, all of literature was not really turned upside down by the Nouveau Roman and, here again, I am interested in knowing why." Even in his later years, said Fletcher in the Dictionary of Literary Biography entry, Robbe-Grillet remains a literary figurehead, "in spite of the fact that he has become … something of a globe-trotting guru, a frequent presence at conferences and colloquia where his work and that of the other New Novelists is discussed. In his early career, he had virtually the whole of the French literary establishment against him; now,… he has become a prominent member of that establishment. He is thus no longer the revitalizing force in contemporary French writing that he was in the 1950s. The time is perhaps ripe for a new Robbe-Grillet to appear on the French literary scene: one who will oppose his hegemony with all the zestful vigor which Robbe-Grillet himself deployed against the cultural leaders of his own generation."



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Cruickshank, John, editor, The Novelist As Philosopher, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1962.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 83: French Novelists since 1960, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.

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Milman, Yoseph, Opacity in the Writings of Robbe-Grillet, Pinter, and Zach: A Study in the Poetics of Absurd Literature, E. Mellen Press (Lewiston, NY), 1991.

Moore, Henry T., French Literature since World War II, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1966.

Morrisette, Bruce, Novel and Film: Essays in Two Genres, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1985.

Nelson, Roy Jay, Causality and Narrative in French Fiction from Zola to Robbe-Grillet, Ohio State University Press (Columbus, OH), 1990.

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Ramsay, Raylene L., Robbe-Grillet and Modernity: Science, Sexuality, and Subversion, University Press of Florida, 1992.

Ramsay, Raylene L., The French New Autobiographies: Sarraute, Duras, and Robbe-Grillet, University Press of Florida, 1996.

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