The Year of Reading Dangerously – Alain Robbe-Grillet
At one time, certainly, anyone interested in the novel read Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the leading French writers of the Nouveau Roman movement. He probably wrote his most important novels during the 1950s (The Voyeur, Jealousy, In the Labyrinth), and in the 60s and 70s also became involved in writing and directing films. The influence of cinema can be seen in his work, with its emphasis on the exterior, with mood and psychology being created through the description of scene and action, and his flirting with genre.
The Erasers, his first published novel, is superficially a detective novel, yet right from the beginning it confounds our expectations. It opens with the report of a murder –
“…The victim, critically wounded and taken at once to a nearby clinic, died here without regain consciousness.”
– that isn’t a murder – Daniel Dupont, we quickly learn, is only wounded in the arm. We see him in his doctor’s surgery (“he indicates his left arm wrapped in a bandage”); we see the events of the previous night from the assassin’s point of view (“Garinati has fired, only one shot, trusting to instinct, at a fragment of an escaping body”); we see the his house keeper phoning for help from a nearby bar (“his arm had only been grazed by a bullet”). While this montage of scenes makes it clear that Dupont lives, clarity is not Robbe-Grillet’s aim. In a narrative sense, he raises a further question (Why has Dupont faked his own death?) which will only be answered in the vaguest of terms:
“In the last nine days there has been a murder committed regularly, between seven and eight at night, every day, as if they had made this little detail into a rule.”
In a traditional detective novel, this would form the basis of the investigation; here it is simply a further example of the patterned nature of the text, with scenes and motifs regularly repeating throughout (the most obvious one being the visits the detective, Wallas, makes to various stationery shops to buy an eraser). Instead we have novel in which a detective searches for the perpetrator of a crime that has not yet been committed.
From the beginning, Wallas is presented as a vague, murky character. Robbe-Grillet’s use of repetition often parallels him with Garinati. After shooting Dupont Garinati goes to a drawbridge over a canal:
“Leaning over the handrail, Garinati has not moved.”
A few pages later we first meet Wallas:
“Wallas is leaning against the rail at the end of the bridge.”
Similarly, descriptions of Wallas’s visits to the scene of the crime frequently use phrases that evoke Garinati’s approach. This is a technique Robbe-Grillet uses throughout to blend separate events, giving the impression that they are rippling through the narrative. Here, for example, are the openings to three consecutive, but independent, scenes:
“The latch clicks as it falls back into place; at the same time the door has just slammed against the jam and vibrates noisily, producing unexpected echoes in the frame as well.”
“Wallas, already half turned around, hears the latch fall back into place…”
“Fabius, having closed the garden gate behind him, inspects the premises…”
The constant, careful opening and closing of doors becomes a motif for investigation, intrusion, and risk (the danger of being caught; the danger of what lies behind the door). Similarly, Wallas’s endless walks through the city suggest he is circling his destiny. Again, in a traditional detective novel, this would be bringing him closer and closer to the murderer; here it is drawing him towards the crime.
Although repetitive, and despite apparently presenting the solution before the puzzle, The Erasers is remarkably tense and claustrophobic. Passages of description seem imbued with layers of meaning while at the same time grounded in a superficial realism. The patterned artifice of the narrative often seems to better correspond to our experience of life within its endless repetitions and undiscovered meanings than the traditional novel. Certainly, anyone interested in the novel should read Robbe-Grillet.
Danger rating: it’s no surprise that Robbe-Grillet wrote a novel called In the Labyrinth as his narratives can feel like mazes where time seems to escape the clock and we can never be sure if we have passed that particular turn before.