December 19th, 2007


This old man gets off on slicing and dicing

Search for French anti-novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet (now 85) in the New York Review of Books reviews database -- which stretches back to the 1960s -- and you'll find his style referred to as "refrigerated dreams" and "stern aesthetics". A scene in which a centipede is squashed against a wall comes up, and a phrase about how the writer "has nothing to say, but only has a way of speaking". Robbe-Grillet's geometrically-precise style is described as "chosisme" -- Thingism -- and there's a hint at Hyper-Realism in the phrase "hallucinatory clarity". Robbe-Grillet is found corresponding with Barthes and advising a novelist to "refuse complicity with things, with Nature". Like Calvino and Nathalie Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet is a late Modernist "making capital out of the deliberate artifice of [fiction's] fabrication".

It was the cold, geometrical abstraction of Robbe-Grillet's books which really struck me when I read him at university. I was looking for "the next thing after Kafka", but Robbe-Grillet totally lacked Kafka's sense of humour, his playfulness and pathos. Everything here was frigid, angular, like a literary version of the parody of Anal Modernism in Tati's Mon Oncle. It was the same in his film Last Year at Marienbad, a fixture on the university Film Society's calendar:

It looks like a pop video or TV commercial partly because it's influenced so many, but also because its exaggerated precision and poise highlights something capitalism loves -- a professionalism verging on the sadistic. It's the same aesthetic, I think, that creeps me out in the photos of Helmut Newton. Capitalism loves it, though -- you'd be hard put to open a Western fashion magazine without finding some trace of haughty disdain, sadism and masochism. Spike heels! Masks! Dom-Sub! Fashion loves it! And nary a Jeremy Clarkson car report goes by without some sense that liberty equals libertinage -- without a certain unguilty pleasure in the knowledge that your Lagonda is ripping the world a new asshole.

Once you could just have put Robbe-Grillet's cold, precise style down to his training as an engineering draftsman, but, as he's advanced into an old age, his sado-masochism has emerged in his writing like a creaky, angular, glinting ice phallus. Robbe-Grillet's new novel Un Roman Sentimental, published in France in October, makes it perfectly clear: this old man gets off on slicing and dicing.

If Brecht's criticism of Kafka as too much of a victim, a man "caught beneath the wheels", is to some extent valid, perhaps a symmetrical attack could be made on Robbe-Grillet. He's too much the victor. A member of the Academie Francaise (although too proud to wear its robes and take his seat there), the man might describe situations quite similar to those Kafka explored (torture, humiliation, cruelty), but it's from the side of the sadist, not the masochist, the perpetrator, not the victim. The idea that the gracious and the disgraceful sit side by side at the very heart of French respectability wouldn't surprise Jean Genet -- today's Robbe-Grillet could well be a character in his play The Balcony. It wouldn't surprise Artaud either, or Foucault. The idea of a sadism at the core of the state probably wouldn't much disturb Nicolas Sarkozy either. And Robbe-Grillet's proclivities clearly don't shock Catherine, his wife since 1957. She's a writer of sadomasochistic novels and BDSM.

His new novel is about little girls, and specifically one called Gigi. It's divided into 239 scenes, and reads like a pared-down parody of 18th century libertine literature (the grand master of this, the Marquis De Sade, is now published by La Pleiade, France's most respectable literary imprint). Here's Scene 229:

"As for the three youngest little girls, Crevette, Nuisette and Lorette, who are seven, eight and nine years old, they are given plenty of amusement during their service. Taken back to their bedroom, they marvel about it. They'd been allowed to taste all the liqueurs they could make use of on their knees. They'd sucked vigorous men and perfumed young ladies. They'd been caressed, embraced, licked. Their too-childish orifices had been stuffed with exciting creams, before being very softly masturbated. They'd admired an adolescent burning like a torch. They'd seen sperm and blood spilling, but also the tears of schoolgirls being tortured. Towards the end of the night, they had descended into the cellars to attend the entreaties of a 13 year-old servant girl (sold by her family) who was made drunk. After having raped her in every fashion, the gentlemen had proceeded to spread her out on a special machine and stick needles all over her body, from which the four limbs were torn little by little. To finish, they completely detached one of her thighs by pulling the leg from the foot, and she was left to twist in a pool of blood and to die like that without assistance. Yes, it had really been great."

The "masturbatory book" -- which is selling strongly -- has created a kerfuffle in the media. Guardian Books ran a piece condemning "pornography as high art". Le Monde condemned the "fairy tale for adults", while admiring touches like the instruction to open the uncut pages with a knife rather than a finger (it hurts less, apparently).

"More and more," Robbe-Grillet told TV network France 3, "we mix up fantasy and the realisation of the fantasy. When in fact it's exactly the opposite. Someone who writes, in general, is someone who's in control of himself, who controls his perversion by writing it down."

Later in the same interview the Academician told the TV people: "Since I was 12, I've always liked little girls, and I think lots of people are in the same situation. Love for the young -- little boys for the homosexuals and little girls for heterosexuals -- is something very widespread, but something easily mastered, something you don't act on, do you? But to think about it hurts no-one."

"These people who complain are perverts, obviously! They've read this stuff, then immediately erased the fact that it's a piece of literary writing, and they've created the fantasy in their own heads! At that point they become policemen against... who? Against themselves! These people should all be in prison! Because it's they who've put the scene together in their sick heads!"

I'm not sure I buy the defences, and I'm quite sure I won't buy the book. But there's a good line in the Marienbad clip above: "If you can't lose, it isn't a game". Art should be a high-stakes game. I'm glad that Robbe-Grillet is still allowing the possibility of losing everything by alienating everyone. Perhaps he's a masochist after all.