March Selection: The Voyeur

Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Voyeur, Translated from the French by Richard Howard, Grove Press, New York, 1958

The Voyeur—Discussion Points

“The suspense … keeps us on tenterhooks.” NYT Book review

The Voyeur first and foremost is a murder mystery. As such, I urge you to read it for enjoyment as you would any other novel.

It’s not a difficult book; put in only a little effort and it will be quite a enjoyable reading experience. Virtually everything is described with straightforward declarative sentences: actions, thoughts, fantasies, memories. Generally, the descriptions are detailed: the geometry of a boat landing dock or the shading on the feathers of sea gull sitting on a post. The important descriptions are often repeated, so if you don’t catch them the first time you’ll probably have another chance before too long. For example, note how many times “a reddish excrescence” is described.

I enjoyed the challenge of finding the “transits,” the abrupt jumps in the narration.

“Mathias looked for the floating cigarette pack…He is sitting at a table wedged into a window recess….” (p. 13)

In the first sentence the protagonist, Mathias, a traveling watch salesman, is arriving on an island on a boat. In the second sentence, he is a child sitting at a desk drawing a picture of a sea gull. They are tied together because in both he is observing something closely.

I can recognize this phenomenon in myself. My thoughts are not linear; they don’t proceed in a logical order. Doing one thing may remind me of something else. In this sense, the book is true to life. I don’t share Mathias’s obsessions, but there are common patterns in our consciousness. Finding these transits became a game for me as I read. I “won” each time I found one.

This is a mystery novel, so as you read it think about the usual questions:

• Who dunnit?
• Did the suspects have means, motive, and opportunity?
• What are the most important pieces of evidence?

But Robbe-Grillet gives us other questions to ponder:

• Why aren’t the locals, including the police, more suspicious of Mathias?
• Was there a crime at all?

In our discussion I hope we will dig into Robbe-Grillet’s writing structure as well as the plot. However, when reading for fun, the first time, these details are less important. Some relevant questions:

• Is Mathias telling the story or is the narrator a disinterested third person? Does it have to be one or the other?
• Is Mathias the voyeur or is he the one being watched? (Notice how the seagulls’ eyes are described).
• How many metaphors and similes can you find? How many symbols?

Enjoy!

Peter

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2 Responses to March Selection: The Voyeur

  1. Burk Ketchem says:

    There are 1,382 squares of sidewalk in downtown Cascade and David and Susan have determined to put some art on each one. David has calculated that it will take 452 days to do this. A big bird has landed on the ledge of Peter’s condo in Seattle and keeps looking in at him. Not being an artist he does not know what do do so he closes the curtain. The curtain is vertical to the floor as is the cord used to close the curtain. But that cord runs in a horizontal direction at the top of the window in order to make the two parts of the curtain meet in the middle and block the view. David reaches in his pocket and takes out a purple chalk as all his art has always been done in that color. Susan has a shopping cart full of chalk and uses all colors. The coffee shop owner does not want any color other than brown on his sidewalk and so informs David and Susan. The librarian had loaned a book to Peter when he was there for a visit and tells David, while he is on all fours, there is a fine of $53. due.

    End of my first fling at nouveau roman.

    Hi guys. After second reading I think Mathias is nuts and did not do it.

    Burk

  2. Mohsen Mirghanbari says:

    Briefly is my interpretation of “Voyeur” and our discussion thereafter,

    The Dictionary’s interpretation and translation of “Voyeur” comes with so many definitions, seeing another person’s sexual organs, sexual pleasures or witnessing someone else’s suffering, a person who derives exaggerated or unseemly enjoyment from being an observer, or an spectator. Wow, such contrasts.

    I spent more time translating words within the book, so I may piece together the mindset of the writer rather than the actual story, to perhaps find clues to solving the so called mystery murder, then again my mind wondered off to the literature of the writer rather than the actual story.

    And I’m not sure if there was a murder at all, but perhaps Mathias recollected a possible past crime while visiting his childhood home, recollecting a collection of events that had occurred in his past, or perhaps his own mother’s death may have had played with his mind, after all he dreamt much of story line in the “Motel Room” while sleeping, where he fantasizes the book’s murder probables in his dream, Or possibly re-ignited a true murder that had transpired while he was a young lad.

    If this was a murder mystery book, the narrator lacked putting forth much discussion about any local police work or authority investigation, however, it seemed there might have been an accidental death as the author continuously refers to the high tide, high cliffs, the soft soil, or the winds.

    I do think it was all a dream, Mathias rethinking his childhood memories, his poppy love for Jacqueline and what if she was still alive, I couldn’t place a French female sheep-herder into the story, as most if not all sheep-herders are made of village boys and not girls, herding someone else’ herd for a mere change.

    The books opening pages were filled with the descriptions of the ship’s Gangway, all the departing passengers standing anxiously clinging onto the hand rails, pushing and shoving toward the exit doorways, and almost everyone smoking simultaneously, filling the air above with smoke are not clues, rather quotations describing a way of life in France and much of Europe. The book’s descriptive storyline constantly placed me on my own 2007 Caribbean cruise, and my 2005 visit to Iran.

    I appreciated listening to everyone’s perspectives, which allowed me to share my own personal life experiences, and while I grew up in Tehran, our Summer place was in Alborz mountain range with many nearby villages, witnessing firsthand village young lads herd sheep daily.

    For me “This book came as a lamb and left a goat”, however, our discussions started as a tiger but it ended a lion, a mystery line without much clues or detective work, no police work what-so-ever, none, zilch.

    I have to agree with Ron Booth the book club has elevated itself in to a new platform.
    Mohsen

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