The Island with No Name and a Triangular Square

Part 1: On the Need for Participation of the Reader

Commentary on The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet: translated by Richard Howard, New York:  Grove Press, c1986.

“Far from neglecting him, the author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader’s cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he [the author] asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work—and the world—and thus to learn to invent his own life.” (Robbe-Grillet For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, tr. By Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1966)

Reading The Voyeur was, for me, quite a challenge, especially the first time through Mathias’s figure-eight journey, inside and outside his mind.  Eventually, I took time to read some of Robbe-Grillet’s theoretical writings for his exceptional perspectives on literary form, especially the one he practiced, which, after six decades, has yet to become vogue, le nouveau roman.  These expository essays helped me to come to grips with the idea, but his style had a philosophical depth and a sweep of literary knowledge that I sometimes became dizzy trying to comprehend his point.  Later, I discovered a volume of criticism by Roland Barthes which I had owned for six decades but had never plucked from the dusty shelf where I had initially placed it.  Barthes’s essays included articles on the then young Robbe-Grillet, and at first reading were so opaque, so unintelligible to me (esoteric would be a kinder term) I had to put them aside to clear my mind.[1]

From the storm of questions that came to mind during a first reading of Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur, and later, from a relaxed and enjoyable rereading of this peculiar work, I now feel quite sure something new in form and composition has been worth the time and consideration I put into it. (By peculiar, in no way do I mean to disparage the novel; I mean it is sui generis, “of its own kind,” and with a very different purpose of presentation as realist fiction.)  It is not an entertainment (though it can become so), not satirical literature, not historical fiction, not a comedy of manners (though it may be to some readers with a Kafkaesque sense of humor), nor is it anything we normally call didactic or edifying literature.  Generally, one might posit the fiction as crime mystery, with an un-nerving psychological twist.  However, more than the story itself, more than the plot, the style, in all its representative elements, has become the focus of my interest and inquiry.[2]

How to Criticize, How to Interpret?

Whether The Voyeur was successful or not as story in attracting readers or dismaying critics, especially the academics, we of the Tacoma Retired Men’s Book Club, who have recently participated in reading it and cooperated in discussing it, have certainly helped to draw some partial conclusions about Robbe-Grillet’s experimental work.  First, though, we had to come to grips with the style of The Voyeur, for here lies the real “new” of the nouveau roman.  Perhaps, also, a different kind of criticism is required from the usual pattern we often use when expressing our thoughts about a work of fiction.  If we go along with Robbe-Grillet’s expectations of his nouveau roman readers (in the epigram quoted above), we will never come to any consensus or truth about his novel, but we are allowed to continue creating and inventing the work in accordance with our changing ways of thinking and living our lives.

Roland Barthes in his essay “What Is Criticism?” actually corroborates Robbe-Grillet’s message (please bear with me on this):

“Every novelist, every poet, is presumed to speak of objects and phenomena, even if they are imaginary, exterior and anterior to language: the world exists and the writer speaks: that is literature. The object of criticism is very different; the object of criticism is not ‘the world’ but a discourse upon a discourse; it is a second language, or a metalanguage (as the logician would say), which operates on a first language (or language object).

[He continues]  If criticism is only a metalanguage, this means that its task is not to discover ‘truths,’ but only ‘validities.’ In itself, a language is not true or false, it is or is not valid:  valid, i.e., constitutes a coherent system of signs.  The rules of literary language do not concern the conformity of this language to reality (whatever the claims of the realistic schools), but only its submission to the system of signs the author established.  …One can say that the critical task (and this is the sole guarantee of its universality) is purely formal: not to discover in the work or the author something ‘hidden,’ ‘profound,’ ‘secret,’ which hitherto passed unnoticed (by what miracle? Are we more perspicacious than our predecessors?), but only to adjust the language his period affords him (existentialism, Marxism, psychoanalysis) to the language, i.e. the formal system of logical constraints elaborated by the author according to his own period. The proof of a criticism is not of an ‘alethic’ order (it does not proceed from truth), for critical discourse … is never anything but tautological: it consists in saying ultimately, what is thereby not insignificant. …[C]ritical ‘proof,’ if it exists, depends on the aptitude not to discover the work in question but on the contrary to cover it as completely as possible by its own language.” (Roland Barthes, Critical Essays, tr. By Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University press, 1972.) (p. 258-259)

It is hard for me to find an identically close parallel in Robbe-Grillet’s commentary to these remarks of Barthes’s, but Robbe-Grillet did not wish for readers to seek messages or “morals,” not to look for hidden depths to be plumbed: what the story is, is about a man and about things, and they exist separately in reality.

“Thus it is the style, the écriture, and it alone which is ‘responsible,’ to adopt a word so often abused by those who accuse us of betraying our mission as writers.  To speak of the content of a novel as something independent of its form comes down to striking the genre as a whole from the realm of art.  For the work of art contains nothing, in the strict sense of the term (that is, as a box can hold—or be empty of—some object of an alien nature). Art is not a brilliantly colored envelope intended to embellish the author’s ‘message,’ a gilt paper around a package of cookies, a whitewash on a wall, a sauce that makes the fish go down easier.  Art endures no servitude of this kind, nor any pre-established function.  It is based on no truth that exists before it; and one may say that it expresses nothing but itself.  It creates its own equilibrium and its own meaning.  It stands all by itself … or else it fails. (For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, tr. By Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1966) (p. 44-45)

Experimenting with the form of the novel, Alain Robbe-Grillet presented us, as I have said, with something new.  It is new, as I see it, in dealing with a highly questionable point of view.  New in playing with chronology, a seemingly non-linear plot line, but one that remains constantly in the present time in the protagonist’s imagination, i.e. his reality.  It is new in a manner of presenting description:  plane geometric dimensionality, arithmetic measurement, and geographic spatiality expressing important descriptive elements, more so than usual descriptive adjectives and adverbs, i.e. the clichés of color and gesture.  Robbe-Grillet eschewed the “lovely” description of prose in what we might call traditional realism, enhancements by analogies and metaphors, a kind of prose and poetry that makes the human being and nature seem to know one another as animistic beings in a common world:  e.g. “The Bavarian village was nestled comfortably in the valley of majestic oaks.”  Metaphors, as we have learned from essays and works in our readings of late, [see: George Lakoff, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant, Neil Bergeson’s June 2015 selection] help people to relate and engage when the metaphorical values seem to have a common range of cordial or emotional acceptance and can be favorably shared.  Otherwise, “Metaphors are used to help us understand the unknown, because we use what we know in comparison with something we don’t know to get a better understanding of the unknown.”[3] Robbe-Grillet is not a “metaphorist” by nature, and, therefore, analogical elements are used very sparsely.[4]

On Reading Aloud

In days when books were scarce, perhaps one to a family, most people knew a book aurally from one person’s reading before many listeners.  To be honest, as we read The Voyeur aloud between us, my wife and I were frequently struck dumb—well, taken aback in order to be thoughtful about what we heard.  More so after this experience with Robbe-Grillet’s fiction, I thoroughly endorse the act of reading aloud with a friend or partner, for I feel Susan and I enjoy two or more aspects of a work by reading together:  we see the words and sentences to decipher them and sound them out as best we can (taking turns, naturally) and we hear how the language sounds, reading as best we can to dramatize the narrative, the story and the characters’ voices.  What went on in the name of interpretation or understanding was an effort of imagination, the illusion of picturing the mental happenings, whether real or virtual inside Mathias’s mind or our own minds.  The reading experience was all worth a second reading and much mirthful discussion.

The conversations we enjoyed were, as were yours during the Retired Men’s Book Club Discussion, our way of participating in the construction, the creation, the invention of the story.  It was hard, for example, to comprehend, at first, the frequent repetitions of passages, the repeated “tape” in Mathias’s mind.  More than once, one of us awoke to say, “Wait!  Didn’t you read that just a few minutes ago?  Have the pages flipped back?”   Then, again, we were startled to hear the halting voice, as one read   discontinuous passages, as when Mathias’ mind fades out from his eavesdropping a discussion he catches, vaguely, around him: for example, the sailors in the café:

“Passionately, though in an undertone, syllables picked out by one: ‘. . .  would deserve . . .’ began the youngest, who was continuing some long-drawn-out argument begun elsewhere. ‘She deserves . . ..’ A silence. . . . A little whistle . . . Squinting from the effort of choosing his words, he was looking into a dark corner where the pin-ball machine stood.  ‘I don’t know what she deserves.’” (The Voyeur, p. 46)

“She deserves a silence? A little whistle?”  No, not quite like that!  How often have we had an experience similar to Mathias’s, picking up snippets of chatter, our minds distracted by something else in the room or in a café? And yet, such realism is not often related as significant patches in fictional styles.  A writer most often wants to inform the reader with full statements.  Robbe-Grillet prefers to offer just those fragments Mathias ears picked up, the significant terms he took to mind:  “The whip!”  “. . . deserves a good whipping,” etc.  Such is a metaphor Mathias’s mind is keen to discern.  He describes the bar-maid: “The girl behind the bar had a timorous face and the ill-assured manner of a dog that had been whipped.” (The Voyeur, p.44)

Workings of the Memory and Imagination

Consider this sweeping assessment by Barthes:

“Robbe-Grillet’s endeavor is not a humanist one, his world is not in accord with the world.  What he is seeking is the expression of a negativity, i.e. the squaring of the circle in literature. … What is new about Robbe-Grillet is that he tries to maintain the negation at the level of novelistic technique (in other words, he realizes that there is a responsibility of form…).  There is, then, at least tendentially[sic] in Robbe-Grillet’s work, a rejection of the story, the anecdote, the psychology of motivations, and at the same time a rejection of the signification of objects.  Whence the importance of optical description:  if Robbe-Grillet describes objects quasi-geometrically, it is in order to release them from human signification, to correct them of metaphor and anthropomorphism.” (From “There is No Robbe-Grillet School,” in Roland Barthes’s Critical Essays, tr. By Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University press, 1972), p. 91-92.(Italics mine)

Other critics have denounced Robbe-Grillet as be anti-story in his novels.  However, Robbe-Grillet argues vehemently against these accusations.  In E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, one of the aspects many people confuse is the distinction between Story and Plot.  Robbe-Grillet was aware of this when several critics did not think he told his story in the “right” way, making it too confusing, I suppose.  Yet, the story of The Voyeur is very simple:  A traveling salesman (un voyageur de commerce) journeys by ferry to an island, purportedly the place of his birth and early upbringing, in hopes of selling many watches from his stock.  He spends the day meeting with many islanders and has little luck with his wares.  Missing the ferry on its return trip, he is obliged to stay on the island for three more days until the next ferry arrives.  The Story, according to Forster, does not have to point out causality or describe Mathias’s experiences.  Simply it accounts for the main event, front to back, beginning to ending.  On the other hand, Plot does deal with causality—the reasons Mathias had no luck in sales; the nature, the mind, of the main character; the reason he missed the ferry; probable results of important experiences, etc. Then comes the end of the story–inconclusive or conclusive, it doesn’t matter.

The problem of time, how much time the story covers in, is an illusory matter:  Mathias’s experiences, complete with reveries, so called “transits,” imagined events and the actual events of engagement and transaction, these take place over 160 pages during the ‘lived’ hours in a day’s time, for the most part. Of course, if one accounts for the crime committed, the rape and murder of Jacqueline, here one finds a total lacuna of enacted time, perhaps during the blank pages dividing Part I from Part II.  After Mathias missed the ferry, then the last three days pass more quickly in a few score pages, with many imaginative summaries and reconsiderations of the events of the first day’s experience and some odd events as Mathias’s paranoia grows to severe anxiety, during which time he retraces his steps of the first day.  For four days of “lived” time, the reader can encompass this time in perhaps 8 hours of quick reading.  However, quick or skimming reading is hardly the way to approach this novel.  The reader’s memory is brought into play, and much more has to be taken notice of because of the interaction between points of view, real experiences as a third person narrator might view them and the “inner stories” of Mathias’s imagination.  The style of presentation, especially fluctuations of point of view, is extraordinarily important.

Reading the novel together over a few days’ time, becoming familiar with the new twists and turns of stylistics, we had to use our memories carefully, and we enjoyed many disputes in that regard.  Often we had to retrace our steps to see what had been stated before, for instance, about Mathias’s visits to the island.  Had he previously been an electrician on the mainland or on the island, or on both? (see p. 81, 84, and elsewhere.) Madam Leduc (or was it Marek?) said she had met him “in the city” two years ago, also “in the town” when he had a mustache.  However, Mathias recalled that he had never revisited the island since his childhood departure, and furthermore, he had never sported a mustache.  Was this a mistaken engagement “in the town” or “in the city” by the lady in question?  Was Mathias lying about his circumstances two years ago?  Our memories, as we read on, became confused, just as Mathias’s from time to time. When memory failed, a type of invention was used by us to reconstruct the forgotten scene with its details.  Naturally, reading something new and strange, it is not uncommon to realize the possibility of misreading or misinterpretation, holding one’s final thoughts in suspension.

Questioning and rethinking, therefore, were important throughout our reading. What else is criticism?[5]  Memory often or always fails.  As Mathias thinks of getting his memories organized to seduce islanders into his salesman’s pitch:

“More than any real changes on the island, or even hazy recollections—which were nevertheless numerous enough to prevent him from retaining any precise image of the place—he would have to be wary of exact but false memories which would here and there have substituted themselves for the original earth and stones.”  (Italics mine, p. 17)

Impossible, it seems, not to invent and create from my own faulty mentality, distracted as one can become from the main path of a story, shifting about in the mind of a confused protagonist who sees what his eye shows him and who constantly loses himself in fantasy as his imagination guides him.  Not so much interpretation or explication of details is demanded of the reader or critic of The Voyeur; it’s the recovery of the details one must first deal with.  One doesn’t need to expose hidden things to get the point.  However, the point is how the point is pointed out?

[In Part 2, I will consider new forms we have encountered in our library of common reading and pursue further the style of The Voyeur, the unusual ways of Robbe-Grillet’s storytelling.]

David Gilmour
March 2016

[1] Academic French writers, the critics and the philosophers both, prided themselves, it seems to me, in being exceedingly esoteric, even purposely recondite, in their prose.  Some might have been ahead of their time, but given time their ideas seem somewhat extravagantly expressed, intended as “new science,” and, eventually, when exposed as imaginative systems, hard to validate and utilize, became passé.  Structuralism gives way to post-structuralism.  Modernism to post-modernism.  Post-modernism to something else.  An example of one peculiar system is the magnum opus of the structural anthropologist/mythologer Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his famous series Mythologiques, beginning with The Raw and the Cooked (1968).  Once upon a time I was intensely fascinated by Levi-Strauss’s works.  On the other hand, Roland Barthes became an early proponent of Post-modernist criticism and literature.  With patience, thinking slower, I found his pronouncements and prognostications became quite intelligible and, at times, plausible, even for our age.   

[2] Author John Fowles had this to say:  “Alain Robbe-Grillet’s polemical essay “Pour un nouveau roman” (1963) is indispensable reading for the profession, even when it produces no more than total disagreement.  His key question: Why bother to write in a form whose great masters cannot be surpassed. The fallacy of one of his conclusions—that we must find a new form to write in if the novel is to survive—is obvious.  It reduces the purpose of the novel to the discovery of new forms, whereas its other purposes—to entertain, to satirize, to describe new sensibilities, to record life, to improve life, and so on—are clearly just as viable and important.  But his obsessive pleading for new form places a kind of stress on every page one writes today. (“Notes on an Unfinished Novel” Wormholes:  Essays and Occasional Writings, New York:  Henry Holt and Co., 1998.) p. 16.


[4] “There is, then, first a rejection of the analogical vocabulary and of traditional humanism, a rejection at the same time of the idea of tragedy, and of any other notion leading to the belief in a profound, and higher, nature of man or of things (and of the two together) and of, finally every pre-established order.” For a New Novel, p. 72-73.

[5] “…the definition of “good’ literature—the work is never entirely nonsignifying (mysterious or ‘inspired’), and never entirely clear; it is one may say a suspended meaning; it offers itself to the reader as an avowed signifying system yet withholds itself from him as a signified object. … This disappointment of meaning explains on the one hand why the literary work has so much power to ask the world questions, yet without answering them, and on the other hand why it offers itself to endless decipherment….   Literature is indeed only a language, i.e.a system of signs; its being is not in its message but in this ‘system.’” Barthes, “What is criticism?” p. 259-260

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