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Refrigerated Dreams

Project for a Revolution in New York

by Alain Robbe-Grillet, translated by Richard Howard
Grove Press, 192 pp., $1.65 (paper)

Since 1955, when I spent a happy week at the Château d’Eu in Normandy listening to some of the practitioners of the French New Novel, then in the springtime of their fame, expressing their anti-Balzacian views among the imperial, and utterly Balzacian, bric-à-brac of the Orléans-Braganza family, I have puzzled intermittently over this relatively recent artistic phenomenon. The New Novel has been one of the major events during my career—or accidental involvement—as a teacher of French, and I have quite failed to respond to it in any positive way. Ought I to resign, or do they also serve who expound their own obtuseness? I hope so, because I have proved almost as insensitive as a French classicist reacting to the Romantic movement between 1820 and 1830.

This is not, however, because I cling deliberately to any conservative notions about what the novel ought to be. I find the theoretical statements of the New Novelists extremely interesting and, for the most part, intelligible and even acceptable as philosophical principles. Over the years I have had many opportunities of hearing them talk further about their creative beliefs; indeed, I have listened to M. Robbe-Grillet giving the same lecture at least three times in different places, although I have occasionally suspected that, in his case, it is artfully calculated to keep the debate alive through ambiguity rather than to settle it by clarification.

But, generally speaking, I have grasped the argument: it is now old-fashioned to assume, as everyone once did, that the function of the novelist is to show a character or a group of characters living through a phase of life in a recognizable social context. People, whether seen from the outside or the inside, are not “characters”; they are indefinitely complex series of appearances to which it is risible, and almost vulgar, to attach proper names. Time is a mystery—an always immediate mystery, since the past and the future are mere illusions of the shifting present. Any realism of the social context is out of the question, because reality is infinite and multifarious and can only be rendered linguistically by partial, and often mutually exclusive, grids. There are no plots in nature, so that to tell a story in terms of cause and effect is to accept a naïve, linear fiction.

So out go the characters, the story as a chronological sequence, the identifiable narrator or narrators, and any commonsensical description of social settings. All these things are said to smack of the false bourgeois certainties of the nineteenth century, and should be left to those retarded writers who repeat the automatisms of the past without realizing that new forms have to be invented to convey new perceptions. On the whole, what the New Novel gives us in the place of the traditional story is very carefully arranged linguistic structures palpitating in a sort of void, as if they were autonomous patterns or puzzles.

My difficulty is that these patterns or puzzles provide me with little enlightenment and give me practically no pleasure, apart from the incidental enjoyment to be derived from savoring the French language, when meticulously written. But I can get that kind of enjoyment from a good textbook or technical treatise, in which case I also understand the necessity of what is being said. For me, the New Novel in some fundamental way lacks necessity, and the odd passages I appreciate and remember are unfortunately those which are closest to the traditional novel: the description of the dreary English landscape in Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps, the aunt’s obsession with the door in Le Planétarium by Nathalie Sarraute, an evocative paragraph or two in Robbe-Grillet, a few vivid, erotic sentences in Claude Simon, or a humorous fragment in Robert Pinget.

Taken as would-be aesthetic wholes, the novels strike me as very disappointing after the excitement of the critical theories, as if the writers had not adequately solved the problems raised by their own philosophical attitudes. Strangely enough, I think the disappointment is directly, or indirectly, admitted even by some people who have welcomed the New Novel and claim to support it. It is perhaps significant, for instance, that the most fashionable contemporary French critic, Roland Barthes, who was largely responsible for arousing interest in Robbe-Grillet’s early novels, has not committed himself to any definite and extended judgment on the later ones. However, in 1963, in prefacing Bruce Morrissette’s book, Les Romans de Robbe-Grillet (a descriptive work which gives no aesthetic evaluation), he made the following curious statement in connection with the apparent gratuitousness of Robbe-Grillet’s books:

What do things signify? What does the world signify? All literature is this question, but it must immediately be added, since this is what gives literature its special nature: it is this question minus the answer. No literature in the world has ever replied to the question it put….

What god, Valéry said, would dare to take as his motto: I disappoint [Je déçois]? Literature might be considered as this god; perhaps it will eventually be possible to describe all literature as the art of disappointment [l’art de la déception].

This is a very debatable assertion. Granted that the ultimate meaning of things is beyond our grasp, it has usually been assumed that literature, and art in general, is a means of producing a satisfactory, not a disappointing, response to the ultimately unknowable. The entire critical argument, we might say, has been about which responses are disappointing and which satisfactory and, as I shall try to show later, there may be a connection between this problem and the ambiguous concept of necessity.

In a recent study, The New Novel from Queneau to Pinget,1 an American academic, Vivian Mercier, who declares himself convinced of the permanent value of some at least of the characteristic New Novels, hedges his bet a little:

It is of course possible to argue, as many critics still do, that the reach of Robbe-Grillet and the rest far exceeded their grasp: that their actual as opposed to their ideal novels are either so brief and lacking in content as to be negligible—Robbe-Grillet and Madame Sarraute—or concerned with working out an obsessive pattern at such enormous length as to be boring—Michel Butor, Raymond Queneau, Claude Mauriac. As for Simon and Pinget, they may be seen as innocents ruined by evil company—potentially great, warm-hearted writers who have made their books unreadable by forcing good meat through the sausage-machine of dogmatic theory.

Since Mr. Mercier himself dismisses Robbe-Grillet’s previous novel, La Maison de rendez-vous (1965), as being of no interest, without however showing in what ways it differs from the earlier ones, we may wonder if he did not grow progressively wearier of the New Novel as his study proceeded. At any rate, we are forced back onto our own judgment in dealing with the latest product, Project pour une révolution à New York (1970).

To my mind, this “novel” has exactly the same characteristics as Robbe-Grillet’s five preceding works, but the publicity handout accompanying the French edition, which was written by the author himself, is rather more explicit than some of his earlier statements and is therefore worth bearing in mind as one reads the book.

He begins by repeating, for the nth time, that the traditional novel is “a fossilized use of language,” surviving from the early nineteenth century, which tells, in chronological sequence, a story which is “as definite as a judgment.” Sociologists have shown that this traditional novel reflects bourgeois values connected with the destiny of the individual and the history of societies. The bourgeois values having collapsed, the traditional novel must be replaced by something else, “a new organizing force.” To supply this force, the New Novel has evolved the theory of generative themes (la théorie des thèmes générateurs):

From now on, it is the themes of the novel (objects, events, words, formal movements, etc.) which become the basic elements engendering the whole architecture of the story, and even the adventures which occur in it, according to a mode of development comparable to those employed by serial music or the modern plastic arts.

But what are these generative themes? Robbe-Grillet says he finds them among the “mythological material” of everyday life—in newspapers, posters, etc.—which reflects the collective unconscious of society. Then comes a very important paragraph, asserting that all moral judgments are a form of backward-looking escapism:

In dealing with these modern myths, two attitudes are possible: one can either condemn them in the name of accepted values (erotic imagery may be condemned in the name of “true love,” or even in the name of “true” eroticism, which is connected with psychological depth, pathos, and guilt); but this moral condemnation is no more than an escapist attitude, a flight into the past. Or they can be accepted, and without altering their flatness as modish images, I can recognize that they are all around me, that is, within me, and that instead of closing my eyes and veiling my face, there remains the possibility of playing with them.

As his imagination manipulates the mythological material, the novelist establishes his freedom, which exists only in language, the sole domain of human liberty. And this literary game, unlike bridge or chess, has no preordained rules; they are made up and canceled by the writer, according to his whim, and this is as it should be:

After the bankruptcy of the divine order (of bourgeois society) and, following that, of the rationalistic order (of bureaucratic socialism), it must be understood that henceforth only ludic2 organizations are possible.

Love is a game, poetry is a game, life must become a game (this is the only hope for our political struggles) and “revolution itself is a game,” as was said by the most conscious of the revolutionaries of May 1968.

Before discussing this last paragraph, I should perhaps explain how the “ludic” principle works in practice. Project for a Revolution is not, of course, a documentary or “realistic” account of an actual or imagined revolution in New York, any more than Le Voyeur was a description of the mind of a pathological killer or La Jalousie an explanation of the psychology of a jealous husband in a tropical bungalow. Robbe-Grillet’s method is to take elements that might have been present in a traditional novel on the subject and then to orchestrate them according to his own rules.

In this instance, we can suppose that if a revolution were being organized in New York, an agent might emerge gingerly from the house in which he was living with his sister, walk anxiously toward the nearest subway station, take a train to a place of assignation in a secret underground hall, and listen to a revolutionary pep talk from three spokesmen of the organization. His duties might involve torturing a beautiful female half-caste to get information about a rival group. An intruder might break into his flat during his absence by climbing up the fire escape and shattering a pane of glass in a French window.

  1. 1

    Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 432 pp., $10.00.

  2. 2

    Ludique, a now fashionable neologism, formed from ludo, “I play.” “Ludic” is not in the OED, nor is ludique in Littré.

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