Preceded by his work?
The New York Times is running an obituary for Alain Robbe-Grillet which has makes me feel momentarily guilty for giving up so easily on the dour old bugger's novels. The Times reminds us of how innovative Grillet's approach to fiction - if that's the right word to use - seemed in the 1950s:
Mr. Robbe-Grillet and the other so-called New Novelists, including Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon, wanted to do in literature what others had done in art — just as Marcel Duchamp had deconstructed human motion in “Nude Descending a Staircase” and the Abstract Expressionists had valorized gesture, the movement of a brush stroke itself, over representation. Mr. Robbe-Grillet believed that writing should reveal the archaeology of its own construction, should depict a mind unfolding its thoughts over time.
His first novel, “The Erasers,” is an inverted detective story, while “Jealousy,” set on a Caribbean banana plantation, reads at turns like scientific observation and stage directions. (“The moment has come to inquire after Christine’s health. Franck replies by a gesture of the hand: a rise followed by a slower fall that becomes quite vague.”) The effect “was for many people sterile, for others exciting,” said Tom Bishop, a friend of the author’s and a French professor at New York University, where Mr. Robbe-Grillet taught every other year for 25 years. “He put the reader in a position where he had to be the central part of the novel.”
It all seems so clever, doesn't it? And yet even some of the admirers quoted by the Times don't seem too keen on actually rereading the novels the man churned out. I do have a fond spot for Robbe-Grillet's comrade Michael Butor's demented Letters from the Antipodes, which I found in the 'Aussie Travel Guide' section of a ruinous Sydney bookshop a decade ago. Butor's tome records a trip to Australia back in the '70s by randomly quoting texts the 'author' came across. Menus, tour guides, surveys of archaeological sites in the Outback, breeding tips for Kangaroo owners - all of them go into Butor's stew. I haven't actually read it from cover to cover, of course. Did anyone?
The 'nouveau roman' project to which Butor and Robbe-Grillet belonged reminds me of the movement of 'Language poets' which caused a stir on the American literary scene in the '80s and '90s. Influenced by the Frankfurt School interpretation of of Marx, by post-structuralist philosophy, and by the minimalist classical music of Steve Reich and others, Language poets and political activists like Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews tried to produce deliberately fragmented texts which the reader had to 'complete'. By 'empowering' the reader, they aimed to defeat the capitalist commodification of meaning and the supposed recuperation of most forms of avant-garde art by the 'system'. In a series of astonishingly dogmatic 1980s essays, Silliman virtually outlawed every alternative form of writing; even supposedly cool writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon were simply 'stylising their acquiescence' in the outmoded games of narrative and author-constructed meaning. (In other words, they were like, you know, fun to read.)
It seems to me that both the nouveau roman novelists and the Language poets fell victim to two very common fallacies of the literary avant-garde. They assumed that to be innovative a work of art must possess a certain, narrowly defined form, and they attempted to adapt the forms that had enriched another artform into literature, without asking what would get lost in the transition.
The programmatic insistence on a narrowly defined form - Robbe-Grillet's 'new novel', or Silliman's 'new sentence' - inevitably lowered the horizons of the members of the schools, and pre-empted inspiration and experiment. And the forms in question arguably weren't worth bringing into literature in the first place. The methods which make Reich at his best an exciting composer of music, for instance, simply can't be adapted to literature. Reich's practice of repeating a few notes over and over, before ringing a minor change, can produce radically accessible yet wonderfully enigmatic music, but if transferred to the page it produces page upon page of unspeakably dull poetry.
Even the most ruthless avant-garde has a boredom threashold, and today both the nouveau roman and Language poety belong to literary history. The Times' tribute to Robbe-Grillet has an antiquarian feel, and even Silliman appears to have belatedly embraced a less fundamentalist approach to writing.
If any young genius reading this post is casting around for a new avant-garde idea, then I want to point them in the direction of the thoroughly uncool Allen Curnow, who said that he wanted to write poetry that was so old-fashioned it seemed radically new.