Alain Robbe-Grillet occupies that paradoxical position not uncommon to avant˝garde writers: He is both famous and obscure; his ideas are well known but his work much less so. Nevertheless, he remains a major figure in the landscape of postwar French letters and film. After publishing The Erasers fifty years ago, he became a fierce advocate for what came to be known as the nouveau roman. In a book of critical essays, For a New Novel (1963), and by the example of his own now canonical novels The Voyeur (1955), Jealousy (1957), and In the Labyrinth (1959), Robbe-Grillet pointed the way toward a fiction that eschewed psychological motivation in favor of pure, almost analytical description of physical reality. His ideas were shared by writers such as Michel Butor, Marguerite Duras, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget, and Nathalie Sarraute. A strongly contentious figure, he garnered many enemies as well as advocates. (Vladimir Nabokov was one of his most prominent fans.) In 1984, Robbe-Grillet's autobiography, Ghosts in the Mirror, sparked renewed interest in his work because of its revelations about his life during World War II and his apparent rejection of some of the tenets of the nouveau roman. He has directed six films and is the author of Last Year at Marienbad, the 1961 art˝house classic directed by Alain Resnais. A new work of fiction, Repetition, is now appearing in the United States after a twenty˝year hiatus of English˝language publication. Viewed as a sort of anthology of his previous fiction, Repetition was a great critical and popular success across Europe. Much less intimidating in person than you might expectˇjudging by photographs and the sometimes dogmatic tack of his critical articlesˇthe eighty˝year˝old Robbe-Grillet was a little anxious when we met in his well˝appointed apartment in the posh Parisian suburb of Neuilly˝sur˝Seine. His wife of many years, Catherine, was undergoing an eye operation that morning, yet he was gently concerned about my comfort as the conversation began.ˇThomas McGonigle


THOMAS McGONIGLE: How has your reading of The Erasers changed from fifty years ago to now?

ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET: There's a great continuity to the work, yet I do feel like there's a lot of change as well. The earlier books are clarified by the later books. So if you've read The Erasers, you will find it further illuminated by Jealousy.

TM: Readers often first encounter your theories of the novelˇparticularly your ideas about the flatness of characterization. Does this discourage them from reading the fiction?

ARG: That's a big problem.

TM: You wrote For a New Novel, which condemns metaphor entirely, and at almost the same time, you were writing Jealousy, which is a festival of metaphor.

ARG: True. But it was my impression that the reader was reading both For a New Novel and Jealousy. Unfortunately, this was not the case. I just received a Vietnamese translation of For a New Novel, which is the only one of my works that's been translated into that language. So in Vietnam, I will be known as the person who theorizes a new kind of novel, but readers there will not have access to any of my actual novels. As I said, it's a big problem.

TM: As far as your reputation, you are in this strange positionˇyou are both well known and yet, in many quarters, somewhat forgotten.

ARG: Since the publication of Repetition, I've gone to bookstores to sign books and there's a crowd of only young people. No old people. Let's put it this way: I was once fashionable. And when I was in fashion, nobody read my books. For instance, the first year when I was really in vogue my novel Jealousy sold five hundred copies for the entire year. But Repetition has sold fifty thousand copies. When I started to gather readers, I was already out of fashion. But when I was in style, I couldn't live on my writing. Now I can live on my writing very nicely. Nice apartment here, a chÔteau in the country. You know, I come from very modest origins.

TM: Academics preserved your name and made possible your current revival.

ARG: I had a dialogue with William Styron at one point when he came here, in a lovely setting, to join a conference about what is literature. Styron picked up the subject of the difference between literature for professors and literature for readers. He said that literature for common readers rises out of your body, that it comes out of your guts. Yet he soon understood that he couldn't last the two˝hour program on this subject of what comes out of your guts. So Styron then started to go on somewhat abstractly, sounding like a professor himself. The problem or advantage is that university people, the professors, they have the time to read. Does your average reader have that same kind of time? Time to read and to really think?

TM: I wasn't attacking your academic readers, but rather noting that during the years you weren't publishing novels, the academy, not the marketplace, maintained your reputation.

ARG: Well, it's rather populist to say nasty things about professors. Saying bad things about professors is like agreeing with Le Pen. But my books do sell. In China, I am the most translated French author. Repetition was a best˝seller in France and Germany. I live very well. [Leaves the room and returns with a framed poster.] This is what my copyrights have bought me, the ChÔteau du Mesnil˝au˝Grain in Normandy. When I die it will go to the state and become a foundation to preserve my papers.

TM: In 1984, your memoir, Ghosts in the Mirror, appeared. You were quoted as saying, "I have never spoken of anything but myself." In light of such a statement, how should we read the novels and theory that made you famous? Are all of your novels disguised autobiography?

ARG: It's true for all writers. Faulkner is in all his novels. So is Flaubert. My novel Jealousy is absolutely autobiographical. I lived in that house. I have photographs of that house. I was one of the three characters in the novel. What's strange is that this was received by critics as a novel without an author, as the most abstract of all novels. The Voyeur is set in Brittany, where I was born. The chief difference is that I did not murder a young girl. Yet the idea of doing such a thing was in me. A very famous psychoanalyst told me, "It's a good thing that you wrote that novel, because it was your psychoanalyst couch. If you hadn't, you might have murdered a young woman."

TM: With the publication of your first novel in twenty years, Repetition, I am reminded of Gertrude Stein's quote, "There is no such thing as repetition, only insistence." What you are insisting upon in this novel?

ARG: The Ghost in the Mirror and AngÚlique were also. . .

TM: But AngÚlique has not been translated into English. We're talking about English.

ARG: I'm sorry; but just because they haven't been translated into English doesn't mean they don't exist. There was supposed to be a conference ten years ago in St. Louis, and the university there announced, "Mr. Robbe˝Grillet will speak French." So a minister who is interested in literature calls the university and is told by a professor that I do not speak English. The minister replies, "He could have made an effort to learn English, because God wrote his Bible in English.

TM: Back to my question: Why write another novel? Why write Repetition?

ARG: I don't know. But I do insist on insisting. Literature has survived Hitler and Stalin. It will survive Chirac and Bush. It survives.

TM: Richard Howard, your translator, has said that he thought this new novel was an anthology of all your previous work, with an interlude for fucking a teenage girl.

ARG: Well, Howard is a homosexual. And to him there's nothing more disgusting than women. He even announced twenty years ago that he was going to refuse to translate any books in which there's any sexual activity with women. To dedicate himself entirely to homosexual literature. Even in his translation of Baudelaire, when it gets too sexual, he cuts off Baudelaire's balls. Anyway, the statement is stupid. Because since The Voyeur was written, there have been thirteen˝year˝old girls getting fucked in my books.

TM: In publications like the New Yorker or the New York Times, there have been attacks on what is called "difficult" writing, literary writing. Some critics wonder why popular novels like those by James Patterson aren't embraced by literary tastemakers.

ARG: I can't even comment. If you're going to read Repetition, you have to have philosophical training, and it would help to know Kierkegaard. And I'm perfectly aware of the fact that readers without that education can also read it on another level, but my books are especially approachable by people who have some philosophical background.

TM: I ask because you have said that the reason you teach is to encourage young people to believe in high culture. Now they read that, perhaps, James Patterson's novels are the equal or better than, for instance, William Gaddis's.

ARG: What they say is abominable. My job is not to write best˝sellers; I hope to write long sellers. Young writers, it seems, are no longer that interested in culture per se. They are interested, instead, in having a career in literature. If you're going to have a career, then you may well not have much else. There's a danger in this disappearance of culture, because it's not only the literary culture that's disappearing; it's also scientific culture. We're going to become a society where the people will know only how to push buttons. My grandfather was a teacher. In his time the idea was to raise someone to become a teacher, not a professor, but an elementary school teacher. The idea then was to raise people up toward the elite. Now, of course, the word "elite" is pejorative. When Pompidou became president, he founded a committee to defend the French language because he saw a threat of homogenization. He needed a general, a priest, and an avant˝garde writer, so I ended up part of this committee. We were rather close at the time, and I told him that "Defense of the French Language" was not a good name for this committee. I told Pompidou that the name or idea should be "The Extension of the French Language and Defense of Its Purity." "You're right," he said. "But the purer it stays, the less we can extend it." I answered, "If you want to fight the battle with basic English, you have to have a basic French." I made the choice of Frenchˇof pure French and syntax. You'll notice my stories are complicated, but the syntax is simple. To be a novelist is to see, to look with words, to find the exact words.

TM: In 1966, you said that the erotic photograph had more of a future than the erotic film.

ARG: That's possible. It's not idiotic; it's possible that I said that.

TM: Are you happy with the proliferation of eroticism on video or the Internet?

ARG: I can't say, because I don't use the Internet.

TM: So you've lost interest in the erotic.

ARG: No. I've lost interest in technology. If you have to be connected to the Internet to be interested in eroticism, then you're in trouble.

TM: You chose not to have children. Do you find any advantages to that choice now that you're in your eighties?

ARG: Yes, a lot. When I see all my friends that have children. Parenthood tends to make them sick. Their children take drugs, they don't work at school, all they have is problems.

TM: My daughter is at a LycÚe in Nantes to learn French. In my old age, when I'm eating oatmeal, I hope she will read me her translation of CÚline's Bagatelles pour un massacre.

ARG: If she agrees, but who knows with the young. I knew CÚline, and, like Kafka, he had a great sense humor. He wrote two great books, but after that his stupidity got the best of him.

TM: When I interviewed Julian Greene when he was about ninety˝four, I asked him what he had to look forward to, and he said he looked forward to purgatory.

ARG: He was a Christian, and that changes things. I'm not a tarot˝card reader. I don't know what the future will bring. By nature, though, I'm optimistic.

TM: Even given the horrors of the last century?

ARG: I think it's a geneticˇit's a question of genetics. Maybe they'll find the gene or the chromosome.

TM: But I find that being Celtic, as you are, that I'm constitutionally pessimistic.

ARG: The Celts have a sense of humor, which is more or less like Jewish humor. And you can say there's a sad side to the Jewish spirit too, but the Celts and the Jews are pre˝despair.

TM: You mentioned your wife. You have been married for fifty years.

ARG: Well, I had my young mistresses, and she had her young mistresses, and she still does, because she's younger than I am. And when I had, well, rather spectacular young mistresses, because I was directing movies, she remained quite content because she considered them flighty. Still, she shared my pleasure, and now I share hers.


Thomas McGonigle is the author of Going to Patchogue (1987) and The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov (1992), both from Dalkey Archive Press.