Monday, May 30, 2005

June's Book: The Erasers, by Alain Robbe-Grillet

There are two parts to this review. The first part is a brief overview of the place Alain Robbe-Grillet, the author of The Erasers, occupied in 20th Century literature. The second part is the review itself. I recommend reading both sections, of course, but if you are pressed for time or only interested in reading about the book, skip the first section.


Sometime in the 19th Century - at least as early as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland - fiction began to see itself as more than the art of storytelling: it began to see itself as art, period. Fading were the old ideas that literature had to contain a social or moral message, that it had to appeal to the masses with a robust bout of straightforward and entertaining taletry. Replacing these old ideas among literary afficionados was a burgeoning enthusiasm for evermore complex designs made up of brand new narrative devices, riddles that were subtly hidden and often very difficult to solve (if they were solvable at all), and prose that could more and more pass for poetry. In short, the concern of the serious novelist switched from how best to convey a message or an entertainment to how best to create a beautiful work of art, reader be damned if they didn’t understand. James Joyce, writing some 40 years after Wonderland was published, has become the poster boy for such writing.

Starting in the 1950s however (coinciding with the birth of formal literary criticism), writers began to see that style wasn’t everything. Most knew and admired Joyce, but the problems inherent in such writing began to make themselves evident - namely, that no one read "works of art" if they weren’t at least somewhat readable. Vladimir Nabokov, for example, who considered Joyce’s Ulysses the great work of the century, thought Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which attempted yet higher artistic achievement, was gibberish. Though not many critics would dare agree with him (such thoughts were, and are, considered blasphemy by academics), the sentiment that things needed to change was beginning to catch hold. No one, Nabokov included, wanted to diminish the role that style had played in asserting literature as a distinguished form capable of high artistic beauty, but more and more authors were noticing that their books also needed to be read. (Television had asserted itself and readers could no longer be taken for granted.) Nabokov would soon became famous for balancing high style and accessible substance. Such writers as Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon would follow, and a new literary tradition was born.

But hidden in the shadows, at least in America (where esteemed stylists Hemingway and Faulkner were still the beginning and end of every literary conversation), was a man named Alain Robbe-Grillet. In 1953, two years before Nabokov’s Lolita would shake everything up and one year before Hemingway was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for the originality of his prose, Robbe-Grillet released his first novel, The Erasers. Although its impact has not been as public as Lolita’s, or as any of Faulkner’s or Hemingway’s works, it was essential in bridging modernism with postmodernism, and can thus be considered a founder of the latter. Here, all of a sudden, was high art to be enjoyed by all, critics and regular bookbuyers alike. Accordingly, Robbe-Grillet was hailed all around. There was nary a word of discontent, even from the staunchest critics. By the end of the 50s he was proclaimed the spokesman of the nouveau roman, or the new novel. His second, third, and fourth novels, all written before the decade was over, are to be given much credit for this pronouncement. But it was his first novel, The Erasers, that established him in the establishment, and to which he owes his marvelous literary achievements. Robbe-Grillet’s writing, for those who are curious, influenced many of the best novelists of the second half of the century. Some of these - all considered practitioners of the nouveau roman - include: Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, and Claude Simon.


The Erasers, Robbe-Grillet’s most accessible novel, is, first and foremost, a detective story: a man dies, becoming the eighth politically motivated murder in as many days; the local law enforcement, having made no progress in their investigations, is deemed incapable; a detective from the Bureau of Investigation is sent in to solve the case. This is the simple plot - quite stock on its face - around which the novel revolves. But the mystery, which is as much literary as legal, is anything but simple: the latest dead man, Albert or Daniel Dupont (his identity is at first unclear), may not really be dead, and the detective sent to solve his murder, Monsieur Wallas, may in fact be the killer. But the central figure in this mystery - the prime suspect if you will - is not either of these men: it is the narrative.

I have less to say about the story itself in this case than I usually do, because of the importance of the structure and style of this narrative. In most mysteries, the reader’s ability to comprehend and solve the case hinges on the clues provided, and revolves around alibis and circumstances. The presentation of these clues, alibis and circumstances is generally straightforward, with just an important detail or two shaded or withheld in just the right way so as to trick the reader/detective. In The Erasers, however, the details central to solving the case are not withheld in the usual way (through the lies of a character, or the ignorance of a detective, or the one missing piece of crucial evidence), but in a new way: the narrative itself reflects the necessary travails of a mind attempting to construct a reality: the prose is a maze, made up of various perspectives and retellings of the same events: the mystery is solved only through the proper dissection of the small differences in each perspective’s details, which then leads to the knowledge of what exactly is fact in this story and what is fiction.

In addition to this device of narrative repetition, which is central to the book, the descriptive details Robbe-Grillet chooses to employ often provoke repetitive imagery. The streets - up and down which Wallas walks, lost - are indistinguishable from one another, and can be seen as a reflection of the labyrinth the author has created with his new style of storytelling. The reader can get easily lost when traveling the avenues of this book, just as Wallas gets lost traveling the avenues of Paris. As for Wallas, it is important to pay attention to the signs that are provided, and to put them to memory.

(For the interested reader, this narrative philosophy of repetition, in keeping with form, repeats itself in Robbe-Grillet’s work: he later wrote a book titled Repetitions; he also wrote a book called In The Labyrinth.)

There is not much else I can say about this beautifully artistic book. It does not lend itself readily to book review-type analysis. It can only really be praised or pissed on. It is not at all hard to read - I try to focus in these reviews on literary novels that everyone can enjoy - but it does demand the reader’s attention, as the mysteries presented are not plainly solved in the book. You may find yourself flipping back to previous sections for purposes of clarification, but in this case this is not a frustrating thing - it is a bit like taking on a riddle you know you can solve if you put in the little bit of effort required. The work, then, becomes very enjoyable, and pays its own rewards. You’ll see, when you get to those famous words at the end of The Erasers: "I’m the manager. I’m the manager. The manager. I’m the manager...the manager...the manager..."

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Books Read in May

Veronika Decides to Die, Paulo Coelho

This is the only book of his I have read, and now, having read it, I have no desire to read his others. It is agonizingly simple, and the moral message it communicates - life is what we make of it! - makes the reader, in addition to the hero Veronika, decide it is time to die. The spare simplicity of the prose is efffective in that it makes the book a quick read, and prevents prolongued suffering, but there is little positive to say beyond this. At one time in my life, I was sure I was going to read The Alchemist, which has been praised and bought the world over. Now, having seen his way of thinking and writing, I am not so sure.

Alice's Adventure in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

In my opinion, the absolute greatest children's book ever written. As I suggest in my review of The Erasers for this month, this book was perhaps a precursor to modernism, with its inventive wordplays, its authorial self-insertions, and its linguistic inquiries into sense and reality. Read the Penguin Classics edition to get the notes with the text - the complexity of Carroll's thought is amazing, though the downside of such scholarship is that it ruins some of the magical mystery of the book. If you haven't read Wonderland since you were a kid, or have never read it at all, get to it. Without a doubt, one of my favorites in any genre.

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

I have never liked Hemingway. Being a fan of such authors as Joyce and Nabokov and Coover, I have always admired rich and playful prose. Hemingway's writing style, which did win him the Nobel, is quite the opposite: sparse and tense, short and declarative, owing much to his days as a journalist. In addition, his stories have centered too much on man's battle with masculinity. I have little patience for a character or a writer whose thinking is defined by his sex. It is very antiquarian to me, and indicative of a destitute philosophy. But this book, which I only read because I could finish it in two hours and at the same time add to my collection of evidence against Hemingway, somehow won me over. Though the conversations between the old man and the boy are stiflingly stiff and unnatural, the story is astute, perceptive, and ultimately profound. (Not to mention utterly heartshattering.) I was even impressed with the prose - that is, I never noticed, as I usually do with Hemingway, that I wasn't enjoying it. I can see why this book, written just before he won the Nobel, is considered to be the reason for his winning it.

Utopia, Sir Thomas More

Everyone knows the word, but few know the work. More's Utopia, which, as a book, is only a shell for an idea and not at all compelling as a story, is the description of a fictional ideal nation, as told by a gentleman who visited it. Though More's vision of perfection has proved a lasting one - his ideas are still the basis for much of utopian literature - it begs, in our day and age, for improvements. More's Utopia, though no man goes wanting and all religions are tolerated (national qualities foreign even to Americans), has plenty of flaws: man still has to be governed by laws, the breaking of which result either in slavery or death; the legal order is patriarchal, and just as the children are subject to their parents, so is the wife subject to her husband; and war, though used only as a last resort, and conducted when it must be resorted to in the friendliest and most thoughtful manner, is still prepared for and carried out. For the most part, however, the ideas are thought-provoking and still relevant. More's attention to detail is careful and considered, and all areas of life seem accounted for. Not as much a fun read as a necessary one - if only for the sake of knowing what we could be capable of as a society.

My two favorite lines from the book: "...the most wicked are always the most obstinate..." (p. 73); and "...both priests and people...acknowledge God to be the author and governor of the world, and the fountain of all the good they receive, and therefore offer up to him their thanksgiving; and in particular bless Him for His goodness in ordering it so, that they are born under the happiest government in the world, and are of a religion which they hope is the truest of all others: but if they are mistaken, and if there is either a better government or a religion more acceptable to God, they implore His goodness to let them know it, vowing that they resolve to follow him withersoever He leads them." (p. 81) Both page citations are from the 1997 Dover edition.

The Tale of the Unknown Island, Jose Saramago

A great tale of imagination by the Nobel winner. It would take me as long to write a review for it as it would take you to read it, so I'll just leave it at that, and let you enjoy if you decide to this nice story of making the impossible possible.

Public Enemy, Aaron McGruder

The latest collection from my favorite comic strip creator. Tearing apart pop culture and American policy with equal deft, these strips are the sharpest critiques available of modern American life. Warning: Not compatible with conservatism.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Literary Word of the Month


According to the appearance in consciousness of memory images which are not recognized as such but which appear as original creations.

The word cryptomnesia has lately resurfaced in literary circles due to allegations that Vladimir Nabokov plagiarized Lolita. In Berlin, around the time Nabokov was living there (some 30 years before he wrote his most famous book), a short story was written in which a young girl, named Lolita, becomes an older man's object of desire. Though there are a few similarities between Heinz von Lichberg's Lolita and Nabokov's, the differences are too great to accuse Nabokov of plagiarism. (The first Lolita, after all, is only a few pages in length - Nabokov's is a novel over 300.) To explain the coincidences between the two works, and the fact that Nabokov very well might have read this story, having lived in the same Berlin community in which this story was produced, and around the same time, the word cryptomnesia has been employed. In short, it has been suggested that Nabokov did read the early Lolita and simply forgot about it - which is possible, considering it is very short and in addition poorly written - and that the later appearance of Lolita in his mind seemed to him wholly original.

It's a very interesting debate, and a very interesting word. For more, click here.

For the Carolyn Kunin translation of von Lichberg's Lolita, click here.