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..."


At 7:20 PM, Anonymous noelle said...

I just finshed The Erasers and to say it is an interesting text is an understatement. I am the type of reader who breaks every single rule of deconstruction, so Robbe-Grillet's text was definately an exercise in thoughtful reading.

With most texts I find myself wanting to attach myself to a narrator; a protagonist---I was not allowed the luxury of this within the confines of The Erasers. Every time that I began to start feeling a certain unity with Wallace, I was almost immediately yanked out of my new "relationship," as it became apparent that Wallace was not to be known by the audience. What I found remarkable was that this experience happened time and time again for me---each time I found myself being drawn into Wallace as protagonist, this illusion was conveniently shattered and I was left with only the words on the page. There was no room to create romanticized versions of Wallace, or of Dupont for that matter. Nobody in the text was heroic or evil.

I find these types of texts incredibly fascinating on a couple of levels. Robbe-Grillet, in this text, seems to convey a message that intertexuality is the only thing that matters. That a reader finding comfort in a traditional novel's way of doing things through timing, character development, and plot defies deconstructionist wisdom. I have grappled with deconstruction for several years, probably because I am a very lazy reader, yet, I find that when I read a text such as The Erasers I am compelled to absorb a book that is in and of itself perfect. I mean to say that even when a reader feels a sense of disorientation when weaving herself, along side Wallace, through the pages of a book such as this, the text simultaneously offers its audience a gift. Why a gift? Well, because every single person who reads this book is on equal ground because the only thing that matters in the book are the core elements that Robbe-Grillet has created for us. The book is not concerned with the the history of the reader---the only thing that matters is the reader's capability of noticing characteristics not only about people, but things, such as a tomatoe, a drawbridge, or felt slippers. It conveys that those seemingly unimportant and static things that one ignores everyday are really objects in life that have a great deal of meaning, at least to the individual who takes the time to notice the intricacies of such things that often times might go unnoticed.

Thanks for the review and recommendation.

At 10:44 AM, Anonymous noelle said...

I wanted to mention, or rather, go into more detail regarding Robbe-Grillet's use of character development. I said prior that over and over I felt this urge to attach myself to Wallace, as really he was the only one in the book who it might have been realistic to have as a protagonist. But, over and over, the rug is pulled out from underneath as we are given glimpses that he might actually be the murderer, or at least that kind of preconceived idea of evil murderer.

When it becomes clear that I cannot rely on Wallace, I find myself wanting to trust Dupont---I mean even though his voice is only present in the text for a relatively few pages, I find myself needing to make him heroic. That cannot happen either though, as Robbe-Grillet makes Dupont not so much distasteful, but not really perfect enough a character to put one's faith in.

Then, as a last straw, I even find myself wanting to trust Laurent. I mean he is really pretty awful, in that protoplasmic and condescending way. And as soon as I think, "He is the one---he is the murderer." Robbe-Grillet makes it clear that Laurent is, perhaps, the most innocent in the story. He is really a good cop, for lack of a better term.

I guess the book was a true reminder that often times things are not what they seem. That people are not what they seem. That people are what we perceive them to be, that often times we trick ourselves into making things or people a reality of our perceptions. The book doesn't really allow us to do that. Everything in the book is what it is what it is. I mentioned earlier that it was a deconstructive struggle for me, but, as I think about it, the challenge was more along the lines of New Criticism.
Even at the end when we see the incredible irony (I think the end of the story is ironic, maybe there is a more appropriate word though) of the action in the
story--we are compelled not only to look at the characters without doing any unnecessary analysis, but at the actual story with very New Critical eyes.

In a weird way it is a book such as this that can offer a great life lesson.

At 5:32 PM, Anonymous noelle said...

I used the word "intertexuality" in the following sentence,"...convey a message that intertexuality is the only thing that matters. I wanted to make a statement about using that word because that was not the word I should have used as I used a word that I thought was accurate for the point I was trying to make but I realized later that that word completely defies the point I was trying to make. It was absolutely not about "intertextuality"--quite the opposite--the text stands completely on its own and has no relation to anything outside of it, intertextually or otherwise.

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