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Alain Robbe-Grillet, R.I.P.

February 20, 2008 |  4:41 pm

The Pope of the New Novel is dead.

Or, let me rephrase that: The body of Alain Robbe-Grillet is room temperature though seemingly cooler to the touch, with slack surface areas along its longitude and discolorations in transverse patterns. The anterior section is a faded beige while the dorsal area and extremeties show evidence of settlement.

Dullest writer of the twentieth century? Visionary genius of the post-religious age? Cinematic huckster? Fearless explorer of the post-rational? I'd say all of the above. The author of, among others, The Erasers, The Voyeur and La Jalousie, and the screenwriter of the mother of all art-house puzzlers Last Year At Marienbad was 85 years old. If you're going to give Robbe-Grillet a shot, I'd suggest any of the above, although my favorite is the short novel In the Labyrinth. I suspect with his passing we are now out of literary lions in winter, those people like Norman Mailer who could still pass as enfants terribles even in their ninth decades.

Dennis Dutton has a useful collection of obits. Le Monde calls him of all the great postwar writers "undoubtedly the best-known abroad and the least-liked in France." A very extensive piece in The Telegraph recounts the following telling anecdote:

In 1961 he had a narrow escape when the aeroplane in which he was travelling from Paris to Tokyo crashed on take-off after a stop at Hamburg airport. Robbe-Grillet dictated his account to a journalist, who found (as so many of the novelist's readers were to find) his version of events objective, but lacking in drama.

This soon changed to a complaint that Robbe-Grillet's version was described in clichéd journalese. His protestations that the journalist was responsible for these infelicities were ignored, though Umberto Eco rushed to his defence.

Whatever you think of his stuff (and the chances are extremely high that, whoever you are, you'll hate it), you can learn more about writing no-loaded-language descriptions from Robbe-Grillet than from any other recently deceased author.

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