Monday, 23 November 2009


I read Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet yesterday. R-G, like several people in the previous century, decided that a particular art form had reached a dead-end of endless refinement of a limited pool of techniques, and attempted to find a new approach.

The art form in this case was the novel. A sort of anti-Zola, R-G's approach seems to have been to eschew all pretense at psychological verisimilitude, focusing instead on the surface of things. In the case of the novel at hand, it results in a narrative that is largely given over to the obsessive detailing of appearances - famously counting the number of banana trees in each row in a plantation, several times over. Great importance is given to appearances, and the same set of incidents are returned to time and again, without the transitions being clearly marked. There are only two significant on-stage characters, although various hints make it clear that there is a third person participating in most of these scenes, a character who is carefully elided from the narrative.

The elision is a way of drawing our attention to that character - it increasingly seems as if the narrative may be his own train of thought, obsessively running over the events of a few days and the evidence they may hold that the elided character's wife is having an affair. The constant enumeration of minute details of the surroundings might be an obsessed man's way of proving to himself that he is still capable of objective thought, or a nervous tic to prevent himself from dwelling on his wild surmises.

It's an interesting technique, one with fascinating possibilities, but put to the service of a rather prosaic plot, one that would not have been out of place in a Zola novel. Philip K. Dick did similar things while weaving together plots that had something genuinely new and interesting in them. In the end 'Jealousy' simply posits a different, somewhat indirect and diffused way of portraying the psyche of characters in a fictional narrative. However, this novel is not convincing proof that such a brute-force technique, amassing surface detail on the basis that some of these details will tell their own story, can convey the complexities of a genuinely engaging plot.

Also completed over the weekend:

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club: Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries are a rare treat - a sort of mix of the wit of Wodehouse and the crafty plotting of Christie.

The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight: Vladimir Nabokov. This was Nabokov's first major work in English; his facility with the language is astounding. He was achieving feats of verbal virtuosity only ever equaled by Anthony Burgess, right from the get-go. The story is brilliant and complex, a sort of oblique paean to an exile's sense of loss as a man tries to piece together a definitive biography of his late half-brother, the novelist Sebastian Knight. Yes, it prefigures Pale Fire, but it's a brilliant novel in its own right.

9 comments:

priya said...

oh! mine wht a heavy subject,bt i feel u hve given the review in a bit philosophical manner too,y can't u make it in a lucid manner(main reason -i didn't got the content of the book)

skinnyblackcladdink said...

oh, but, as i understand it, the 'complexities of a genuinely engaging plot' are not what the nouveau roman--not what R-G's version of the nouveau roman, at any rate--is/are ostensibly about. what R-G aims to do is to create a text that represents a 'solid' reality *in and of itself*, ie, not connected or related in any way to any sort of reality external to the text itself, psychological, objective or whatever; to insist on making such a connection is to miss the point. the project is therefore entirely distinct in its goals from the work of, say, PKD (i imagine you were refering to something like The Martian Timeslip, with all the repetition?), whose whole project revolves around narrative, and the fact that R-G doesn't write a more 'engaging plot' emphasizes the point that the ostensible subject of the text doesn't matter--it's the text itself that matters, and it's the way the text concretizes, examines, reexamines, creates emphasis, is what makes the subject important, and not the other way around. in this i think R-G succeeds brilliantly, but whether there's anything to be gained from the project itself i feel depends on the reader. given your response to something like Bolano's The Savage Detectives, i imagine you must have felt it wasn't really much worth your time?

JP said...

I know that Jealousy succeeds on its own terms, but I find it hard to see it as anything but an intellectual experiment. Not sure how this relates to Bolano's bumper-sized burp of a literary Big Mac - something that I was told would be delicious and filling but was merely fattening and carcinogenic and besides it left me feeling gassy.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

they aren't related in any conventional sense, except in that they're both radical *formal* experiments that seek to push literature to its limits, subverting the general (commonly held) ideas of narrative and the novel. but aside from that, it's simply that i personally found your reaction to jealousy unsurprising given your response to TSD (a text which, while your response is not invalid, i don't think you're being entirely fair to, given the actual things that text achieves). it sort of describes the kind of reader you are, like, for one thing, how you prefer a 'genuinely engaging plot' in the things you read. (this, btw, also in light of your response to Sebald.) this is not meant in any way to be reductive of or to in any way disparage your approach to literature; i only mean that, somehow, your responses to the two books seems to me somehow particularly illuminating of the critical apparatus you use (consciously or not) when you read, maybe gives me an idea what books to recommend to you, and what not to. to that end, what do you think of James Wood's ideas of literature?

JP said...

Perhaps the phrase 'genuinely engaging plot' was unfortunate.

Something Delany's Dhalgren possibly does not possess much of is a plot, and what there is doesn't go anywhere eventually, circling back as it does to the beginning, but that is a book I admire immensely, as I do most of Delany's work. It's a sense of the underlying concerns and ideas that I can relate to or that interest me as well that draws me in I suppose; with Robbe-Grillett and with Bolano's book I felt no personal interest or sympathy with whatever it was the writer was engaging with, particularly in the latter case. I have a copy of 2666 that I may attempt one day, but in the meantime I'm more interested in that unread copy of Buddenbrooks on my shelf.

I sympathise with many of Wood's ideas. I don't know enough to say anything more. I will say that my critical apparatus, such as it is, was largely formed while reading George Orwell's book reviews.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

perhaps i got the wrong idea, but i find it interesting how what you say about one book sets up your response to another in the mind of another reader with another set of responses, whether or not a sensible/meaningful connection can be made between the books. does that make sense? i mean that, in the previous comment, i was attempting to intellectualize a particular reaction (lack of surprise) i had to your current response (to jealousy) in light of a previous response (to TSD) which somehow formed a connection in my mind. maybe it's nothing more than a kind of intuition for literary tastes, or just the fact that the two most proximal times i got to read anything from you was about those two books.

also interesting (to me, again in light of the current conversation): i had a very different response to Dhalgren, which i never finished reading but keep meaning to go back to. i admired some of the writing and the spirit of formal experimentation underlying the text, but found the text itself, the execution, jarringly uneven (in a bad way, obviously), and i actually felt that the subject of the text somehow undercut the text itself. the text felt to me at times marvelously alive right up until it actually came up against the narrative, at which point the living text suddenly felt superfluous, tacked on, window dressing to a narrative that i didn't find as engaging as the text had been before that point anyway--which i suppose in a way makes me more sympathetic to R-G's project in Jealousy (though my favorite of R-G's works so far is The Erasers, if only because i enjoyed the deconstruction of the detective story as deconstruction of reality). that was a long time ago though, and i daresay i'll have a different response to it (Dhalgren) if i tried reading it again now.

good luck with 2666, in many ways a much more flawed work than TSD (it is, after all, unfinished). i hear a lot of people who hated TSD with a vengeance actually loved 2666 with a passion that is almost embarrassing, and vice versa. Though that isn't really saying much: of course, quite a number of readers hate and love both books equally. (i love both. the latter just a tad more precisely because it is imperfect.)

must get a copy of Orwell's reviews. Orwell is one of the great gaping holes in my reading (and there are many).

JP said...

Dhalgren was a great, audacious statement of purpose, like the Eroica, but perhaps a more successful work may be found in Triton.

How is your writing going? I've had a few things published in the last year or two, although Weird Tales is still a bastion unstormed by me as indeed is the entire Western publishing industry.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

have you tried 'storming' Weird Tales? if not, you should. their editor Ann VanderMeer says they're having trouble fitting in longer stories for some reason, so when give them a go, send them one of your shorter works, like 2-3k words max. they haven't really set that as a wordcount limit (as far as i know), i suppose they'll still take really good stories that go on for longer, but it'll up your chances of being accepted.

as far as my writing goes, not too well as a matter of fact. i'm thinking this might be it, the terminal dryspell, curtainsville for this particular one-trick wonder. (sorry, been reading a lot of Ellroy.)

congrats on the publications! how do i get a copy of your stuff?

JP said...

Most of my published stuff is fiction for children. Here's one that isn't and you can read it online: http://pratilipi.in/2009/10/run-for-your-life-jayaprakash-satyamurthy/

I hope the dry spell gets over. I haven't actually read anything of yours, as far as I know.

I don't really have dry spells, but I do have fallow periods. I enjoy writing, or perhaps need to write, too much to give up (although I've tried) but I find it hard to remain consistently interested in being published.