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.
Posted by JP at 07:26