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February 19, 2008
Passing of a Pioneer

In college I took a class on the New Novelists. We read folks like Samuel Beckett, Michel Butor, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. The latter died Monday at the age of 85.

He was the most prominent of France’s so-called New Novelists, a group that emerged in the mid-1950s whose other members included Claude Simon, Michel Butor and Nathalie Sarraute. Their experimental work tossed aside literary conventions like plot and character development, narrative and chronology, chapters and punctuation.

“Tossed aside” might be an understatement. “Assiduously avoided” would work at least as well.

True to his artistic principles, Robbe-Grillet’s novels are composed largely of recurring images, impersonally depicted physical objects and random events of everyday life. However, beginning with his first novel published in France, Les Gommes (1953, The Erasers), Robbe-Grillet used and manipulated traditional and popular literary genres — working several times with the mystery novel from. (Robbe-Grillet’s first novel, A Regicide, was not published until 1978.) The Erasers mixes a detective story with Robbe-Grillet’s signature changing perspectives and detailed descriptions of natural objects such as a tomato wedge. The book received the Fénélon Prize in France in 1954. Robbe-Grillet was elected member of the prestigious Academie Francaise in 2004, the highest honor in France for a French artist, writer or intellectual. However, he never sat in any meeting of the Academie.

In addition to his novels, he did some movie work, most famously Last Year at Marienbad. He also wrote a book of essays called “Toward a New Novel” that was mind-expanding.

“The Academie Francaise today loses one of its most illustrious members, and without a doubt its most rebellious,” mourned President of France Nicolas Sarkozy.

Despite the New Novel’s focus on objective reality swept clean of human feeling or bias, French author Robbe-Grillet always insisted that the nouveau roman is entirely subjective — its world is always perceived through the eyes of a character, not an omniscient narrator. “The true writer has nothing to say. What counts is the way he says it,” he once stated.


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Posted by Chuck Dupree at February 19, 2008 09:02 AM
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