Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Jealousy - Alain Robbe-Grillet

Renowned for his ‘experimental’ approach to writing, Robbe-Grillet does not experiment with style, but with construction. Jealousy (more correctly Jalousie – as the jalousie windows play an important part in the work) is a series of images, often repeating, but never quite exactly so. Time is fragmented, perspectives altered, and obsessive attention is given to minute detail. As for plot… There is a hint of development, but it is impossible to say whether this is actual or in the eye and imagination of the narrator.

The work revolves around the relationship between A… (a married woman) and her neighbour Franck. The narrator is impersonal, although it can be assumed it is A…’s husband, not least because the work implies three people in the house and the narrator has an intimate knowledge of A…’s movements and actions. The story focuses on a trip that A… and Franck make to a town, making an unscheduled overnight stay when the car they travel in breaks down.

The obsessive replaying of scenes, the minute variations in which the narrator explores the possibilities, the layer upon layer of detail that paints a claustrophobic picture, suits the work well. There is no objective truth and we can never be sure how much the narrator’s obsession and jealousy is distorting the picture.

Although the work is low key, languid (as befits the setting of a banana plantation), there are hints of violence. A brief scene in which A… is described as sprawled on her bed (out of character with her careful, neat style). Further brief descriptions of what may be blood running thickly from the room and onto the veranda. Yet even this may just be a flash of anger on the part of the narrator, a fantasy revenge that never happens.

Robbe-Grillet has succeeded (for me) in producing an intriguing, almost hypnotic piece of writing. It has a cinematic quality, which is hardly surprising, but which is vividly realised. It certainly has every right to be considered an important work of literature. Not only is it an important work in terms of eschewing conventional narrative; it shows that psychological insight can be gained without once discussing or being let into the thoughts of the narrator other than by implication.

This is not a book everyone will enjoy (although I certainly did), but I do think it is a book that anyone serious about literature and about writing should read.