Friday, 17 July 2009

For A New Novel - Alain Robbe-Grillet

A huge amount of literary experimentation took part in the 1960s and 1970s, partly as a result of what Robbe-Grillet was doing with his own work. To some, his work is incomprehensible; to others he showed the way to free the novel from its constraints. I love it.

Be that as it may, what he was trying to achieve eluded many people. He had written various essays about his ideas on literature, and many of those were collected in this book. Seen by some as a manifesto for the nouveau roman, it is a much more interesting work than that. A manifesto will kill a movement at the moment it gives it birth. The strictures are so severely limiting they allow for no creativity or development and invariably end with the original signatories arguing and throwing tantrums.

Robb-Grillet’s book examines his own thinking and, in the process, looks at the way literature has developed and could develop in the future. He lays down no rules, but examines the structure and raison d’être of the novel in a way no critic or theorist had done before (and very few have done since). He also deconstructs the popular image of the nouveau roman and in so doing eloquently makes his case for fresh thinking.

Whilst there was a great deal of interest in these ideas and many new works appeared at the time that were exciting and genuinely innovative, much of the work that was done to lift the novel and move it forward into the twentieth century has been lost. This is not so much that Robbe-Grillet’s ideas do not make sense as it is a failure on the part of many publishers to have the courage to allow experimentation.

It is hard to imagine in the current climate a writer like Robbe-Grillet making any headway, let alone being part of the mainstream. This is not to say I believe everyone should write like this. Far from it. But without pioneers, without people being allowed to push to the limits, break them, and wander into the unknown, the mainstream cuts deeper into its own rut and never has the chance to spread and fertilise broader fields.

You may not agree with everything (or anything) Robbe-Grillet has to say, but the book really should be read by anyone serious about their writing. It is thought provoking, an easy read, and like opening a window on a room shut up all winter to let in a fresh, warm breeze.