Blind Man with a Pistol

Detection Defection

Alain Robbe-Grillet died last week. While his macho media posturing and depictions of sadism, pedophilia and sexual perversion render him a much more public figure (and hence, more controversial) in France, his influence on English literature in the the late-twentieth century remains emphatic and undeniable. In Pour un nouveau roman (1963), Robbe-Grillet outlined a theory of the novel (while steadfastly refusing the label) and called for a departure from the holistic realism of Balzac and Tolstoy. The novel, as we know it, is dead. This would not be a problem, Robbe-Grillet argues, except that we continue, literature continues, as if the novel were still alive:

A “good” novel…has remained the study of a passion—or of a conflict of passions, or of the absence of passion—in a given milieu. Most of our contemporary novelists of the traditional sort—those, that is, who manage to earn the approval of their readers—could insert long passages from [Madame de Lafayette’s] The Princess of Clèves or [Balzac’s] Père goirot into their own books without awakening the suspicions of the enormous public with whatever they turn out. (15-16)

It was not enough to tinker with the psychological threads of a novel through tired conceits like character, story and theme. Championed by the likes of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, Robbe-Grillet’s manifesto cleared the way for an interrogation of the “raw material” of language with which the writer constructs the novel:

What is so surprising about this, after all? The raw material—the French language—has undergone only very slight modifications for three hundred years; and if society has been gradually transformed, if industrial techniques have made considerable progress, our intellectual civilization has remained much the same. (16)

If we are to find out more about what it means to be human, then, we must discard these stale ways of looking at the world, of writing about it, and see in different ways.

It is no accident, then, that Robbe-Grillet’s first published novel, Les Gommes (1953), took advantage the detective fiction genre in its existentialist examination of the self. We have been trying to “detect” the “human heart” (which, Robbe-Grillet wryly observes, “as everyone knows is eternal”) but hitherto writers have only succeeded in repeating the same stories of “passion” in slightly altered duds. Detection, it turns out, is not about solving crimes based on evidence, but on signifying them. That is, detection is as much about coercing the available facts as it is about interpreting them.

Samuel Beckett’s Molloy (1951, English 1955) similarly employed the genre in its exploration of authorship, identity and agency. In the second half of Beckett’s novel, Moran, the private detective charged with locating Molloy, descends into a world where “evidence: and “clues” hardly function as such, and his scientific, schematic interpretation of the world violently breaks down. Moran murders a strange man that appears to him in his state of poverty and despair, and submits a “report” that shares the same opening sentence with the first half of Molloy: the section narrated by the eponymous character Moran is meant to be tracking. Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes is remarkably close to Beckett’s text: in a surreal landscape redolent with allusions to Oedipus Rex, Wallas, the police inspector of Les Gommes investigates a murder only to end up murdering the victim himself. For Robbe-Grillet, the failure of language to signify a recognizable reality echoes the failure of evidence to reveal the criminal.

The evidence gathered by the inspectors [in any detective story]–an object left at the scene of the crime, a movement captured in a photograph, a sentence overheard by a witness–seem chiefly, at first, to require an explanation, to exist only in relation to their role in a context which overpowers them. And already the theories begin to take shape: the presiding magistrate attempts to establish a logical and necessary link between things…

But the story begins to proliferate in a disturbing way: the witnesses contradict one another, the defendant offers several alibis, new evidence appears that had not been taken into account….And we keep going back to the recorded evidence: the exact position of apiece of furniture, the shape and frequency of a fingerprint, the word scribbled in a message. We have the mounting sense that nothing else is true. Though they may conceal a mystery, or betray it, these elements which make a mockery of systems have only one serious, obvious quality, which is to be there.

The same is true of the world around us. (22-3)

Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman reveals traditional detection for the illusion it is. Solving a crime based on a crime scene is nothing less than imposing a narrative upon it—colonizing it with prefabricated notions of order, interpretation and routine. We can only make use of detection with the self-awareness that it is treacherous—insidious. American writers like Thomas Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Paul Auster in City of Glass (1987) borrow Robbe-Grillet’s usage of the detection conceit for their own conception of the loss of interpretive certainty. While Robbe-Grillet’s impact on contemporary literature may be more polemical than critical, the economy and strength of his demands for the nouveau roman ensure his legacy.

*All citations are taken from: Alain Robbe-Grillet. For a New Novel [Pour un nouveau roman]. Trans. Richard Howard. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1989.

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