Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Les Gommes" ( The erasers ) by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Guido Cagnacci: Allegoria della vita umana

One would have expected that when Alain Robbe – Grillet (1922 – 2008 ), a young engineer, fresh from the Agricultural institute of Paris and himself a son of an engineer, would choose a subject for his first book, he would decide for recounting the time he spent as a conscripted worker in Nazi - Germany or of his experiences in the French colonies.

But no, “Les Gommes”, which was published in 1953 by les “Editions de Minuit” had all the appearances of a simple whodunit à la Gaston Leroux or Maurice Leblanc, what the French call a “Polar” or a ‘Roman Policier”, The first readers however noted immediately that something was different with this whodunit. Already from the first pages it is clear that there has been no murder, that the surprised would-be assassin only wounded his victim. The identity of the hit man, holding the smoking gun, is instantly revealed, and so is the identity of his evil sponsor. The wounded victim however disappears together with the criminal and a newly appointed agent, a man with the very foreign name “Wallas” enters the scene and sets himself the task to find both victim and assassin.

It is a strange “Polar” indeed, for Robbe – Grillet, this young engineer who has decided to dedicate his life to literature, has just delivered to the French public the first “Nouveau Roman”. While a first, the writer appears confident enough and he is very clear in explaining his literary aims and the theoretical background of his books. Jerôme Lindon, the director of “Les editions de Minuit, impressed by the young man’s new ideas, appoints him on the spot as his literary consultant. Robbe - Grillet enters the French literary scene, not as any newcomer but immediately as the “Pope” of the “Nouveau Roman”

Le “Nouveau Roman” is too often dismissed as a mere demonstration of craftsmanship, of “savoir faire”, an exhibition of the skill of the writers to play with words, syntaxes, and phrases. Often the story as such is of lesser importance and reduced to its bare essentials like a simple fait divers from a newspaper, an anecdote like the case in “l’Amante Anglaise” by Marguerite Duras. And neither is there a “message”, philosophical, ethical or political, hidden behind the words. 

The “Nouveau Roman” was understandably accused of breaking with tradition, to make tabula rasa with all what has been written before. In the case of les Gommes, it proved to be the opposite. Unaware of what really was flowing out of his revolutionary pen, Alain Robbe – Grillet, bridged thousands of years of narrative tradition and turned out with a variant on the most classical of all texts…

We need an engineer like Alain Robbe – Grillet, to explain us in a clear way what his intentions were and which tools he used. In the article “Du nouveau Roman et la nouvelle Autobiographie”, he invites us on an imaginary scaffold (l’échafaudage structurel) surrounding the text to have a look at the work and craftsmanship involved in the conception of his book. 

Initially Robbe – Grillet wanted not so much to write a book with an original story, but rather one that challenged the traditional way stories were told, the linear narrative structure, to which the public had grew accustomed to since the 19th century “Bourgeois Age” of Balzac. Like other contemporary experimental authors he would try his hand at a circular narrative, one where the end and the beginning would coincide and fused into one another.

The young engineer had been fascinated by the “Ouroboros numbers”, the magical sequence of numbers studied by the ancient priests of Egypt. The Ouroboros snake, better known as the snake that eats its own tail, had according to the Egyptian legend 108 rings of dorsal scales, numbered not in a traditional 1, 2, 3 way, but in a special more arcane sequence. Every Ouroboros number is the sum of the two preceding ones. When that sum is higher than 108, it is subtracted by 108, so that with number 108, you come back to 1. It is therefore a circular order and hence the numerological reference to the mythical snake. What fascinated the Egyptian priests as well as Alain Robbe – Grillet, was that if you do that you get all the traditional numbers and never twice the same.

Robbe – Grillet sat down at his desk and wrote a straightforward police story narrated in a linear way. Then he cut his story up in 108 pieces and wrote these “events” down on index cards. He reshuffled the cards in an “ouroboros” way and saw what happened to his story if it came out in a circular logic. 

It did not work, the scaffold collapsed. The structure could not hold the tension of the narrative and in the words of Robbe - Grillet “exploded”. While he realized that he could not charm this Ouroboros snake, this chtonic reptile reminded him of another snake, the Python hiding under the Delphic Oracle and another cyclical story : the endless battle between Apollo Sauroctonos ( the day ) and the reptile ( the night ). Each one of them would alternatively win and lose the battle in an endless cycle of revolving days. 

During his narrative experiment, Alain Robbe – Grillet suddenly realized that in the fragments of his earlier trials appeared something like a variant of Sophocles Oedipus Rex story, one of the more famous victims of the Delphic oracle. Oedipus investigates a murder until he realizes that he, himself, is the murderer. The premonitions, oracles and the dramatic outcomes of that classical story had indeed all the characteristics of a circular narrative. 

Robbe – Grillet returned to his writing table. He replaced the Delphic Oracle with the heading of his “fait-divers” in the local newspaper “A murder has been committed!”. But some readers of the newspaper, witnesses, know that there has been no killing. The victim was slightly wounded but not killed. But what is written in a newspaper is expected to be true so… In “les Gommes”, Wallas, the Policeman is investigating a murder that did not happen but has been predicted.

The young writer, who had read “Ulysses” by Joyce and who confessed that without the help of Valery Larbaud, he would not have had a clue about what that book was all about, realized that his own book was rather obscure too. He had to decide if he would hide the classical text within his story or help his readers to discover it. He decided, just like Joyce to be helpful. To help the reader uncover the hidden myth, he opened the story with a slightly adapted epigram of Sophocles:

“le temps qui veille à tout a donné la solution malgré toi »( time who takes care of everything has given the solution…)

It did not really help. In an interview, Robbe - Grillet told his interviewer, that despite the hints, not one of the early readers saw the parallels with Sophocles text. Not even Roland Barthes, who was known to be a Sophocles specialist and who made an extensive study on the famous classical text.

“Les Gommes” is something like an experiment. It is the knowledge of what Robbe – Grillet is trying to do, that makes it so exciting. The result is highly recommended.