The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Close Reading

[Contains spoilers for Jealousy, by Alain Robbe-Grillet. I have used the slightly stiff translation by Richard Howard.]

The mere fact that spoilers exist for a novel like Jealousy is itself a spoiler. Something does, in fact, happen in this novel notorious for its static, circular repetitions. [The "counting the banana trees" scene is particularly infamous: Amazon shows it (and its inevitable repetition) here.] Mr. Robbe-Grillet skillfully creates a feeling of foreboding, and of impending events and resolutions, without offering much of either directly.

Jealousy is notable for its narrator, who never speaks and is never seen or named; the book is a collection of his perceptions and recollections. He drifts silently about his house, sometimes looking out on his wife, A... [sic], and Franck, of whom he is jealous. As we come to understand Robbe-Grillet's method, the dawning understanding of events is chilling:

... But the slats of the blind are too sharply slanted to permit what is outside to be seen from the doorway.

It is only at a distance of less than a yard that the elements of a discontinuous landscape appear in the successive intervals, parallel chinks separated by the wider slats of gray wood: the turned wood balusters, the empty chair, the low table where a full glass is standing beside the tray holding the two bottles, and then the top part of the head of black hair, which at this moment turns toward the right...

The knot of A...'s hair, seen at such close range from behind, seems to be extremely complicated.

Anne Minor, whose essay A Note on Jealousy is included in the edition linked above [pp. 27-31], expresses the effect well:

Thus without knowing how, and despite the irritation provoked by a deliberately systematic, supposedly objective description in which distances, depth, shadows are defined in the terms of a geometrician, an architect, an engineer, or an agronomist, we share in fear, in the obsessive need to know. As in Van Gogh's last paintings, the images turn, circling in the reader's head as in the narrator's. The centipede, the extended hands, the motor breakdown, Christiane's absence, A's swaying gait in the courtyard, the morning of the return... the centipede... the hands...

We close the book, we know that after this anything can happen, that the narrator can kill Franck, or perhaps it is Franck who will kill him, or else nothing will happen -- the protagonists will remain the same, they will keep on sitting in their armchairs, arms and hands outstretched; the houseboy will serve the iced drinks; the banana groves will extend in front of the veranda with its trees planted in quincunxes...

In Ms. Minor's reading, the novel's building tension and the author's virtuosity make it an achievement, despite the absence of decisive events. She finishes:
... the author brings off his impossible demonstration: we have lived his anguish with him; we do not know, when we close this book, if the crime has been committed, or if each person is to return to his place, to act as if nothing had happened, while the narrator endlessly pursues his futile investigation.
[Note how Mr. Robbe-Grillet's style, virus-like, has infected Ms. Minor's writing, which even in the brief span of a five-page appreciative essay changes strikingly, its too-definite periods nearly obliterated under a vigorous new growth of commas and semicolons.]

At last we come to the punch line of this fine joke. On pp. 113-114 of the linked edition [about 3/4 of the way through the novel], we read:

Franck, without saying a word, stands up, wads his napkin into a ball as he cautiously approaches, and squashes the creature against the wall. Then, with his foot, he squashes it against the bedroom floor.

Then he comes back toward the bed and in passing hangs the towel on its metal rack near the washbowl.

The hand with the tapering fingers has clenched into a fist on the white sheet. The five widespread fingers have closed over the palm with such force that they have drawn the cloth with them: the latter shows five convergent creases.... But the mosquito-netting falls back all around the bed, interposing the opaque veil of its innumerable meshes where rectangular patches reinforce the torn places.

In his haste to reach his goal, Franck increases his speed. The jolts become more violent. Nevertheless he continues to drive faster. In the darkness, he has not seen the hole running halfway across the road. The car makes a leap, skids.... On this bad road the driver cannot straighten out in time. The blue sedan goes crashing into a roadside tree whose rigid foliage scarcely shivers under the impact, despite its violence.

The car immediately bursts into flames. The whole brush is illuminated by the crackling, spreading fire. It is the sound the centipede makes, motionless again on the wall, in the center of the panel.

This is the novel's irreversible center, the one set of observations which is never repeated; and Ms. Minor never noticed it. Having read chapters one, two and nine ("Now the shadow of the column", "Now the shadow of the southwest column" and "Now the shadow of the column" respectively), she felt qualified to comment on the structure. Nice work, if you can get it.