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R.I.P. Alain Robbe-Grillet

Author: • Feb 22nd, 2008 •

Category: academia, Ballardosphere, film, inner space, science fiction

Ballardian: Alain Robbe-Grillet

Robbe-Grillet on set (photographer unknown).


“The world is neither significant nor absurd,” says Robbe-Grillet. “It is — quite simply.” In his novels, Robbe-Grillet aims at a “certain ceremonious solidity, often slow-moving, with a theatrical sense which sometimes fixes the attitudes of characters in a rigidity of gestures, words and decor, recalling a statue or an opera.” Finally, he tries to “construct a space and time purely mental, that of a dream or memory.”

Robbe-Grillet, quoted in Time magazine, 1966.

Hardly surprising in light of the above quote, Ballard was an admirer of the Robbe-Grillet scripted, Alain Resnais directed Last Year at Marienbad…

Those films that I most admire — Cocteau’s Orphee, Alphaville, Last Year at Marienbad — are much closer to dreams than they are movies. Insofar as film resembles the dream it is a uniquely powerful means of exploring the inner world.

J.G. Ballard, quoted in J.G. Ballard: Quotes.

Surprisingly, s-f is one of the most literary forms of all fiction, and the best s-f films [including] Last Year at Marienbad (not a capricious choice, its themes are time, space and identity, s-f’s triple pillars) … have all made use of comparatively modest special effects and relied on strongly imaginative ideas, and on ingenuity, wit and fantasy.

Ballard, ‘Hobbits in Space’ (a review of Star Wars), Time Out, 1977.

The Warren Commission’s Report is a remarkable document, especially if considered as a work of fiction (which many experts deem it largely to be). The chapters covering the exact geometric relationships between the cardboard boxes on the seventh floor of the Book Depository (a tour de force in the style of Robbe-Grillet), the bullet trajectories and speed of the Presidential limo, and the bizarre chapter titles – ‘The Subsequent Bullet That Hit,’ ‘The Curtain Rod Story,’ ‘The Long and Bulky Package’ – together suggest a type of obsessional fiction that links science and pornography.

Ballard, 1994 annotations to ‘The University of Death’, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

In Paris [in the late 50s] science fiction was popular among leading writers and film-makers like Robbe-Grillet and Resnais, and I assumed that I would find their counterparts in London, a huge error.

Ballard, Miracles of Life, 2008.

Meanwhile, Michel Delville, in his volume on Ballard, adds critical weight to the Ballard/Robbe-Grillet show:

[The Atrocity Exhibition] bears an interesting relation to the ‘objective style’ of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s ‘new novels’ … a conception of narrative as a sequence of primarily visual perceptions, an ability to sustain the dispassionate gaze of the scientist and … a fascination with objects and human beings that exist above all in a closed relation to themselves, to the detriment of the metaphorical and symbolic aura of traditional, ‘humanist’ fiction.

Delville, J.G. Ballard (1998).

As does Steven Severin:

[Robbe-Grillet] casts the technique of displaced memory and sinister eroticism into a vortex of puzzling snapshots. Never a denouement, the plot is cut-up into a loop of paradoxes & riddles. The parallels one can draw with Ballard are ones of detachment; of an inner space (reality) and outer world (fiction). Both employ sensory ellipses in search of a question. A quest for the unaskable. Pulp noir vs. sci-fi in a game of Russian roulette, as opposed to say, Peter Greenaway’s parlour tricks, these devices are foreboding and elusive.

Severin, ‘Stranger than Fiction: Ballard & Cinema’, the Independent, 1996.

But not Andrzej Gasiorek — in his volume on Ballard, he claims JGB was less than impressed with Robbe-Grillet’s novelistic technique:

[Ballard] considered extreme modernist experimentation (instancing James Joyce’s Ulysses as an example) to be a self-defeating preoccupation with technique at the expense of subject matter, and his lack of patience with this kind of innovativeness extended to Robbe-Grillet’s experiments with the nouveau roman…

Gasiorek, J.G. Ballard (2005).

Ballardian: Alain Robbe-Grillet

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4 Responses »

  1. Not entirely on subject but related to Ballard’s apparent distaste for the experimental form and post-Atrocity preference for ‘straight’ narrative, I read the following about Herman Wouk in Anthony Burgess’ Confessions:

    “Wouk will never win the Nobel Prize, but his fiction exemplifies what Fielding, Dickens and Balzac thought the novel was about. Here I lay myself open to charges of middlebrowism. But probably the novel is a middlebrow form and both Joyce and Virginia Woolf were on the wrong track.”

  2. Interesting post, melbpsy, especially considering Burgess was such a massive fan of Joyce (he even wrote a condensed version of Finnegans Wake). As for Ballard/Robbe-Grillet, I much prefer the former as he tends to make concessions to the bourgeois concept of actually expressing ideas. Admittedly, I’m only basing this on the half of In the Labyrinth I could be arsed to read…

  3. He was a huge Joyce fan, and later in the book he complains bitterly that his own Joyce-inspired books, playing with form and language, have never found the wider readership of Graham Greene. He seems torn between a recognition of the power of the ‘popular’ form over the ‘literary’ and a modernist devotion to pushing the novel to its limits.

    I feel similarly torn. I love The Atrocity exhibition much more than Cocaine Nights, but the idea of Ballard infiltrating 3 for 2 tables in airport lounges is too delightful to lament…

  4. But didn’t Ballard, in an early interview, dub Joyce the word master? And all those cut-up novels he so admired Burroughs for … surely they are situated squarely within the ‘experimental’ area? As is ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’.

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