This , the final book by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the French writer and film-maker best known as the moving force behind the "nouveau roman" could be equally well served by a book-length disquisition on the function and effect of pornography – on the page, on the reader and on society at large – or by being dumped in the nearest bin. A review seems rather beside the point.
A short novel, published in France the year before his death in 2008, it is a studied exercise in obscenity, an homage to the Marquis de Sade that goes well beyond what the 18th-Century libertarian came up with, even in his 120 Days of Sodom. Much of what it contains cannot be printed here, but suffice it to say that the violation and torture of young girls by older men, often to death, is more about violence than sex.
A rich father is raising his only daughter as a sex slave, following the death of her mother, but also as a dominatrix, with other girls for her to torture. It starts with Gigi, dressed only in "a black frou-frou lace corset that pushes up her young breasts", being lightly whipped by her father as she reads passages from (we assume) Sade, and ends with winches, chains, burnings and scalpings of pubescent and pre-pubescent girls.
As such, it is hardly pornographic at all – indeed one interpretation of the book might be that it is a psychological test, to see at what stage the reader gives up on even thinking about being aroused by it. Another interpretation would be that the offensiveness, too, is beside the point –the tone is far from licentious, but rather breezily detached, making it, if not enjoyable, then less gruelling than you might suppose.
There have been plenty of critics ready to defend Sade for his attack on Enlightenment rationality, not least Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag, but it is difficult to know what this book teaches us about our own time. There is nothing in it to mirror the explosion of online porn, nor to help us understand real sexual violence, such as the hundreds of women assaulted and murdered in Cuidad Juárez in Mexico since the mid-1990s.
So, while it is possible to wax critical about the book's political purpose and stylistic fastidiousness, it is dispiriting to read Robbe-Grillet admit, in his Paris Review interview, that "my own erotic tastes are rather sadistic". Perhaps this is just the final provocation of a dirty old man, after all. In which case: bin.
Jonathan Gibbs's novel, 'Randall', is published by Galley Beggar Press in June