Alain Robbe-Grillet: Leading 'new novelist' and film-maker who through his work sought to undo the conventions of fiction

The creation of the nouveau roman, or "new novel", in the 1950s was the intellectual event in France of those years. The five or six writers who helped in it were never a school, but they thought alike in wanting to do away with the wearier conventions of the realist novel. Out went the familiar comforts of a logical plot and distinctive, "believable" characters.

Many novel-readers were not at all taken with this ascetic programme and they were taken least of all with the brash pronouncements of the most hard-boiled of all the new novelists, Alain Robbe-Grillet. He had come to literature, unusually, from mathematics and the hard sciences; and rather than perpetuate it, his declared intention was at long last to bury it.

Robbet-Grillet came to be known in France as the "pope of the new novel". It was a title that he adored – and loved to play with. When he was elected to the Académie française in March 2005, he asked to be excused the green uniform, cocked-hat and ceremonial sword. Clergymen were excused, he pointed out, and he was the "pape du nouveau roman".

In the event, Robbe-Grillet never turned up at the Académie to give the traditional eulogy to his predecessor. He was therefore never fully installed as a member. His death, following a heart attack, brings to 10 the number of academicians who have died in the last 18 months.

Robbe-Grillet, born in 1922, was brought up first in Brest and then in Paris. His degree was in agronomy. He did forced labour for a time during the German occupation of France and after the Second World War worked in various laboratories and agronomic institutes.

He published a first, decidedly opaque novel, Les Gommes, in 1953 (translated in 1966 as The Erasers), which hardly anyone understood for what it was. It reads like a wilfully contradictory detective-story, full of teasing echoes of the Oedipus myth. Its true subject, though, is the attempted "murder" of reality by the over-excited imagination of the writer, who insists on forcing an order of his own on the world rather than admit it is, in truth, alien to him. This was to remain Robbe-Grillet's harsh, anti-humanist philosophy: in a scientific age, fiction is an aberration and a weakness; it can only lose out ultimately to facts.

The novels by which he became successful and widely read were those that came later in the 1950s – Le Voyeur (1955; The Voyeur, 1958), La Jalousie (1957; Jealousy, 1960), Dans le labyrinthe (1959; In the Labyrinth, 1967). These too dramatise the fevered, illegitimate workings of the writer's imagination, as it tries repeatedly, and fails, to call reality to some final order. By 1960 Robbe-Grillet was established as the most radical and commercial of the new novelists.

It became apparent more slowly that he was also the most humorous, as the novels that he wrote grew more sardonic and extreme, until they were lurid parodies of how the imagination works, rather than merely emphatic examples of it. He now turned to writing films, first and most famously the screenplay of L'Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, 1961), which was directed by Alain Resnais. Resnais shrank from taking all the huge liberties with time and sequence that Robbe-Grillet asked for, and the frustrated novelist, ever the purist, decided that in future he would do his own directing.

He made a number of films, all of them on the same principles as his novels, exploiting what he took to be the stock – ie sado-erotic – ingredients of the contemporary (male) imagination. But cinema audiences need their realism, and Robbe-Grillet's witty ways of withholding it from them meant that his films were mainly shown in the art-houses. They came under fire, too, from feminists and others, for being pornographic.

This last was a charge Robbe-Grillet defended himself against in a more or less autobiographical trilogy: Le Miroir qui revient (1984; Ghosts in the Mirror, 1988); Angélique ou l'enchantement ("Angelique or The Enchantment", 1987) and Les Derniers jours de Corinthe ("The Last Days of Corinthe", 1994). There he restates, more moderately this time, his youthful grievances about realism in fiction and the cinema, but concedes that the imagination has its virtues, that it is not going to wither away in favour of science. Indeed he now claimed that fantasising in novels or in films is good, if it stops us acting out our fantasies in life itself.

In this point of view he was influenced in later years by his wife, Catherine Rstakian, a celebrated writer and apologist for sado-masochist fantasies under the pen-name Jean de Berg or Jeanne de Berg. A former actress, she is also one of the most sought-after organisers in Europe of sado-masochistic soirées for the literary classes. They married in 1957. By the end of his life, Robbe-Grillet was openly in favour of literature and was even teaching it himself, at universities in the United States.

Robbe-Grillet's career was built on a sly and amusing paradox: of using fiction over and over again to undo the conventions of fiction. But how cleverly and engagingly he did it.

John Sturrock

Alain Robbe-Grillet, novelist and film-maker: born Brest, France 18 August 1922; married 1957 Catherine Rstakian; died Caen, France 18 February 2008.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition