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52 weeks, 52 things

No more summers at Marienbad

Alain Robbe-Grillet is dead.

While this is going to understandably mean nothing to most of my readers, I am, well, a little taken aback at the news. Robbe-Grillet was probably one of the titans of the Modernist novel, and a forerunner of narrative devices we (or at least me) now take for granted are part of the toolkit. Obituary here, and seeing as he was part of my PhD (he got me out of a massive hole I’d written myself into toward the end of Chapter 11, for which I’ll forever be grateful, and surprised at the power of serendipity), I’ll offer this brief positioning statement from pages 228-9.
Just to say though, at the risk of invoking the ire of the Alan Moore fans out there, Robbe-Grillet did that thing with first-person narrative Moore does at the end of Voice of the Fire. And he did it without the (intentional) mistake Moore gets away with..

“Susan Sontag (2007) obliquely addresses this issue in her essay Pay Attention to the World, in that she proposes “a writer of fiction…creates – through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable”, and later in the same essay, “characters in a novel act within a time that is already complete, where everything worth saving has been preserved” (Sontag: 2007). The accusation Sontag levels against interactive narrative, that its emergence is symptomatic of “the ideology that has come to dominate departments of literature in many major universities… feeding at the same trough of standardised entertainments and fantasies of eros and violence manufactured in the United States, Japan, wherever”, and furthermore, that “we do not expect to have to write other peoples novels for them”, in this light, appears to possess some merit. Interactive narrative that possesses no defined ‘right answer’, a superior reading, might indeed present the reader with an “endless expansion of words”.

However, Sontag’s resistance to the pleasures of interactive authorship denies her the opportunity to address the traces of story she suggests the likes of Henry James have resisted including within The Portrait of a Lady. Later in the same essay, Sontag expresses a desire for Isabel Archer to leave her husband for Caspar Goodwood. Considering Espen Aarseth’s notion that interactive texts can be defined more widely as ergodic (developed in Cybertext (Aarseth 1997)), signifying an act of reading that requires non-trivial effort to negotiate, it is arguable that Sontag wishes, ergodically, for a more unified ending to Henry James’ novel, and while she is content to grant James his rights as author of a world with borders, her desire reveals a tension between an author’s right to closure and their reader’s fragmentary visualisation of those margins of story. Later she rightly points out that “A novel is not a set of proposals, or a list, or a collection of agendas, or an (open-ended, revisable) itinerary. It is the journey itself – made, experienced and completed”, but her position excludes the possibility that if the narrative, and arguably story, is a journey, then the negotiation of that travel is made between both parties; the author and the reader. Only on completion is the reader privileged to recognise the route. The extension of Bob Hughes’ suggestion that experiencing interactive narrative presents “the duration of the present moment” (Hughes 1997) is a shifting of the usual perspective of journey from one that lies in front of us (the duration of a TV show or film) to one that becomes apparent, as Sontag suggests for the novel, only after we have completed the path.

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, written in such a manner as to deny the reader an objective, closed, perspective on events, is narrated by a first-person observer who refuses to use the personal pronoun to situate himself. As Bruce Morissette (1981: 9) suggests, “a first-person narrator who, however, never says ‘I’ and whom one never sees or hears, draws us into an identification with him, installs us in the ‘hole’ that he occupies in the center of the text”. This situating of the reader as observer, as a flâneur, works to free the reader from the closure of an imposed narrative exposition.”


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