Mario Bellatin interviews Alain Robbe-Grillet from molossus 1
Mr. Mario Bellatin, I must tell you that Sartre isn’t at all kind to Balzac, that the two pages in question really are reinforced cement. It’s evident that that heals him, is calming to him, tranquilizes him. This opposition of two visions of the world is very well employed in Nausea. Sartre explains it, so that this opposition is no longer a bother. From the moment that an explanation is offered, there’s no longer any danger for the reader. Because of that, at the beginning of The Stranger, and most of all in the books of the Nouveau Roman, particularly in mine, there is some danger. The text drops us deep inside that problem without any explanation. On purpose. There is a fortunate phrase from Maurice Blanchot: “the text is a space where the world happens.” That is to say that in Balzac’s work, the text isn’t a place where the world happens, the text is a story told after the world has happened. In the texts of the Nouveau Roman the text is a space when the world happens in each instant. This discomforts the reader. At the beginning, I did not have a great quantity of readers. I must even say that I had very few. When my fourth novel Jealousy appeared, I was already very famous. There were entire pages in all the literary magazines and supplements that explained how my work was illegible. When Jealousy was published—which I considered a masterpiece, something that was confirmed some time later—it was considered a totally incomprehensible novel. It sold 440 copies. 440. Are you paying attention? To be a celebrated writer, that the whole world talked about, you sold just 440 copies of a novel. Curiously, my novels were translated very quickly all over the world, and one can ask why a book like Jealousy, which was considered at that time illegible in France, was already a textbook at Canadian and American universities. That publisher published three books to learn French with: Night Flight by Saint-Exupéry, The Stranger by Camus, and Jealousy. I can understand the relationship between Camus’s novel and mine. Its relationship with Night Flight seems less clear to me. Nonetheless, it employed a very correct usage of the French language, very pure, very precise, and because of that the book worked for learning French, but the French couldn’t read it. Nathalie Sarraute had written her first book in 1938, the same year that Nausea was published. She was completely unknown. Not even a preface by Sartre—he had written a preface to one of her books, I don’t recall which—had done any good. She was a writer that no one read. So, I proposed republishing Nathalie Sarraute with Éditions de Minuit, because she was a writer that very much interested me. Claude Simon’s books were totally unknown. At that time, Simon published his novels with Calmann-Lévy, and he added explanations to them, which turned his texts into something very strange. When I had his books in my hands—the air conditioning is very bad for my throat, I’m going to lose my voice before this is over—Claude Simon was a writer that was very… how can I say it… Very spontaneous, full of creative force, and the stories that he wrote—I ask them to turn it down and the air conditioning blows harder, this is mad, it’s a conspiracy!—I had the manuscript of The Wind in my hands, by Claude Simon, a writer that I didn’t know, who had already published a few novels with Calmann-Lévy. The text seemed extraordinary to me, the type of text that should be known and the type of writer that should be known. Claude Simon was ten years older than me, Nathalie Sarraute was twenty years older than me, she could have been my mother. They were both completely unknown because they didn’t write how one supposedly should. Nonetheless, Simon added explanations at the end of his works. It seemed strange to me. His creative energy fell suddenly, in an astonishing manner, and there was a loss of the writer’s value. So, I sought out Claude Simon and told him that his book seemed formidable to me, but I didn’t understand why he included explanations at the end of his novel. He responded that he didn’t like to do it, but that he was obligated to do it. Otherwise they would reject the manuscript, without the explanations people wouldn’t understand. I proposed to him that he submit it like that. So, Simon presented his manuscript to Calmann-Lévy without explanations. It was rejected. That allowed us to publish it with Éditions de Minuit. Claude Simon began to be known. The extraordinary thing is that the only two Nobel Prizes that France has won since Sartre were won by two Nouveau Roman writers: Samuel Beckett and Claude Simon. Writers that no one liked. The story of Éditions de Minuit is a beautiful story, a success story. The Second World War had been a very destructive force in Europe. I’m not just talking about American aviation’s damage to old Germany, but also to France. My birth city was totally destroyed by the Americans, not a single house was left, it’s incredible. I’m not just talking about the materiality of the cities that were in ruins—all of Western civilization was in ruins, because humanism suffered a kind of failure. On one side, the concentration, extermination, camps, and on the other the Soviet system that liquidated its opponents, it seemed like humanism hadn’t helped anything. The first Frankfurt School pretended that humanism had—I am suffering a lot, I can’t talk any more because of the cold. Can’t the air be turned off? Who has the authority?—It said that this failure of civilization that accompanied the destruction of the cities was something magnificent, and that that was a great period of creativity not just in literature and because of the Nouveau Roman, but in all the arts, and in thought. And not just in Europe but all over the world. The war had devastated Japan and other countries and I think that everything has to do with it. The ruins, the world in ruins, is an incitement to create a new world. Not to reconstruct the old one but to produce, to create a new world with the ruins of the past. In any case, I only write about myself. Jealousy was a fragment of my autobiography: I lived in that house, I am a character. My body of work is autobiographical. It occurred to the writers of the Nouveau Roman—without having agreed upon it—to introduce into their stories characters that had their names: Marguerite Duras wrote The Lover. During exactly the same period I wrote The Mirror that Returns, just before Claude Simon would write The Georgics. In reality, all of Duras’s work is autobiographical, all of Simon’s work is too. The information was just complicated by including a character that goes by one’s name without respecting the laws of the traditional autobiography, which in that epoch had been bound, normalized by Philippe Lejeune in his work about the autobiographical pact. There are two rules that Philippe Lejeune announces in the autobiographical pact: one can only begin their autobiography when they have understood the purpose of their existence, says Lejuene. Well, I’m very sorry, but I begin my autobiography precisely because I don’t understand the purpose of my existence. Exactly the opposite. Lejeune’s second rule is that the writer has the right to make mistakes but doesn’t have the right to lie. This is very curious because later on Lejeune cites a great autobiography, he cites an admirable book, Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe—an incredible nest of lies! Almost everything is made up, for example Chateaubriand’s relationship with the young king of Bohemia, all of that is pure invention. It’s even thought that he never went to Niagara Falls, which is a valuable passage of his memoir. I think that Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe is a great book because it is a nest of lies. Lies are much more interesting than truths because they are much vaster. The truth, by contrast, is a little limiting. Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking-Glass, says something like this in a particular moment. He says that lies are much more interesting than the truth because they offer a view of an apparition of possible worlds that are infinitely vaster and more exciting. What’s more, the notion of truth is a pretty questionable notion. I don’t know what the truth is, especially the truth of my infancy, a truth that I don’t comprehend. There are momentary truths, vacillating and provisional, but not THE truth. It doesn’t exist. At the end of the day, the truth is a fascist concept that only serves to oppress. I don’t need antidotes, I’ve never been oppressed by the truth. I don’t know it, I don’t know what it is. I don’t need an antidote. I simply reproach certain theories, certain theorists for believing in the truth. You know that scientists don’t believe in the truth. The mathematical constructs that allow travel to the moon produce something in a material world but a mathematician would never tell you that that is the truth. It’s simply a system of calculation that allows extraordinary things to happen, oftentimes against reason itself. You know that mathematics made enormous progress several centuries ago with the invention of the imaginary number. Well now, an imaginary number is something very strange, isn’t it? It is possible to understand what a negative number is. But an imaginary number is absolutely incomprehensible from a rational point of view. I am going to give you the definition of an imaginary number: it’s a number that contains the square root of a negative number. But, a negative number can’t have a square root. Calculations have stumbled over that for a long time. We were told that the quadratic equation has an unknown ax2 + bx + c = 0, and there was no solution unless the discriminant was positive. We were told that you can’t take the square root of a negative number. Then, before long someone said that yes, that you could imagine that there is a way to do it, and that person imagined the symbol i. This is in complete opposition to reason. The imaginary number cannot be represented. Ultimately, all of mathematics has been built upon notions like that one. Einstein, in the ‘20s, has formulated an idea that was later taken back up by Karl Popper, which is a fundamental idea about science. In Balzac’s time, science was the truth. That is to say, scientific theories were considered to have been written by God, like God had come up with the Law of Falling Bodies exactly as Newton conceived it. No. Einstein had formulated this idea that is exciting: the criterion for the scientific nature of a theory isn’t that it makes sense; to the contrary, the criterion for its scientific nature is to prove that at least at some point the theory is mistaken. Einstein said that science is a living body that needs fissures, holes to live. That is to say, theory has gaps. Obviously, it doesn’t seem very rational that the criterion for a theory’s scientific nature is not that it makes sense, but precisely that it is mistaken. This was taken back up by Karl Popper to apply to the two great oppressors of our society: Marx and Freud. They were less rigid than their descendants, but Marxism and Freudianism alike, like orthodox psychoanalysis, are theories that always make sense, which is to say that they’ve capped the fissures. All the fissures were capped. Karl Popper says that this proves that neither Marxism nor psychoanalysis are sciences. If they were true sciences, they would have to have fissures. My novel has bothered you, that seems strange to me but good, why not. But, did you continue reading my novel? Did you reread it? Did you continue because of masochism or because you thought that it contained something interesting? This reader, who is perhaps an experienced reader, I don’t know for certain, is discontent with Jealousy and asks me a question about insects. What is your relationship with them? Just like Nabokov, I have studied much entomology over the course of my life. Still, I would not dare say that insects were a fundamental element of the book. Perhaps they’re right, I’ll prepare a conference about insects. In Jealousy’s case it’s not about an insect but a centipede. One of the characteristics that identify insects is their six feet. It’s the very definition of an insect. Spiders have eight, they’re not insects—so the centipede is even less of an insect. In Jealousy there is a centipede on the wall. It’s a realist element. I want to say that in those colonial houses where there was no air conditioning… What a happy era. One could live in warm countries without catching cold! Effectively, the centipede is one part of the decoration, which has some importance, it’s true. This realist object is taking on a phantasmagoric dimension. At one moment it is a few centimeters long, and in another passage it’s as fat as a plate. That’s to say, this real object turns into a phantom. It’s not exactly what of, it very probably has a relationship with sexual energy and virility. Look, I’m not a depository of the meaning of the book, still I think that it’s about that. I want to say two things. You ask yourself, with just cause, how novels can be written after James Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake. That’s not the path taken by the Nouveau Roman. Joyce’s path is the interior monologue. That’s to say that Joyce’s work is stream of consciousness. To the contrary, the Nouveau Roman intends to structure the story in a precise manner, much more in the lineage of Flaubert, of Kafka, of Faulkner than in the lineage of Joyce. Except for Michel Butor, who has been very influenced by Joyce, Joyce is a star without descendants.
There was a boy who never talked about anything but himself, the son of a family of rightwing anarchists that, every once in a while, entertained a certain noble personage in their sitting room, who in the midst of a life of adventures and obscurities, found time to belong, for an indefinite time, in the home that the boy belonged to. The father awaited the visits with hope and fervor. Nonetheless the boy noticed that the father found himself uncomfortable before the magnitude of the visitor. His discomfort was so great that he distanced his child as far as possible from the presence of the guest, who was at the same time admired and found repulsive. This mystery appears to have been sufficiently powerful as to determine that this boy dedicate his entire life to answer the question: why did the count spend so many hours in his family house? It appears that seeking the answer to that question meant that he would construct an existence in which he didn’t only write millions of words, he would create a new literary movement, he would turn away from the world with his Nouveau Roman, he would make the most innovative movies that anyone can imagine, and would even arrive at writing a type of autobiography, where he affirms precisely that everything began when he sought to respond to the mystery that the count’s visit to his gray family home represented. Mr. Robbes-Grillet, what would be your current relationship to a similar boy?
Well, it’s true that I have told the anecdote in question, but the importance that Mario Bellatin gives to it pertains to him, don’t you think? Mario Bellatin has every right to do that. When I told that story in The Mirror that Returns, I think, at that time, I had specified that autobiography had the right to make things up. The rule was that autobiography should be sincere and veridical, and I didn’t think that that was possible. I even think that is most minimally interesting. I think that autobiography has every right to make things up, to make things up that concern it. It doesn’t just have the right, it has the obligation. That’s what I think. It happens that during the same period that I was writing The Mirror that Returns, Marguerite Duras was writing The Lover, whose main character is pure invention. The Chinese character was neither Chinese nor a millionaire, and didn’t sleep with her either! I believe more in the fiction that is inserted between real facts. The Count Henri de Corinthe existed, but I know absolutely nothing about him, I don’t have any more than scarce testimonies or clues of his existence that stuck with me or that exist in France’s history because he was a historical character that has been much fantasized about. This is very important. Just like Marguerite Duras’s Chinese man, who vaguely existed, but wasn’t like that. She fantasized. Henri de Corinthe, as he was presented in my pseudo-autobiography, is a ghost. If one wants to study a writer, I think it would be a shame to pass over his ghosts. On the other hand, I have a very precise memory of something that I have never shared… I must have been four or five years old, something like that. They closed me in my second floor bedroom when my father and Henri de Corinthe talked. One night, I descended the stairs and stood listening at the door of the great room where, in front of the fireplace, the two men talked. I recognized my father’s voice and another voice that was also my father’s. In that moment, as I was a child inclined to the fantastic, I told myself, ah yes, this is why they don’t let me come down, because they don’t want me to witness this disturbing happening. Some evenings, my father splits in two and has great conversations with himself. So I went back up, calm, telling myself, it’s another father, I have two fathers. An aspect of this can be found in some of my novels. On the other hand, my relationship with infancy—because you end your question with what is left of that boy today. You know that it is a generally accepted thesis that all of a writer’s work is formed in their infancy. Be it the memories of their infancy, the fears of their infancy, the hopes of their infancy, the shames of their infancy, their entire infantile psyche will produce a literature, novels and other things depending on their style. I think it’s an interesting idea. I don’t claim that it’s true, I want to immediately make that clear, I have already alluded to the purpose of the autobiography, that I don’t believe in the truth. The human being is not a being of truth, it is a being of invention, it ceaselessly invents itself. Therefore, infancy can serve its purpose and I can develop a theory absolutely to the contrary and it would be equally true, which is to say that it would be equally interesting and equally fantastic. I know Juan Rulfo’s work by memory. It’s really not vast. It is an extremely important book without being thick. I don’t think that it can be said that Pedro Páramo is a product of the Nouveau Roman’s influence. Yes? You think so? I knew Juan Rulfo and he never told me that. In any case, if this writer was really inspired by the Nouveau Roman to write Pedro Páramo, then I bless the Nouveau Roman because that book is extraordinary. There are very few books as important in contemporary literature. It is a book that remains an enigmatic text to this day. You can talk about it for hours and say things, and nothing will have been said yet. And someone else will come and say other completely different things, etcetera. It is a book with an absolutely unsuspected richness, even today. But finally. If I am not indirectly the father but the grandfather of Pedro Páramo, I am very happy. On the other hand, it must be noted that my works were quickly translated into Spanish, by Seix Barral, a Spanish publisher, and that few of my books were published in Latin America. When they came out they were published by Losada, an Argentine publisher. I’m not sure that my works had great distribution at the time that I wrote them. It seems very debatable to me, but it can be considered, it can even be affirmed, I don’t see anything inconvenient about it. Nonetheless, when I ask the Mexicans or the Argentineans, even the French who confess to being such admirers of my work, when I ask them about what they have read, I realize that in reality they haven’t read anything. That is to say, the myth of the Nouveau Roman and of Robbe-Grillet has perhaps incited them to write, but I don’t think that the books themselves are well enough known to have a certain influence on them. Still, I think that my books have openly incited Juan José Saer. Juan José Saer was a reader and is also very curious, because in one of his first books, which is called Scars, I think, written when he was very young, he had… well, Juan José is of Syrian origin and was educated in Argentina, on the Gaucho plains, and it seems as though he read Jealousy there. He read it in Spanish, the book had been translated in Barcelona by Seix Barral. So, one can find a touching fingerprint on Scars. At one moment, the characters in Scars talk and dialogue between themselves. In all of Saer’s work and in many Argentinean novels there’s a lot of drinking, they hold parties where literature is discussed in an endless manner. They drink, they eat chorizo, and they talk about literature. So, there is a discussion between the book’s characters about Shakespeare’s Othello, about whether Othello was or wasn’t jealous. That is very interesting. The main character intervenes and says: Othello wasn’t jealous. Everything he does over the course of his life has nothing to do with jealousy. Today we know that a jealous person doesn’t strangle his woman, that is completely absurd. A jealous man counts his plantation’s plantains and follows the shadow of a column of the terrace of his house. Saer openly cited fragments from Jealousy. He didn’t cite my book, nor my name. It was very moving for me, because a man who lived close to Rosario, worse still, further away from Rosario, considered my book important. It is true that I could exercise a certain influence, but the massive influence that they discuss… Cotázar always denied it. He felt very close to the Nouveau Roman movement. Perhaps the work of Claude Simon, which was more acceptable from humanism’s point of view, has had a larger impact. Simon had a smaller readership and smaller media presence, but he won the Nobel Prize, which is totally justified. I think that Claude Simon’s work could have exerted some influence. Still, that influence comes from Faulkner, because Claude Simon was influenced considerably by Faulkner. Considerably… What was, in summary, the Nouveau Roman for me? For me, since two centuries ago, the novel has always been new. You know that there is, in the Western world, a tradition of novelty, of renovation, including revolution. The countries with great cultures, like China, for example, had a tradition of respect for the past. The writers of the past were respected and imitated. In China, the reproduction of works from the past is such that it is very difficult to date a work if the original document itself is unavailable, the quality of the paper, things like that. Chinese music, for example, has evolved so little that they can make terrible errors of three, four, five centuries when they try to date a musical work. Respect for ancestors and the reproduction of their work was a fundamental quality. In the West, to the contrary, that is to say, in the cultures of the Spanish, French, German, etcetera, the tradition was the opposite, it had to do with going against your parents. One could like Balzac’s work, but that didn’t imply that one should reproduce it. Totally to the contrary, it had to do with destroying it. If I say that the novel has always been new, I want to say that when Flaubert shows up, he writes a new novel, Nouveau Roman, in relation to Balzac. There is a destruction of certain Balzacian imperatives that are fundamental to the structure of the story. Then Dostoevsky appears, and then Kafka, Faulkner. History has been a constant renovation and even a permanent revolution, as Trotsky said.
translated from the Spanish by David Shook
Alaine Robbe-Grillet (1922 – 2008) was a French writer and filmmaker. He was a key figure in the Nouveau Roman movement, together with Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Michel Butor. He published over a dozen books of fiction during his lifetime, including Jealousy (1957), translated into English by Richard Howard. He was elected to the French Academy in 2004.
Mario Bellatin has published dozens of novellas on major and minor publishing houses in Latin America, Europe, and the United States. His English-language translations include Beauty Salon (City Lights, 2010), Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions (Ravenna Press, 2009), and the forthcoming Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction (Phoneme Books, 2013). His current projects include Los Cien Mil Libros de Bellatin, his own imprint dedicated to publishing 1,000 copies each of 100 of his books.