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Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy

August 17, 2008

After reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, it’s apparent why his writing is so closely aligned with visual art, as his approach embodies a sort of object based conceptualist mise-en-scène. The reader is bound meticulously to the cataloguing and scrutinizing of objects in rooms and nurtures a relational system based on distance, proximity, and difference.

Jealousy is a compulsive observation of interactions between the implied narrator/character’s wife A… and a neighbor Franck. The novel is set on a banana plantation and documents the narrator’s growing suspicion that A… and Franck are having an affair. The language focuses on extreme surface, chronicling objects, proximity of things, and disembodied individuals treated as bits and pieces; relational. All is static, purgatorial, and repetitive in this world; change and growth come through revisiting the flood of surfaces and exterior observations. What is different? What changed in how the narrator decodes the tableau of objects as he seeks to confirm his suspicions? A slightly damaged and subjective empiricism is at work here. Sitting on the veranda the narrator observes:

A…’s arms, a little less distinct than her neighbor’s because of the color—though light—of the material of her dress, are also lying on the elbow-rests of her chair. The four hands are lying in a row, motionless. The space between A…’s left hand and Franck’s right hand is approximately two inches. The shrill cry of some nocturnal carnivore, sharp and short, echoes again toward the bottom of the valley, at an unspecified distance. (49)

Robbe-Grillet is forensic as his narrator attempts to determine whether the objects are what they purport to be, or as he alleges, an affair is taking place. It’s a crime scene as he sifts through evidence. The proximity of A…’s hand to Franck’s, the relation of color to the objects, he plumbs for insight into some deeper clue.

Later they are on the veranda again, but it’s unclear if it is a different time, or whether the narrator revisits the same events from a different angle. Time slips.

On the veranda in front of the office windows, Franck is sitting in his customary place, in one of the chairs of local manufacture. Only these three have been brought out this morning. They are arranged as usual: the first two next to each other under the window, the third slightly to one side, on the other side of the low table. (56)

Time is an elegant wash with events woven into the flow, only anchored by the repetition of revisited moments, the clink of a glass on the veranda, a centipede squashed on a wall, a servant not responding to a call (was this staged or did he not hear?), suspicions. Now on the veranda the narrator catches a glance between A… and Franck, but it’s uncertain whether this information was present before or if he embroiders the events as he broods them over in his mind. Everything is so specific like facts, shored up, and constructing a case, searching for importance in every element, looking for the detail that doesn’t fit.

A… has gone to get the glasses, the soda water, and the cognac herself. She sets a tray with the two bottles and three big glasses down on the table. Having uncorked the cognac she turns toward Franck and looks at him, while she begins making his drink. But Franck, instead of watching the rising level of the alcohol, fixes his eyes a little too high, on A…’s face. She has arranged her hair into a low knot whose skillful waves seem about to come undone; some hidden pins must be keeping it firmer than it looks. (56)

In all this it’s hard to determine when the narrator is actually observing an interaction in the moment or if he is replaying the events back in his memory. The repetitions sneak up on the reader making it unclear if something new is happening or if the narrator is going back into the moment. We are essentially lost in surface. Everything is a wash in the present tense “now” of thought. Glimpses into the narrator’s interior life are only inferred through the obsessive replaying and rescanning of details; what he notices at any given instant. Riding only descriptions of images and sound, the reader attempts to reconstruct the nature of how the unnamed narrator observes, how all this exterior fits and what is happening under the surface.

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