For the Sunday Salon
It’s Mothers’ Day here in the UK and I’m feeling very spoilt; one of my gifts was Claire Tomalin’s biography, Katherine Mansfield. A Secret Life and I couldn’t resist starting it this morning. Mansfield’s life makes a wonderful story and Tomalin is an outstanding writer. She has guided me though those early childhood years with clarity and aplomb, when all too often the reader can be lost in a sea of indistinguishable relatives. She turns a lovely sentence, too, and incorporates Mansfield’s writing in such an intelligent way. It made me think of the debate about biography that took place last week on Dorothy’s and Dan’s site (and here), and seemed to indicate to me that the life and the work can be brought together in very interesting ways, on the understanding that neither explains the other, but instead casts an intriguing pattern of similarity and difference that can be thoughtfully considered. Biography cannot properly be used in the analysis of literature, but speculation and curiosity are every bit as much a part of the pleasure of reading and loving books, and it would be unnecessarily reductive, I think, to limit what it is possible to do with literature, out of a perfectly decent desire to mark off the arena of academic literary study. Reading Claire Tomalin makes me aware of all the imperfections in my own style, however, and sharpens the desire I’ve been nursing for a while to do a writing course. The problem is I cannot find one that focuses on non-fiction (not journalism) and is a correspondence course. I don’t suppose any bloggers have any ideas or suggestions? I need a good critical eye on my writing if I’m to improve it; someone who’ll whip me into shape and not be indulgent over my tortuous sentences and sloppy planning.
The other book I ought to be reading today (and have not yet got to) is by Alain Robbe-Grillet, who died on February 17th and has therefore featured in the newspapers recently because of his historical importance for European literature. Robbe-Grillet was one of the founder members of the ‘Nouveau Roman’ or the new novel that took the intelligentsia by storm in the 50s and 60s. Rather in the way that modern art explores the visual by challenging, subverting or simply abandoning all traditional strategies of representation, so the new novel dispensed in a cavalier fashion with plot, characters, orthodox description and conventional endings to see what happened to this thing called the story. You will appreciate that the new novel is not always the easiest comfort read, but I cannot help but like them. Much in the way mechanics take motorbike engines apart to figure out how they function, any student of literature can never look at narrative the same way again, once it has been systematically dismantled by these novelists.
The nouveaux romanciers were also notable for being caught up in what were probably the most vigorous and acrimonious debates over the purpose and meaning of literature that any artistic movement has ever encountered. And that is saying quite something. The new novel came out of the desire of these writers to break away from orthodox realism, believing it to be old-fashioned and politically entrenched. Realist novels (according to Robbe-Grillet) imposed an order on social and personal experience that was completely false and misleading, and even if they had a political point to make, it could only be fought on the same old terms and in the same old ways and were thus incapable of bringing about radical change. It is a formidable characteristic of French thought that the Revolution can only come about by changing the way we think, not just the contents of our thought. So, with this ostensibly revolutionary project in mind, the new novel became thoroughly enamoured with the notion of stories as existing in a self-contained arena, produced by the play of language but not really capable of referring to a world beyond themselves. This sounds outrageous, but think, if you will, of the classic designation of ‘a tall dark handsome stranger’. A very well-used and familiar textual coin, but what image would a reader exchange for it? A different one in the head of every individual who approached the story, I’d bet. We all know what a story means by introducing such a figure, but to say that they exist in reality, or perhaps more usefully, that we would all point to the same person in a line-up if called upon to do so, is far from likely. And so, bearing this in mind, the new novel flamboyantly pointed out to the reader the way it was constructed, and with a very heavy-hand, emphasized how language could offer multiple meanings in a way that made choosing ‘the right one’ impossible. For instance, one of Robbe-Grillet’s best-known novels, Jealousy, is written in such a way that the narrating voice could emanate simply from a recording machine, such as a close-circuit television, but it could also equally come from a man whose mentality is disturbed by the sheer intensity of his feelings. That sounds good, doesn’t it, but don’t get too excited about reading it: that one’s hard work. Far more accessible is his pseudo-detective novel, The Erasers, in which a hopeless detective investigates a crime that in fact has not been committed.
The Erasers also has a certain literary notoriety for the moment of the tomato segment. Robbe-Grillet’s style is marked by a fascination with objects and what we expect them to do in stories. Orthodox fiction has objects reflect the emotional and social world around them. Characters who possess Ming vases are old money elegant, but probably corrupt, characters who possess cheap supermarket vases are good and honest souls but open to some condescension, and characters who possess hand-fired, rustic earthenware vases are self-consciously bohemian and quite possibly maintain goats and green principles. What if, Robbe-Grillet wondered, an object could be placed in fiction as simply itself? His descriptions are marked by a certain forensic precision, often including measurements, and using terms designed to be accurate but which are often resistant to visualization. The tomato segment in The Erasers is described minutely and comprehensively, but of course in a detective novel, even one that is playing with the conventions of the genre, the reader spends her time wondering whether this is a clue or not, and what the tomato might ‘mean’. As is so often the case with the new novel, you end up watching a reflection of your reading mind, sifting and analyzing the information, trying and failing to process it in all the usual ways (which generally take place so smoothly and swiftly that we never notice them). The point that these descriptions end up making, is how dependent the reader is on the perspective of the narrator to assign sense to details. If we are being given a description of a tomato channeled through the mind of a detective, we might expect him to focus on the aspects of it that reflect his emotional state (curled up around the edges, limp and dried out, or ripe and bursting with flavour), or we might expect it by analogy or association to remind him of a vital piece of evidence in the case (a tomato red blouse worn by a suspect, a recently used kitchen knife), or it might be indicative of the way he takes care of himself, the lone tomato representing a solitary and unfulfilled social life. But we are utterly at sea when the tomato appears to mean nothing but itself. And in this way the new novel discovered that breaking the rules of fiction is a sure fire way of finding out what they are in the first place.
Can a truly anal description of a tomato segment bring about revolution? Well, no, not really. The nouveau roman found itself attacked on all sides, by traditional critics who couldn’t understand what they were being faced with, by social realists who were hostile to what they considered to be a lack of obvious politics, and in time, by the avant-garde Parisian left bank artists, who would discredit it for not being radical enough. Which just goes to show that if you try to do something startlingly different, the chances are you will end up pleasing none of the people most of the time. But given the newspaper articles and obituaries of Alain Robbe-Grillet, it is also quite possible that history will be kind. For my own part, much as I wouldn’t rush to read a Robbe-Grillet novel, I think that what he does with fiction is extraordinary, and I am very glad to have read him and written about his novels. They are a miniature masterclass in all the hidden expectations we bring to every act of reading.