Friday, August 29, 2008

Project For A Revolution in Narrative Art

My old undergraduate teacher, Alain Robbe-Grillet, passed away this year. The special summer issue of Artforum features a half dozen essays on his influence:
SEVEN YEARS AGO, two decades after having publicly renounced the writing of novels and just shy of his eightieth birthday, Alain Robbe-Grillet returned with astounding, youthful energy to the genre he had most practiced and had significantly marked. Long after the nouveau roman’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, the publication of La Reprise (2001; Repetition, 2003)¹ proved that Robbe-Grillet’s place among the leading French writers of the past half century was, however contested, amply justified. The French press was dithyrambic, praising the work’s imagination, humor, and sophistication. Even the conservative Figaro waxed enthusiastic. Claiming that La Reprise amounted to a birthday telegram from the author declaring, “New Novel not dead,” the newspaper asked, What is left of the nouveau roman? Robbe-Grillet delighted in answering: “Quite obviously, me most of all.”

And he was right. Yet by the same reasoning, now that he has died, at age eighty-five, the nouveau roman becomes more clearly an aesthetic adventure of the past—still an exciting and fruitful adventure, to be sure, but no longer the frontier of fiction. The decline of the New Novel’s influence in France’s current literary production results probably from protracted resistance to its erstwhile hegemonic authority and especially to its attempts to overthrow the regime of literary realism. Yet in the decades since its zenith, no new current has been detected to take the place of the nouveau roman.

The leading French literary movement following the heady Existentialist years of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, the nouveau roman was in fact the only important development in the French novel for the rest of the century. It depoliticized the genre, which had been heavily in the service of politics under the Existentialists; it turned fiction ever further away from nineteenth-century realism; it reflected modernist and then postmodernist trends in other art forms such as painting, theater, and architecture.
I was recently having a conversation with a colleague about how 25-30 years ago I was first introduced to the writings of Alfred North Whitehead, and that I was once again becoming influenced by Whitehead's philosophy. His process theory has somehow become embedded in my everyday practice without me even thinking about it. But tonight I realize that Robbe-Grillet too is still very much, 25-30 years later, influencing the development of my current art work, particularly my new Foreign Film Series.

If you can find them, you'll want to see his films, especially Glissements progressifs du plaisir. Among his novels, Project for a Revolution in New York is ripe for its own film adaptation.

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