Alain Robbe-Grillet (born August 18, 1922) is a French writer and filmmaker. He is, with Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor and Claude Simon, one of the figures most associated with the trend of the nouveau roman. Alain Robbe-Grillet was elected a member of the Académie française on March 25, 2004, succeeding Maurice Rheims. However he has so far not been received officially at the Academy, due to disagreements about the protocol.
Alain Robbe-Grillet was born in Brest, (Finistère, France) into a family of engineers and scientists. He was trained as an agricultural engineer. In 1944 the National Institute of Agronomy awarded him a diploma. Later, he worked as an agronomist in Martinique. Either at university or while in Martinique, he studied the diseases of banana trees. His first novel was published in 1953 and soon he became a full-time writer. From 1971 to 1995 Robbe-Grillet taught at the University of New York.
His early work was praised by eminent critics such as Roland Barthes or Maurice Blanchot. His writing style has been described as "realist" or "phenomenological" (in the Heideggerian sense) or "a theory of pure surface." Methodical, geometric, and often repetitive descriptions of objects replace the psychology and interiority of the character. Instead, one slowly pieces together the story and the emotional experience of jealousy in the repetition of descriptions, the attention to odd details, and the breaks in repetitions. Ironically, this method resembles the experience of psychoanalysis in which the deeper unconscious meanings are contained in the flow and disruptions of free associations. Timelines and plots are fractured and the resulting novel resembles the literary equivalent of a cubist painting.
Robbe-Grillet's first novel, A Regicide, was written in the early 1950s but only published in 1978. His first published novel was The Erasers, in 1953. It resembles a detective novel, but contains within it a deeper structure based on the story of Oedipus. The detective is seeking the assassin in a murder that has not yet occurred, only to discover that it is his destiny to become that assassin.
His next and most acclaimed novel is The Voyeur, first published in French in 1955 and translated into English in 1958 by Richard Howard. Robbe-Grillet relates the story of Matthias, a travelling watch salesman who returns to the island of his youth with a desperate objective. As with many of his novels, The Voyeur revolves around the dubious details of a murder: throughout the novel, Matthias unfolds a newspaper clipping about the details of a young girl's murder and the discovery of her body among the seaside rocks. Matthias' relationship with the dead girl is obliquely revealed in the course of his psychological disintegration, which is rendered with objective precision in the style for which Robbe-Grillet is most famous. The narration contains little dialogue, no description of characters' interior thoughts or emotions, and an ambiguous timeline of events. Indeed, the novel's opening line is indicative of the novel's tenor: "It was as if no one had heard." The Voyeur was awarded the Prix des Critiques.
Next, he wrote Jealousy, set on a banana plantation. Written in the first person and in non-linear sequence, it tells the story of a husband's suspicion that his wife (referred to only as "A...") is having an affair with his neighbour, Franck. Although the narration comes from his perspective alone, the husband never uses first-person pronouns. He recounts events in which he is present as though he were not; his presence there is merely inferred, e.g. by the number of place settings at the dinner table or deck chairs on the verandah. He also describes images that can be read as either fantasy or reality, especially in regard to the affair and to the lovers' deaths. The French title La Jalousie means both "jealousy" and "window blind", or "shutter", and it is with the husband's eyes, through the jalousie, that we see the wife's lover.
Αlain Robbe-Grillet died on February the18th, 2008, in Caen, France.
Watch here his last interview (in french) just after the publication of Un Roman Sentimental.