Books that Wound and Stab Us

Two things:  my favorite author has been and remains Alain Robbe-Grillet (see) and although I find many of the postmodern works fun and thought-provoking, I turn to the Nouveau Roman for its challenges outside of the traditional definition of a novel. Earlier I discussed Robbe-Grillet and also suggested that La Jealousie was my go-to, if not favorite, novel (see).

Abrahms writes about La Jealousie in the Glossary:

Thus Alain Robbe-Grillet, a leader among the exponents of the nouveau roman (the new novel) in France, wrote Jealousy (1957), in which he left out such standard elements as plot,characterization, description of states on mind, locations in time and space, and frame of reference to the world in which the work is set. We are simply presented in this novel with a sequence of perceptions, mainly visual, which we may naturalize (that is, make intelligible in the mode of standard narrative procedures) by postulating that we are occupying the physical space and sharing the hyperacute observations of a jealous husband, from which we may infer also the tortured state of his disintegrating mind. Other new novelists are Nathalie Sarraute and Philippe Sollers.


My epiphany relating to this new form of novel was when I realized that the mundane smudge on the wall resulting from swatting a centipede was actually a primary element of the narrative:  from the recurring description of the smudge a reader could interpret the location of the character inside the house and therefore know what might be seen out of the window in that room. What at first appeared to be a series of unrelated descriptions (like Snapshots) was actually a sophisticated method of involving the reader in the development of the narrative. Robbe-Grillet provided all the clues but the reader had to put them all together and create something within the mind that perhaps was more like a traditional novel. In this way the nouveau roman was an early form of reader-response and the value or enjoyment of the novel was as much an element of the reader’s acumen as it was of the writer’s skill.

Of course Roland Barthes’ theories of writerly vs. readerly texts is useful in understanding the differences between the comforting experience of more traditional texts and the often edgy demands of the nouveau roman and later structuralism.

I am now reading Nathalie Sarraute, Le planétarium, and am confronting a slightly different approach to the nouveau roman. Sarraute actually precedes Robbe-Grillet in developing this form of the novel (although Robbe-Grillet wrote the influential treatise, Pour un Nouveau Roman (1963)). The background story for Le planétarium is the acquisition of an apartment. Simple, direct, but over two-hundred pages of prose that engages the reader’s mind without resorting to lust, adventure, spies, runaway buck-boards, or rocket ships. The New York Times wrote of the novel:

It fulfills ideally the dream of Flaubert and Mallarmé, dreamed again by their Irish and Czech admirers, Joyce and Kafka, of a novel made out of nothing and in which events are next to nothing.

The cover blurb on the Dalkey edition of The Planetarium reads:


A young writer has his heart and ambition set on his aunt’s large apartment. With this seemingly simple conceit, the characters of The Planetarium are set in orbit and a galaxy of argument, resentment, and bitterness erupts. Telling the story from various points of view, Sarrauth focuses below the surface, on the emotional lives of the characters in a way that surpass what Virginia Woolf did years before. The spite the young man feels toward his mother-in-law for offering him and his wife cheap chairs for their apartment; the terror inspired during a confrontation with his aunt; and the need to impress his Gertrude Stein-like literary icon are only some of the many internal conflicts that push the narrative forward, as the characters circle each other. Always deepen engaging, The Planetarium reveals the deep disparity between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us.

I am finding the text of Sarraute’s novel fascinating and entirely engaging. Others have reported that the book is too boring to finish reading. I suppose that Le Planétarium, like many complex examples of the nouveau roman, might put too many demands on the reader who might prefer the customary surface narrative of so many novels nowadays. Each reader has a different reason for reading and comfortable entertainment is not only acceptable but probably helps to keep the population settled and safe.

But I still ascribe to what Franz Kafka said:

If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Good God, we also would be happy if we had no books and such books that make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.

2 thoughts on “Books that Wound and Stab Us

  1. You really do like to mix your metaphors. Let’s see: postmodernism has as one of its primary rules that there are no rules … in fact, there can be no rules. This is hardly revisionist and definitely not fascistic. Keep reading.


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