Project for a Revolution in New York
by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Dalkey Archive, September 2012
183 Pages / $14 (buy it on Amazon)
1. I’ve read all of the fictional novels that Robbe-Grillet published in France between 1955 & 1981, albeit in English, some multiple times, others not. This leaves out only 4 novels proper–the first two (Un Regicide & The Erasers) and the last two (Repetition & A Sentimental Novel). Half of those remaining have yet to receive English translations. This was my second reading of Project for a Revolution in New York.
2. This quantifying, of course, does not include everything else that Robbe-Grillet wrote: a short story collection–Snapshots in English, of interest perhaps only as spelled out examples of the theory set forth in For a New Novel; three “romanesques”, being, for want of a better term, “creative non-fictional” memoirs (only the first of which, Ghosts in the Mirror, has been translated into English–which, admittedly, is a bit of a snooze-fest when compared to the purely fictional novels); thee essay collections, with, once again, only the earliest, For a New Novel, available in English (a really valid collection if one is tired of a standardized canonical/literary fiction); a handful of cine-novels–the earliest (Last Year at Marienbad & The Immortal One) once again being the only ones translated into English; and perhaps the most interesting part of Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre, the ‘collaborative’ works that ultimately feed, intertextually, into my favorite of his novels, collaborative works with artists (Magritte, Rauschenberg, Johns) & photographers (Irina Ionesco, David Hamilton). And one must not forget his films, a necessary contingency of his body of work.
3. Due to my engagement–perhaps even, one could say, obsession– with Robbe-Grillet’s work, I’ve found it easier to split his published novels into a number of categories, guided by this website, which was one of the earliest strongholds of info on Robbe-Gillet on the internet when I began my obsession in 2004.
4. The novels most people know of Robbe-Grillet’s are his earliest, the nouveau romans, the books which lead to his grouping, along with Sarraute, Pinget, Simon, Duras, Butor & Ricardou, with the culturally ‘relevant’ (at the time) Nouveau Roman group. None of these writers, other than, perhaps, Robbe-Grillet himself, were really into being called nouveau romanciers, but it stuck. All of their works are markedly different, though they do unite in being experimental-ish in some sense or another, and all I mean by this is that they operate an existence outside of that occupied by “realistic” and “straight-forward” “literary” fiction. Robbe-Grillet’s “new novels” include The Voyeur, Jealousy, In the Labyrinth and so on. My favorite novels of Robbe-Grillet’s are what I term the intertextual novels (Topology of a Phantom City & Recollections of the Golden Triangle–referred to on the page linked in #3 as “collage” novels).
5. Project For a Revolution in New York, the title at hand in this review, is, along with La Maison de Rendez-vous, considered by many (and I would agree) a “cinematic” novel. This term is worth discussing, as Robbe-Grillet had already in 1970 (the year of Project‘s initial publication) diercted four films, and also, of course, written Resnais’s film Last Year at Marienbad. The films Robbe-Grillet had directed before 1970 (L’Immortelle, L’Homme Qui Ment & Trans-Europ-Express) can, in many ways, be considered aligned with the early “new novel” fiction. They’re black & white films that borrow noir & mystery tropes and only touch the surface of sexual sadism that haunts Robbe-Grillet’s entire career. However, 1970 saw both the publication of Project For a Revolution in New York & the release of L’Eden et après–Robbe-Grillet’s first color film, and also his first cinematic joy-ride into the sadistic excess of his subconscious. Constructed as if a Mondrian painting were a puzzle that’s solution was buried in the Tunisian desert, Eden and After is a beautiful example of personal obsession joining a coldly beautiful intellectual set of aesthetics.
6. Project for a Revolution in New York, written after a stint teaching in New York City, seems to sit somewhere between the black & white noir slate of the first three films & the techni-color excess of Eden & After. In looking at Robbe-Grillet’s entire career trajectory, it’s a novel that both makes sense in showing a major transition (perhaps we could say “maturity,” though freeing the id seems to be outside any understanding of a systemic approach to personal development).
7. It’s worth noting, before I begin, that Dalkey’s reissue of Project… is just that–it’s simply a reissue. The exact same type-blocks were used (which includes a typo), and the singular difference is the cover of the book–the original Grove press cover of 1972 (an ominous NYC sky-scraper against a moiréd skyline) far superior to Dalkey’s loud & aggressive (& hyper contemporary) cover.
8. The incidents found in the book (the narrative, shall we say) include a number of chains finding a revolutionary organization planning for something, an abundance of rape & murder predicated upon the idea of either scientific or revolutionary study, a girl named Laura who either a protagonist or a narrator keeps locked up in a high-rise somewhere in the city & JR, the girl who works for the (an) agency that babysits her (though this task being entirely unnecessary) while also working for a high-class call-girl industry as well as working for the revolution. There are plots that are presented and abandoned, large warehouses, incredibly violent advertisements that are subverted for the revolution, and more.
“A detective story, of course … [the books always] cluttering up the tables and chairs, lying on the floor, which has always suggested to me that Laura was reading all these books at once and that in this way she mixed up from room to room, according to her own movements, the itineraries of the detectives carefully calculated by the author, thereby endlessly altering the arrangement of each volume, leaping more-over a hundred times a day from one work to the next, not minding her frequent returns to the same passage nonetheless stripped of any apparent interest, whereas she utterly abandons on the contrary the essential chapter which contains the climax of an investigation, and consequently gives its whole meaning to the rest of the plot; and all the more since many of these mass-produced bindings having failed to withstand the occasionally brutal negligence of this way of reading, they have lost, over the months, a corner of a page, here and there a whole page, or even two or three signatures all at once.”
10. And thus, page 68 reveals to us the operating structure of the entire novel.
11. And thus, page 68 perhaps reveals to us not only the operating structure of the novel, but also gives us a clue to the exegesis of desire, lust, fantasy: to obsess over sexual violence, we can avoid climax (orgasm) by avoiding the climax (resolution); and so there’s a sustained high, a sustained erection– Robbe-Grillet’s or our own? Is there a metaphysical dick floating through this book no matter what gender eyes gaze upon its contents? But then we can add to the fact that Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s memoir reveals Robbe-Grillet himself as impotent, and thus, his physiology precluded him from orgasm, from climax, and as such the continually peaking refrain of sexual violence without release becomes a sort of melody, the demonstration of fantasy.
12. And this corporeal, onanistic melody finds echo in the idea of music: for one can, indeed, read the book as one listens to music; there are themes and variations, refrains, revisiting key moments for the maximum emotional affect. This is structure before language, which is perhaps why Barthes was such a fan (and friend, as Robbe-Grillet’s essay collection Why I Love Barthes reveals)–the level of the sentence far less interesting than the level of the book, which locates this purely as a novel and not poetry.
13. Which is not to say there is no poetry here. Sexual taste is subjective and there is so much violence and aggression.
14. As a brief aside, I believe this is the only book in which Robbe-Grillet mentions (male) homosexuality, though I could be wrong:
On the contrast, there is more sexually explicit homosexuality present in Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s Womens Rites, offered for what seems to be Catherine’s sexual pleasure, perhaps the pleasure of others. This is echoed by Alain’s repeated insistence on offering sexual scenes for his own pleasure, perhaps for others.
15. The revolution of the book’s title is mere spectacle, a pretense for what Robbe-Grillet himself finds exciting:
The preliminary section, which was ending when I arrived, must have been devoted to the theoretical justifications of crime in general and to the notion of metaphorical acts. The performers are now dealing with the identification and analysis of the three functions in particular. The reasoning which identifies rape with the color red, in cases where the victim has already lost her virginity, is of a purely subjective nature, though it appeals to recent studies of retinal impressions, as well as to investigations concerning the religious rituals of Central Africa, at the beginning of the century, and the lot of young captives belonging to races regarded as hostile, during public ceremonies suggesting the theatrical performances of antiquity, with their machinery, their brilliant costumes, their painted masks, their paroxysmal gestures, and that same mixture of coolness, precision, and delirium in the staging of a mythology as murderous as it is cathartic.
16. Something that strikes me as both a shortcoming & a strength of Project… is that the book itself both carefully explains its structure & obsessions while also building in a defense mechanism.
17. And thus, we come to the point where it has become irresponsible to ignore the issue of rape & violence against women in this particular work of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s.
18. There is no question that Robbe-Grillet filled his books with images and ideas that he found sexuality satisfying. The psychological impetus behind this is a moot point, and if one wants to accuse Robbe-Grillet of misogyny, of being a horrible person, of perpetrating ideas of sexual violence, one would have any right to do so. But there remains a rich tradition of eroticism in literature. Presented as eroticism exclusively, Robbe-Grillet’s books would be inadmissible. That’s not to say that if you don’t already find sexual violence, in an articulated Sadean capacity either interesting or enticing, you’ll find anything of interest here. But I think there’s something to be said for a pure insistence upon one’s own sexual fantasies. I find it refreshing to refuse to repression and to work out the fantasies in an extended realm of fantasy. Robbe-Grillet’s primary insistence, in discussing fiction, was to move away from realism. Thus, everything is either banalized to the point of objective description in the early novels or to an aestheticized excess in the middle/late novels. Combined with the entire thesis of Last Year at Marienbad (the work which more or less puts Robbe-Grillet anywhere on the cultural map for the larger world as a whole)–the insistence that there is nothing outside of the narrative presented in said work of art, that the entirety is surface, that there is no before or after there is only an infinitude of the present, an entire lack of depth, the flatness of artifice, there seems to be an insistence that marks the fiction in strong contrast to the real.
19. While I agree with that, that idea assumes the responsibility & the intellectual strength of the viewer/reader to keep the narrative distanced from reality. Since the beginnings of censorship there has been an insistence of the responsibility of the artist to not put more terrible things into the world, to not give even more opportunities for the complete refusal of human rights to a certain group of people (in this case, women). I simply choose to neither condemn nor applaud Robbe-Grillet, specifically, for the exact scenes he has wrenched from his imagination, if only due to the fact that my own sexual fantasies & interested due run, in some capacities, parallel to those of Robbe-Grillet, albeit with a difference gender & age present in the imagined victims.
20. I can speak for no one but myself: certainly not for Robbe-Grillet, certainly not for anyone who is personally offended. I have no right as a male to tell a female-bodied individual that she should not be offended by the sexual mise-en-scene presented here. I believe there’s a capacity for anyone to find something about the scenes presented as sexually exciting, but I would not insist as much.
“No, not necessarily.”
21. Besides all this, the reason that Robbe-Grillet’s books are utterly fascinating to me is that beyond just presenting his own sexual fantasies buried or on the surface of his labyrinthine narratives, is that as a writer Robbe-Grillet does so much. On the issue of language, sentence-construction, narrative, Robbe-Grillet has proved himself a literary master.
22. While later novels find Robbe-Grillet intertexually combining formerly written texts, Project… finds Robbe-Grillet approaching multiple levels of narrative, from the contents of a book to an audio cassette tape played in a girls bedroom, flattened to present all levels of narrative on a single level. All distance placed equally. The book is the narrative is the book.
23. The techniques used to flatten various levels of narrative in Project… are early seeds of the “slow slidings” that Robbe-Grillet perfected in later novels (and, incidentally, a style that Anna Kavan actually managed to perfect independently as Robbe-Grillet, albeit at about the same time). In later novels incidents literally slide into other events and one has to jump back several pages before he or she realizes that the narrative has changed.
24. But wait, I forgot, this book is a film. Cinematic images abound, and the cut scene is approached in literature to a degree of complicity.
25. And of course, now at the end, I realize how much I have left out, but 2500 word book reviews get read even less than 1000 page books, so I suppose the idea would be simply to suggest to read the book, to follow the labyrinthine narratives through the subway, to the top floor of the building, to the wig shop, through the audio cassette, to the doctor’s laboratory. Dalkey’s perhaps bizarre choice of reissuing a less-than-key book in Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre is an interesting one, but if it results in an upped interest in the man’s fiction then I applaud it, as I for one would love to be able to read that handful of novels that have yet to be translated into english.