A soldier, stiffened in the winter cold and tired, is waiting for someone near the lantern under the incessant snowfall. In his hands he holds a box wrapped in paper with something inside; he must pass it on to someone. He does not remember any details of the meeting: where, when and with whom it should take place; he does not remember anything about himself: from which military unit he is, whose overcoat is on him. He goes from street to street, but again and again he feels that he is on the exact same street that he was on before. Again and again he encounters a little boy, as if knowing some secret important to a soldier, but avoiding him.
This is the plot of the Robbe-Grillet novel “In the Labyrinth” written in 1959 — as the reader feels the development of events, it abruptly interrupts and leads to the “descriptive labyrinth of things”. At the same time, despite the apparent simplicity of the design of thought, the text is permeated with a complex system of symbols, signs and allegories that allow multiple interpretations. That is what makes Robbe-Grillet’s “labyrinth” more confusing, but more fascinating for finding a way out of it.
This novel is the perfect representative of the French “Nouveau Roman”.
“Nouveau Roman” is a type of the French novel formed in the 1940-60-ies. Its leaders were Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor. In their opinion, the traditional type of the novel has come to an end for a long time; the character disappears and it is replaced by “materialism” and an isolated writing process; the author dies, and the reader becomes the co-author of the work.
The narration is conducted in the first person, which from the first sentence leaves an imprint of the subjectivity of the events described. The view of each person is individual: we perceive people’s words differently, pay different attention to the details and things around us in general. The soldier offers us his interpretation of the myriad of the objects he sees. However, the “I” of the character is clearly visible at the beginning of the novel and subsequently it dissolves in the environment, reappearing only at the very end.
In the manner of the soldier to describe the environment, the author himself is inclined to work with the production of films. The work is read like a film in text form.
Like the other early works of Alain Robbe-Grillet, in “In the Labyrinth” things play a major role. The author does not bother to describe them, but, on the contrary, he describes them as if in ecstasy — he paints even the smallest details, giving them significance.
The way the soldier describes these things, the reader, depending on his reading and life experience, age and other factors, is able to perceive the words of the character in his own way. For example:
If the outlines are quite distinct and allow you to accurately determine the outlines of the object, it is easy to find it somewhere nearby. So, the round mark is left, obviously, by a glass ashtray standing nearby
In this passage, the word “obviously” can be changed to other adverbs such as probably or no doubt (as it is my translation into English made from the brilliant translation of the novel into Russian by L.Kogan). Thus, the number of interpretations is not something that the novel, but even every sentence, at least tripled.
The motive of repetition affects all levels — semantic, syntactic and lexical — what suggests that everything described in the novel is just nonsense of a sick person.
Eternal repetition of the same actions and the same things, however, as well as the very special attention to things — all this raises the philosophical question of being. Is it possible to understand the causes and meaning of existence? Is it possible to find an interpretation of the inner world of a person and the outside world? Why does everything exist as it is? There are no answers to these questions in the text of the work. Only one thing is known: the world exists, that’s all. All objects of this world are not symbols, but proofs of our existence.
However, looped fragments represent certain stages, as in modern computer games, during the passage of which the character receives an award and moves on to the next, stage that is not much changed. The upcoming stage reveals a veil on new details and meanings superimposed on the opening of the previous stages. This allows the reader to become a full co-author of the story, and even its author – Robbe-Grillet gives us only the skeleton of the work, a certain motive.
And so, the reader, at the behest of Alain Robbe-Grillet, gets into the maze of “reader-co-author-character-motive”, the way out of which he needs to find independently in the process of slow reading and reflection on the smallest but important details.
recommended sources in the russian language:
- Alain Robbe-Grillet “Pour un Nouveau Roman”, 1963
- Website dedicated to literature: Nouveau Roman
- French “Nouveau Roman” in Interpretation by Alain Robbe-Grillet
- L. Gapon “Esthetics of Robbe-Grillet’s Novels”, 1998
- O. Rogov “The Labyrinths of Robbe-Grillet”, 2007
- A. Ustinov “The Labyrinth of Play as a Principle of “In the Labyrinth” by Alain Robbe-Grillet”, 2008
- S. Volojin “Practically Nothing”, 2008
- A. Veshnyakov “Alain Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy in the Labyrinth of Symbols and Structures”, 2010