“…putting Sade back on the bookshelf” is how Le Figaro describes this book. But if anyone has A Sentimental Novel on their bookshelf, it’s with the spine facing inward, maybe with a self-destruct device fitted so the the book can be disappeared if the police come knocking.
Robbe-Grillet’s final work is fairly short, and doesn’t have a narrative. It’s a sequence of pornographic vignettes, where nymphets of questionable age and legality are defiled by middle-aged male châtelains exactly like the author (don’t ask questions). This is the kind of book where you hear the word “nubile” and the author isn’t trying to be funny.
I approve of books written by maniacs, but the world has moved past the Marquis de Sade, and Robbe-Grillet just retreads familiar ground for the most part. It’s well-written (or at least was flattered in translation), but to what end? Bataille, Huysman, Comte de Lautréamont, and so on did new things, and they lived a century ago. Robbe-Grillet spent a lifetime championing le nouveau roman. Was he trying to champion le vieux romain, too?
A Sentimental Novel is hard to analyse – airy and light. There’s a floaty lack of substance to the book that makes it strangely affecting, but which also renders it averse to study. Barthes described Robbe-Grillet’s style as “a theory of pure surface” (or I think he does – I can’t find a source for this quote), and that’s very evident: A Sentimental Novel is a neverending plain of surfaces, with your eye forever bouncing off them. The prose sees everything, uncovers nothing. We get descriptions of reflections glissading across a set of shears as they snip away a nipple. Whose shears? Whose nipple? Why? It’s all heat. No light.
In this sense, at least, Robbe-Grillet leaves his inspiration behind. Donatien Alphonse François’s books were always clearly about something: they’re notoriously full of political and philosophical rants, to the point where they get boring. But a critic will have to dig very deep to find meaning in A Sentimental Novel, and any interpretation is probably 90% critic, 10% book.
I’m personally not impressed by writers that word-vomit imagery and burden the reader with the task of “interpreting” it. It’s not that the author is lazy (effort doesn’t matter in art. It’s not weightlifting). It’s that if the meaning is all coming from my own mind, why do I need Alain Robbe-Grillet in the picture? I enjoy thinking about books, and analyzing them, but I’d ask that the author at least meet me halfway by taking responsibility for the things on the page. A Sentimental Novel could be a Sade written by a computer. There’s no crests, no rises and falls, no build-ups, nothing.
I’m sure that if I stare at A Sentimental Novel for long enough, I’ll discover its genius. I’m also sure that if I stare at a piece of toast long enough I’ll see Jesus’s face.
Does transgressive literature have a future at all? Maybe it’s in the too-gay-to-function Dennis Cooper, the computer-mangled sentences of Kenji Siratori, the alt-lit of the web, the heart-freezing paralysis of Michel Houellebecq. Writers who are doing something new, however incompetently.
Even average writers like Palahniuk and Ellis are able to find new angles to exploit, such as capitalism, mass media, and so on. They’re not just rewriting Sade for the millionth time. Meanwhile, here’s Robbes-Grillet toiling alone in an abandoned mine, seeking gold in a shaft that was mined out a century ago.