Monday, January 14, 2013

The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet

It was as if no one heard.
Opening to
The Voyeur
by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Translated from the French by
Richard Howard
This is the third book I have by Alain Robbe-Grillet and I'm still waiting for something to happen.

In his marvelous novel Jealousy, the first one of his that I read,  Mr. Robbe-Grillet's narrator keeps going over the same set of events, again and again, looking for evidence that will  prove his wife is having an affair with his neighbor.  Though the narrator (and the book) becomes consumed in this search for proof, he never finds any.  In Topograpy of a Phantom City, the second one I read, Mr. Robbe-Grillet presents a series of clues to a crime, but never gives the reader  either the crime itself or the crime's solution.

So I don't know why I was expecting something to happen in The Voyeur, my thrid by Mr. Robbe-Grillet, but I certainly was.

In The Voyeur, Mr. Robbe-Grillet tells the story of Mathias, a travelling watch salesman, who has returned to the small island community where he says he grew up to sell watches.  He intends to earn a good profit and then catch the  evening ferry boat home.  Should he miss the evening  boat he'll have to spend four days on the island waiting for the next.  Should he fail to sell enough watches, he'll have wasted his time and the money he spent on the ferry.

This really shouldn't be very interesting; it really shouldn't be very suspenseful.  All Mathias does is go from house to house, trying and largely failing to sell watches.  However, because Mr. Robbe-Grillet's writing gives the novel an atmosphere of dread, a tension of some sort that I can't quite pin down, he ends up creating a thriller even though nothing happens.

I think he does this by describing Mathias' day in exact detail.  Mathias is meticulate about everything. He has his costs and potential profits figured out in advance; he presents us with his figures including the exact amount of time he'll need to spend at each house on the small island.  When one stop takes longer than expected, Mathias recaluates the rest of his day.  He accounts for every minute of his time on the island, as if he was trying to establish an alibi. Why is making sure the reader knows where he is, every minute of this particular day?  Is this was gives The Voyeur its tension?

Just past halfway through the novel, the body of a young girl is found in the rocks along the island's shore.  Was she killed?  Did she die by accident?  Is Mathias a suspect?  I read the book, but I don't know.  Mathias seems to be concerned that he will be suspected of killing the girl, though he never is, which keeps the second half of the novel as tense as the first half was.

Though nothing really happened to Mathias in either half.   Did I mention that?

So why am I still thinking about The Voyeur days after finishing the book?

It certainly can't be because of the plot.

This weekend I watched David Lynch's noir thriller Muhalland Drive which like much of David Lynch's work is full of ambiguity.  I'll be darned if I know what was going on in the last fifteen minutes of Muhalland Drive.  But things were happening.  I'm not sure what was real and what was a dream, but there were events that took place on the screen in front of me.  Alain Robbe-Grillet is like David Lynch in that it's often never made clear what is really going on.  Mr. Lynch and Mr. Robbe-Grillet probably know, but they're both content to let their audience figure it out for themselves.  In a David Lynch film, while it can be difficult to figure out what exactly is going on, something is clearly going on.  In a Robbe-Grillet novel not only is it difficult to figure out what is going on, it's difficult to determine if anything is going on at all.

I think something happened in The Voyeur, I just don't know exactly what, and I'm not really sure, which leaves me thinking about the book more than a week after I finished reading it.

2 comments:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The way I interpret this novel, something definitely happens. Something pretty bad.

You have not read The Erasers yet, right? That one is action-packed by comparison. Crime, a mystery, police work, that sort of thing.

Ellie Warren said...

I aplaud your perserverance, I might give an author a second chance but probably not a third ;) Sounds like one of those books that might be good for a book group discussion. Sometimes a bit of teamwork can help bring out details that others overlooked.