A giant of modernism

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Yesterday France lost one of its literary giants when Alain Robbe Grillet died at the age of 85.

There are readers who simply cannot fathom his appeal. In fact sometimes the most devoted novel-readers – those most wedded to the conventional notions of plot, chronology, and narrative – have the hardest time with Robbe-Grillet.

He was a revolutionary in his time, twisting those very conventions in ways that surprised and sometimes shocked.

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At the heart of his work always loomed the larger questions: What is the novel? Can it function outside the 19th century? What role can it play in a world where in which our very notions of time and space have become fluid?

It may not be his best work, but I love “Les Gommes” ("The Erasers"), in which a detective investigates a murder that has not yet happened – only to discover that he will be the murderer.

The novel’s opening lines are vaguely discomforting: “In the dimness of the cafe, the manager is arranging the tables and chairs, the ashtrays, the siphon of soda water; it is six in the morning. He has no need to see distinctly, he does not even know what he is doing. He is still asleep.” He is keeping track of time but that is pointless, the narrative insists. “Time will no longer be master.”

Uncertain light, unclear arrangements, and a detachment from a conventional sense of structure…. Welcome to the world of Robbe Grillet!

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