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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Nanson

Fiction and Reality: The Ambiguous Writings of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Campbell McCluskie

Some contemporary scientists give the impression (whether deliberately or not) that the gap between what is known and what is yet to be discovered about life and the universe is too small to accommodate the existence of a deity. And yet, that gap remains and, to my mind, always will remain infinite.

From El Pensador Solitario by Alejandro Hijo de Nada


The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie

Alain Robbe-Grillet and Campbell McCluskie began their writing careers at roughly the same time, in the years immediately following the Second World War. Alain Robbe-Grillet started work on his first novel, Un Régicide, at the end of the 1940s, but it was not published until 1978. During the 1950s, he went on to write the four novels upon which his reputation rests: Les Gommes (The Erasers), Le Voyeur, La Jalousie, and Dans le Labyrinthe. His international reputation grew with the release of L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), a film for which he wrote the screenplay and which was directed by Alain Resnais. Although little read in the United Kingdom, Alain Robbe-Grillet became highly regarded in the United States, where he taught in various universities. There is no evidence that he ever knew the work of Campbell McCluskie, although an obscure French writer, Edouard Charogne, who was briefly associated with the authors of the Nouveau Roman, did write an essay on McCluskie’s play Deeds and the Crow. It appeared in the journal Tel Quel in 1962, with an introduction by Philippe Sollers, so loaded with irony that it made both Charogne and McCluskie appear like figments of his imagination. Ian Alexander McDuffy, writing about Deeds and the Crow in his biography of McCluskie, rather overstated the impact the playwright had made on the writers of the Nouveau Roman.

McCluskie’s brief period of fame ended with his murder in 1954. In the following years, he was virtually forgotten. The revival of The Irresistible Rise of Tam McLean in the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre in 1968 did little to restore his reputation, and for most people the playwright remains a rather spectral figure, akin to a character in an unpopular novel.

Outside the United Kingdom, Alain Robbe-Grillet never became as marginalised as Campbell McCluskie, but he fell under increasing criticism for the prominence in his films and novels of troubling scenes of sexual sadism. Some literary critics almost wrote him off. John Fletcher, for example, though recognising his importance in literary history, considered that his work in the 1970s had led him into a blind alley; that younger authors, like Ian McEwan, were taking the novel in fresh new directions. But even John Fletcher found promise in an autobiographical fragment written by Alain Robbe-Grillet in the late 1970s, which was later expanded into the book Le Miroir Qui Revient, translated as Ghosts in the Mirror. It is this unusual work of autobiography which I am going to consider now, and to compare with Ian Alexander McDuffy’s equally unusual biography, The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie; a book that remains sadly, for most people, the only way to experience McCluskie’s ground-breaking literary works.

“I have never spoken of anything but myself. From within and so this had hardly been noticed.” Such was how Alain Robbe-Grillet opened the short autobiographical fragment that was originally published in the late 1970s; a perfectly reasonable opening for an autobiography, but it appeared to the group of writers and intellectuals with whom he was linked at the time to be a flagrant betrayal of their orthodoxies. Radical literary theorists had argued that Robbe-Grillet’s work represented a complete break with the humanist concerns of conventional realist fiction. He was famous for his objective descriptions of objects. His characters were often reduced to mere cyphers indicated by the initial letters of names that were never given. They seldom had the invented pasts that readers traditionally demanded of literary characters. His novels were filled with repetitions of scenes, apparently unfolding in the present, with no indication of chronology, and none of the techniques used in conventional fiction to differentiate imagined or remembered scenes.

In his most famous novel, La Jalousie, the reader gradually comes to understand that the entire narrative, such as it is, is given from the point of view of the absent husband; the whole work being nothing more than the unfolding of his obsessive, jealous suspicion that his wife, A, is having or has had an affair with Franck, the owner of a neighbouring plantation. The husband repeatedly observes his wife through the venetian blind (in French, ‘jalousie’ – a pun lost in the English translation) covering her bedroom window, or he continually goes over the few occasions he has seen Franck with his wife, seeking any indications of her infidelity.

Robbe-Grillet’s work in the late 1960s and 1970s represented an even more radical break with traditional realism. The novels Topologie d’une Cité Fantôme (Topology of a Phantom City) and Souvenirs du Triangle D’or (Recollections of the Golden Triangle), published in 1976 and 1978, respectively, were assembled from various collaborations with visual artists which had been published earlier in that decade. Scenes and events seem to arise from nothing, unfold in a series of extraordinarily precise descriptions, and then shift abruptly to other scenes, to which they are only tenuously linked. There are human figures whose appearance and gestures are exactly described. They are given names, but they have no histories or character traits. They perform sometimes violent and sadistic acts, but without motive or passion. Scenes are repeated, with variations or expansions. There is no attempt at verisimilitude. There are no coherent plots, no single story moving towards a denouement; just a series of meticulously assembled and vividly evoked episodes; and yet for me these novels still have a haunting, hallucinatory and suggestive quality that is impossible to describe without repeating them word for word.

Alain Robbe-Grillet began Le Miroir qui Revient (Ghosts in the Mirror) by pointing out that everything had changed dramatically in the seven-year interval since the opening words of that autobiographical fragment were written. It was 1984. Clearly, in France, as in the UK, there had been a shift in society away from the radicalism of art, literature, music, and politics which had characterised the previous two decades. Conventional realism once again became the dominant form in literature and cinema, if not in art. Although it seems to me that this had more to do with the kind of capitalism that was being ushered in during the 1980s by people like Margaret Thatcher; in which the accumulation of wealth began to be seen as an admirable pursuit in and of itself, and in which monetary value was to become the sole measure of success in any field. Consequently, in 1984, Alain Robbe-Grillet thought his decision to write an autobiography would be welcomed by the new orthodoxy that was then coming into being. In his opening paragraph he hinted at these changes, but nevertheless he concluded that he should persevere in his project, because ‘the same questions still come up, perennial, haunting, maybe pointless’. He then wrote the words, ‘Who was Henri de Corinthe?’ – just as a puzzled reader might well ask, ‘Who was Campbell McCluskie?’

The English title, Ghosts in the Mirror, rather gives the game away, as is the case with some translations, when the publisher wants something more commercial for a title, or the translator wants to give the reader a clue as to what the book is about. The French title, Le Miroir qui Revient, could more accurately have been translated as ‘The Returning Mirror’.

Robbe-Grillet introduces Henri de Corinthe as a friend of his father, whose erratic, eagerly awaited visits would always occur in the evening. For a reason that was never made clear to the young Alain, his father did not want him to meet Corinthe, and so, despite having earlier written a very clear description of Corinthe warming himself at the fire, he later confesses that he is not sure that he has ever even seen him. He even questions his description of the house, which is much grander than Robbe-Grillet’s childhood home. Chronological discrepancies are also introduced, which gradually cast doubt on Corinthe’s very existence, while he is yet evoked in a series of beautifully described scenes that on the contrary make him appear as real as Robbe-Grillet’s mother, as his grandfather, as the wild Breton coast near which Robbe-Grillet grew up, as the sea that used to terrify him as a child, as the fearful legends of sea monsters that used to haunt his dreams.

The key episode of the book occurs when Corinthe is riding his white horse near the coast on a calm moonlit night. As he comes close to the shore he hears a rhythmic noise coming from the direction of the sea. Robbe-Grillet uses all the virtuosity of his writing to describe Corinthe riding down on to the beach. his realisation that the noise is coming from an oval mirror floating on the waves, and his tribulations with his frightened horse. When he finally struggles out into the increasingly rough sea, and against all the odds drags the heavy mirror back to the shore, he sees by the moonlight in its ‘cloudy depths’ the reflected face of ‘his lost fiancée, Marie-Ange, who was drowned on a beach in the Atlantic near Montevideo and whose body has never been found’.

Elsewhere the book reads like a traditional autobiography. He recounts the history of his mother’s family, provides anecdotes from his childhood, describes his father, who was badly injured in the First World War, in which he served as a sapper, battling the enemy in nightmarish makeshift tunnels under No Man’s Land. Often these are sentimental scenes of the kind abjured by his literary followers. However, he constantly undermines his descriptions of these scenes by pointing out how far they stray from the reality of lived experience. At the same time, he shows how these remembered scenes have cropped up in his writing, and films. Controversially, he openly discusses his parents’ extreme right-wing sympathies and his own sadistic sexual fantasies which started in his early childhood. These fantasies and his terrors about the sea and its imagined monsters represent for Robbe-Grillet the ghosts that haunt his writing, like the ghost haunting the mirror.

During the Second World War, he was conscripted by the German government to work for a year in a tank factory in Nuremburg. This experience was to be the defining one in determining the kind of writer he was to become, much as Campbell’s wartime experience in Normandy would offer him the stimulus to write his first play.

As a French foreign worker, Robbe-Grillet was treated relatively well by the Germans. Initially he saw nothing to clash with his parent’s admiration of the orderly German nation, which they felt showed up the manifold failures of the French Third Republic. But Alain soon saw evidence of the horror lurking behind the façade: the shop signs forbidding Polish workers and Jews from buying cakes, or the brutal treatment of a Russian prisoner in the hospital attached to the factory. However, it was only the revelations of the concentration camps after the war that disclosed the full extent of the madness underlying the Third Reich, and it was then that Robbe-Grillet ceased to share his parents’ views. Henceforth, he began to distrust order and the psychological, philosophical, and political systems that seek to uphold it. That is not to say that he completely relinquished his need for order, but he considered that the struggle between this need and the opposing attraction to disorder are present in different proportions in every human being. He concluded that writing experimental fiction was the best way to explore this conflict.

In editing The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie, I very soon realised that Campbell’s plays reveal in their ambiguity a similar distrust of order to that expressed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, although the plays are not in any obvious way like Robbe-Grillet’s novels. There are strong characters, most notably the central male characters in the plays, who pursue their various ambitions and desires in clearly delineated settings. There is none of the chronological and spatial dislocations of Robbe-Grillet’s novels, and yet there are odd, unsettling details (like the presence of diamonds in The Irresistible Rise of Tam McLean, which seem to predict future events in the play, or the details of stage design in The Massacre which suggest a possible order underlying the chaotic city, or the way the character’s madness is expressed in Deeds and the Crow through lighting effects clearly visible to the audience but not to most of the characters on stage) which I would argue create small gaps in the narratives as profound as the more overt dislocations created by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Moreover, in one very evocative paragraph Robbe-Grillet describes the sensations he experienced at nightfall in the winter city, which he says impelled him to write in the first place and which seem to parallel the epiphanies Campbell experienced in his youth at the sight of Clydebank and the Clyde valley as seen from the hills to the north, or when his Aunt Dorothy arrived at his house for the first time.

Then there are the more obvious links between Robbe-Grillet’s autobiographical project and Ian Alexander McDuffy’s biography of the playwright. In The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie, the descriptions of Campbell’s plays are set against the narrative of Campbell’s life, in the same way as Robbe-Grillet sets his own work against the autobiographical sections of Le Miroir qui Revient. And so we are shown the brutal misogyny of Campbell’s maternal grandfather and its impact on his daughters; the troubled relationship of Campbell’s parents; Campbell’s haunting experiences during the Second World War; Campbell’s complete split with his father, which remained unresolved at the time of the playwright’s death. Unlike, Robbe-Grillet, however, McDuffy is not seeking to question the relationship between his descriptions and the reality of Campbell’s life. On the contrary, he is seeking a meaning in the playwright’s life which will explain why his mother died giving birth to him, and he doesn’t always appear to notice the numerous contradictions and ambiguities arising from his sources. Nor does he seem to have any awareness that he shares his mania for meaning with Inspector Grieg, whose investigation of McCluskie’s murder has such dire consequences.

In editing McDuffy’s biography, however, I found something that I have not been able to discern among the contradictions, gaps, and erasures in Robbe-Grillet’s work. It seemed to me that I was constantly catching glimmers in The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie of a kind of underlying meaning; like a watermark running through the text. This was not the irrefutable meaning offered by the totalitarian systems of the Nazis and the Communists. Robbe-Grillet argued that these were closed systems that brooked no opposition, and were therefore like a kind of death, if death is viewed as an absence of possibility. He also argued that Freud’s ideas represented a similar closed system, in that Freud would overcome any opposing argument by reducing the individual who made the argument to a category of his own system of thought. It would seem to me that such systems are currently offered by extreme religious groups, who offer one fixed meaning of holy books that are often ad hoc assemblages of contradictory and ambiguous texts, or even by scientists, who create unsubstantiated theories, such as the existence of dark energy, in order to iron out observations that contradict the Big Bang.

In Le Miroir qui Revient, Alain Robbe-Grillet makes clear that he is not advocating one approach to writing. He is merely setting out the ambiguous and changing approach he has taken to writing over the years, to prevent his ideas from becoming dogmatic, and to carry out the impossible task of overcoming his own ambiguous and ill-defined nature. At one point, he compares characters in novels to ‘the unquiet dead forced by some evil spell or divine vengeance to live the same scenes from their tragic destiny over and over again’. Just as Campbell McCluskie is doomed repeatedly to follow the same sequence of events from his birth to his violent death, in minutely described scenes that seem at the same time chaotic and inevitable. And yet, if you reread The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie several times, as I have had to do in the course of my work as editor, you too may find, in its odd repetitions and inconsistencies, tiny gaps (like that mentioned by Hijo de Nada in the above quotation translated from his ineffable and only published work, El Pensador Solitario) that open on to the infinite wonders and possibilities that are our only consolation, and where a God or a void might equally exist.

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