By the time he was elected to the Académie française in 2004, Alain Robbe-Grillet had suffered a cruel fate: he had all the renown he could have hoped for but few readers to show for it. The literary movement he’d launched half a century earlier – the nouveau roman – had ground to a halt. The new novel – anti-psychological and anti-expressive, stripped of individualised characters, temporal continuity and meaning itself – was no longer new. Like the total serialism championed by his contemporary Pierre Boulez, it seemed all the more dated for heralding a future that had failed to arrive. In the US, where he’d once enjoyed a cultish notoriety alongside Beckett and Genet, Robbe-Grillet was now to be found in second-hand bookshops. Passionately anti-clerical, a self-confessed sadist, Robbe-Grillet had always relished his unofficial title, the ‘pope of the nouveau roman’, but now the joke was wearing thin: no one wants to lead a church without a congregation. His parting gesture was to preside over a black mass. He called it Un Roman sentimental.
Published six months before his death in 2008, it is the story of a 14-year-old girl called Gigi, and her initiation into S&M under the tutelage of her father, lover and master, a man known as the Professor. That’s a sanitised summary of the proceedings, described in meticulous prose in 239 numbered paragraphs over little more than a hundred pages. Fayard, his publisher, was worried enough to have the book wrapped in plastic with an advisory notice. It’s not hard to see why. France had been rocked by a series of scandals over child pornography, and Robbe-Grillet’s novel was a work of unrelenting and graphic sadism, in which women – or rather, barely pubescent girls – exist to be raped, tortured and murdered. Some are eaten alive by dogs (‘so they conserve the memory of the delicious scent and flavour of the thing that it is their mission to hunt down’), while others are given a ‘commercially banned ointment’ that causes them to come so violently they die. Robbe-Grillet’s proclivities were well known – Fredric Jameson called his sensibility ‘sado-aestheticism’ – but they had never before found such gruesome expression.
Back in the news for the first time in years, Robbe-Grillet had a lot of explaining to do. Always a forceful spokesman for his own work, he took up the task with his usual gusto, describing Un Roman sentimental, with a wink, as a book of ‘Flaubertian precision’. (He never missed a chance to tip his hat to the canon, even as he seemed to ask us not to take him at his word.) His aim was to purge himself of violent fantasies that he claimed were widely shared. Yes, he had ‘loved little girls’ since he was 12, but he had never acted on his fantasies. In fact he had ‘mastered’ them. And he continued in this half-facetious, half-moralising vein: ‘someone who writes about his perversion is someone who has control over it.’ He warned of a new ‘literary correctness’ (‘when one writes something incorrect, it’s as if one were committing it’), and seemed hurt by an interviewer’s suggestion that he had written a ‘masturbatory’ novel. On the contrary, Un Roman sentimental was, ‘like all my novels’, a Brechtian work, written in a glacial style so as to distance the reader from the book’s infernal preoccupations.