A Sentimental Novel isn’t a work that’s easy to deal with — or perhaps it is: complete dismissal as (or for its) pornographic excess seems a popular choice. There’s no question that the novel is, certainly at surface-level, deeply objectionable. More so than, for example, Urs Allemann’s Babyfucker — which, despite its outrageous title and ostensible subject matter, is so clearly removed from any sexual or other reality that it can readily be appreciated as a literary text. A Sentimental Novel is also a highly stylized work — but rather differently and, presumably, for many readers not anywhere near sufficiently (to excuse what goes on in these pages).
Let’s be clear: A Sentimental Novel is explicit, and most people are very uncomfortable with what it is explicit about: the sexual abuse and torture of adolescent and pre-adolescent girls.
The French concept of ‘roman sentimental’ (so the original title) is more akin to the English popular romance (and closer to Harlequin and Mills and Boon than Jane Austen) rather than the English-style ‘sentimental novels’ of the eighteenth (and, to a lesser extent, nineteenth) century, and part of Robbe-Grillet’s purpose is, of course, to completely upend any pre-conceptions readers might bring to a so-called text. Okay, it’s Robbe-Grillet, too, so they come with different expectations as well — and the French edition was published shrink-wrapped and with the pages uncut (plus a whole lot of publicity), so readers had a pretty good sense of what they might be getting themselves into; still it bears repeating: this is not your grand-mère’s kind of roman sentimental, and it’s not for sensitive souls.