restricted access Existential Prisons: Captivity in Mid-Twentieth-Century French Literature, and: Alain Robbe-Grillet: The Body of the Text (review)
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Reviewed by
Mary Ann Frese Witt. Existential Prisons: Captivity in Mid-Twentieth-Century French Literature. Durham: Duke UP, 1985. 231 pp. $27.50.
Ben Stoltzfus. Alain Robbe-Grillet: The Body of the Text. Cranbury: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1985. 187 pp. $27.50.

Victor Brombert's thematic study of The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition (Princeton UP, 1978) finds a sequel in Frese Witt's study of Malraux, Camus, Sartre, and Genet. She sees enclosed space as an instrument of power, notes the [End Page 332] proliferation of political imprisonment and concentration camps since Stalin's day, and asks whether it is legitimate for literature to deploy such materials for aesthetic ends. She then traces the prison and related images through Western literature, announces that the frameworks of modern literature are spatial rather than temporal, and discusses the relationship between metaphorical and functional prisons in literature. As this summary of the Introduction suggests, the book abounds in ideas and references, but they lack room to develop, and the movement of the argument is too "busy" to allow them to coalesce. The chapters on individual authors suffer from the same overcrowding. Often no more than two or three pages are allotted to each major work. The author succumbs to her conscientiousness and desire to be comprehensive: this book seems to have been once a dissertation.

There are moments of interest. Frese Witt argues that Brombert is mistaken to claim that the happy prison of individual enlightenment has disappeared from twentieth-century literature except as an ironic anachronism. She later distinguishes three ideas of liberty in the writings of Frenchmen imprisoned by the Nazis—one might call them privational, oppositional, and contemplative. The treatment of Sartre's L'Age de raison is adequately developed. And the chapter on Genet offers a sustained discussion, avoiding the fragmentation of the earlier chapters and effectively characterizing Genet's differences from the other existentialist authors. Only the section on Les Bonnes loses intensity. Genet rejoins the current of social commitment, despite his poeticizing prison, by exposing how it can perpetuate social injustice and by relating it to the social and economic situation of American blacks. This chapter can be recommended.

Ben Stoltzfus' Alain Robbe-Grillet purports to offer a thematic study of the novels and films from 1953 to 1983. But in fact it characterizes postmodernism with examples mainly drawn from Robbe-Grillet. Stoltzfus finds the art and literature of this period ludic and revolutionary, labyrinthine and self-reflexive, generated by serial composition while treating the text as a victimized body—polarized, in short, by intellectualism and impulse. The clear Introduction explains that Stoltzfus wishes to reconcile the recuperative current in Robbe-Grillet criticism (Morrissette) with a focus on the play of the signifier (Ricardou). For Robbe-Grillet's art is self-referential but also aims to subvert establishment ideology. What has changed since the traditional novel is that "the incoherence of the plot and the problematical relationships between characters are depriving readers of the security of a mechanistic world and the consolations of an essentialist psychology."

The "New New Novel" begins in 1965 with La Maison de rendez-vous. Since then Robbe-Grillet's counterdiscourse multiplies points of view to break down verisimilitude; fragments and scatters the characters' identities in order to foreground language; creates polysemy and meandering chains of associations in order to resist reductive interpretations; and in general wields the artist's parole (individual use of language) to breach the prisonhouse of langue (language as a system of conventions). Thus he exposes the myths of ideology, of an imposed order masquerading as a natural one. Robbe-Grillet plays against three dehumanizing opponents: language as convention, ideology, and the unconscious.

The richest chapters are the first, third, and sixth. The first treats "Generative Themes [that is, motifs] and Serial Permutations" (Robbe-Grillet explicitly cited [End Page 333] the composer Schoenberg when discussing his 1970 film "L'Eden et après") that attempt to invite active participation and imaginative recreation by the viewer. Chapter Three, "The Body of the Text," deals with the most overtly troubling, potentially repellent aspect of Robbe-Grillet's work of the last twenty years. Langue is systematically associated...


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