Jealousy, The Unnameable, and Lo-lee-ta

The first time I read Alain Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy, I was overwhelmed by the absence of an embodied narrator, the implied but invisible first-person "I." I remember my discomfort, my reaction to being forcibly placed within the jealous husband's physical point of view. His obsessive gaze was (and still is) threatening, dangerous, removed, incredibly close but simultaneously distant and detached. I remember needing clues, anchors, I could latch on to in order to gain (or regain) my bearings, and I attempted to at least pay attention to the details, the objects described, the things. But when those things shift and move and appear and disappear from one telling to the next, the multiplicity of possible outcomes to the same told and retold episode is anything but stabilizing.

This time, though, I knew what I was in for. (And I think it is also possible that because I re-read Jealousy after having just finished Nabokov's Lolita for the first timeI was able to take some strange comfort in the narrator's curiously familiar voice; I barely registered the absence of his psychological interiority. After all of Humbert Humbert's language-crazed, Lolita-loving madman interiority, I suppose it's nice to get some overly objective distance, you know?) Which is not to say that Robbe-Grillet's narrator isn't fixated. He is. And his relentless gaze/stare is directed at his wife and their friend Franck who may or may not be her lover. 

Coincidentally (and, I think, helpfully for the reader), his wife and Franck happen to be reading the same novel, and it seems to me that the narrator's/Robbe-Grillet's description of their reading experience is precisely the kind of reading experience we are supposed to be having ourselves. 

Now both of them have finished the book they have been reading for some time; their remarks can therefore refer to the book as a whole: that is, both to the outcome and to the earlier episodes (subjects of past conversations) to which this outcome gives a new significance, or to which it adds a complementary meaning.

They have never made the slightest judgment as to the novel's value, speaking instead of the scenes, events, and characters as if they were real: a place they might remember (located in Africa, moreover), people they might have known, or whose adventures someone might have told them. Their discussions have never touched on the verisimilitude, the coherence, or the quality of the narrative. On the other hand, they frequently blame the heroes for certain acts or characteristics, as they would in the case of mutual friends. 

They also sometimes deplore the coincidences of the plot, saying that "things don't happen that way," and then they construct a different probable outcome starting from a new supposition, "if it weren't for that." Other possibilities are offered, during the course of the book, which lead to different endings. The variations are extremely numerous; the variations of these, still more so. They seem to be enjoying multiplying these choices, exchanging smiles, carried away by their enthusiasm, probably a little intoxicated by this proliferation. 

Thus Franck sweeps away in a single gesture all the suppositions they had just constructed together. It's no use making up contrary possibilities, since things are the way they are: reality stays the same. 

In the space of a page, Robbe-Grillet tells us to withhold judgment about the novel's value, and to speak instead of the characters (as we do most characters), as if they are real. We need not discuss verisimilitude, coherence, or quality of the narrative. We can, however, judge the jealous husband, A--, and Franck. It's true that the "plot" here is not a realistic representation of the way things really happen, but nonetheless we consider a number of different probable outcomes and different endings. And apparently, we are supposed to be enjoying the proliferation in the novel, even if in our own "reality stays the same." 


Beckett's unnameable narrator is, like Robbe-Grillet's, a disembodied voice who posits multiple possibilities to what may or may not be happening. But this narrator is anguished. He struggles. He sinks deeper and deeper into the unknown. He may or may not be a character. He may or may not be the narrators of Beckett's other books. He has hands and knees, but then he doesn't. He has only one leg and a pair of crutches, but he also at some point had a bicycle. He has no nose, no genitalia. But then many pages later he declares he has a penis. He narrates and de-narrates, offers possibilities but then takes them back, ventures forth and then retreats. He may be lying in the fetal position. He may be neck-deep in mud. He may be a worm. He may be in a bubble. He remembers he had a family, but whether it was his own or one of the other narrators' he doesn't say. Here are some of my favorite lines he does say/narrate/de-narrate: 

p. 335: "I like to think I occupy the centre, but nothing is less certain."

p. 339: "They gave me courses on love, on intelligence, most precious, most precious." 

p. 341: "Perhaps it is time I paid a little attention to myself, for a change. I shall be reduced to it sooner or later. At first sight it seems impossible. Me, utter me, in the same foul breath as my creatures? Say of me that I see this, feel that, fear, hope, know and do not know? Yes, I will say it, and of me alone. Impassive, still and mute." 

p 344: "So there is nothing to be afraid of. And yet I am afraid, afraid of what my words will do to me, to my refuge, yet again. Is there really nothing new to try?"

p. 349: "Let us then assume nothing, neither that I move, nor that I don't, it's safer, since the thing is unimportant, and pass on to those that are." 

p. 367: "They have even killed me off, with the friendly remark that having reached the end of my endurance I had no choice but to disappear. The end of my endurance!"

p. 368: "To tell the truth, let us be honest at least, it is some considerable time now since I last knew what I was talking about."

p. 370: "Dear incomprehension, it's thanks to you I'll be myself, in the end."

p. 377: "Perhaps all they have told me has reference to a single existence, the confusion of identities being merely apparent and due to my inaptitude to assume any." 

p. 423: "When all goes silent, and comes to an end, it will be because the words have been said, those it behoved to say, no need to know which, no means of knowing which, they'll be there somewhere, in the heap, in the torrent, not necessarily the last . . . "

p. 449: ". . . with closed eyes I see the same as with them open, namely, wait, I'll say it, I'll try and say it, I'm curious to know what it can possibly be that I see, with closed eyes, with open eyes, nothing, I see nothing, well that is a disappointment. . . "

p. 458: ". . . if I could be in a forest, caught in a thicket, or wandering round in circles, it would be the end of this blither, I'd describe the leaves, one by one, at the moment of their growing, at the moment of their giving shade, at the moment of their falling, those are good moments, for one who has not to say, But it's not I, it's not I, where am I, what am I doing, all this time, as if that mattered, but there it is, that takes the heart out of you, your heart isn't in it any more, your heart that was, among the brambles, cradled by the shadows, you try the sea, you try the town, you look for yourself in the mountains and the plains, it's only natural, you want yourself, you want yourself in your own little corner, it's not love, not curiosity, it's because you're tired, you want to stop, travel no more, seek no more, lie no more, speak no more, close your eyes. . ."

p. 476: ". . . you must go on, I can't go on, you must go on, I'll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'l go on." 

If you've ever been confused, and sad, about anything, anything at all, and especially if you somehow also became a writer to try to make sense of your confusion and sadness, or if you generally just try to find some way to think your way out of problems, Beckett's the guy for you. 


And if you've ever been on the outside of anything, trying to see in, wanting to be let in, going a little bit out of your mind about what might be happening in there, desperately trying to figure out how things happened the way they did and how things could have or should have gone instead, and if you've ever just tried to get your bearings by simply taking stock of your surroundings, your belongings, your home, your family and friends, your daily routine, then Jealousy is a pretty good bet for you. 


(And if you are a someone who considers yourself to be open-minded and pro-art and anti-censorship, then challenge yourself with Lolita. I say this because, during my own recent reading experience, I kept closing the book and thinking: So this is how other people feel when they have to read about things they consider "amoral" and/or "disgusting" and/or whatever. It was a really useful readerly response for me to have, and I tried to really experience my own full and total revulsion, because I think it can only help me better relate to future students who are uncomfortable with any kind of subject matter. And maybe it can help me convince them why I, at least, would never want to live in a world where Lolita hadn't been or wouldn't be published. Because it would be the same world that would ban and burn books like The Scarlet Letter, Madame Bovary, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and also, I could argue, those standard-fare drugstore paperback romances and murder mysteries, not to mention that sorcery/black magic/devil's work Harry Potter and of course that multi-billion dollar mainstream success story, Fifty Shades of Grey.)

The Dead

"The sinews no longer hold the flesh and the bones together, and once the spirit has left the white bones, all the rest of the body is made subject to the fire's strong fury, but the soul flitters out like a dream and flies away."

"Arriv'd, he, tuning to his voice his strings, Thus to the king and queen of shadows sings." 

"Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

"This hooly monk, this Abbot, hym meene I, His tonge out-caughte, and took awey the greyn, And he yaf up the goost ful sofetly."

"It seems to me, Sancho, that you are very frightened."

"There might be more mediatory layers in nineteenth-century ghost stories than the single author/narrator figure mediating between Moll and the reader, but the work this layer does for Defoe is at least a part of the work done by such mediation in the ghost stories too." 

"I can never escape Mrs JEWKES: who often keeps me awake in the Night -- Till the Ghost of Lady DAVERS, drawing open the Curtains, scares the Scarer, of me, and of PAMELA." 

"Alas, poor Yorick!" 

"Abodes of horror have frequently been described, and castles, filled with spectres and chimeras, conjured up by the magic spell of genius to harrow the soul, and absorb the wondering mind. But, formed as such stuff as dreams are made of, what were they to the mansion of despair, in one corner of which Maria sat, endeavouring to recalling her scattered thoughts!" 

"What was I?"

"The inner state of his soul might be compared to a demolished building, which has been demolished so that from it a new one could be built; but the new one has not been started yet." 

"I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, 'Let me in -- let me in!'" 

"Are you a believer in ghosts, my friend?"

"The housekeeper has dropped her voice to little more than a whisper." 

"It was a wedding bouquet, the other bride's bouquet!" 

"These were the ancestors. There were no portraits of their descendants." 

"It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was." 

"The residents of Bly are very concerned with keeping everyone in place: servants remain servants, masters grow up to be masters, and the dead stay dead. But Quint and the former governess, Miss Jessel, don't cooperate." 

"But to him it seemed as if that pale and lovely Hermes out there was smiling at him, beckoning him; as if he, taking his hand from his side, was pointing at and floating into that promising immensity. And as he was used to do, Aschenbach followed him."

"And to see her look displeased destroyed all the sense of tranquillity she had brought me a moment before, when she bent her loving face down over my bed, and held it out to me like a Host, for an act of Communion in which my lips might drink deeply the sense of her real presence, and with it the power to sleep." 

"He watched as it slowly began to get light everywhere outside the window too. Then, without his willing it, his head sank down completely, and his last breath flowed weakly from his nostrils."

"It is the ghost, the king, a king and no king, and the player is Shakespeare who has studied Hamlet all the years of his life which were not vanity in order to play the part of the spectre. He speaks the words to Burbage, the young player who stands before him beyond the rack of cerecloth, calling him by a name: Hamlet, I am thy father's spirit, bidding him to list. To a son he speaks, the son of his soul, the prince, young Hamlet and to the son of his body, Hamnet Shakespeare, who has died in Stratford that his namesake may live for ever."

"He -- for there could be no doubt of his sex . . ." 

"And the next morning they found him in his shirt tail laying asleep on the floor like a felled steer, and the top of the box bored clean full of holes . . ." 

"I do not know which of us has written this page."

"Unfortunately I am afraid, as always, of going on. For to go on means going from here, means finding me, losing me, vanishing and beginning again, a stranger first, then little by little the same as always in another place, where I shall say I have always been, of which I shall know nothing, but being incapable of seeing, moving, thinking, speaking, but of which little by little in spite of these handicaps, I shall begin to know something, just enough for it to turn out to be the same as always, the same which seems made for me and does not want me, which I seem to want and do not want, take your choice, which spews me out or swallows me up, I'll never know, which is perhaps merely the inside of my distant skull where once I wandered, now am fixed, lost for tininess, or straining against the walls, with my head, my hands, my feet, my back, and ever murmuring my old stories, my old story, as if it were the first time. So there is nothing to be afraid of. And yet I am afraid, afraid of what my words will do to me, to my refuge yet again."

"And in my outrage I got out my knife and prepared to slit his throat, right there beneath the lamplight in the deserted street, holding him by the collar with one hand, and opening the knife with my teeth -- when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare!" 

"I have a memory of having seen something like foamy clouds swirling above my head, and then being washed by the foam and sinking into the thick clouds. That was the last thing I saw.

"A short time later, when the carpenter was taking measurements for the coffin, through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling. They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by."


Characters, Nathalie Sarraute maintained, are props. They exist. They react to external stimuli like "sunflowers twisting toward a light source," and they "force us to recognize people from the inside." She came after "the investigative methods of Dostoyevsky," after Kafka (his "legitimate heir"), and after Proust's limitless "mental universe." She came after Woolf's and Joyce's interior monologues, their privileging of interior subjectivity over objective external "reality." She absorbed these influences and developed a different kind of stream-of-consciousness. Let's call it: streams-of-subconsciousness? Streams, plural, for her singular narrators "made up of infinite facets." And subconsciousness, because they describe gut feelings, the indescribable emotions that come and go too quickly, fleetingly, elusively. So she made new the modernists' new . . . and the Nouveau Roman was born.