I knew Alain Robbe-Grillet mainly for his essays and the collaboration with Alain Resnais in “Last Year at Marienbad,” (a movie that still looks so beautifully composed that one happily forgives the chilly artificiality of its enigmas.) If I didn’t admire Robbe-Grillet’s poetic script there, I might not have persevered through his debut novel, 1953’s “The Erasers”.
“The Erasers” may be one of the opening salvoes of the so-called “Nouveau Roman,” but extracted from that critical context, it could be easily mistaken by a sub-Simenon “roman dur” about a shadowy organization that murders – or attempts to murder – prominent members of society. We are alerted to the fact that this is “literature” only by the sloppy vagueness of the investigating procedures; the unexciting nature of the mystery (we’re given the solution early on); and the nearly autistic insistence on details that serve no purpose within traditional genre structures.
Take, for instance, the way the town’s layout is minutely described for no narrative reason whatsoever (in fact, it is minutely described PRECISELY because there is no narrative reason to do so.) Or the way the investigator spends time trying to buy a particular brand of rubber erasers. It should be noted that the titular word has instant connotations in English that it lacks in the original French. English readers may see the mirage of meaning in the “erasure” of things (“Is the protagonist trying to ERASE reality? Are the killers ERASERS of lives?”) But the original title is simply “Les Gommes”. I can’t consult Robbe-Grillet on the subject, but I suspect the point is that he’s named a whole book after completely trivial little pieces of rubber, of no magnitude even within the context of the novel. The author takes stress away from character and plot to put it on ordinary objects that, by the very vacuum of their ordinariness, invite symbolism. (“What does the doorbell mean? What does the bridge mean? What does the telephone mean?”) Robbe-Grillet’s vision of the “Nouveau Roman” is one of objects: character and story may be intangible philosophical propositions, but reality is tangible indeed, and defined by the material objects that compose it.
And yet for all its deviations from genre, the result isn’t as weird as it needed to be. There is still too much character and story left over in “The Erasers”; enough that a reader who stumbles across the novel blind, unaware of Robbe-Grillet’s reputation and of his literary theories, may simply feel like they’re reading an eccentrically-written mystery. As for me, who WAS somewhat aware of Robbe-Grillet’s reputation and of his literary theories, I was left as unimpressed as critics were back in 1953.