Friday, January 16, 2009

Books: La Maison de Rendez-Vous, by Alain Robbe-Grillet

I’ve considered myself a Robbe-Grillet fan for years; though I’ve only ever read Jealousy, that book was astonishing enough to lodge its author permanently in my pantheon. Watching Last Year at Marienbad, for which he wrote the screenplay, only reconfirmed his place. Reading La Maison de Rendez-Vous, though, might have shaken me out of my certainty. Robbe-Grillet is known for his circularity—repeated, slightly changing sentences and scenes that play and replay with minor adjustments—and he uses that method consistently to construct a mystery where there oughtn’t be one, delaying the gratifying realization to the last pages (or, in a film, the last minutes), often so suddenly that one who wasn’t paying attention (and it’s easy to forget to pay attention, given the repetition) misses it.

In La Maison, the mystery surrounds a group of ex-patriots in Asia, who circle around a debaucherous estate: perhaps a place where the lady Ava simply holds black-tie parties, complete with nightly performances, or perhaps a brothel—those performances seem to include a strip tease in which a trained dog slowly removes the clothing from a lissome Asian model with his teeth. On the night in question, an envelope stuffed with sachets of powder—drugs, likely—is delivered, and a Eurasian girl named Kim—or is it her twin sister?—walks the streets with a giant dog on a leash. Everything seems to be in dream-state; does the girl walk with a dog, or is that only a mannequin in a shop window? Has a man been murdered, or is that only the plot of the play? (You may remember that the play at the beginning of Marienbad mirrors the film’s plot in a similar way.)

The best method, I think, for reading (or watching) Robbe-Grillet is to refrain from fighting—to move through, let the words wash around you, and absorb what you can without trying too hard—a kind of passive osmosis. If you don’t fully absorb what has happened in the first reading, the book can be started again without to strong a shake, the repetitiousness simply repeating. I may have even read Jealousy twice back then—I can’t quite remember. But I haven’t time to read La Maison again, and I’m not terribly compelled to—the difference between this book and the other.

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