Alain Robbe-Grillet - The Erasers
A murder has been committed, or perhaps not. A suspect is known to the police, or, again, perhaps not. Wallas, the investigator tasked with determining what has happened, wanders the streets of the city in search of both the dead man and his murderer – or, again, perhaps not. French author Alain Robbe-Grillet's detective thriller from the early 1950s dissolves the boundaries of what a novel can be, and what it should be, and helped to create an entirely new form of literature which he, as a founding member, called Nouveau Roman, or “New Novel”. As a piece of literary history, The Erasers is significant, for it forms one of the many pieces in the giant puzzle that is the explosion of norms and expectations that began during the inter-war period, but really took off after World War II had completed. As literature, it is also important, and remains to this day an engrossing and unique work of art.
Professor Daniel Dupont is the murder victim, the latest in a string of murders occurring nightly in a small French city. Well, he could be, as the clues pointing in both directions suggest that the truth is more malleable than first thought. Dupont himself is a character for a time, but later another Dupont comes into play, and it seems that the newspapers may have confused the professor with the other Dupont. Wallas, charged with uncovering the murderer, wonders,
What then? A chance beginning? An amateur? A lunatic? Such cases are so rare – and besides, amateurs always leave traces and can be picked up right away. One solution, obviously, would be that they were dealing with someone coming from far away just to commit the murder, and then leaving immediately after. Yet his work seems a little too well done not to have required a good deal of preparations...
is still a young man, tall, calm, with regular features. The clothes he is wearing and his idle air provide, in passing, a vague subject of remark for the last workmen hurrying towards the harbour
He is, then, a neutral aspect, a blank slate upon which the theory of the novel can write. Yes, the theory – the characters, on the whole, are absent, ephemeral, and by intention confusing. The plot is intangible, a cobweb of conflicting strands. We move from D to H by way of Z and A, and both the timeline, and the perspective of the characters, switches with little (or lots, or none at all) indication. The theory then, the disintegration of the norms of the novelistic form, takes centre stage.
Repetition is a primary focus of Robbe-Grillet's work, repetition mixed with at times monotonous detail concerning ordinary things. An example:
Several façades, rows of small, dark-red bricks, solid, monotonous, patient: a penny profit made by the “Resinous Wood Corporation”, a penny earned by “Louis Schwod, Wood Exporter”, by “Mark and Lengler” or by the “Borex Corporation”. Wood export, resinous wood, industrial wood, wood for export, export of resinous wood, the neighbourhood is completely devoted to this commerce; thousands of acres of pine trees, piled brick by brick, to shelter the big ledgers. All the houses are built the same way: five steps lead to a varnished door, recessed with black plaques on each side showing the firm's name in gold letters; two windows to the left, one to the right, and four storeys of similar windows above. Perhaps there are flats among all these offices? They cannot be discerned, in any case, by any outer sign. The employees, still not wide awake, who will be filling the street in an hour, will have a good deal of difficulty despite being used to it, recognizing their doors; or else maybe they enter the first one they come to, to export at random the wood of Louis Schwob or of Mark and Lengler? The main thing is that they do their work carefully, so that the little bricks go on piling up like figures in the big ledgers, preparing still another storey of pennies for the building; a few hundred tons more of totals and exact business letters: “Gentlemen, in answer to yours of the...” paid cash, one pine tree for five bricks.
Wood, wood, accounts, finance. The detritus of modern life, impinging upon the creation of art. Of course, this passage displays Robbe-Grillet's talent, which is art. He shows not the beauty of the ordinary but its complexities, resonances, and its ability to comment in a larger sense on the greater questions of humanity. Grand words, yes, but Robbe-Grillet's manages this with his work.
As the novel progresses, Wallas becomes enmeshed within the city, its tangles of streets, lies, people and secrets tangling him up until he becomes unsure of everything.
But where to find him? And how to recognize him? He does not have any clues, and the city is a big one. Nevertheless he decides to head towards the centre of the town, which means he has to turn round.
And, later, more confusion:
Wallas has continued his pursuit. He has systematically explored all the neighbouring streets. Afterwards, still unwilling to give up, although the chances of finding any trace of the unknown man are henceforth very slight, he has retraced his steps, turning, turning back, passing the same places two or three times, unable to tear himself away from the intersection where he had seen the man for the last time.
The cohesion of The Erasers as a novel begins to fracture towards the end, as though the constraints of the novel form itself were buckling under the pressure of Robbe-Grillet's writing. There is a strong sense, as the culmination of the novel progresses, that Robbe-Grillet is showing us the limitations of the novel as an art form for expressing ideas, truth, and acting as a reflection of man and society, while simultaneously offering a trembling and delicate pathway over the yawning chasm of the exhausted literary form. Protagonist, antagonist, resolution, and plot – these are, one by one, discarded, in a manner that seems both horrifying and inevitable. We know, at this late stage, too much about the process of a novel to expect anything from its constituent parts, so – away with them! This is Robbe-Grillet's challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the feet of pre-War literature.
The Erasers, as it meanders along, gets lost in the city, and repeats itself, has the fuzziness of a dream about its larger parts, while the immediate scene possesses a sharpness. We are presented with clearly defined, well-described building blocks, but the architect's drawing is blurred and indistinct, and we suspect there are whole pieces missing. Nothing builds up to anything, but everything has its own significance and importance within the larger whole. Wallas is our anchor, a concrete individual who guides us through the confusing situations presented – until he, too, becomes less than reliable as a character, and then the reader is deliberately left to flounder.
If there is a mission statement to the novel, a key with which to unlock the riddles of what Robbe-Grillet is attempting with The Erasers, then it is the following quote, taken from a conversation towards the end of the work:
“Oblique,” Wallas repeats evasively. “That can mean several things.”
“That's my opinion too,” the chemist says approvingly.
This is reassuringly vague, of course, and doesn't really say much at all. But it says what Robbe-Grillet's novel, writ large, is saying. Repetition, the confusion of oblique characters, statements, act, events and time, and the general agreement of all and sundry that this is the way things are. These concepts are inescapable for Robbe-Grillet, they are compounded on every page.
And what of the erasers of the title? It is meant both literally and figuratively, for Wallas often enters stationery stores to find a pencil eraser, and also because being erased is a destructive event, and the symbol of the eraser harmonises well with the primary themes of the novel, which is removal and disintegration.
”Yes. What kind of eraser?”
That's just the whole point, and Wallas once again begins describing what he is looking for: a soft, crumbly gum eraser that friction does not twist but reduces to dust; an eraser that cuts easily and whose cut surface is shiny and smooth, like mother-of-pearl. He has seen one such, a few months ago, at a friend's, but the friend could not tell him where it came from. He thought he could find himself one of the same kind without difficult, but he's been searching in vain ever since. It looked like a yellowish cube, about an inch or two long, with the corners slightly rounded – maybe by use.
This accumulation of detail (and it continues on for several more lines) is not a mistake, and is wholly deliberate by Robbe-Grillet. Wallas' search for an eraser is endemic throughout the novel, and parallels neatly with the gradual erasure of the constituent parts of the novelistic form. He may or may not find an eraser in the end, but Robbe-Grillet meets the challenge he sets himself. The culmination of the novel, without spoiling it overly, involves an astonishing level of participation of the reader, for we are expected to piece together the plot and actively engage with the machinations of the detective plot genre.
The Nouveau Roman has an assured place in literary history, and affects the course of European literature today. The Erasers is one of the founding texts of this movement, and remains a key touchstone in French literature. Happily, The Erasers holds up to fifty years of progression, and it remains an exciting, enthralling novel that yields it secrets and its pleasures slowly. An excellent novel to begin one's journey into the strange world of the Nouveau Roman, and a masterpiece in its own right.
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