"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet: the plot thickens

The death this week of the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, credited with inventing the nouveau roman or 'new novel' in the 1950s, has once again highlighted the supposed differences between the 'traditional' and 'avant garde' novel. John Sturrock, that excellent interpreter of French culture to the reluctant British, wrote in his Independent obituary: "He had come to literature, unusually, from mathematics and the hard sciences; and rather than perpetuate it, his declared intention was at long last to bury it." As Sturrock goes on to show R-G softened over the years and it was a late novel, La reprise (2001) that I last read and found it actually richly imaginative, mysterious and atmospheric in its immediately post-war setting, and the plot (the bit that is always the bone of contention between the Anglo-Saxon realists and those pesky continental 'experimentalists') was intriguing - though don't, please, ask me to summarise or explain it! I wonder if some of this is just a storm in a teacup, especially when many of the 'avant garde' techniques have been quietly appropriated by the 'mainstream' novelists. I am currently re-reading, and finding myself lost in admiration for, E.M. Forster's Howards End. Written in 1910 before the nouveau roman circus arrived in town it gives me as much pleasure as La reprise. As with those people who hate contemporary classical music because it doesn't sound like Mozart I feel that you don't need to choose. You can have both. You can double your pleasure. As a professional hedonist I wouldn't want it any other way.

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