Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Fictional influences

So this post is intended to continue the occasional examination of stuff I think has been important through the years in developing both my worldview and my writing. Now I'm onto novels I've found, erm, stimulating in a range of ways.

Certain novels and stories - by which I mean mainstream fiction, 'proper literature' - alerted me to the possibilities of eroticism in writing. I'm not thinking here of classics like 'Lady Chattery's Lover', which provoked a huge storm when it was first published in 1928/29 (1928 in Italy, 1929 in England in a private edition) and again in 1960 when Penguin published an unexpurgated version and were prosecuted unsuccessfully under the Obscene Publications Act. My interests aren't that classical, really. My 'toplist' would include works by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Hubert Selby and Thomas Pynchon - but I'll keep the post short(ish) and only deal with Robbe-Grillet here.

Robbe-Grillet: one of the leading lights of the 'nouveau roman' movement in France in the 1960s to the 1980s. The nouveau roman, or 'new novel' was intended to explore the relationships between language and the world, narrative and perspective. It was formalist in many ways: I'll take the lazy way out and quote Wikipedia's description:

'Rejecting many of the established features of the novel to date, Robbe-Grillet regarded many earlier novelists as old-fashioned in their focus on plot, action, narrative, ideas, and character. Instead, he put forward a theory of the novel as focused on objects: the ideal nouveau roman would be an individual version and vision of things, subordinating plot and character to the details of the world rather than enlisting the world in their service.'

The consequence is writing that focuses very much on 'objects' and detailed description, even while acknowledging that descriptions are always incomplete and based on interpretations and prior understandings (the old question of 'how do we come to describe this particular collection of wood/cloth/metal/plastic as a “chair” given the potentially infinite range of different designs for a “chair”).

However, Robbe-Grillet rarely describes chairs. The 'objects' he seems to describe in great detail, and often, are women's bodies, usually unclothed, restrained in rope, and often being tortured in ways that are reminiscent of medieval levels of sadism. Examples include his collection of short stories, 'Snapshots', in particular the story 'The Secret Room'; and pretty much the whole of 'Project for a Revolution in New York'. Another novel, 'The House of Assignation', contains an equally detailed scene in which a nightclub performance involves a woman being stripped naked by a huge dog, which rips the clothes from her body with its teeth.

There are specific literary points to this objectification of the female body, which are broadly that the idea of an 'object' in literary terms is arbitrary; and the experiment in making description, rather than narrative, the key element of writing (or alternatively that 'narrative' happens in and through description). I found it interesting that the whole distinction between description and narrative turns out to be fairly arbitrary and that a 'plot' can be carried forwards by describing objects in some detail. It's an idea I employ in my own writing from time to time, though not remotely in the same way as Robbe-Grillet: at least sometimes, I tend to use feelings, emotions, psychological states as the 'objects' I describe. There's also the fairly obvious point that 'you can't say what you mean in so many words'. However detailed a description of some object, there will always be avenues, angles, perspectives left unwritten, or denoted by some kind of 'etcetera'. Again, this is something a writer can play with, being selective about what's left out as well as what's put in though this tends to rely on judgements about what a reader would be likely to fill in for themselves.

However, his choice of material and his unremitting turn towards S&M, or sadism at any rate, was certainly attention-grabbing given the age at which I first read it and my own interests at that time.

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