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Mind's Eye Narrative in Nabokov’s The Eye and Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy

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Maksim Hanukai
San Francisco State University

The two short novels that will be discussed in this essay are excellent examples of an author’s experimentation with the first-person narrative form. Told through the eyes of jealous, psychologically obsessive narrators, both novels abandon traditional representations of the “I” in favor of a distanced point of view where, though the story remains entirely the creation of the narrator and is observed and transformed through the double prism of vision and imagination (the eye and the mind’s eye), the narrator nevertheless appears “absent” or not directly engaged in the story’s proceedings. However, as we soon realize, this seeming distance only intensifies the narrator’s involvement in the plot and the reader’s own identification with the narrator. As Bruce Morrissette remarks in regards to Jealousy, “We must constantly separate ourselves from this jealous [narrator] that we become as we read” (117). As we observe the events unfold (and then re-fold again in the case of Jealousy) through the narrators' minds, we begin to recognize their obsessive need for possession—a need they seek to satisfy by means of visual perception. Observation, voyeurism, the act of spying; unable to possess the objects of their desires directly, the narrators construct visual traps wherein they hope to capture their “prey.” Having thus captured a visual image—an “impression”—they subject it to the transformative powers of imagination: to satisfy their sexual urges, their need for self-affirmation, or as a venue for enacting the kind of violence that their normally meek temperaments would not allow. Cowards in real life, the narrators “imagine” an alternate reality wherein their egos reign. The eye then becomes a conduit to the “I”—a means of possessing the world through visual perception and, consequently, re-shaping it with the help of imagination according to the narrators’ individual wants.

I. The Elephant and the Zebra

Before we go on to the actual examination of the two novels, I would like to say a few words about the authors themselves.

In a 1974 interview conducted by David Hayman—“in a good sized room, conservatively furnished, with Japanese prints on the wall”—Robbe-Grillet names Nabokov as one of two American writers who fascinate him (the other being William Burroughs). “A book like Pale Fire comes very close to expressing my feelings,” he says. “And Nabokov himself feels very close to my books” (276).

Indeed he did. Asked by Arts, a French literary weekly, who among French writers he would most like to meet, Nabokov—who had by that time established himself as the new elephant of Russian (and American) literature1—replied he was interested only in Raymond Queneau and Alain Robbe-Grillet. “Queneau was out of town, but Arts had Robbe-Grillet interview Nabokov, who found him as original in person as on paper” (Boyd, American 398). Nabokov recalls the meeting in a later interview with Alfred Appel: apparently Robbe-Grillet’s wife, an actress, “dressed herself à la gamine in [Nabokov’s] honor, pretending to be Lolita, and she continued the performance the next day [. . .] in a restaurant. After pouring wine for everyone but her, the waiter asked, ‘Voulez-vous un Coca-cola, Mademoiselle?’” (Nabokov, Strong Opinions 174).

For Robbe-Grillet’s novels Nabokov had only praise. In typical Nabokov fashion he dismissed the rest of the “New Novel” gang, singling out Robbe-Grillet as a “great French writer, [whose] work is grotesquely imitated by a number of banal scribblers whom a phony label assists commercially” (Nabokov, Strong Opinions 4). In another interview, he calls Robbe-Grillet’s fiction “magnificently poetical and original,” praising its “shifts of levels” and “interpenetration of successive impressions” (Nabokov, Strong Opinions 80). As for Jealousy, Nabokov called it one of the greatest novels of the century—rare praise from a writer who dismissed Faulkner’s “corn-cobby chronicles”2 and Mann’s “asinine” Death in Venice, let alone Jean-Paul Sartre, whom he associated with “a fashionable brand of café philosophy” (288).

Yet Robbe-Grillet’s special status among Nabokov’s “chosen” men of letters (and vice versa) should not come as a surprise if one looks closely at the affinities not only in their writing but also in their writing on writing. Nabokov has long been famous for his rejection of any kind of political or social messages in his works, which he considered worlds as self-sufficient and “real” as our own. He dismissed the idea that art “means” anything or that it has any “use” for society—apart, of course, from the pleasures and pains one feels when composing or deciphering its intricate problems and patterns. Robbe-Grillet echoes this view in his collection of essays, For a New Novel, where he asks, “Might we not advance on the contrary that the genuine writer has nothing to say? He has only a way of speaking. He must create a world, but starting from nothing, from dust” (45). He too dismisses “committed” novels à la socialist realism and the popular French left-leaning writing of the day as the worst kind of “bourgeois” expression: “Art is not a more or less brilliantly colored envelope intended to embellish the author’s ‘message,’ a gilt paper around a package of cookies, a whitewash on a wall, a sauce that makes the fish go down easier.” Like the zebra, whose stripes are “meaningless,” art just is—“It creates its own equilibrium and its own meaning. It stands all by itself, like the zebra; or else it falls” (45). Consequently, for both writers the value of a work of art consists solely in its originality, its ingenuity, its resistance of tired forms: “invention and imagination become, at the limit, the very subject of the book” (32).

Invention and imagination are also traits that both Nabokov and Robbe-Grillet like to pass on to their protagonists—albeit with an added (artistic?) twist of madness. As we shall see, the narrators in both Jealousy and The Eye are beset by a world that does not bend to their desires, that does not belong to them. And yet, their insignificance, their ineffectuality, is somewhat compensated with the gift of imagination (a cruel gift, at times, for is there anything more tormenting to a jealous mind?). Their vibrant and vivid imaginings often border on the artistic (the narrator of The Eye even boasts of his “literary gift”); and the fact that the narrators are themselves the authors of their narrative—a blank screen onto which they project their wildest fantasies—certainly establishes authorship and man’s gift of invention as one of the essential themes that both Nabokov and Robbe-Grillet probe in their works.

II. The Blind Eye

The Eye, first published in 1930 as Soglyadatay (meaning “spy” or “watcher”), did not appear in English until 1965, a decade after Nabokov’s sudden spring to fame following the success of Lolita.3 At that point the market was already saturated with Nabokoviana, as the writer’s oeuvre seemed to grow in both directions with the steady publication of his nine Russian and eight English novels, in addition to stories, lectures, letters, translations, essays, and even chess problems, not to speak of his research on Lepidoptera. Despite this flurry of attention (or perhaps because of it), The Eye, the most slender of Nabokov’s novels, went largely unnoticed, and hardly any criticism exists on this otherwise superb and quite significant work.

The plot of The Eye is far from humdrum. The story begins with the narratorial “I” who identifies himself only as a young Russian émigré living in Berlin, where he works as a tutor for “a Russian family that had not yet had time to grow poor” (3). His tutees—two inordinately frugal boys who keep count of his smokes—are a constant nuisance, and their ability to discomfit the narrator immediately establishes the latter as an ineffectual milksop. Despite his unmanliness, however, he manages to start up an affair with Matilda, a plump friend of his employers, whose husband—a certain Kashmarin (from the Russian word for “nightmare”)—happens to be conveniently away, no mention where—in fact, the narrator dismisses him altogether as “a husband like any other” (4), to whom he need not pay any attention. Bad move; for, when Kashmarin finds out about the affair, he promptly beats the powerless narrator to a pulp right in front of the boys, smokes a cigarette, and leaves, “saying something about a ‘little lesson’” (16). Humiliated, the narrator runs back to his former address and shoots himself.

Here the story takes a strange turn. Despite his alleged suicide, the narrator finds himself recovering in a hospital, a phenomenon which he explains as a product of his mental momentum: “apparently, while I was still alive, my imagination had been so fertile that enough of it remained to last for a long time” (22). Pretty soon he “imagines” himself checking out of the hospital, roaming the streets of Berlin, and eventually stumbling onto Weinstock, a rather eccentric Russian bookseller who fixes him up with new lodgings. And so “life” goes on:

Ever since the shot—that shot which, in my opinion, had been fatal—I had observed myself with curiosity instead of sympathy, and my painful past—before the shot—was now foreign to me. This conversation with Weinstock turned out to be the beginning of a new life for me. In respect to myself I was now an onlooker. (27)

We are thus introduced to the main innovation of the novel: as an onlooker—an eye—the narrator abandons himself to observation. From now on, in fact, he will only appear as an eye: observing, spying, all the time thinking that the world resides solely in his mind.

Above him, on the top floor, lives a Russian family—friends of Weinstock—with whom he soon becomes acquainted. This group consists of two sisters, Evgenia and Vanya, and Khrushchov, Evgenia’s husband, and several friends who come and go. The narrator is instantly drawn to the younger sister: “I noticed Vanya immediately, and immediately my heart gave a flutter; as when, in a dream, you enter a dream-safe room and find therein, at your dream’s disposal, your dream-cornered prey” (29). His gaze dotes on Vanya in great detail, down to the “little white flakes on her round fingernails” (31), and he soon discovers that visual perception is a form of possession: “What further concentration is needed, what added intensity must one’s gaze attain, for the brain to enslave the visual image of a person?” (31). As the eye, the narrator will try to take possession of the world by constant, and often clandestine, observation.

Among the family circle there is another young man who makes an immediate impression on the narrator. Smurov (“murky”) is described as a newcomer to the group, pale and mysterious, but also reserved and intelligent, no doubt having belonged to the best St. Petersburg society. The narrator imagines that Vanya must be impressed by Smurov’s “noble and enigmatic modesty” (33), and scrutinizes her every move for any signs of warmth for the young man. But no sooner than the narrator seems positive that Vanya has fallen for Smurov than the latter is exposed as a fraud by Mukhin (“fly”), a heretofore-ignored family friend. Embarrassed, Smurov begs of Mukhin not to tell Vanya. His secret remains safe, but the narrator, unwilling to give up his impression of a brave Smurov, finds himself on the search for “the true Smurov” by studying other people’s reactions to him, asking them directly, even searching their rooms or intercepting their mail.

Of course Vanya’s impression of Smurov is the most important, and his obsession with her eventually leads him to break into the family’s apartment while they are away at the theatre. There he rummages through her letters and books, finding nothing, until he stumbles onto a photograph of Mukhin and Vanya, in which “one could make out a black elbow—all that remained of lopped off Smurov” (58). Later it will be revealed that Mukhin and Vanya are engaged. One week before their wedding, the narrator catches Vanya alone in her bedroom and declares his love, which is gently but firmly spurned. Humiliated again he heads back to his old lodgings in order to check the bullet-hole in the wall, to prove to himself that he really did kill himself and that consequently nothing matters. It is there, but on the way out he is hailed by Kashmarin, the jealous husband who beat him up earlier, who calls him “Smurov” (for those who have not yet guessed), offers him an apology and, to make up for it, a job. Touched, the narrator—Smurov—says he will think about it and ambles away. The novel ends with his exclamations of his happiness:

Yes, happy. I swear, I swear I am happy. I have realized that the only happiness in this world is to observe, to spy, to watch, to scrutinize oneself and others, to be nothing but a big, slightly vitreous, somewhat bloodshot, unblinking eye. [. . .] I am happy that I can gaze at myself, for any man is absorbing—yes, really absorbing. The world, try as it may, cannot insult me. I am invulnerable. And what do I care if she marries another? Every other night I dream of her dresses on an endless clothesline of bliss, in a ceaseless wind of possession and her husband shall never learn what I do to the silks and fleece of the dancing witch. (104)

Although he was unable to possess Vanya, the impression that she has left on him may be enough. Smurov’s imagination (his “literary gift”) is strong enough to stand on its own, to capture whatever lost or unrequited love his heart may have craved.

But, as Brian Boyd observes, “Smurov is a spy, of course, but only on himself, or rather on other people’s sense of himself” (Russian 349). His strange split after the (bungled?) suicide allows the narrator to spy on himself, to see himself as others see him and, even more importantly, to see himself as he would like to be seen. The split is thus a heteroglossic technique that Nabokov uses to portray the multi-voicedness of individual consciousness. While Smurov boasts of his exploits, the reader, having perceived a touch of fabrication in his tone, learns to mistrust him, despite the narrator’s unrelenting protestations to the contrary. The narrator’s protestations are absurd, but this incongruity between fact and fantasy, between reality and illusion—which stems from the narrator’s futile need to be recognized—sets up the intense pathos that the reader feels for the meek, despairing narrator. And yet, as the narrator soon comes to believe, authentic recognition may not even be possible, for the ego does not exist—what exist are only the countless impressions one makes on other people:

For I do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me. With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they live, somewhere they multiply. I alone do not exist. Smurov, however, will live on for a long time. (103)

The I (the Eye)—the ego—does not exist in the eyes of other men. Consequently, Smurov’s obsession with Vanya, his need to “enslave” her, stems from his desire to enslave the impression that he made on her, who he considered so unlike everyone else.

In his Foreword Nabokov warns:

The plot will not be reducible in the reader’s mind—if I read that mind correctly—to a dreadfully painful love story in which a writhing heart is not only spurned, but humiliated and punished. The forces of imagination which, in the long run, are the forces of good remain steadfastly on Smurov’s side, and the very bitterness of tortured love proves to be as intoxicating and bracing as would be its most ecstatic requital. (not paginated)

Smurov, though constantly spurned and humiliated, nevertheless proves that he is alive, despite his attestations to the contrary. His emotional vacillations, the pangs and heart throbs of unrequited love, his aspirations and his failures—these are all signs of life, of having lived, and that, Nabokov says, may be enough.

The Eye is a striking example of the psychological novel—a study of obsession, jealousy, the need for self-affirmation. Ironically, as an eye, Smurov is consistently, and perhaps willfully, blind. Even before his “death,” he dismissed Matilda’s warning that her husband was “a noble brute,” who “worshipped her and was savagely jealous,” for Matilda’s version of Kashmarin seemed to contrast with his own: “The image she created of her husband was hard to reconcile with the appearance of the I hardly noticed” (my italics) (6). Later, with his gaze steadily fixated on Smurov, the narrator manages to completely ignore Mukhin, whose intentions were known to everyone else. A moment after he sees the photograph in Vanya’s bedroom, he hears the metallic fidgeting of a key in the door lock: “Had my disincarnate fleeting from room to room really lasted three hours?” he wonders. “My time and theirs had nothing in common” (58). In his mad frenzy the narrator completely loses track of time. He hides himself in “a satiny little boudoir next to the dining room,” from where he overhears the sisters’ languid conversation, believing that he will finally learn all he wants about Smurov. Instead their conversation seems rather banal: root beer, fruit paste, whether something is made of wood; observations about the clock which had stopped... “And that was all. They sat on for quite a while; they made clinking sounds with something or other” (60). As dawn approaches, the narrator slips out, not having learned that this wooden thing, this “something or other”—“a spoon, maybe,” as the narrator supposes—was in fact an engagement ring from Mukhin, which the sisters left lying on the table in plain sight before turning in.

The narrator willfully blinds himself so as to boost his own impression of himself and to put a positive spin on his otherwise unsympathetic surroundings. After the “split,” he attempts to endow his alter ego, Smurov, with all the features that he lacks. When a guest of the family mentions the horrors of war, Smurov comes back with a misquotation from N. A. Nekrasov’s “Harking to the horrors of war” (Vnimaja uzasam vojny)—a pacifist poem proclaiming the author’s pity for the mothers of the fallen (Johnson 398). Instead, Smurov inverts the poem in order to build up his false bravado: “I feel sorry ‘neither for the friend, nor the friend’s mother,’ [. . .] It is difficult to put into words the musical delight that the singing of bullets gives you . . .” (34). This is a rather bold—and bogus—statement from the man who earlier admitted to having been “frightened to death [when crossing] the Finnish border (even if it was by express train and with a prosaic permit)” (6).

His escape from the Bolsheviks also gets an elaborate makeover. A flight by way of Finland was obviously too “prosaic,” so Smurov conjures up a Byronic passage through Crimea, where he travels under the guise of Sokolov (“falcon”) but eventually gets caught by the Reds and has to shoot them all down in order to escape by jumping across the rails in front of an approaching train. Here, however, Mukhin finally steps in: “Yalta does not have a railroad station” (50). Suddenly the narrator loses interest in Smurov . . . until, at a spiritual “séance” at Weinstock’s, the latter is warned by the ghost of Azef (a famous Russian double-agent) to “Watch out for a small man in black” (52). And once again Smurov regains his mysterious air.

In Nabokov’s story, the “I” (the Eye) sees only what he (it) wants to see. Having failed miserably in his life, having evidently failed in his suicide as well, the narrator attempts to take control of reality by placing himself at its center. From the moment of his “disincarnation”—the split between the narrator’s ego and his body—the narrator abandons himself to the observation of his corporal double, whom he infuses with all the mystery and bravado that he had lacked himself. Though he is seemingly present at all the family gatherings, the narrator never presents himself corporally.4 He spies, he observes; sometimes he even engages in conversation with the other characters, but only when the topic is Smurov. And, if his inquiries fail to provide him with a favorable impression of Smurov, he simply reshuffles the deck and pulls out a new card on which he will stake his happiness. Thus while one image of Smurov (Mukhin’s or Weinstock’s) proves negative, he finds fresh hope in another (Uncle Pasha’s or Roman Bogdanovich’s), until he finally runs out of alternatives and, in a desperate frenzy, makes his feelings known to Vanya. Humiliated again, he re-enacts his previous actions following his meeting with Kashmarin by re-tracing his steps back to his old residence. The bullet-hole is there, re-affirming the unreality of the world. Nothing matters. Once again, having assured himself of his centrality in the world, of the power of his imagination, of his ability to “possess” Vanya whenever he pleases by merely conjuring her up in his mind, the narrator, having thus restored “order” to the world, can claim that he is happy: “I am happy—yes, happy! What more can I do to prove it, how to proclaim that I am happy? Oh, to shout it so that all of you believe me at last, you cruel, smug people . . .” (104). This last note sounds rather bleak and puts the narrator’s claims of happiness to question. But whether Smurov is happy or not matters little, for, as Nabokov notes, having suffered, having failed, having utterly humiliated himself, Smurov has lived, and that in itself may be ample reward for his suffering.

III. The Absent I

Nabokov’s chief innovation in The Eye was his ability to shift seamlessly between first and third person narration—between confession and observation—without ever abandoning the “I,” the ubiquitous disincarnate ego that seeks to impose order and find self-affirmation through the obsessive observation and classification of his surroundings. Written almost thirty years later, Robbe-Grillet’s third novel, Jealousy, similarly explores the sense of sight as a means of possession. It is also a novel that is profoundly innovative in its handling of the first-person narrator, in its treatment of time (or timelessness), and in the intensification of objective detail, all of which combine to produce one of the most psychologically intense and disturbing renderings of an individual’s jealousy and his futile attempt to impose order on a world that is just out of his control. Though Robbe-Grillet’s style is unique, the characteristics of obsession that both he and Nabokov explore are strikingly similar and warrant a closer examination.

Even before the narrative of Jealousy begins we are given a glimpse of some of the major themes that will define the novel. A selectively detailed map of the setting is accompanied by a legend on the opposing page. The drawing itself is rectangular. At its center is a perfectly square house, surrounded by a courtyard, a garden and, further, on all sides of the house, a neat grove of banana trees outlined by a series of parallel lines. The interior of the house is exposed in a floorplan-type fashion, each room and object labeled with a numeral, which then appears with a corresponding description on the legend. Although the first-time reader may not detect any peculiarities in this map, a careful re-reader will observe in it several signs of the narrator’s presence. The rigidly linear order of the banana trees, the square, cell-like shape of the house and its seeming isolation from the outside world call to mind the image of a prison-cell, which will be reflected in the narrator’s attempt to enslave his allegedly unfaithful wife, A . . ..5 This is further reflected in the detail with which the map illustrates A . . .’s bedroom, as opposed to some of the other rooms which are illustrated with little or no furniture or, in one case, without even a name. On the veranda on the southern side of the house (the orientation of the house corresponds exactly to a compass), there are four chairs and a cocktail table, which are numbered from one through five, and yet the legend only contains entries for three chairs and the table: “1) Franck’s chair. 2) A . . .’s chair. 3) Empty chair. 5) Cocktail table” (37). Franck’s chair and A . . .’s chair are positioned close together on one side of the table, followed by the empty chair and chair #4 (the narrator’s, as we will later learn), which are set at an angle that will prevent the narrator from seeing Franck and A . . . without turning his head. On the northern side of the house, above the courtyard, a road curves up to the highway—the only outlet to the outside world. The isolation of the house, the concentration of detail in A . . .’s bedroom, and the total absence of the narrator from the map (despite traces of his hand in its production) all set up the narrative that will follow: the first person account of a narrator who never says “I” or “me,” who is never directly present in his own story, whom one never sees nor hears, but whose meticulous observations will reveal to us the inner workings of a mind struggling with jealousy and obsessed with a desire for order.

The dominant narrative technique employed by Robbe-Grillet in this masterfully original novel is his use of a singular point of view, that of the narrator, through whose eyes the reader observes and is drawn into the events of the story, yet who never stops to analyze or reflect upon these events or his own position within them. As in Nabokov’s novel, the eye is once again the strained organ through which the narrator hopes to take control of reality, and the very language of the novel is the language of description, of tireless enumeration and classification of the objective world as perceived through the narrator’s eyes, an objective world that, as Robbe-Grillet himself asserts in his essays, exists a priori of consciousness, but is tainted by consciousness when the latter puts it under its lens. This interaction between consciousness and the outside world is at the very heart of Jealousy.

The basic sequence of the narrative is difficult, if not impossible, to summarize. As Robbe-Grillet states in one of his essays, “The narrative was [. . .] made in such a way that any attempt to reconstruct an external chronology would lead, sooner or later, to a series of contradictions, hence to an impasse” (For A New Novel 154). Comprised of nine chapters, the events are narrated without a stable chronology. Repetitions of whole scenes, abrupt shifts in time and space, addition and even transformation of previously recounted detail; such a perplexing structure is clearly an exposition of the narrator’s bewildered conscience, a deformation and inversion of external reality (and of traditional literary form) through grotesque subjectivism. The narrator of The Eye believed he was dead but was unable to reconstruct his “imaginary” world according to his aspirations. The narrator of Jealousy knows he is alive, and, driven by jealousy to the point of frenzy, cuts up the world into a series of fragments, which he then re-examines, compares, directs new questions to, and transforms by the action of his imagination (Morrissette 116).

And yet one can extract some of these fragments in order to attempt some kind of linear order, a basic “story” that underlies the narrative. The narrative takes place on a banana plantation, perhaps in the French Antilles, though the exact location is never clearly stated. Through a series of encounters that occur at various times of the day we are introduced to A . . . , the narrator’s wife, and Franck, a neighboring planter who regularly visits the house for lunch and dinner. After the first few pages we realize that we are in fact “installed” in the mind of the narrator-husband, who “trains upon everything that surrounds him the most minute attention: the form and structure of his square house, its veranda columns that function like a kind of sun dial, the geometrical arrangement of his banana trees, the smallest details of his external world” (Morrissette 118). But most of all he directs his attention on his wife. Through blinds (jalousies in French), he watches her move around her bedroom, write a letter, brush her hair, drink coffee on the veranda with Franck, read a book. But as soon as her glance seems to move toward him, he abruptly looks away and begins to describe the balusters on the veranda, the banana trees, or some other object. There is an unquestionable anxiety concerning the narrator’s relationship with his wife, and this anxiety is only intensified in Franck’s presence.

From several disjointed bits of narration, we gather that something is definitely brewing between Franck and A . . .—if not a full-fledged affair, then at least one that is clearly in the works. When we first encounter A . . . , she is in her bedroom taking out a pale blue letter from her chest. After she reads it, she proceeds to her desk where—though her back blocks the narrator’s view—she seems to be writing her own letter, on the same kind of pale blue paper. Several pages later the same scene is repeated once again, but with added detail (note the sudden shift of viewpoint as A . . . turns back toward the narrator):

She goes to the heavy chest again against the rear partition. She opens the top drawer to take out a small object and turns back toward the light. On the log bridge the crouching native has disappeared. A . . . is sitting at the little work table against the wall to her right that separates the bedroom from the hallway. She leans over some long and painstaking task: mending an extremely fine stocking, polishing her nails, a tiny pencil drawing. . . . But A . . . never draws: to mend the run in her stocking she would have moved nearer the daylight; if she needed a table to do her nails on she would not have chosen this one. (55)

Unable to see exactly what A . . . is doing the narrator is forced to imagine. In a deductive fashion he goes through a series of possible actions and strikes out those that seem improbable.

Two paragraphs later the narration suddenly shifts to the luncheon with Franck on the veranda. After some quite conspicuous flirtation between Franck and A . . . , the latter realizes that she had forgotten to bring ice for their drinks. She tries calling the native houseboy, but he does not answer (though we later learn that he can hear just fine from the other side of the house). Somebody has to get the ice, so the narrator leaves A . . . and the guest alone and heads to the pantry. There he questions the boy, who plays dumb and says that he will bring the ice right away. On his way back the narrator slips into his office from where, once again through the blinds, he watches as the boy carries in the ice bucket and leaves. . . but neither A . . . nor Franck bother with the ice—the whole thing was obviously a ruse to get rid of the narrator-husband.

But a ruse for what purpose? Why did A . . . and Franck need to escape the narrator’s eye? Some thirty pages later we once again observe A . . . at her writing table: “A . . . , in the bedroom, again bends over the letter she is writing. The sheet of pale blue paper in front of her has only a few lines on it at this point. [. . .] After a moment she raises her head again while the song resumes, from the direction of the sheds” (83). The description of the native’s song that follows is probably the best summary of Robbe-Grillet’s narrative technique:

It is doubtless the same poem continuing. If the themes sometimes blur, they only recur somewhat later, all the more clearly, virtually identical. Yet these repetitions, these tiny variations, halts, regressions, can give rise to modifications—though barely perceptible—eventually moving quite far from the point of departure. (84)

The repetitions and fragmentation of the narrative is likened to themes repeated in a song or a musical score: the themes remain the same but are presented each time in a new light with slight variations. We get another example on the next page as we once again observe, through the blinds, the ice bucket scene on the verandas, with one very significant modification:

On the veranda, Franck and A . . . have remained in their chairs. She has not been in any hurry about serving the ice: she has still not touched the shiny metal bucket which the boy has just set down next to her, its luster already frosted over.

Like A . . . beside him, Franck looks straight ahead, toward the horizon, at the top of the hillside opposite. A sheet of pale blue paper, folded several times—probably in eighths—now sticks out of his right shirt pocket. (my italics) (86)

And so, some thirty pages later, we finally learn that the reason the narrator had to be sent away was so that A . . . could pass her letter on to Franck. What does the letter say? There is no way of knowing, though once again we can piece several fragments together in order to find some kind of continuity.

From what we glean from other scenes, Franck is planning a trip to town in order to purchase a new truck (his truck has been having “mechanical troubles”) and has offered to take A . . . , who wants to use the opportunity to do some shopping, with him. Since it takes four hours to drive each way, they would have to leave at six o’clock and come back around midnight. Of course the trip itself is yet another ruse, and it may have been this very trip that A . . . was writing about to Franck in her letter. At least this is what the narrator seems to suspect, as he waits alone in the house for the couple to return. It is during their absence—when they are free from his surveillance—that the repetitions of previous scenes reaches a climax—so much so that we can surmise that these repetitions are actually the narrator’s frenzied recollections and reevaluations of previous episodes, magnified and disordered by his jealousy. It is here, for example, that the pale blue letter finally appears in Franck’s pocket (Was it really there? Did the narrator simply “imagine” it in his wife’s absence?). It is also at this time—if one can speak of time in this novel—that the most grotesque and revealing of repetitions occurs.

We encounter the initial scene in this sequence about twenty pages into the narrative. Franck is once again present at dinner without his wife, Christiane. Suddenly, A . . . notices a centipede, “a common Scutigera of average size” (64), on the wall that separates the living room and the bedroom. Usually unemotional, A . . . seems to breathe a little faster, her eyes widen, she clutches the knife and the tablecloth: “A . . . does her best, but does not manage to look away, nor to smile at the joke about her aversion to centipedes” (65). (And this is one of those instances when the narrator’s speech—the joke—is made known only indirectly.) While the narrator is making jokes, Franck gets up and squashes the centipede with his napkin and with his foot, leaving a stain on the wall—“a tiny arc twisted into a question mark”—which perhaps symbolizes the narrator’s ineffectuality and his suspicions about his wife’s infidelity.

Although the scene is repeated several times throughout the novel, the first major variation comes about twenty pages later. Here, the paragraphs surrounding the eventual squashing of the centipede add to its symbolism. At first the narrator trains his eye on Franck, who is observed as he is eating his dinner:

His considerable appetite is made even more noticeable by the numerous, emphatic movements he makes . . . the comings and goings of the fork between plate and mouth, the rhythmic distortions of all the muscles of the face during a conscientious mastication which, even before being completed, is already accompanied by an accelerated repetition of the whole series. (88)

Franck’s very masculine appetite serves as contrast between himself and the meek narrator; the animalish “mastication” of his food associates him with the centipede whose mandibles will later be described in great detail; and finally, the “rhythmic distortions” of Franck’s muscles prefigure the sexual symbolism that this scene will take in its final, climactic variation, which are now described only in terms of Franck’s “rhythmic” eating motion:

The right hand picks up the bread and raises it to the mouth, the right hand sets the bread down on the white cloth and picks up the knife, the left hand picks up the fork, the fork sinks into the meat, the knife cuts off a piece of meat, the right hand sets down the knife on the cloth, the left hand puts the fork in the right hand, which sinks the fork into the piece of meat, which approaches the mouth, which begins to chew with movements of contraction and extension which are reflected all over the face, in the cheek bones, the eyes, the ears, while the right hand again picks up the fork and puts in the left hand, then picks up the bread, then the knife, then the fork. . . . (88)

It is at this point that A . . . sees the centipede and Franck gets up to squash it. Here the narrator’s eyes turns to A . . .’s hands, which are clenching the white tablecloth. He concentrates on A . . .’s tapering fingers and her wedding ring “that barely rises above the flesh”—an allusion to the lock of the marriage bond and of the narrator’s theoretical possession of his wife. After A . . . lets go of the tablecloth the narrator sees “a tiny, dark, elongated, sinuous stain” beside her knife. As Morrissette notes, the various stains and spots in Jealousy functions as “Rorschach spots, so to speak, in which the husband seems to discover, or into which he projects, supports for his feelings” (145). In the present case, at least, the meaning that the husband attributes to the two stains seems undeniable within the sexualized symbolism of the scene. And the husband’s suspicions are once again stressed by the reappearance of the pale blue letter, which, “with a mechanical movement,” Franck tries to push back down into his shirt pocket.

The final variations on the centipede motif occur when Franck and A . . . fail to return from town, attributing their delay to “mechanical problems” with Franck’s car. While they are away, the narrator undertakes what is perhaps his first direct “action”—he uses a knife and an eraser to remove the stain left by the centipede on the dining room wall. Following this act he, conjures up the scene once again, but this time “erasing” Franck from the picture (previously he was only able to “erase” an oil stain left in the courtyard by Franck’s truck by shifting the angle with which his eyes looked out through a defect on the window pane). After more prowling through the empty house, noting that A . . . “ought to have been back long ago,” the narrator enters the dining room, where the centipede scene reaches its climax. The centipede is no longer of “average size,” but “enormous: one of the largest to be found in this climate” (112). Franck’s napkin is replaced with a towel, the white tablecloth with the white bed sheet, which A . . . “clutches with such force that [her fingers] have drawn the cloth with them” (113). As we soon realize, the scene has in fact been transferred in the narrator’s mind to the motel room where Franck and A . . . are thought to be staying together, and what follows is a series of brilliant transitions that unite the major themes of the narrative:

In his haste to reach his goal, Franck increases his speed. The jolts become more violent. Nevertheless he continues to drive faster. In the darkness, he has not seen the hole running halfway across the road. The car makes a leap, skids. . . . On this bad road the driver cannot straighten out in time. The blue sedan goes crashing into a roadside tree whose rigid foliage scarcely shivers under the impact, despite its violence.

The car immediately bursts into flames. The whole brush is illuminated by the crackling, spreading fire. It is the sound the centipede makes, motionless again on the wall, in the center of the panel. (113)

This “visionary holocaust” into which the husband plunges the lovers is the narrator’s final attempt to “erase” them from his mind by an act of “imagined” violence—a passive act that serves to substitute for the narrator’s incapacity for real action. His inability to control his wife, to possess her through sight alone, his inability to act, have left him to “imagine” the destruction not only of her but of his entire identity as a “married man.”

Though previously the native’s song represented for the narrator an underlying order behind the fragmentation of his thoughts (and of the narrative), his ineffectiveness and the hysterical pitch to which his jealous imagination has succumbed have nullified any hope for order in his mind: “The sounds, despite apparent repetitions, do not seem related by any musical law. There is no tune, really, no melody, no rhythm. It is as if the man were content to utter unconnected fragments as an accompaniment to his work” (127). After A . . . returns from town the narrator overhears her hum a tune, which he imagines is “a popular song she has heard in town, to whose rhythm she may have danced” (133). There may be laws and rhythms and melodies in music, after all, but the narrator and his wife are certainly dancing to a different tune.

IV. Conclusion

Despite the vastly different techniques employed by Nabokov and Robbe-Grillet to render their novels, there are a number of both minor and more important resemblances, indeed even patterns that reappear as one reads the two works together. I will not go so far as claim that these resemblances were deliberate on Robbe-Grillet’s part (though I would not rule out the idea considering the influence Nabokov had on his work), but a quick rundown of some similarities may certainly help bridge the formal distance between the two novels.

Among some minor similarities we can list the role of photographs and letters. We have already talked about Smurov’s discovery of his lopped-off self in a photograph in Vanya’s bedroom, his first visible clue of Vanya’s indifference toward him and of her relationship with Mukhin. A similar photograph appears in Jealousy. In a mother-of-pearl inlaid frame on the corner of the dressing table in A . . .’s bedroom, there is a photograph of A . . . sitting in a café in Europe. The photo was taken by a sidewalk photographer, toward whom A . . . has turned slightly to smile, “as if to authorize him to take this candid shot” (72). In another variation, “a man’s hand and the cuff of a jacket sleeve” can be seen on the right edge of the picture, “cut off by the white vertical margin” (95). Whose hand is it? We are never told, but the slightly lascivious smile that A . . . directs toward the photographer suggests that the latter may have flirtatiously cut the husband out of the picture.

Second is the importance of letters in both novels. Not only does Smurov rummage through Vanya’s personal letters, but he also physically robs Roman Bogdanovich of his memoirs when the latter tries to mail them out to a friend in Tallin. He then steals into a streetcar, where he impatiently leafs through the bundle in search of anything that concerns himself. What he finds is mostly negative (speculations that he’s a spy, a thief, a homosexual, etc.), and these misconceptions provoke Smurov to set the record straight and declare his love to Vanya. Similar spying occurs in Jealousy. We have already talked about the pale blue letters that were allegedly passed around in the narrator’s absence. While A . . . and Franck are away, the narrator, like Smurov, rummages through A . . .’s bedroom and finds a leather writing-case with eleven sheets of the same pale blue paper: “The first of these shows the evident traces of a word scratched out—on the upper right—of which only two tiny lines remain, greatly lightened by the eraser” (114). Unable to reconstitute the erased word or to find other traces of adultery, the narrator falls back on his imagination.

Apart from these minor similarities there exist noteworthy resemblances in the characterization of the narrator-protagonists. We have already talked about how in one of the variations of the centipede scene the narrator of Jealousy actually displaces Franck as the one who kills the insect. Not only does this act “erase” Franck from the picture, but it also allows the normally meek narrator to fantasize about himself being in Franck’s place: as the more powerful, fearless man who is having an affair with a friend’s wife. A similar fantasy occurs in The Eye, where the narrator actually “imagines” a living double, Smurov, whom he endows with mystique and bravado, and through whom he hopes to seduce Vanya. In fact, his whole new persona is loosely based on Kashmarin. During one conversation Roman Bogdanovich tells a story about how Kashmarin had once “thrashed a Frenchman nearly to death out of jealousy.” “Oh good. That’s what I like--” interrupts Smurov (36). Impressed by the valor of this young man, the narrator observes:

He was doubtless capable, in a moment of wrath, of slashing a chap into bits, and, in a moment of passion, of carrying a frightened and perfumed girl beneath his cloak on a windy night to a waiting boat with muffled oarlocks, under a slice of honeydew moon, as somebody did in Roman Bogdanovich’s story. If Vanya was any judge of character, she must have marked this. (my italics) (36)

Despite having been beaten and humiliated by Kashmarin, the narrator nevertheless finds (and hopes Vanya will find) a kind of Byronic beauty in his violent nature and models Smurov after him. Meek and ineffectual in real life, the narrator seeks to avoid further humiliation by actually becoming the man who ruined him.

But the most important similarity is of course the role of the visual organ—the eye—as a means of possession. Both novels are narrated by psychologically-obsessed first person narrators who spy and observe, yet who never reveal themselves directly to the reader. Through observation both narrators seek to enslave the women they desire, a wish that is even reflected in the shape of  A . . .’s bedroom in Jealousy—a perfect square (like the house itself), lined on all sides with horizontal wooden planks that, under a certain light, resemble bars in a prison cell. In fact, the narrator of Jealousy constantly exercises another visual trick: in observing A . . . from the other side of the horizontal blinds (jalousies), he literally “traps” A . . . in a kind of makeshift visual cage. Having thus trapped a given visual image, the narrator submits it to his imagination to process, analyze, transform, and above all to feed his jealous suspicions. The constant repetitions in the novel are not simply retellings of prior events, but visual impressions that have been captured and transformed by the narrator’s hysteria.

In The Eye, however, it is not so much the narrator’s jealousy that is fed by his observations but a longing for self-affirmation. He distances himself from his corporal double in order to observe him and the reactions of other people toward himself. But it is also important to note that his “split,” the appearance of Smurov, only occurs after the narrator meets Vanya and immediately desires to possess her. The split then is a psychological defense mechanism: aware of being meek himself he constructs a “Kashmaresque” double who he will use to woo Vanya. The entire narrative is then preoccupied with his attempts to learn what Vanya thinks of Smurov, which he does through observations, spying and, at times, direct questioning (though perhaps this too is imagined, for how does one question others about himself in third-person?). Finally, unable to either possess Vanya or retrieve a single positive impression of Smurov, the narrator ends his story with the idea that he nevertheless succeeded in possessing an impression of Vanya: “Every other night I dream of her dresses and things [. . .] in a ceaseless wind of possession” (104). Like the narrator of Jealousy, Smurov deludes himself into believing that he is able to possess someone through imagination and visual perception alone.

Notes

1 The original elephant was, of course, Tolstoy. The title was first applied to Nabokov in a pejorative context when his “friend” Roman Jakobson sabotaged his attempt at securing a teaching position at Harvard’s Slavic Department. When Nabokov’s advocates approached Jacobson, the latter, punning perhaps at Nabokov’s background in Lepidoptera, replied: “Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?” Needless to say, Nabokov broke all further contact with Jacobson (Boyd, American 303).
2 For Nabokov’s dislike of Faulkner see Edward Malone’s “Nabokov on Faulkner.”
3 It did, however, appear in French translation as early as 1935.
4 There are only two descriptions of what the narrator (as opposed to Smurov) looks like, both observed through a mirror. As he is preparing to shoot himself, the narrator catches the sight of “A wretched, shivering, vulgar little man in a bowler hat [who] stood in the center of the room, for some reason rubbing his hands” (17). The other time is in the flower shop, where the narrator describes his reflection simply as “a young man in a derby carrying a bouquet” (97).
5 Though, as we shall see, the narrator never actually affirms that A . . . is unfaithful or indeed that he is her husband. His mind (and his narrative) is composed entirely of suspicions and ambiguities.

Works Cited

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.

---. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

Hayman, David. “An Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet.” Contemporary Literature.         Summer (1975): 273-285.

Malone, Edward. “Nabokov on Faulkner.” The Faulkner Journal. Spring (1990):         63-67.

Morrissette, Bruce. The Novels of Robbe-Grillet. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Eye. Dmitri Nabokov, trans. New York: Vintage Int.,         1990.

---. Strong Opinions. New York: Vintage Int., 1990.

Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Two Novels By Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy and In the Labyrinth.         Richard Howard, trans. New York: Grove, 1965.

---. For a New Novel. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996.

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