Repetition, by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Translated by Richard Howard. Grove Press. 168 pages. $23.
Alain Robbe-Grillet's latest novel, Repetition, is just that: a repetition, with variations, of his best-known novels, The Erasers (1953), Jealousy (1955) and The Voyeur (1957). The characteristics of his fiction -- intersecting and overlapping stories, a fluid sense of narrative time, crimes that may or may not have been committed, an atmosphere of dread, and clever literary and mythological allusions -- lay at the heart of the French literary movement he fathered, the nouveau roman, or the new novel. Robbe-Grillet has not lost his touch. After three decades, he still wields his literary arsenal quite deftly.
The nouveau roman movement was exciting. And the novels, five-dimensional jigsaw puzzles if you count the dimensions of time and a very slippery scale of truth and falsehood, are still fascinating works, in small doses. Repetition is one dose too many.
It has its gripping moments, but fails to add up to more than the sum of its parts. In 1949, a French secret agent under the alias Henri Robin is sent to Berlin on a mission his superiors find too sensitive to explain. He witnesses the murder of the former Nazi commander, Dany von Brucke, and writes a report although he was not instructed to. But then it turns out that not only was von Brucke merely wounded, but Robin may have himself fired the shot. Robin's claim of innocence may be genuine, delusional or simply cunning.
The plot is further complicated by the fact that Robin may in fact be Markus von Brucke, the Kommandant's son, and lover of his father's second wife. If the Oedipal overtones are not clear enough yet, that wife's name is Jo Kast. Footnotes scattered throughout the novel offer another, equally plausible, version of events and are ostensibly written by Walther, Markus' twin brother, who is morbidly jealous of the fact that their mother had preferred Markus. There are also several subtle shifts in the narrative from Henri / Markus' official report in the third person to his personal version of events in the first person.
The most disturbing elements in the book are several explicit sadistic episodes involving adolescent girls, which may be the characters' fantasies or events in the story. Because they add little more to the story than shock value, they are simply prurient.
For readers who might be feeling a bit too confused by his literary mind-games, Robbe-Grillet slips a quick reassurance into the story's ending. "In fact there would be someone, both different and the same, the destroyer and the keeper of order, the narrating presence and the traveler ... elegant solution to the never-to-be-solved problem: who is speaking here now?" Robbe-Grillet's text is certainly elegant, but by no means offers a solution.
The multivoiced narrative concludes with the claim that "The old words always repeat themselves, always telling the same old story from age to age, repeated once again, and always new." Well, yes, but some versions are richer, more interesting, and -- if one can still use such an archaic standard -- more meaningful than others.
Tess Lewis has published translations from French and German and writes essays for The Hudson Review, where she is an editor, and The New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes scholar