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Alain Robbe-Grillet: Le Voyeur (The Voyeur)

Robbe-Grillet’s second novel was a deconstructed detective novel, that is a detective novel where we are not sure whether there was a crime and, if there was, who committed it, and where the story is told without psychological insight or any emotion whatsoever. More importantly, the author does not care. The story is about Mathias, a travelling watch seller who is not selling many watches and whose finances are shaky. He decides to take the ferry to the island of his birth, where he hopes he will be successful. He has little luck selling his watches. While on the island, he learns of the disappearance of Jacqueline Leduc, a thirteen-year old girl. Her body is later found washed up on the shore and it is assumed that she slipped and fell. No-one suspects otherwise, despite marks on her body. However, Mathias and the reader soon realize that there is an hour not accounted for in his sales route. He endeavours to get the ferry back to the mainland but is too late and misses it. He then goes to the place where Jacqueline’s body was found and removes cigarette butts and other evidence left there. However, there is a witness, Julien Marek. Marek, however, says nothing and Mathias is allowed to leave the island. Was Jacqueline raped and killed by Mathias or Julien? If so, did the other, as the title implies, watch? Robbe-Grillet does not care as he is not writing a detective novel. Guilt and fear are important but so is the obsession with details, from the selling of the watches to the cigarette butts at the scene of the crime and, of course, the lack of any emotional involvement. This novel and Roland Barthes‘ essay, Littérature objective (Objective Literature) (published in Essais critiques (Critical Essays)) on the work attracted considerable attention and helped launch the nouveau roman.

Publishing history

First published in 1955 by Editions de Minuit
First English translation 1958 by Grove Press