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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Sentimental Novel

Alain Robbe-Grillet

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To purchase A Sentimental Novel

Title: A Sentimental Novel
Author: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 142 pages
Original in: French
Availability: A Sentimental Novel - US
A Sentimental Novel - UK
A Sentimental Novel - Canada
Un roman sentimental - Canada
A Sentimental Novel - India
Un roman sentimental - France
  • French title: Un roman sentimental
  • Translated and with a Preface by D.E.Brooke

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Our Assessment:

(-) : both stylish and cartoonish; effectively discomfiting -- if not enough else

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 15/10/2007 Baptiste Liger
FASz . 21/10/2007 Julia Encke
The Independent . 15/5/2014 Jonathan Gibb
London Rev. of Books . 31/7/2014 Adam Shatz
NZZ . 29/1/2008 Milo Rau
The New Yorker . 28/7/2014 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Un roman sentimental est une plongée viscérale dans les fantasmes les plus troubles, portée par une narration en courts paragraphes numérotés et un style d'une grande précision." - Baptiste Liger, L'Express

  • "Er hat einen Porno geschrieben. Mehr nicht. Er leistet sich und seinen Lesern den Luxus einer Ausschweifung auf Kosten der letzten Tabus, blättert in der Bibliothek des Obszönen und arrangiert die entsprechenden "Stellen". Weil der Roman dabei erzähltechnisch so galant durchkalkuliert ist, meint er, gehöre er nicht in die "Bibliothèque rose". Das sei Literatur. Tatsächlich aber ist Un roman sentimental der prätentiöseste Quatsch und der in seinem Anspruch konventionellste Kitsch, den man seit langem gelesen hat. Selbst die Provokation läuft auf diese Weise ins Leere." - Julia Encke, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "As such, it is hardly pornographic at all -- indeed one interpretation of the book might be that it is a psychological test, to see at what stage the reader gives up on even thinking about being aroused by it. Another interpretation would be that the offensiveness, too, is beside the point -- the tone is far from licentious, but rather breezily detached, making it, if not enjoyable, then less gruelling than you might suppose." - Jonathan Gibb, The Independent

  • "On closer inspection, however, Un Roman sentimental is not simply an impotent manís fantasy of dominance over a group of helpless girls. Robbe-Grilletís novels were always laid with traps, and as Blanchot warned, the central illusion of his novels is their impression of total legibility. The secret of Un Roman sentimental is hiding in plain sight. The title is not, or not merely, a prank: this is, in fact, a sentimental ode to his two great loves. The first is writing. (...) Robbe-Grilletís other great love was his wife Catherine, his petite fille." - Adam Shatz, London Review of Books

  • "Zwar kunst- und literaturgeschichtlich hochgradig vernetzt und voller Hinweise auf Bataille, de Sade und Robbe-Grillets eigenes Romanwerk, geht Un roman sentimental empfindlich eindeutig zur Sache. (...) Dass es auch in seinem neuen Buch nicht um die historische Wahrheit geht, glauben wir ihm gern. Aber was daran «objektiv» sein soll und deshalb unter die Leute gebracht werden muss, bleibt sein Geheimnis." - Milo Rau, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "This artful translation pays homage to the bookís aesthetic refinement, but the novel remains a very disturbing read." - The New Yorker

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Sentimental Novel isn't a work that's easy to deal with -- or perhaps it is: complete dismissal as (or for its) pornographic excess seems a popular choice. There's no question that the novel is, certainly at surface-level, deeply objectionable. More so than, for example, Urs Allemann's Babyfucker -- which, despite its outrageous title and ostensible subject matter, is so clearly removed from any sexual or other reality that it can readily be appreciated as a literary text. A Sentimental Novel is also a highly stylized work -- but rather differently and, presumably, for many readers not anywhere near sufficiently (to excuse what goes on in these pages).
       Let's be clear: A Sentimental Novel is explicit, and most people are very uncomfortable with what it is explicit about: the sexual abuse and torture of adolescent and pre-adolescent girls.
       The French concept of 'roman sentimental' (so the original title) is more akin to the English popular romance (and closer to Harlequin and Mills and Boon than Jane Austen) rather than the English-style 'sentimental novels' of the eighteenth (and, to a lesser extent, nineteenth) century, and part of Robbe-Grillet's purpose is, of course, to completely upend any pre-conceptions readers might bring to a so-called text. Okay, it's Robbe-Grillet, too, so they come with different expectations as well -- and the French edition was published shrink-wrapped and with the pages uncut (plus a whole lot of publicity), so readers had a pretty good sense of what they might be getting themselves into; still it bears repeating: this is not your grand-mère's kind of roman sentimental, and it's not for sensitive souls.
       A Sentimental Novel is presented in 239 numbered paragraphs (plus a closing line) and tells a fairly simple story. The main characters are "Ann-Djinna, more often called Gigi" (a name she comes to feel she has outgrown by the end, when she prefers Gynée ("or more simply Gyn (pronounced the American way: Djinn)")), who is not yet fifteen, and her father. The girl is "Barely pubescent, she is graceful, shapely"; since age four, when her mother tragically died, she has also shared ("often entirely naked") her father's bed. Her father is also responsible for her education and he offers some rather unusual schooling -- though this includes:

the solid rudiments of Latin and Greek, the practice of German, and a working knowledge of philosophy from Spinoza to Hegel and his progenitors
       The set-up is straight out of de Sade, and dad is a typical Sadean libertine. With cells for the sex slaves, torture-chambers, and an easy supply of young girls whose sole purpose is to serve their masters, the set-up is all for one purpose: indulgence that can barely still be called simply carnal.
       Robbe-Grillet's fantasy world is all fantasy -- and surprisingly limited. Gigi gets a new plaything, Odile -- who, not surprisingly, "brings to mind little Alice, photographed by Lewis Carroll" -- and her own sexual awakening is guided by her father, who continues to employ the whip where necessary even on his daughter. What unfolds is a lot of abuse of virginal girls, Gigi getting off rather lightly, for the most part -- the indulged daughter -- while some of the other slave girls brought in have already been explicitly sentenced to death and wind up tortured and dismembered in horrible ways. Many of the girls remain virgo intacta for at least a while, sodomized instead; there's lots of whipping and chaining up , and some are suspended upside-down or uncomfortably mounted on saws. Really bad things (as if these weren't bad enough ...) happen too: one girl literally goes up in flames, and there are occasional stories such as:
We ate Japanese schoolgirls covered in burning caramel in which they had been dunked alive before our very eyes. It was very good. But they were dying much far too quickly, we ought to have watched them wriggling for much longer.
       Yes, A Sentimental Novel objectifies women to the point of absurdity. Some, such as Gigi, have a (small) bit of personality, some element of personhood, to them; most do not, reduced to "simple pleasure objects":
The girls accept this wantonness as entirely natural, receiving the most brazen gestures without relinquishing their perfectly sweet demeanor, with a perfect dose of bashful emotion.
       Robbe-Grillet does not make them pure sex-dolls, either: worse, he makes them complicit. The girls accept their punishments -- even Gigi eagerly lets herself be whipped -- and don't fight their fates. They are disposable, and they accept that.
       Even their pleasure is often fatal: Robbe-Grillet offers up a: "commercially banned ointment":
Introduced inside the sex of any girl, it immediately unleashes a torrent of such violent orgasms that she generally dies within an hour and a half, minimum.
       The fantasy is a relatively simple one, of the aged father-figure and the adored and semi-pure (nominally a virgin, though hardly an innocent) young girl -- with a near-endless supply of young-girl stand-ins on which dad, and his guests, and his daughter can take whatever they want out on. Sexual gratification tends to involve blood and pain; messy and complicated, there is, in fact, practically no straightforward traditional copulation. The father-figure is rather too idealized, too -- culminating in the scene where he: "extracts the sacred engine himself, which, half-erect, to the adoring girl appears of monstrous proportions" -- but, hey, it's an old geezer's fantasy (Robbe-Grillet was eighty-five when this was published), so .....
       A Sentimental Novel begins and ends slightly surreally, coming to the central tale of Gigi and her father's adventures from another perspective, suggesting the tale isn't quite realistic but rather almost like a dream-account. But the bulk of the novel is a series of these odd tableaux, staged sex and/or punishment scenes (there's a great deal of overlap between these for Robbe-Grillet). There is an outing to acquire more sex-slaves, and some reminiscing about Gigi's mom (sentimental, yes, but again with a decidedly different touch), but for the most part the story follows Gigi getting an up-close-and-personal introduction into dad's libertine lifestyle.
       With its casual tone much of A Sentimental Novel has an almost cheery feel to it -- albeit a sort of demented cheer, as horrible things happen. But most of the acts here -- often sexual ones, or torture that sort of has a sexual component -- are presented so simply and nearly superficially that the novel does not expect or even allow for any empathy. Not entirely clinical, it is nevertheless largely so unreal that the events aren't so much upsetting as ridiculous. Nevertheless, the details can hit close to home: if one reads the narrative 'seriously', as one of the abuse and torture of young girls (which is, after all, what it is presented, at the basic, literal level) then it is entirely beyond the pale.
       The power of de Sade's catalogues of perversion lies in the author's dedication: he throws himself wholeheartedly into this netherworld and charts it in minute and precise detail. The results are massive, numbing works that lay bare all human perversion -- extending far beyond the merely sexual, but also to the political, social, and philosophical. Awful though they may be, in many respects, de Sade's monumental works are also of great depth. Robbe-Grillet's convictions are much less convincing (and his sexual (and tortured) imagination far more limited), and A Sentimental Novel is ultimately simply too frivolous.
       There is some superb writing here -- an effective, unsettling contrast to the awful subject-matter, and the aspect of the book that is most intriguing -- but the novel feels incomplete: it does not take Gigi or the reader far enough, in any particular way. Alluding to his own work, and those who wrote works similar to this one (above all, the master de Sade), A Sentimental Novel offers a literary-sentimental side, too -- a nice touch that also makes it of particular interest as the culmination (i.e. also end-point) of Robbe-Grillet's writings. In the end, however, it's basically an old man's (creepy and disappointingly limited) fantasy, stylishly presented, but ultimately to too little purpose; a good book, in many respects (if -- and that's asking a lot -- one can overlook aspects of the fundamentals), but falling far short of any potential greatness (greatness the writer behind it seems capable of).

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 March 2014

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A Sentimental Novel: Reviews: Alain Robbe-Grillet: Other books by Alain Robbe-Grillet under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Alain Robbe-Grillet lived 1922 to 2008.

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