26. The Secret Room
This is day Twenty-six of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.
The first book I read by Alain Robbe-Grillet was Jealousy (La Jalousie). I’m not sure why I read it (nobody I’ve ever met has read any Robbe-Grillet) – I think I picked up the paperback from a clearance pile in a used books store. Probably, I liked the cover.
It was an amazing book. Robbe-Grillet’s writing is “realist” or “phenomenological” or “a theory of pure surface.” There is no plot, no characters, no inner dialog… no nothing other than descriptions of scenes. In Jealousy there is an unseen and unheard narrator – the book is telling the reader what this person is looking at. Through repetition, geometric arrangements, repetition, details, and finally repetition – a story is built up, layer by layer. Jealousy takes place on a banana plantation where the unseen narrator is worried that his wife is having an affair with a neighbor named Frank.
The reason it works so well, I think, is that the mind of the reader fills in the gaps of story, character and situation that are completely absent from the text. Your imagination is guided by the images that are transmitted… especially by small details that change from one repetition of an image to the next. The book is entirely free of emotion – yet the tension, dread, and excitement builds in the reader’s mind… the inner vision that is conjured up is so much stronger – it is personally tuned to the psyche of the reader by the subconscious – than if it was spelled out by the author.
At least, that’s what I took from it.
Today’s story, The Secret Room, holds true to the Robbe-Grillet style. It is a single scene, meticulously detailed, with no explanation of who, why or how. Yet, at the end, the effect is strong, the emotions are stirred – though there are plenty of loose ends left hanging… so to speak.
One fact that might help, is that the story was dedicated by the author to Gustave Moreau. The story certainly could be interpreted as a description of a Moreau painting. The last word in the story certainly would indicate that.
But the painting moves back and forth in time. Is the story the reaction of a person looking at a painting? Is the author/writer/unknown narrator describing his own thoughts on what must have occurred? Or is he using the technique of a painting to convey the horror and contrasting the terror and violence with the beauty that still resides in the situation?
Almost certainly… all the above and more.
In the background, near the top of the stairway, a black silhouette is seen fleeing, a man wrapped in a long, floating cape, ascending the last steps without turning around, his deed accomplished. A thin smoke rises in twisting scrolls from a sort of incense burner placed on a high stand of ironwork with a silvery glint. Nearby lies the milkwhite body, with wide streaks of blood running from the left breast, along the flank and on the hip.
—-Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Secret Room