24 June 2010

Ur-Story: A Shot in the Dark—Part Cat

(cont'd from previous post)

Is it possible that a single leitmotif is sufficient to carry the weight of the novel's meaning? UPDATE: I speak, of course, of Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers.

Let's return to that consummate jokester Roland Barthes who suggests it just might be:
"In the entire published work of this author [Robbe-Grillet], I can think of only one metaphor, a single adjective suggesting substance rather than superficies, and applied, moreover, to the only psychoanalytic object in his repertoire: the softness of erasers ("I want a very soft eraser"). Except for this unique tactile qualification, more or less called for by the peculiar gratuitousness of the object for which The Erasers is so scandalously or so enigmatically named, the work of Robbe-Grillet is susceptible to no thematic index whatsoever: the visual apprehension which entirely permeates his writing cannot establish metaphorical correspondences, or even institute reductions of qualities to some common symbol; it can, in fact, propose only symmetries." Introduction to Two Novels. (15-16)
From his pursuit of evidence, Wallas takes off on a frolic and detour to try to find a certain very specific type of eraser he remembers seeing some months earlier. Any writer who has searched stationery shops for just the right pen or the exact Moleskine will understand this urge. Any student of Freudian analysis will recognize in this the working of the unconscious. And many careful readers of detective fiction will see this as Wallas having picked up on a minute hint of a clue proffered off-handedly by Laurent. Notwithstanding, Wallas wants that eraser. He allows himself to be distracted from the main stream of his professional investigations. Yet, in his orthogonal pursuit he quite possibly stumbles onto a certain truth about himself and very nearly comes face to face with one of the criminals—who, apparently, looks quite a lot like Wallas.

Let's take a look at this 'scandalous' 'thematic index' shall we?

By my count there are only about a half-dozen mentions of erasers in the entire novel that goes by that name. So everyone's on the same page, I'll simply quote them here [with a bit of exegesis below].
"Noticing an open stationery shop, Wallas walks in for no particular reason. A young girl who had been sitting behind the counter stands up to wait on him.


She has a pretty, slightly sullen face and blond hair.

'I'd like a very soft gum eraser, for drawing.'

'Certainly, Monsieur.'

She turns back toward the drawers that line the wall. Her hair, combed straight up from the back of her neck, makes her look older, seen from behind. She searches through one of the drawers and sets down in front of Wallas a yellow eraser with beveled edges, longer than it is wide, an ordinary article for schoolchildren. He asks:

'Haven't you any supplies just for drawing?'

'This is a drawing eraser, Monsieur.'

She encourages him with a half-smile. Wallas picks up the eraser to examine it more carefully; then he looks at the young girl, her eyes, her fleshy, half-parted lips. He smiles in turn.

'What I wanted...'

She tilts her head slightly, as though to pay special attention to what he is going to say.

'...was something more crumbly.'

'Really, Monsieur, I can assure you this is a very good pencil eraser. All our customers are satisfied with it.'

'All right,' Wallas says, 'I'll try it. How much is it?'

He pays and leaves the store. She accompanies him to the door. No, she's no longer a child: her hips, her slow gait are almost a woman's.

Once out in the street, Wallas mechanically fingers the little eraser; it is obvious from the way it feels that it is no good at all. It would have been surprising, really, for it to be otherwise in so modest a shop. ... That girl was nice. ... He rubs his thumb across the end of the eraser. It is not at all what he is looking for." (61-62)
[Here we have desire and the frustration of that desire and rationalization, or settling.]
"By shifting the dossiers on top of his desk, Laurent covers up the little piece of eraser. Wallas finishes his remarks:

'In short, you haven't found much.'

'You might say nothing,' the chief commissioner answers.

'And what do you intend to do now?'

'Nothing, since it isn't my case any more!'

Commissioner Laurent accompanies these words with an ironically brokenhearted smile." (62)


"In making room for his ledgers, the commissioner has shifted the dossiers that cover his desk, thereby causing the piece of grayish eraser to reappear, an ink eraser probably, whose poor quality is betrayed by several worn, slightly shiny places." (72)

[These two form the frame for part 4 of chapter 1 wherein Wallas and Laurent confront each other with their respective roles and the state of evidence in the case and some theories about what might have happened. Laurent throws up his hands in a bureaucrat's 'Not my job' gesture. An eraser plays peek-a-boo behind some case files.]
"Already the saleswoman is looking at him with a professionally friendly expression of interrogation. 'Can I help you?'

'I'd like an eraser,' Wallas says.

'Yes. What kind of eraser?'

That's just the whole point, and Wallas once again begins describing what he is looking for: a soft, crumbly gum eraser that friction does not twist but reduces to dust; an eraser that cuts easily and whose cut surface is shiny and smooth, like mother-of-pearl. He has seen once such, a few months ago, at a friend's but the friend could not tell him where it came from. He thought he could find himself one of the same kind without difficulty, but he's been searching in vain ever since. It looked like a yellowish cube, about an inch or two long, with the corners slightly rounded—maybe by use. The manufacturer's brand was printed on one side, but was too worn to be legible any more: only two of the middle letters were still clear: 'di'; there must have been at least two letters before and perhaps two or three after.

The young woman tries to complete the name, but without success. She shows him, with mounting discouragement, all the erasers in the shop—and she has, in fact, a splendid stock—whose respective merits she warmly extols. But they are all either too soft or too hard: 'breadcrumb' erasers, as easily kneaded as modeling clay, or else dry and grayish substances which abrade the paper—good at best for getting rid of ink blots; the rest are pencil erasers of the usual kind, more or less elongated rectangles of more or less white rubber." (126)
[On his way to interview Dr. Juard, a key witness, Wallas hops the wrong streetcar and disembarks near the center of the town. He starts toward the police commissioner's office but notices a sign advertising, nay promising, inter alia drawing supplies. The shop window at the Victor Hugo Stationery Shop, where the above interchange takes place has a cliched mannequin {"dummy"} of an artist painting a picture, a landscape of Thebes (home, by the way, of Oe-'di'-pus) it turns out. But the panoramic vista he is studying and attempting to replicate is an enlarged photograph of the house in which the alleged murder Wallas is investigating has supposedly taken place. He describes the impossible eraser but, once again, settles for another inferior eraser and a postcard of the photograph of the house. Get it? The saleswoman, as we shall shortly discover, is the divorced wife of Daniel Dupont.]
"He decides to go into a shop to ask the way to the Rue de Corinthe. It is a small bookstore that also sells stationery, pencils, and paints for children. The saleswoman stands up to wait on him:


'I'd like a avery soft gum eraser, for drawing.'

'Yes of course, Monsieur.'" (168)
[While shopping for his ideal eraser at yet another little shop, Wallas recalls the stationery shop with the model painter in the window painting the ruins of Thebes while staring at a panoramic picture of the scene of the crime and begins to wonder why the shop owner has such a huge picture of that particular house. "His wife? That would be strange. Didn't Laurent say she was running a shop now? Around fifteen years younger than her husband...dark, with black eyes...that's who it is!" {169} Did he just buy an eraser from Dupont's divorced wife? He then returns to the Victor Hugo stationery shop and interviews the woman about the plausibility of Laurent's suicide theory. Another red herring.]

The next mention of an eraser is a real puzzler. Wallas is sitting in the back of the Victor Hugo Stationery Shop waiting to continue his interview with Wallas's former wife. He then realizes that she has nothing for him and wonders why he came there in the first place. Then he notices something:
"On the chest opposite him, on either side of a porcelain figurine of stylized gallantry, is a pair of portraits. The one on the left shows the stern face of a middle-aged man; he is seen in three-quarters, almost in profile, and seems to be observing the statuette out of the corner of his eye—unless he is looking at the second photograph, older than the first, as the yellowing of the paper and the old-fashioned clothes of the people shown in it indicate. A little boy in a communion suit is looking up toward a tall woman wearing the ruffled dress and plumed hat fashionable in the last century. It is probably his mother, an extremely young mother whom the child looks up at with rather perplexed admiration—as far as can be judged from this faded snapshot, where the features have lost a good deal of their actuality. This lady must also be the mother of the stationery seller; the severe gentleman may be Dupont. Wallas does not even know what the dead man looks like. ...

The young woman appears in the doorway: 'I haven't kept you waiting too long, have I?' she asks in her throaty voice.

'No, not at all,' Wallas answers; 'but I'll have to be running along now.'

She stops him with a gesture:

'Wait just a minute! You know what he bought? Guess!'


The customer, of course. And he has bought an eraser, of course. What does she think is so surprising about that?

'You know, the customer who just left!'

'I don't know,' Wallas says.

'The postcard!' the young woman exclaims. 'He bought the post card showing the house, the one you bought from me yourself this morning!'

This time the throaty laugh continues indefinitely." (179-80)
[Are we meant to infer that the little boy in the photo portrait is Wallas, along with his mother? And that Wallas is the son of Dupont? And this young woman whom Wallas admires is his step-mother? Robbe-Grillet laughs throatily. From Dupont's former wife, Wallas learns that Dupont was not the sort of person to have committed suicide.]

After recalling that the first time he came to this town was with his mother in search of his long-lost father, Wallas once again goes hunting erasers:
"Wallas steps into a crowded, dusty shop that seems intended for the storage of merchandise rather than its retail sale. At the rear, a man in an apron is nailing shut a crate. He stops pounding to try to understand what kind of eraser Wallas wants. He nods several times during the course of the explanation as if he knew what Wallas meant. Then, without saying a word, he walks toward the other side of the shop; he is obliged to shift a large number of objects on his way in order to reach his goal. He opens and closes several drawers, one after the other, thinks for a minute, climbs up a ladder, begins searching again, without any more success.

He comes back toward his client: he no longer has the item. He still had some not long ago—a lot left over from before the war; they must have sold the last one—unless it's been put away somewhere else: 'There are so many things here that you can never find anything.'

Wallas dives back into the night." (231-32)
Erasers provide a thread to follow themes woven into the fabric of the novel. If you pull on one of them, the novel unravels. Erasers after the war. A man who could be Wallas's double buying the same post card Wallas bought in the Victor Hugo Stationery Store. Victor Hugo, the great classical novelist, who tidily tied up the loose ends of his novels. The search for the father and the Oedipus/Thebes undergirding. The problem of identity and culpability. The doppelganger. Destiny. Desire and frustration. &c., &c.

But is a such a frippery, a leitmotif such as this rubbery McGuffin, sufficient to sustain the meaning of a novel? Certainly, it points us to themes and ideas the author wanted to work into his novel—it is, as Barthes indicated, a thematic index. But is there more to a novel than its intellectual themes? Its referential puzzle? Its allusiveness?

(to be continued)


Frances Madeson said...

"My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind,
So flew'd, so sanded, and their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-knee'd, and dew-lapp'd like Thessalian bulls;
Slow in pursuit, but match'd in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry more tuneable
Was never holla'd to, nor cheer'd with horn,
In Crete, in Sparta, nor in Thessaly:
Judge when you hear. But, soft! what nymphs are these?"

A soft, scandalous sweetmeat for WoW readers to chew on while we wait for A Shot in the Dark--Part Kitchen Sink!

Jim H. said...

What nymphs indeed! Soft.

Of course, now I have to dream up a new title for the next segment. Rats.

Ta for the Bill.

Jim H.

Frances Madeson said...

We like to keep you on your, ahem, toes. Confident you'll rise to the challenge; it's not like you have to come up with a macaronic rhyme with some loco word like hydrofracking. Have you seen this? Not exactly oil and drinking water, but...


Abrupt segue, I hope not in the least anti-climactic. Happy 69th birthday to a certain shaggy (and I'm pretty sure, dew-lapping) Barking Dog. Many more!