Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Repetition

by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Exhibits a sensibility as nervous and contemporary–not to mention witty–as that of any novelist working today. . . . Objects play as dramatic a role in Repetition as do characters. . . . Following the clues of objects and the evolution of their relationships is part of the pleasure . . . This novel packs in plenty of the old Robbe-Grillet, including erotic-sadistic passages decidedly not for the faint of heart.” –Kai Maristed, The Los Angeles Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 208
  • Publication Date March 23, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4057-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date December 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9935-5
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

Repetition is the first novel in twenty years from Alain Robbe-Grillet, the legendary founder of the nouveau roman tradition–groundbreaking works combining high literature, genre fiction, and an exploration into consciousness–in the 1950s and who remains one of the most influential writers of the last half-century. It is a triumphant accomplishment, an atmospheric spy novel of violence, espionage, and tricks of the eye, set in the crumbling cityscape of postwar Berlin.

It is 1949. A special agent of the French secret service, Henri Robin, is aboard a train to Berlin, on a special mission of an undisclosed nature. In what could be Graham Greene’s The Third Man or a Hitchcock film, he crosses national borders and shuffles aliases with a false mustache and multiple sets of identity papers. Pulling into the station and preparing to meet his contact, Robin is alarmed by a disturbing glimpse of his own doppelganger. As Robin’s time in Berlin unfolds, it becomes clear that nothing is what it seems. A shooting, a kidnapping, encounters with pimps and teenage whores, druggings, police interrogations, and torture arise in a mysterious, ever-more-dreamlike sequence, as an unnamed interlocutor points out inconsistencies in Robin’s own story. As vague memories–a childhood trip to Berlin with his mother, perhaps looking for his father?–spring from ordinary images and objects, Robin’s days in Berlin become a labyrinth of present and past haunted by echoes of Proust and Oedipus. But ultimately, to whom do these memories belong? And who, after all, is Robin?

A brilliantly executed novel in prose of an almost hallucinatory richness, Repetition is proof that Robbe-Grillet’s vision is, in a time of identity theft and porous nationhood, more relevant than ever.

Praise

“Part spy novel, part textual game. . . . Identity, point of view and objective truth are all thrown into question. . . . What slowly emerges from the fog is a Sophoclean oedipal revenge drama, complete with incest, blindness, parricide and fratricide. Mirrors, doubles, double agents, repetitions, trompe l”oeil war paintings, dream sequences, sexual torture, a criminal mafia of postwar Nazis and murky memories add to the disquieting, disorienting literary puzzle.” –Heller McAlpin, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Exhibits a sensibility as nervous and contemporary–not to mention witty–as that of any novelist working today. . . . Objects play as dramatic a role in Repetition as do characters. . . . Following the clues of objects and the evolution of their relationships is part of the pleasure . . . This novel packs in plenty of the old Robbe-Grillet, including erotic-sadistic passages decidedly not for the faint of heart.” –Kai Maristed, The Los Angeles Times

“A spy tale whose prime puzzle lies in the philosophical intricacies of its own construction.” –Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

“[Robbe-Grillet] still wields his literary arsenal quite deftly.” –Tess Lewis, The Baltimore Sun

“Playfully hypnotic. . . .Repetition is the high concept that made Robbe-Grillet’s reputation. . . . Repetition will come as a pleasant surprise: fast moving story, well realized characters, a succession of delightfully unanticipated yet logical revelations.” –William Poundstone, The Village Voice

“There’s a real joy here, an exuberance and humor. . . . It is this delight, combined with the adult mastery of the writing, that makes this book a welcome and important edition to R-G’s oeuvre. . . . A work of remarkable complexity and, dare I say it, beauty.” –Jeffrey De Shellm, Review of Contemporary Fiction

“The presentation is seamier, the situations darker, and the narrative energy crackles with greater insistence than ever before. [Repetition] is both an investigation into human consciousness and a bona fide thriller.” –Laird Hunt, Rain Taxi

“A Gothic masterpiece. . . . Repetition is the best horror novel one can hope to read this year. . . .This isn’t raw terror but rather vague apprehension, total confusion, as memory breaks down and reality is warped again and again. . . . Repetition is fearfest like no other, and a rewarding text that demands to be reread again and again. The master hasn’t lost his touch.” –R.B. Strauss, The Avon Grove Sun

“An oedipal journey. . . . Newcomers braced for surreal narrative lurches will find this an entertaining introduction to Robbe-Grillet’s work. As the title coyly suggests, his admirers will find much of the territory familiar, but that only adds another layer of irony to Robbe-Grillet’s witty allusions.” –Publishers Weekly

“Robbe-Grillet figures the unreliability of the narrator . . . by obsessively returning to the story of Oedipus, recalling not only Sophocles and Kierkegaard but [his own] celebrated first novel, The Erasers. . . . The self-seriousness of Robbe-Grillet’s early experimental fiction has devolved into a grave playfulness.” –Kirkus Reviews

“[A] literary thriller. . . . What is thrilling here is Robbe-Grillet’s extraordinary command of language and his skill at creating atmosphere.” –Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

“Transforms a tale of espionage set in 1949 Berlin into a psychological quest into one man’s precarious sense of self, persistent Oedipal urges and regrets, and sadistic erotic fantasies. . . . Illusion, lust, deception, criminality–all are employed in Robbe-Grillet’s eerie exploration of the strange force of repetition, of compulsively recollecting and reinventing the painful past.” –Donna Seaman, Booklist

“One of the greatest books of the past few decades . . . A game of chance which alludes to Daedalus’ labyrinth . . . full of false corridors and tricks of the eye . . . [Repetition] gives to the coming century a foundational text.” –Fran”ois Busnel, L”Express

“[Repetition is] a labyrinth where one loves to lose oneself for the sake of the nuggets of youth which are strewn in naughty parcels throughout it.” –Jean Baptiste Harang, Lib”ration

Praise for Alain Robbe-Grillet:

“I doubt that fiction as art can any longer be seriously discussed without Robbe-Grillet.” –The New York Times

“Robbe-Grillet’s theories constitute the most ambitious aesthetic program since Surrealism.” –John Updike

“I was inspired by Robbe-Grillet’s daring and rigorous example. . . . His early novels . . . are not amusing costume jewelry but big, glittering diamonds.” –Edmund White, Los Angeles Times

Excerpt

First Day

The so-called Henri Robin has awakened very early. It has taken him some time to realize where he is, how long he has been there, and why. He has slept badly, fully dressed, on his improvised mattress, in that room of comfortable dimensions (but presently without a bed and freezing cold), which Kierkegaard had called “the farther bedroom” during the two intervals he spent there: first, his flight after abandoning Regina Olsen in the winter of 1841, and then in hopes of a Berlin “repetition” in the spring of 1843. Stiff from having slept in unwonted positions, Henri Robin experiences some difficulty in standing up. Once this effort is made, he unbuttons and shakes, though without removing, his wrinkled and stiffened fur-lined jacket. He goes to the window (which overlooks the J”gerstrasse and not the Gendarmenplatz) and manages to open the ragged curtains without completely destroying them. The day has just dawned, apparently, which in Berlin at this season must mean it is a little after seven o’clock.

But the gray sky is so low this morning that the time cannot be asserted with any certainty: it might also be much later. Attempting to consult his watch, which he has kept on his wrist all night long, HR discovers that it has stopped. . . . Nothing surprising about that, since he failed to wind it the night before.

Turning toward the table, somewhat better lit now, he realizes immediately that the apartment has been visited while he was asleep: the drawer, pulled wide open, is now empty. Neither the night binoculars, nor the precision pistol, nor the identity card, nor the leather card case with the stained perforations in one corner is there. And on the table, the sheet of paper covered on both sides by his own tiny handwriting has also disappeared. In its place, he discovers an identical blank sheet of the usual commercial dimensions, on which two sentences have been hastily scribbled in tall, slanting letters across the page: “What’s done is done. . . . It would be better, under these conditions, for you to disappear as well, at least for a while.” The quite legible signature, ‘sterne” (with a final e), is one of the code names used by Pierre Garin.

How did he get in? HR recalls locking the door after the disturbing encounter with the frightened (as well as frightening) old woman, and having then put the key in the drawer. But though he has pulled the drawer all the way open, he sees clearly that it is no longer there. Anxious, fearing (against all reason) being confined, he goes over to the little door with the initials “J.K.” on it. Not only is this door no longer locked, it has not even been closed: the latch is merely resting in its groove, allowing a few millimeters’ play, without engaging the dead bolt. As for the key, it is no longer in the lock. One explanation seems obvious: Pierre Garin had a duplicate key, which he used to enter the apartment, and upon leaving he took both keys. But what for?

HR then becomes conscious of a vague headache, which has grown much worse since he awakened and is no help to his reasoning or his speculations. He feels, as a matter of fact, even more bewildered than yesterday evening, as if the water drunk from the faucet had contained some drug or other. And if it was a sedative, he might well have slept more than twenty-four hours at a stretch without any means of knowing it. Of course, it is no easy thing to poison a sink; some system of running water outside the public services would be necessary, with an individual reservoir (which moreover would account for the feeble water pressure he had noticed). On reflection, it would seem still stranger that the city water should have been turned back on in this partially destroyed apartment building, in a sector of the city abandoned to vagabonds and rats (as well as assassins).

Whatever the case, an artificially induced sleep would make more comprehensible this troubling phenomenon, which does not accord with experience: that a nocturnal intrusion would not have awakened the sleeper. The latter, in hopes of reestablishing normal activity in his confused brain, as benumbed as his joints are stiff, goes over to the sink to douse his face with cold water. Unfortunately, the faucet handles turn loosely this morning, without a single drop emerging from the faucets. In fact, the whole plumbing system seems to have been dry for a long time.

Ascher–as his colleagues in the central service have nicknamed him by pronouncing his name “Ach’res,” a small commune of the Seine-et-Oise where the supposedly secret service he belongs to is located–Ascher (which in German means “a man the color of ashes’) raises his face toward the cracked mirror above the sink. He scarcely recognizes himself: his features are blurred, his hair mussed, and his false mustache is no longer in place; loosened on the right side, it now slants a little. Instead of gluing it back, he decides to remove it completely; all things considered, the thing is more ridiculous than effective. He looks at himself again, amazed to see this anonymous, characterless countenance, despite a more radical dissymmetry than usual. He takes a few hesitant, clumsy steps, and then decides to check the contents of his big dispatch case, which he empties entirely, object by object, on the table of this inhospitable room where he has slept. Nothing seems to be missing, and the careful arrangement of things is precisely the one he himself had determined.

The false bottom doesn’t seem to have been opened, the fragile indicators are intact, and, inside the secret chamber, his two other passports are still waiting. He leafs through them with no specific intention. One is made out in the name of Franck Matthieu, the other to Boris Wallon. Both of them include photographs with no mustache, real or false. Perhaps the image of the so-called Wallon corresponds better to what has appeared in the mirror, after the suppression of the false mustache. Ascher therefore puts this new document, for which all the necessary visas are the same, in his inside jacket pocket, from which he removes the Henri Robin passport, which he inserts under the false bottom of the dispatch case, alongside Franck Matthieu. Then he puts everything back in its place, adding on top the message from Pierre Garin which had been left on the table: “What’s done is done. . . . It would be better. . . .”

Ascher also takes advantage of the occasion to remove his comb from the toilet kit, and without even turning back to the mirror, summarily runs it through his hair, though avoiding too studied an appearance, which would scarcely resemble the photograph of Boris Wallon. After glancing around the room as if he were afraid of forgetting something, he leaves the apartment, returning the little door to precisely the position in which Pierre Garin had left it, some five millimeters ajar.

At this moment, he hears a noise in the apartment opposite, and it occurs to him to ask the old woman if the house has any running water. Why should he be afraid to do so? But as he is about to knock on her wooden door, a storm of imprecations suddenly explodes inside, in a guttural German, not at all like the Berlin dialect, in which he nonetheless identifies the word M”rder, which is repeated several times, shouted louder and louder. Ascher seizes his heavy dispatch case by its leather handle and begins hurriedly though carefully descending the darkened stairs, holding on to the banister as he had done the night before.

Perhaps because of the weight of his bag, the strap of which he has now slung over his left shoulder, the Friedrichstrasse seems longer than he could have believed; and of course, emerging in the midst of the ruins, the rare structures–still standing, but damaged and restored with many temporary stopgaps–include no caf” or inn where he might find some comfort, if only a glass of water. There is not the slightest shop of any kind in sight, nothing anywhere but iron shutters which must not have been raised for several years. And no one appears the whole length of the street, nor in the cross-streets, which seem similarly ruined and deserted. Yet the few fragments of repaired apartment buildings which remain are doubtless inhabited, since he can make out motionless figures looking down from their windows behind the dirty panes at this strange, solitary traveler, whose slender silhouette advances along the roadway without a car on it, between the patches of wall and the piles of rubbish, a shiny black leather dispatch case, unusually thick and stiff, slung from his shoulder and knocking against one hip, obliging the man to bend his back under his incongruous burden.

Ascher finally reaches the guard post, ten yards in front of the bristling barbed-wire barriers which mark the border. He presents the Boris Wallon passport, of which the German sentry on duty examines the photograph, then the visa of the Democratic Republic, and then that of the Federal Republic. The man in uniform, closely resembling a German soldier of the last war, remarks in an inquisitorial tone of voice that the stamps are correct, but that one essen­tial detail is missing: the entry stamp for the territory of the Democratic Republic. The traveler, in his turn, examines the offending page, pretends to look for this stamp–which, of course, has no chance of appearing by some miracle–explains that he arrived by taking the official Bad Ersfeld-Eisenach corridor (an assertion partially accurate), and ends by suggesting that a hurried or incompetent Thuringian soldier doubtless neglected to stamp it at the time, either because he had forgotten to do so or else because he had no more ink. . . . Ascher speaks fluently, if approximately, uncertain whether the sentry follows his convolutions, though that seems unimportant to him. Isn’t the main thing to seem comfortable, relaxed, even casual?

Kein Eintritt, kein Austritt!” the sentry interrupts laconically, a logical and stubborn man. Boris Wallon searches his inside pockets, as if hoping to find another document. The soldier comes nearer, showing a sort of interest whose meaning Wallon can guess. He removes his billfold from his jacket and opens it. The sentry immediately realizes that the banknotes are West German marks. A greedy, cunning smile enlightens his features, hitherto so disagreeable. “Zwei hundert,” he announces quite simply. Two hundred deutsche mark is quite a lot for a few more or less illegible figures and letters, which appear moreover on the papers made out to Henri Robin, carefully secreted in the false bottom of the dispatch case. But there is no longer any other solution. The faulty traveler therefore returns his passport to the zealous sentry, after having obviously slipped in the two big coupons required. The soldier instantly vanishes inside the rudimentary police office, a prefabricated booth precariously perched among the ruins.

It is only after a rather long while that he comes back out and hands his Reisepass to the anxious traveler, whom he gratifies with a vaguely socialist but more likely a somewhat national salute, while explaining: “Alles in Ordnung.” Wallon glances at the offending page of the visa and observes that it now includes an entry stamp and an exit one as well, dated the same day and the same hour, two minutes apart, and at the same checkpoint. He salutes in his turn with a half-extended hand and an emphatic “Danke!” careful to preserve his serious expression.

On the other side of the border there is no problem. The soldier is a young and jovial G.I. with a crew cut and horn-rimmed glasses, who speaks French with almost no accent. After a quick glance at the passport, he merely asks the traveler if he is a relative of Henri Wallon the historian, the Father of the Constitution. “He was my grandfather,” Ascher answers calmly, with a perceptible tremor of emotion in his voice. So now he is in the American zone, contrary to what he had imagined, having doubtless confused the city’s two airports, Tegel and Tempelhof. As a matter of fact, the French zone of occupation must be located much farther north.

The Friedrichstrasse then continues straight ahead in the same direction, as far as the Mehringplatz and the Landwehrkanal, but here everything seems to belong to another world. Of course, there are still ruins, almost everywhere, but their density is less overwhelming. This sector must have been less systematically bombed than the center of town, as well as less ardently defended, stone by stone, than the iconic buildings of the regime. Moreover, the cleanup of the remains of the cataclysm is virtually complete here. Many repairs have been carried to their conclusion, and reconstruction of the razed apartment blocks seems well on its way. The pseudo-Wallon, too, feels suddenly different: lighthearted, idle, as though on vacation. Around him, on the recently washed sidewalks, are people going about their ordinary tasks or else hurrying toward specific goals, reasonable and everyday concerns. A few automobiles roll calmly by, keeping to the right on the highway now cleared of all debris, generally the wrecks of military vehicles.

Making his way into the huge square which bears the name, so unexpected in this sector, of Franz Mehring, founder with Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist movement, Boris Wallon immediately notices a sort of large popular brasserie where he can finally drink a cup of coffee, excessively diluted in the American style, and ask directions. The address he is looking for offers no difficulties: he must follow the Landwehrkanal to the left toward Kreuzburg, which the navigable canal crosses at several points. Feldmesserstrasse, which runs perpendicular to it, again on the left, corresponds to a dead-end branch of this same canal, known as the Defense, from which it is separated by a short iron bridge that used to be a drawbridge but has long been out of commission. The street actually consists of the two rather narrow quays, accessible to automobile traffic nonetheless, which line each side of the long-stagnant pool to which the abandoned hulls of old wooden barges add a melancholy, nostalgic charm. The rough paving of the quays, without sidewalks, emphasize this atmosphere of a vanished world.

The houses lining each side are low and vaguely countrified, most with only one story. They appear to date from the end of the last century or the beginning of this one and have been almost completely spared by the war. Just at the corner of the Defense Canal and its unnavigable arm stands a sort of villa of no particular style but which nonetheless suggests comfort and even a certain old-fashioned luxury. A solid iron fence lined on the inside by a thick privet hedge trimmed to a man’s height makes it impossible to get a view of the ground floor and the narrow strip of garden surrounding the entire structure. All that can be seen is the second floor and the stucco ornaments around its windows; the cornice, with Corinthian decorations embel­lishing the fa”ade; and the four-sided slate roof, its upper ridge lined by a perforated zinc strip of scrollwork representing sheaves of grain.

Contrary to what might be expected, the fence has no gate to the Landwehrkanal, but only to the quiet Feldmesserstrasse, on which this agreeable little mansion occupies the number 2 site, clearly visible on a blue enamel plaque slightly chipped at one corner, above a rather pompous doorway opposite the gate. A varnished wooden panel of recent manufacture, decorated with elegant hand-painted flourishes meant to reproduce those of the 1900 ironwork, suggests that a discreet shop is now installed in this middle-class residence: Die Sirenen der Ostsee (in other words: “The Mermaids of the Baltic”) in gothic script, and underneath in much more modest roman letters: “Puppen und Gliederm’dchen. Ankauf und Verkauf” (‘dolls and Mannequins Bought and Sold”). Wallon wonders what connection there can be between this enterprise, with its possibly suspicious connotations, suggested by the German word M’dchen, and the stiff Prussian officer whose official residence this is and who perhaps was murdered last night in the Soviet zone . . . or perhaps not.

Since the traveler feels anything but presentable after his previous day’s exertions, and comatose from lack of sleep and an overlong fast, he continues walking on the uneven paving stones, where certain larger holes between the countless humps and crannies have retained little puddles of reddish water, temporary residue of a recent rainfall dyed–it would seem–by the rust of a faded, lost, but clinging memory. Which actually reappears rather harshly a hundred yards farther on, where the branch of the canal comes to a dead end. On the opposite bank a pale sunbeam suddenly illuminates the low houses, their old-fashioned fa”ades mirrored in the motionless green water; against the quay lies an old, capsized sailboat whose rotting hull reveals at several points its skeleton of ribs, floorboards, and beams. The luminous evidence of this d”j” vu persists for a while, though the murky winter light soon resumes its gray tonalities.

Unlike certain low barges which could, before they were wrecked, have passed under the iron bridge without the necessity of raising the roadway, this one stray fishing boat, with its tall mast still erect (though slanting today at an angle of about forty-five degrees), could only have come to its mooring here at the period when the drawbridge was still working, at the entrance to the adjacent canal. Wallon thinks he remembers that the wrecked boat, having unexpectedly risen out of the depths of his memory, was already in that picturesque derelict condition when he first saw it, precisely in the same place at the very heart of the same ghostly setting; which of course seems strange if this is a childhood memory, as he now has the intense conviction that it is: little Henri, as he was called then, in homage to his illustrious godfather, might have been five or six, and holding his mother’s hand while she was looking for some relative, close no doubt but lost to sight following a family quarrel. So would nothing have changed in forty years? Possibly, as far as the uneven pavement, the blue-green water, and the stucco houses are concerned, but as for the rotten wood of a fishing boat, such a thing was inconceivable. As if time and weather had performed their corrosive actions once and for all, and had subsequently ceased functioning by some miracle or other.

The branch of the quay perpendicular to the axis of the canal, which permits cars and pedestrians to cross from one side to the other, follows an iron fence in very poor condition behind which can be seen nothing but trees, tall lindens which, like the neighboring buildings, have survived the bombings without mutilation or visible damage, they too just the same–the traveler supposes–as they were so long ago. The Feldmesserstrasse comes to a dead end here. This detail had moreover been pointed out by the kindly waitress in the brasserie Spartacus (the glorious Thracian rebellion having today bequeathed its name to a brand of Berlin beer). Beyond those old trees–she had indicated–in the shade of which grow a mass of weeds and brambles, begins the Russian sector, marking the northern limit of Kreuzburg.

However, the traveler is distracted from his recurrent visions of a buried past, resurfacing in bits and pieces, by a series of sounds which are anything but characteristically urban: a cock-crow which recurs three times, clear and melodious despite its remoteness, no longer in time but now in space. The acoustic quality of the crowing, undisturbed by any parasitical noise, permits measuring this unusual silence amid which it rings out, echoing far and wide. Wallon now realizes: since he has turned down this unfrequented country lane, he has not encountered a living soul nor heard anything at all except his own shoe occasionally brushing against an anfractuosity of the pavement. The place would be ideal for the rest he so badly needs. Turning around, he discovers almost without surprise that a hotel marked with the symbol of an acceptable category, which he had completely ignored when he arrived, constitutes the last building on the even-numbered side–the hotel is number 10 and probably dates from the same period as the rest of the street. But a broad rectangular signboard of lacquered tin, new and shiny, with old-gold letters on a reddish ochre ground and obviously painted quite recently, proclaims: “Die Verb”ndeten” (“The Allies’). The front room of the ground floor has even been turned into a sort of bistro, its French name, Caf” des Alli’s, encouraging Wallon to push open the door of this providential haven.

The interior is very dark, and even more silent, if such a thing is possible, than the deserted quay he has just left behind. The traveler takes a while to identify, in the depths of the room, an apparently living person: a huge, fat man with a repellent countenance who seems to be waiting, motionless as a spider in the center of its web, standing behind an old-fashioned carved wooden counter on which he rests both hands and leans slightly forward. This factotum, who must double as bartender and receptionist, does not utter a single word of welcome; but a sign, set quite prominently in front of him, specifies: “On parle fran”ais.” Making what seems a tremendous effort, the traveler begins in a shaky voice: “Bonjour, Monsieur, do you have any rooms?”

The man contemplates the intruder without stirring for a long while before answering in French, but with a strong Bavarian accent and in an almost threatening tone of voice: “Combien?

‘do you mean how much money?”

“No, how many rooms!”

“Just one, obviously.”

“Not obvious at all: you asked for rooms.

Perhaps because of the total exhaustion that has overcome him, the traveler has the strange sense of repeating a dialogue written out ahead of time and already uttered sometime previously (but where? and when? and by whom?), as if he were onstage, acting in a play written by someone else. Auguring badly, moreover, for the consequences of a negotiation entered into with such hostility, he is already prepared to beat a retreat when a second man, as corpulent as the first, appears out of the still-deeper shadows of an adjacent office. As he approaches his colleague, his similarly round and glabrous countenance becomes gradually wreathed in a jovial smile apparently caused by perceiving this potential client in difficulty. And he exclaims, in a much less heavily accented French: “Bonjour, Monsieur Wall! You’re back with us?”

Looming now beside one another behind the counter, towering over the increasingly abashed Wallon (probably on a step above him), they look like twins, so identical are their faces, despite their different expressions. As troubled by this doubling of the receptionist as by the inexplicable knowledge of his own person indicated by the words of the more prepossessing half of his interlocutor, the traveler at first supposes, in an entirely absurd reflex, that he must have come here at some earlier time with his mother and that the man remembers. . . . He stammers an incomprehensible phrase. But his cordial host immediately resumes: “Forgive my brother, Monsieur Wall. Franz was away earlier in the week, and you were here for such a short visit. But the room and bath is still available. . . . You don’t need to fill out a new slip, since there’s really not been any interruption.”

As the traveler remains silent, overwhelmed, without its even occurring to him to take the key being offered, the innkeeper, no longer smiling, is surprised to see him in this condition; in the reproachful tone of a family doctor, he says: “You seem all in, poor Monsieur Wall: here too late last night and gone too soon this morning, without even taking breakfast. But we’ll take care of that: dinner is ready. Franz will take up your luggage. And Maria will serve you right away.”

Boris Wallon, known as Wall, has let everything be done for him without a thought passing through his head.4

Luckily Maria neither spoke nor understood French. And he himself, already somewhat confused in his native language, had now ceased to understand German. The girl having asked a question concerning the menu which required an answer, it was necessary to call “Herr Josef” to the rescue. The latter, ever abounding in consideration, settled the problem immediately, without Wallon’s understanding what its bearing really was. He did not even know, while he was eating with a somnambulistic indifference, what was on the plate in front of him. The innkeeper, whose friendliness was turning to a sort of police vigilance,5 remained standing for a moment beside his sole customer’s table, bathing him in the warmth of his protective and indiscreet gaze. Before leaving, he murmured to him, as if in confidence, with a grin of friendly complicity, quite excessive and utterly artificial: “You were quite right, Monsieur Wall, to get rid of your mustache. It didn’t become you. . . . Besides, it was too obviously artificial.” The traveler made no reply.

Once his meal was over, the traveler went upstairs to room number 3 and took a quick bath, after removing from his heavy dispatch case what he needed for the night. But in his haste, he removed at the same time a small object wrapped in flesh-colored paper, which was perhaps not in its usual place and which fell on the floor, producing a loud, sharp sound, indicative of considerable weight. Wall picked it up, wondering what the thing might be, and un­wrapped the package in order to identify its contents: it was a small, jointed, porcelain figure of a naked girl, about ten centimeters long, in every respect identical to those he had played with as a child. Of course, he carried nothing of the kind with him these days on his journeys. Yet this evening nothing could surprise him. On the inner, white surface of the wrapping paper was printed the name and address of a nearby doll shop: “Die Sirenen der Ostsee, Feldmesserstrasse 2, Berlin-Kreuzburg.”

Having emerged from his beneficial ablutions, the traveler sat down in his pajamas on the edge of the bed. His body was somewhat relaxed, but his mind was absolutely blank. At this point he scarcely knew where he was. In the night table drawer there was, in addition to the traditional Bible, a large, worn map of Berlin, carefully creased along its original folds. Wall then recalled having vainly looked for his own map when he had tried, before leaving the ruined house on Gendarmenplatz, to check, piece by piece, the proper order of the items in his dispatch case. Without dwelling on the happy coincidence which his latest find represented, he slid under the feather bed wrapped in its linen shroud and instantly fell asleep.

While he slept (and therefore in an altogether different temporal existence), he experienced once again one of his most frequent nightmares, which proceeded to its conclusion without awakening him. Little Henri must have been at most ten years old. He had had to ask the study hall teacher for permission to leave the room for the satisfaction of an urgent need. He is wandering now through the deserted recreation courtyards, passing through the arcaded playgrounds and interminable empty corridors, opening any number of doors, to no purpose. No one is there to tell him where to go, and he recognizes none of the appropriate places disseminated throughout the huge school building (is this the Lyc”e Buffon?). Finally he happens to find himself in his own classroom and immediately sees that his usual assigned seat, which he had left just a few moments earlier (very long moments?), is now occupied by another boy of the same age–a new student, probably, for he fails to recognize him. But observing him more closely, young Henri realizes, without being particularly surprised by the fact, that the other boy looks very much like himself. The faces of his schoolfellows turn one by one toward the door in order to consider with obvious disapproval the intruder who has remained on the threshold, no longer knowing where to go: there is no empty seat in the whole study hall. . . . Only the usurper remains bent over his desk, diligently committed to composing his French theme in his very tiny script, fine and regular and without a single erasure.6

Later, in another world, Wall awakens. He kicks off the white feather bed, which is making him too hot. Abruptly sitting up, he wonders what time it might be. The sun has risen, rather low in the sky, of course, since it is winter. The sky is clear, rather bright for the season. Wallon has not closed the double curtains of his window, which overlooks the end of the stagnant canal. He supposes he has slept a long time, a sound, satisfying sleep. He has gone to the bathroom only once (on account of the beer abundantly consumed at dinner). His recurrent dream of the undiscoverable toilets has long since ceased to disturb him; moreover it seems to him that the dream content has gradually become normalized, so to speak, in a virtually rational narrative coherence which robs it of any offensive power.

Wall picks up the map of Berlin left on the night table and unfolds it completely. It is just like the one he had lost (where and when?), and in good condition like that one, with the same accidental crease in one corner; this copy offers, in addition, no more than two very emphatic red crosses made with a ballpoint pen: one marking the dead end of the Feldmesserstrasse, which is scarcely surprising here in this inn, and the other, more disturbing, the intersection of J”gerstrasse and the Gendarmenplatz. These are the two points where the traveler has spent his last two nights. Musing, he goes to the uncurtained window. Just opposite, the childhood memory is still there, firmly fixed in its exact location. Only the light has changed. The low houses, which last evening received the pale yellow light of the setting sun, are now in shadow. The wreck of the phantom sailboat has grown darker, more threatening, bigger too, it seems. . . .

The first time he was conscious of the image, during that very early buried journey, at the beginning of summer probably, since the episode would have to be placed around vacation time, that looming black wood skeleton must have frightened the overemotional, sickly, impressionable, haunted child clinging to the protective maternal hand. Doubtless his mother had been pulling him a little, for he had been tired by their long excursion, at the same time that she was keeping him from losing his balance on the uneven paving stones that must have seemed hillocks to his frail six-year-old legs. He was already too heavy, though, for her to be able to carry him in her arms for any length of time.

What especially disturbs Wallon in his precise, obvious, almost tangible though defective reminiscences is not so much no longer knowing whom his mother was looking for–a thing which today seems of no importance to him–as the location of this search in Berlin, which in any case remained quite futile: they had not managed to find the person they sought. If my memory serves, his mother was taking him that year (around 1910) to visit an aunt by marriage, a German woman who owned a seaside villa on the island of Rügen; the interruption of the journey there, the futile wandering, the dead-end canal with its cemetery of wrecked and rotting fishing boats, was more likely to be situated in a small seaside town in the neighborhood: Sassnitz, Stralsund, or Greifswald.

Yet on reflection, coming from France by rail, a stop at Berlin was inevitable in order to change trains and, doubtless, stations as well, since the capital, like Paris, then as now, no longer possessed a central station. The trajectory from Brest with those two interruptions in a long train trip represented in those days, no doubt about it, a veritable exploit for a young woman alone, burdened with beach luggage and a child as well. . . . Despite the distance separating his natal soil from the coast of Pomerania–the cliffs of the Baltic Sea with their huge fallen boulders, their rocky promontories, their creeks lined with pale sand, their pools bordered with slippery seaweed where he had pursued, during that one summer month forty years before, his childhood pastimes, made all the more solitary because the language separated him from the boys and girls tirelessly building castles doomed to tidal engulfment–everything henceforth mingles in the traveler’s mind with the beaches, the granite rocks, and the dangerous waters of Nord-Finist’re that permeate his entire childhood. . . .

As daylight fades, striding across the narrow, still-dry part of the sandy crescent which the receding tide gradually abandons, he follows the successive wreaths of the line of seaweed marking the limit reached by the last high tide. On a bed of still-moist ribbons of kelp, torn loose by the ocean, lay all sorts of debris, the hypothetical origins of which give free rein to the imagination: already-dead starfish, rejected by the fishermen; fragments of crustacean carapaces or skeletons of deep-sea fish; a bilobed tail, fleshy and so large that it must have come from a dolphin or a mermaid; a celluloid doll whose arms had been torn off but who was still smiling; a corked glass flask containing the remains of some sticky liquid, red despite the oncoming darkness; a high-heeled dance slipper still attached to its sole, its vamp covered with metallic blue sequins glistening with an improbable luster. . . .

Excerpted from Repetition

©2003 by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.