From the novels of Joseph Conrad and Ian Fleming to TV’s The Prisoner and Austin Powers’s Mini-Me, deceptive doppelgängers populate spy fiction, serving as handy plot engines and, at best, as metaphors for a world where things aren’t what they seem. In Repetition, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s first novel in 20 years, French special agent Henri Robin travels to Berlin on a mission so hush-hush that even he isn’t sure what it is. On the train he encounters “the traveler,” the ever elusive exact double who has plagued Robin since childhood. Robin is in disguise, wearing a fake moustache. With a shock, he realizes that the “traveler” now looks more like himself than he does.
That is a problem, for Robin must be recognized by his superior, Pierre Garin, when he reaches Berlin.
If the traveler reaches the station hall before me, Pierre Garin will obviously walk toward him to greet him, with all the more assurance since he does not yet know that the new Henri Robin is wearing a moustache. . . . Two hypotheses are to be entertained: either the usurper is merely someone who resembles me like a twin brother, and Pierre Garin runs the risk of betraying himself, of betraying us, before the misunderstanding is revealed; or else the traveler is actually me, that is, my veritable duplication, and, in that case . . . Come off it! Such a supposition is hardly realistic. That I, in my Breton childhood, in a country of witches, ghosts and all kinds of apparitions, had suffered from identity problems regarded as serious by certain doctors is one thing. It would be quite another to imagine myself, thirty years later, the victim of an evil spell.
Robin soon witnesses a murder, gets accused of the killing, and finds himself held captive in a doll shop that is a cover for a whorehouse for sadomasochistic pedophiles (itself a cover for something else—or so it seems).
Repetition is the high concept that made Robbe-Grillet’s reputation. In his first novel, The Erasers (1953), he devoted many paragraphs to a pointlessly repetitious description of the configuration of seeds in a slice of tomato. The equally redundant description of the rows of banana trees in 1957’s Jealousy was such an outrage to conservative critics that it was read for laughs on French radio. These notorious passages have given Robbe-Grillet a reputation as a difficult author; in America, he is more known of than read. The actual effect of the repetitious passages is playfully hypnotic, roughly the way that Morton Feldman’s music is. Long before the Internet, Robbe-Grillet recognized that we all live in a world of senseless and irrelevant information, one lacking grand narratives.
To anyone scared off by the early novels’ reputation, Repetition will come as a pleasant surprise: fast-moving story, well-realized characters, a succession of delightfully unanticipated yet logical revelations. Like the hero of the film Memento, Henri Robin wakes up each day as a near blank slate. He is apparently being drugged and must distinguish dream from reality, memory from déjà vu. Into a plot of fractal complexity, Robbe-Grillet pours seemingly every gimmick of fictional doubling ever used. A partial list includes unsuspected identical twins, amazingly lifelike dolls, mirror reflections, and trompe l’oeil paintings. The text itself repeats, through page-spanning “notes” that constitute a skeptical annotation of the main text. (“The narrator, himself unreliable, who calls himself by the fictive name of Henri Robin, here commits a slight error . . . “)
The conventional spy novel observes an economy of means. One implausible “gimmick” is permitted, and the rest of the plot works out the consequences. Robbe-Grillet’s fiction is often about breaking rules, and he is clearly having fun here. Despite the baroque profusion of doublings, some of the plot twists materialize as magically as in a Le Carré tale. One such surprise may be fairly mentioned—at any rate, it is difficult to discuss the novel without divulging it. Henri Robin gradually realizes that he has been in Berlin before, as a child. It then unfolds that Robin has probably killed his father and been seduced by his mother. As the novel ends, Robin is also developing problems with his eyesight . . . Repetition is thus a deadpan retelling of the Oedipus myth, which is itself a repetition of the prophecy contained within.
Far more audaciously, Repetition retells Robbe-Grillet’s own The Erasers, itself a send-up of genre fiction (the detective story) elaborately structured around the Oedipus myth. (The many Oedipus allusions in The Erasers were missed by so many early critics that Robbe-Grillet felt obligated to issue a pamphlet pointing them out.) The Oedipus character in The Erasers is named Wallas; Repetition‘s Henri Robin uses the alias Wallon. Both novels have a prologue, five chapters, and epilogue, mimicking the structure of Sophocles’ play.
In contrast to Sophocles, Robbe-Grillet does not permit his ill-starred characters belated recognition of just what cruel tricks fate has played. Henri Robin wakes up every morning with a job to do and no time to ponder the grand patterns of fate swirling around him. Like most of us, he is clueless about his real place in the scheme of things. He can only invent cover stories while privately suppressing a sense that things have all happened before. As Robin begins his narrative, “Here, then, I repeat, and I sum up.”