The Image: Catherine Robbe-Grillet: “Cloaked in Mystery”

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In the pantheon of erotic literature The Image (published in 1956 as L’Image by Jean de Berg) is perhaps the only novel which comes close to kinship with Story of O.
For some, it is found to be the superior novel.

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Published in a small three-thousand-copy edition by Les Editions de Minuit, The Image sold out in a matter of days prior to a ban. Like Histoire d’O, the publication of The Image had its fair share of subterfuge and smoke screen – an aspect of the two novels which for many years added a sense of tantalising mystery to the very nature of both books.

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The ‘story’ of ‘O’ – how mysterious, how seductive a title. What is it? What can it be about? What is ‘O’? – Likewise “the image” speaks of something tangible but also begs the same questions; What image? What image will be shown?

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Taking a cue from the pseudonymous ‘Pauline Réage’, the author of The Image also chooses anonymity. She even invents a preface by ‘P.R.’ (assumed to be Pauline Réage) and a dedication “To Pauline Réage”, and like Réage (Dominique Aury), de Berg hides behind masks and gloves. As with Story of O rumours abounded about the true identity of the author. It was not known if the author was male or female. It was even suggested by many that L’Image was written by Mme Réage herself.

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By the close of the 1990s Jean de Berg was found out to be none other than Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the writer, photographer, screen and theatre actress, and wife of French writer and film-maker Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Was The Image a collaboration between husband and wife, between master and submissive?

Alain was a self proclaimed kinkster and purveyor of Sadian imagery both in his novels and films. The focus upon image is all pervading. In many of his stories an image, say of a stain on a wall or an artefact on a table, can take on great importance and busy the reader for several pages. Is not too much a leap of the imagination then, to imagine Alain having a hand in the writing of The Image? So far there has been no admission the novel was a joint enterprise. However, Catherine and Alain were pretty inseparable and without doubt, assisted one another on any number of joint projects. Catherine appears in several of Alain’s feature films including Trans Europe Express where she plays his script-girl.

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Of Armenian descent and born in Paris 24 September 1930, Catherine married Alain Robbe-Grillet in Paris on 23 October 1957 (he died in February 2008). Within a year, it has recently been revealed, Alain drew up a contract under which Catherine would be subject to his sadomasochistic whims and fancies. According to the contract, Catherine would have to present herself at a set time and at a set place, dressed however Alain demanded, and willing to do whatever he asked of her.

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Their companionship was beyond doubt. For 50 years of marriage, – the press in 2014 revealed with relish, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, “submitted herself to the sexual slavery of her husband, Alain, who drew up a contract for her setting out rules for kinky torture sessions.” Though she never signed the so-called Contract of Conjugal Prostitution, Catherine “willingly participated in Alain’s every fantasy”, including being whipped, chained and blindfolded.

Alain was one of the figures most associated with the Nouveau Roman (new novel). His writing style has been described as “realist” or “phenomenological”. Methodical, and often repetitive descriptions of objects replace (though often reveal) the psychology and interiority of the character. His film career began when Alain Resnais chose to collaborate with him on his 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad. In the credits it was presented as a film equally co-authored by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais.

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The whip is of braided leather like those that are used on dogs. From the thin, supple tip it becomes progressively thicker and harder up to the part that one holds in one’s hand, which is almost rigid, forming a sort of very short handle. The lash, motionless on the floor, delineates an S whose narrowest tip curves back on itself.”

At a time in the 1980s, when it could still be suggested Jean Paulhan was the voice behind ‘Pauline Réage’, Sarane Alexandrian in his Histoire de la littérature érotique seemed committed to denying female authorship to any of the hundred erotic classics he identifies (Emmanuelle, it is whispered, was written by the husband of Emmanuelle d’Arsan). I, in no way, wish to apply the same conclusion to Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s L’Image but a re-reading of the text reveals repeatedly, the Alain R G style. I’ll leave readers to their own conclusions.

Both Histoire d’O and L’Image figure in the concise list (just twelve books) drawn up by Pieyre de Mandiargues in 1975, identifying modern erotic literature. Susan Sontag also placed the two French novels among the very few (5) erotic novels she considered to have serious artistic worth. “Intoxicating as is their subject (if the reader doesn’t cut off and find it just funny or sinister)” writes Sontag in her essay The Pornographic Imagination, “both narratives are more concerned with the use of erotic material than with the expression of it. And this use is pre-eminently – there is no other word for it – literary.”

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L’Image was made into a 1973 film, The Image, also known as The Punishment of Anne and The Mistress and the Slave, and was directed by Radley Metzger, sticking surprisingly close to the original text. Describing the film as an “intense little gem” Boris Lugosi wrote, “Metzger lavishes much care on the film in just about every aspect, pushing it towards the level of pure art.”

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As in the book the film’s structure is divided in 10 chapters:

    1. An Evening at the X…’s
    2. The Roses in Bagatelle Gardens
    3. Too Much Water and Its Consequences
    4. False Starts
    5. The Photographs
    6. An Expiatory Sacrifice
    7. The Fitting Room
    8. In the Bathroom
    9. The Gothic Chamber
    10. Everything Resolves Itself

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Under the pseudonym “Henry Paris,” Metzger directed several explicit adult erotic features during the mid to late 1970s. His signature film style of “elegant erotica”, developed into “a Euro-centric combination of stylish decadence, wealth and the aristocratic”.

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Radley Metzger the filmmaker whose “nom de fuck” was ‘Henry Paris’

John Phillips writing on Alain Robbe-Grillet states, “It is rare for an important writer to become an equally important film-maker.” Alain Robbe-Grillet maintained, “What is absolutely gripping about the cinema is that it exercises a direct influence on the public… It has an erotic impact that is far superior to that of the written sentence.”

As for Catherine Robbe-Grillet, she has, in her late years, taken on the role of grande dominatrice de la femme. Vanity Fair reports, “The life of Catherine Robbe-Grillet makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like a Disney movie. In 1951, she became the mistress of the writer—and accomplished sadist—Alain Robbe-Grillet, whom she later married. Today, an 83-year-old widow, she is France’s most famous dominatrix.”

Is there a conflict of reporting? This nouveau rôle for our author of The Image just might beg the question; If Mrs R-G was so submissive then, how are we to account for la Maitresse Incroyable of her later years?

 

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text © Stefan Prince

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