Monique Wittig was born in the Haut Rhin department in Alsace. She moved to Paris in the 1950s, where she studied at the Sorbonne. Her first novel, L'Opoponax, published by Minuit in 1964, immediately drew attention to her when it was awarded the Prix Médicis by a jury that included Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Praised by such influential writers, the novel was quickly translated into English, where it also won critical acclaim.
Wittig became very involved in the events surrounding the revolt of students and workers in May of 1968. Like many others, she realized that the radical men leading the revolt were not inclined to share leadership. Wittig was one of the first theoreticians and activists of the new feminist movement. It was in this atmosphere of radical political action that she completed what is often considered her most influential work -- Les Guérillères – published in 1969. Revolutionary both in form and content, this novel has been widely translated, debated, and used as a source of ideas by many major feminist and lesbian thinkers and writers around the world.
In May 1970, Wittig co-published what can be described as the manifesto of the French feminist movement. Ever since, Wittig's works have included both fiction and non-fiction essays evolving i an ongoing dialogue between theory and literary practice.
Throughout the early '70s, Wittig was a central figure in the radical lesbian and feminist movements in France. She was a founding member of such groups as the Petites Marguérites, the Gouines rouges, and the Féministes révolutionnaires.
In 1973 she published Le Corps lesbien (translated into English in 1975 as The Lesbian Body), and in 1976 Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes (translated into English in 1979 as Lesbian Peoples: Material For A Dictionary), co-authored by her partner Sande Zeig. In 1976 Wittig and Zeig moved to the United States.
From that time on, Wittig turned her attention increasingly toward theoretical works, and a number of her most famous essays date from the late '70s and early 80s. In a variety of genres ranging from the philosophical essay ("The Straight Mind") to the parable ("Les Tchiches et les Tchouches") she explored the intersections of lesbianism, feminism, and literary form. Most of these essays were published in two journals. She became part of the editorial collective of France's major theoretical journal, Questions féministes, and she was advisory editor to an American journal, Feminist Issues, founded in part to make available in English the important works being published in France, notably in Questions Féministes. Her work became truly bi-lingual, as she translated her own work from English into French, and vice-versa. She also translated Djuna Barnes's Spillway as La Passion. Earlier translations include Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and the Portugese The Three Marias’ Nouvelles lettres portugaises.
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The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Monday February 25 2008
Alain Robbe-Grillet's last film was C'est Gradiva Qui Vous Appelle, made in 2006, and not as we said in his obituary below, Un Bruit Qui Rend Fou, which was made in 1995. This has been corrected.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, who has died aged 85 after cardiac problems, was revered by some and accepted by others, as the master of the nouveau roman - the new novel. From the 1950s onwards, a group of French writers, including Claude Simon, Michel Butor and Nathalie Sarraute, challenged the historical idea of the novel. They were hardly in agreement with each other, and it was Robbe-Grillet who made the most explicit statement of what the new novel was about in an essay, Pour Un Nouveau Roman, published in 1963.
His argument was straightforward - that the time had passed for novels to be about characters and individuals. The idea of telling a story, the novel as a narration, was no longer relevant, and any ambition to write a novel that would support a cause or put forward an argument had become inappropriate. The individual no longer played a part in the world, and the rise and fall of men and women or the destiny of families, belonged to a previous time. It was only possible to write like Stendhal if you were actually writing in 1830, and if a modern composer wanted to produce music exactly like that of Beethoven, he would find that no one wanted to listen to it.
What counted was creation, according to Robbe-Grillet. A novel (or a film) should show imagination at work - it should create a mental world not to be confused with the real world. A portrait of society that was related to reality, that sought to represent real life, was the preoccupation only of traditional novelists. When Robbe-Grillet described a seagull in his novels, he never sought to verify his portrait by looking at a real seagull. His imagined seagull had the quality of art. Realism was sterile. The real should be kept at a distance, and the artist be freed of it.
Readers, of course, were accustomed to the reality and the coherence of the traditional novel, and they judged its value by its success in presenting recognisable characters and situations. Robbe-Grillet took care to demonstrate exactly what he was doing.
In his first published novel, Les Gommes (1953), the first scene shows the owner of a cafe, arranging his chairs, tables, ashtrays in the half-light of dawn: we are told he is the only character present on the stage, so we realise that the curtain has gone up and we are watching a play; we see how his actions are automatic. But, as in the performance of a play, time is important. The arrangement of the cafe takes just so long and then the only character gives the signal. The play - the novel - begins. A man is murdered. He is called Dupont, and his name is linked to a drawbridge that unites the two parts of a town. But the drawbridge works imperfectly. When was he killed? The detective's watch stops. This work has been hailed as an aggressive anti-novel, but recent critics have dismissed it, claiming that it is a joke and saying that Robbe-Grillet should not be taken seriously.
There is no doubt that he enjoyed himself when he read the different assessments that critics made of his work. In his long-delayed autobiography, Le Miroir Qui Revient, published in 1985 (the English translation Ghosts in the Mirror appeared three years later), he describes how, on a visit to New York University, he was given the room normally occupied by the lecturer who taught students about his work. Robbe-Grillet discovered a rigorously annotated copy of his second novel, Le Voyeur (1955), and found that the unfortunate American had got everything wrong. As Robbe-Grillet put it, every time an obvious trap was set for the reader, the American fell into it - he did not understand the rules.
The novels of Robbe-Grillet are, in a sense, a game. He invites the reader to take part in a mind-testing exercise. The narrative is in search of its own coherence. The reader must understand why it takes the form that it does. This is particularly clear in the later novels, especially in those published in the late 1960s, such as La Maison de Rendez-Vous (1965) and Projet Pour Une Revolution à New York (1970).
Robbe-Grillet was born in Brest, the son of an engineer, and began his working life as a biological scientist and botanical expert. After education in Brest and Paris, and some time at the National Institute of Statistics, he studied at the Institute of Colonial Fruits and Vegetables and worked in Morocco, French Guiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe from 1949 to 1951. He retained his botanical interest all his life, and liked nothing better than to leave a literary discussion and to visit a garden, where he would tell people the names of plants and flowers.
In 1955 he became an editor with the publishing house Les Éditions de Minuit. But this and his emergence as a novelist did not exhaust his versatility. In 1962, as he entered his 40s, he wrote the script and the dialogue for Alain Resnais's film, L'Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), an international success at the time. Robbe-Grillet became part of cinema's nouvelle vague, new wave, as well as the nouveau roman.
As did Marguerite Duras, he then devoted his time equally to novel writing and film-making. His first solo directorial feature, L'Immortelle, won the Louis Delluc prize, a much-valued critics award. His film Un Bruit Qui Rend Fou, shown in 1995, won the first prize at the San Diego film festival. He was elected a member of the Académie Française in 2004.
In the 1950s he began to give talks on music, while his interest in art led him to become a practising artist.
As a novelist and film-maker, he was always controversial and it was not always easy to understand the full implications of his work. He grew up at a time of simultaneous construction and destruction. He writes of bondage and emancipation, he depicts tradition and subversion. He claimed that the novelist had nothing to say. But in his novels and his films, he shows people in the act of creating themselves. And there is always destruction, disappearance and hallucination.
He once noted that a student in Austin, Texas, had killed 14 people with a machine gun. He had been reading The Outsider by Albert Camus. Crime, said Robbe-Grillet, was in our heads. Any book could trigger a crime.
He married Catherine Rstakian in 1957. She survives him.
· Alain Robbe-Grillet, novelist, film-maker, biological scientist, born August 18 1922; died February 18 2008
This obituary has been revised and updated since the obituary writer's own death