By the way, when we visited Robbe-Grillet, his petite, pretty wife, a young actress, had dressed herself a la gamine in my honor, pretending to be Lolita, and she continued the performance the next day, when we met again at a publisher’s luncheon in a restaurant. After pouring wine for everyone but her, the waiter asked, “Voulez-vous un Coca-Cola, Mademoiselle?” It was very funny, and Robbe-Grillet, who looks so solemn in photographs, roared with laughter.
—Vladimir Nabokov; in an interview with Alfred Appel, Jr., conducted August 1970, collected in Strong Opinions, 1973, McGraw-Hill
Brian Boyd’s biography of Nabokov places this meeting in 1959. By this time, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, née Rastakian, has already published her first novel, The Image, published by Editions du Minuet under the pen name Jean De Berg in 1956, when she is 26. She married Robbe-Grillet in 1957. The Image is a detailed account of a sado-masochistic relationship; it was made into a film, shot on location in Paris, by Radley Metzger in 1975. Robbe-Grillet appeared in two of her husband’s films, both among his best, 1963’s L’Immortelle and 1966’s Trans-Europe Express. In the years since her husband’s death (he passed away in 2008) she has gained a second reputation; for a very rare speaking appearance in New York, held by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) on Tuesday evening, she was referred to more than once as “France’s most famous dominatrix.” The evening, which was prefaced by an edited version of La ceremonie, Lina Mannheimer’s documentary about Madame Robbe-Grillet, which also features extensive interviews with Robbe-Grillet’s companion and, …well,… it’s hard to put a name to it, and “slave” will not do…in any event, a good deal of the post-film discussion focused on how Beverly Charpentier, who spoke quite a bit herself while serving as Madame’s translator, could, as an extremely accomplished heterosexual woman with two grown children, have given her whole life over to the care and obedience of Catherine.
The panel was moderated by Toni Bentley, the one-time ballet dancer whose writings have come to chronicle her own explorations of sado-masochism. Wearing a near-crimson dress, Bentley, who authored the recent Vanity Fair article which introduced Madame Robbe-Grillet and her life work/style to an American audience, asked a series of questions, told the audience that she expected their own questions to be “bold,” and related a tale of her own participation in a bondage ritual with Robbe-Grillet and Charpentier.
So, you know, it was not an entirely literary evening. (It’s part of the French Alliance’s “Art of Sex And Seduction” series.) I myself am not terribly interested in S&M as a practice (despite my having penned, pseudonymously, an account of an evening at The Vault for a Guccione publication back in the ‘80s; like they say, once a philosopher, twice a…never mind…), but like all closed or semi-closed social systems, it is certainly interesting, and Madame Robbe-Grillet, a woman of fierce and formidable intelligence, brings her perceptual acuity to bear on the phenomenon in a dispassionate way when necessary. Looking very proper in her black dress suit and white headband, Madame, now 85 years of age, reflected on the fact that, from what statistics she could glean, 90 percent of all the individuals with an interest in sadomasochism are males, and that the disproportion creates, among other things, a certain kind of complicity among women who participate in the lifestyle. Also discussed were the differences between professional dominatrices and those who practice discipline as a lifestyle; Madame Robbe-Grillet, who does the latter, does not disdain sex workers—indeed, she has heartfelt praise for them—but does not take money herself; it redefines the nature of the whole exchange, she says, and of course she is correct. As for Charpentier, answering why a woman as accomplished as herself should be in the position she’s chosen, wondered aloud why it would be considered so unusual, and cited the motto of the American college fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, “joy in service.” A not dissimilar concept animates some practices within twelve step programs, but I wasn’t gonna bring that up necessarily.
There was much laughter in the talk. “Obviously, if you’ve read or seen 50 Shades of Gray, you know that a predilection for sadomasochism is the result of something terrible that happened to you as a child,” Madame Robbe-Grillet said, luxuriating in mild, rancor-free irony. “It’s reassuring for people to tie it in to some childhood trauma, but I can’t say that there’s any that I myself remember.” She went on to say that sexuality was still a place of mystery, and while “çe me derange pas” that psychoanalysts, both amateur and professional, have tried to figure out “why” she spent decades as a submissive before turning dominant, or any of the other features of her erotic life, she herself had/has “no need to find out where my desires come from.” I was delighted when, at the question of how long she intended to keep up her practice of rituals now that she’s in her ninth decade of life, Madame cited the example of Portuguese filmmaker Manoel De Oliviera, who continued making films even past the age of 100.
It is a tricky business, sado-masochism, and particularly in these times. At one point, Madame made mention of the fact that a genuine sadist derives no pleasure from inflicting pain on a person who enjoys receiving pain, as that goes against the whole ethos of sadism; the implications of this statement were left to hang as Madame continued by speaking of ideas of consent. Consent, I infer, is one of the rationales that inform the ritualistic practices in Robbe-Grillet’s mode of living. But these practices are not all she lives for. Again without irritation, she noted, “I know I’m billed as France’s most famous dominatrix, and I am, but I’m also a nice little old lady who’s interested in the theatre, music, and literature, and who makes jam!”
There was not much time for audience questions. The house, Florence Gould Hall, was packed, and the male-to-female ratio was something like 60:40, and of course I thought more than once of old Woody Allen jokes about the personal ads in the New York Review Of Books. The questions were not terribly “bold,” and I didn’t get to ask either of mine, the first of which was to solicit her own recollection of the meeting with Nabokov so very long ago (in the year of my own birth, as it happens), the second would have been about the extent to which she’d been involved in the making of the film version of The Image, and her impression of the picture. There was a book-signing afterwards, though, and I got to be third on line.
Alain Robbe-Grillet’s final published fiction, A Sentimental Novel, is so replete with elaborate erotic fantasies of such atrocities as child murder and such that it’s easy to ignore its ingenious structure, a variant of that of Raymond Roussel’s long poem “La Vue”—a structure that in some way inoculates the work from genuine moral condemnation, or should, or, oh, I don’t know. Although Robbe-Grillet doesn’t get into it in his wonderful memoir, published in English translation in 1988 as Ghosts In The Mirror, his marriage to Catherine was, among other things, a long-held S&M relationship. (His depiction of the marriage in the book is in fact, especially for this author, downright romantic. The book contains an account of how the couple survived the first crash of an Air France Boeing 707 in 1961, and how his main regret from that event was that in his incinerated luggage was a bracelet he had brought for Catherine in commemoration of their meeting exactly ten years before, while he was stuck on his novel Les Gommes and took a trip to Istanbul on impulse—the couple met on the Orient Express!) The cover of the paperback edition of Madame’s memoir of her husband, Alain, is a picture of the two locked in an impossibly tender embrace that has an emotional echo of Annie Leibovitz’s famed 1980 Lennon/Ono shot. The book is a series of alphabetically arranged vignettes/observations, some several pages, others only a paragraph or two. I certainly hope an English translation is in the offing; here is my own probably very not-good and certainly completely unauthorized translation of the entry called “Fax.”
My man has a happy relationship with tools, but with technology…?
Apart from the fax, he never puts aside his obstinate refusal of technical innovations (digital photo, computer, mobile phone). Only the fax finds grace with Alain; he has it in constant use after I buy him a simple model. He will not even hear of a credit card, even after being tricked up in a Canadian hotel, or it becomes a requirement for accessing an international phone line. He will never change; he’d rather suffer than bend.
Fortunately, without being infatuated with them, I have no issue with electronics, domestic or otherwise, and everything works out.
Tools, that’s him; electronics, me.
It was Alain that I chose for Madame to sign. Charpentier was by her side to translate, and I mentioned right off that I was an admirer of hers and a longtime admirer of her husband’s. Madame said something to Charpentier, and Charpentier said to me “You are a good person;” by way of amplifying this, Madame—who despite her tiny frame gives the impression of being a formidably strong person, and is unfailingly alert, with vivacious eyes—continued, “Tous les amateurs de Robbe-Grillet sont bonnes.”