Some literary stocktaking took place in Paris quite recently. At nearly 80 years old, Alain Robbe-Grillet - the putative founder of the last avant-garde movement in western literature, the nouveau roman (new novel) - had come to speak at the Pompidou Centre. Dressed in a modish black suit, he merrily fielded questions in his upper-class, somewhat theatrical voice, seeing off those commentators who have complained that his intellectually top-heavy works killed off interest in the French novel, both at home and abroad. No doubt he was revelling in the success of La Reprise, his first novel in 20 years, a surprise bestseller that was nominated for the Prix Goncourt.
This was a belated popular consecration, nearly half a century after the bewilderment that greeted his first published novel, Les Gommes (The Erasers). Something of a detective story based on the Oedipus myth, narrated in a user-manual French that restricts itself to descriptions of behaviour and objects, Les Gommes proved too much for most critics, and initially sold only 500 copies. Far from seeking to accommodate himself to the mainstream, Robbe-Grillet set out in subsequent works to dismantle what he considered to be the regressive conventions of the 19th-century novel, and the critical establishment that sustained it. Later theorising his vision of literature in a collection of essays entitled For a New Novel (1963), he contended that, in order to take account of the dislocated, aleatory experience of modern reality, new forms had to be created.
Remaining faithful to such precepts, La Reprise, set in the ruins of postwar Berlin, is the increasingly disorientating report of an ageing spy. Henri Robin is sent into the Soviet sector on an as-yet-unspecified mission. From the abandoned apartment in which his su-periors have lodged him, Robin witnesses an assassination. On the corpse, he discovers the papers of one Dany von Brucke, a former high-ranking officer of the Third Reich. Robin returns to his freezing rooms and scrupulously drafts an account of his first evening, during which time the body disappears.
Things go further awry when Robin, determined to find von Brucke, crosses into the American sector the following morning, under the name of Boris Wallon. As more and more memories of a lost childhood in Berlin come to the surface, Robin's report is subject to the increasingly sardonic intrusions of a second narrator, intent on establishing the former's role in the assassination; and to the voice of Robbe-Grillet himself, gazing on the destruction wreaked by the storms that passed through northern France in 1999. Stumbling once more through the corresponding ruins of Berlin, landing in a doll shop owned by von Brucke's abandoned mistress, Joelle Kast, the stricken Robin becomes an erotic prisoner both to her and to her 14-year-old daughter, Gegenecke, or Gigi, who works as a prostitute at a nearby officers' bar called The Sphinx.
With a little linguistic tweaking, his captors become Jocasta and Antigone. Further allusions to the doomed house of Thebes, and a scene where the second narrator (now revealed as von Brucke's son) describes with relish the rape of Gigi, his half-sister, turn what begins as a comic spy tale into an Oedipal miasma.
As its title suggests, La Reprise is a return of sorts, not only of the addled spy to his lost origins, but also of Robbe- Grillet to the themes and motifs of his early masterpiece. A previous acquaintance with the author's work, however, will not save the reader from succumbing to a state verging on paranoia, grasping for meaning in this Berlin of signs and symbols, as narrative time breaks down, as one narrative mask dissolves into an other, and as all hope of a clear outcome disintegrates.
Given that the Goncourt jury had already struck Michel Houellebecq's Plateforme from the shortlist for its endorsement of prostitution in Thailand, it was no surprise that La Reprise, concerned with the darker side of sexuality, eventually missed out on the grand prize. Caught between literary discovery and the literary trade winds, the jury members timidly opted for Jean-Christophe Rufin's Rouge Bresil, a predictable account of what happens when 16th-century colonisers bring western universalism to the Amazon. In making this decision, however, the judges missed the point, if not the boat. The success of La Reprise is proof of literature's subterranean influence; of how, in the author's own words, the novel does not need to chronicle reality, but can actually "build reality itself", anticipating a time when a mainstream audience can accommodate its innovations, whose "significance lies in the future". When authors such as Jonathan Franzen are at pains to tap into, as he puts it, "the culture", it is refreshing to remember that there are still some artists who, even in old age, have the courage, if not the youth, to change it.
La Reprise will be published in an English translation next year by Calder Publications
Gerry Feehily is a critic living in Paris