Marienbad and Morel

Adolfo Bioy Casares’s excellent science-fiction novella The Invention of Morel was recently reissued by NYRB Press. Borges originally led me to it by claiming it a perfect masterpiece in one of his essays, and there is a hard beauty to it that leaves its stripped-down premises quite vivid.

But its relationship to Alain Resnais’s ever-cryptic Last Year at Marienbad is more complicated. (Consult Lawrence Russell’s article on Marienbad for a good overview.) Whatever its meaning, Marienbad is about a man who desires a woman, and how memory, the past, and the present confound his desire. Bioy Casares’s novella can easily be read as a metaphor for film watching: the man who falls in love with a woman, only to find out that he is watching a real-time, three-dimensional movie of her, and sacrifices his life so that he too can enter the movie, by synchronizing his movements to appear to be interacting with the woman of the film.

(I recently saw Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., which attempts the opposite effect. It has an extended dream sequence where Keaton “enters” the screen of a movie and interacts with the scenery, which abruptly changes behind him and sends him reeling. Strange stuff.)

Last Year at Marienbad has something in common with Morel, and Thomas Beltzer has written on the links in Last Year at Marienbad: An Intertextual Meditation:

Last Year at Marienbad buries its association with its "low brow" science fiction text; nevertheless, they are relatives all the same. I discovered the kinship by accident on the dust jacket of Casares&#x92 A Plan for Escape, a novel written in the early 1940&#x92s, which also bears an interesting affinity with Last Year at Marienbad. Dust jackets of novels are occasionally mistaken, but I was able to confirm the information by consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica which states that "The novel formed the basis for Alain Robbe-Grillet&#x92s film script for Last Year at Marienbad". The high modernist masterpiece is "outed" as a postmodern, science fiction film.

Beltzer’s analysis of the union of literary and filmic approaches is provocative, as is his statement that the Frenchmen sought to obscure the links to the “lowbrow” fiction of Bioy Casares, but the parallels deserve more examination.

Morel posits two levels of reality: the man observing the movie, and the movie itself, reflecting an earlier chain of actions. By inserting himself into the movie and seeming to take part in its events, the main character creates a third reality, a revision of the movie, a film of the film with additional overlaid content (a la Mystery Science Theater 3000), though intended to be as transparent as possible. Marienbad is considerably more oblique. The three main characters, X (the protagonist), A (the woman and object of desire), and M (A’s husband and X’s nemesis), all break continuity with the background at various times, most strikingly when other people in the frame freeze while X, A, or M go about their business. But there are also times when M or (especially) A seem themselves frozen or unresponsive while X interacts with them. I’m certain that there is a conceptual schema that would explain these relations, but I’m also sure that there would be no proof of its validity to be found in the film itself. I believe that the movie is not meant to be understood in the same way as The Invention of Morel can be; it lacks the definiteness of a single interpretation.

Where does that leave us? Bhob Stewart has a key bit of information presented on Prefuse:

In the mid-Fifties, when Casares’ novel was translated into French, it was read by Robbe-Grillet. We know this since he wrote a favorable review of the book in 1955. In 1961, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were interviewed by filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who commented on the link between MOREL and MARIENBAD, parallels briefly acknowledged by Robbe-Grillet (who didn’t elaborate). Resnais and Robbe-Grillet had evidently =never= discussed this, as indicated by Resnais’ comment that he was unfamiliar with the book! An English translation of this interview was readily available to all New York critics in 1961, but none of them picked up on the significance of those few sentences.

It’s fitting that Resnais was not familiar with Bioy Casares’s story when he took the script. I don’t know further details; I have to guess based on my impressions of Robbe-Grillet and Resnais. I imagine Robbe-Grillet appreciating the beauty of the desire of the main character of The Invention of Morel, and also appreciating the pure surface aspect to it: since he can never speak with the object of his desire, she remains forever a collection of purely observed moments. I imagine Robbe-Grillet muddying this, seeking to show X relating, and then not relating to A, and M drifting in and out of the active picture as A and X do and do not relate to him. I imagine Resnais seeing Robbe-Grille’s oblique script and taking it as a blank slate, overlaying a formalist visual approach that does not gibe in the least with the original source of the script. I imagine Resnais as the main character of The Invention of Morel not interacting with the buried meaning of Robbe-Grillet’s script, but inserting himself and his visuals among its surface features and crafting a new meaning from it.