It has been a long time since I’ve thought about Robbe-Grillet. I read his first published novel, Les Gommes or The Erasers (1953) ages ago. I remember it as a kind of an inside-out, experimental detective novel with a lot of long, meticulously-detailed descriptions that tended to put one on the wrong track. I also remember something about the detective turning out to be the murderer, or the murder not having happened yet, or something strange and altogether against the usual rules for detective fiction.
I started his next novel, The Voyeur (1955), though I don’t believe I ever finished it (despite its scandalous rep). Read a few short stories, too, which also could loosely be described as experimental mysteries or detective stories. And, of course, I remember seeing Last Year at Marienbad, the 1961 Alain Resnais film for which Robbe-Grillet wrote the script.
Robbe-Grillet came to be associated with a group of writers who explicitly rejected the realistic novel of the 19th century in favor of a more experimental style that called into question assumptions about things like plot and character. Their creations were referred to as the “new novel” (or “nouveau roman”). Robbe-Grillet ended up being regarded as the leader of the movement, thanks largely to a series of essays he wrote that were collected in 1963 under the title For a New Novel.
Robbe-Grillet was fascinated with games and puzzles, and a lot of them turned up in his writing. In fact, what I remember most vividly from Last Year at Marienbad was a game that gets played more than once in the film, a game I’ve since learned is called Nim. The game can be played with coins or matchsticks or dominoes or anything. In fact, over the years I’ve introduced the game many times to folks as a fun time-waster.
A character in the film proposes the game, saying it is a game he always wins. In fact, this is a game you can just about always win if you know how to play it and your opponent does not.
Let’s say you’re playing with poker chips. (Looking around online I’ve discovered that Robbe-Grillet has them using poker chips in his script, though I don’t think they do in the film.) Start by arranging the chips in four rows of seven, five, three, and one. Nim can be played with different arrangements, but that’s how they play it in the film. Players then take turns removing chips from the table. One can take as many chips as one likes, but only from the same row. The player forced to take the last chip loses.
Doesn’t matter too much if you go first or last, although technically speaking, if you go last you will always win. So invite your opponent to go first. Doing so has the added benefit of making it seem as though you aren’t controlling the game as much. If you opponent refuses to go first and makes you start, it is possible you could lose, but only if your opponent doesn’t make a mistake. And trust me, unless you are playing Bill Chen or Chris Ferguson, your opponent is probably going to need to play this a few times before catching on to what is going on.
Now there’s a way to master Nim that involves converting all of the amounts of remaining chips to binary numbers, but I ain’t even gonna try to explain that one. (True math geeks can go see for themselves.)
Basically all I’m telling you to do is try early on to leave your victims three rows with 7-5-2, 6-4-2, 5-4-1, or 3-2-1. (Also, leaving yr opponent four rows of 3-3-1-1 is a winner for you.) From there it should be obvious how to win the game. Also, if possible try to leave ’em two rows with the same number of chips in each -- from there, all you have to do is mimic your opponents’ moves until one of the rows has one chip left, then take the other row and leave the last chip.
Easy enough to remember, yes? If you want to try it out, here’s a neat site where you can play Nim online against an animated, wise-cracking opponent. He doesn’t play it the 7-5-3-1 way, but these winning moves will still work. (You’ll notice him using them, too, if you give him the chance.)
As far as the film goes, while it’s certainly an important moment in La Nouvelle Vague, it ain’t for everyone. Same goes for Robbe-Grillet’s novels, too. Still, for lovers of games and/or detective fiction, his passing is worth noting.
Meanwhile, please remember to toss Shamus a percentage of any coin you happen to scam from yr friends playing Nim.