An English Family's Photo Album, 1920s
"The world is neither meaningful, nor absurd. It quite simply is, and that, in any case, is what is so remarkable about it."
In the 1950s a group of French writers including Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras wanted to be done with the traditional novel, it’s linear narrative and fully formed characters, and reach for something more resonant with the contemporary world. In the Nouvelle Roman, characters weren’t to have back stories but were to exist entirely in the present, which itself was a fluid term as the author was entitled to flash the narrative backwards and forwards, creating a sense as fractured and mysterious as contemporary existence appeared to be. Within a few years we the readers, or more precisely a select, enlightened core, would have liberated ourselves from the regime of logical cause and effect that the traditional novel imposed on us.
Maybe the Nouvelle Romanciers were aware that a model for their new approach already existed in homes across the world and that people who’d scarcely read a novel in their own language were masters of the form. What is the typical family photo album but a perfect exposition of the Nouvelle Roman? It is a narrative comprised of fragments, some of which barely relate to one another. Characters, evidently important to the main players, fill a page only to disappear, never to be heard from again. The reader is pointed to certain scenes and the implication that they matter but why and to who is never explained. Most importantly, the readers are given only a little help; the business of interpretation is left entirely up to them.
The Nouvelle Romanciers realized they could not change the whole fabric of literature but it’s no surprise that Robbe-Grillet and Duras had their greatest success with a film; Last Year at Marienbad. They could argue that language failed to describe the world but the model they based their theory on was essentially visual. They were also working at that moment when visualization through television, cinema and photography was beginning to eclipse the written word; about the same time publishers discovered the photo book.
The photographs in this post come from an album of some 200 snapshots. The entire album covers a period from about the First World War to the 1960s. The photos here were taken the 1920s (as were most in the album). They show a lower middle class family living in an English village and a couple of photos get a bit more intimate than normal, in the sense that we get some indoor scenes of drunkenness and clumsy dancing, common enough in daily life though not in family albums. We also get a wedding, a ramble, two people on a tandem, an attempt at a cheap outdoor studio, several men in their new cars and shots of the village, which altogether is very generous. If Robbe-Grillet had wanted to tell their story he would have been lost for words.