Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “La Plage”

 

 

La Plage is probably my favourite short story. When I was a student I heard it played on the radio in 1972, I think. It was referred to as “La Plage: 8 Arias of Remembrance” composed by Harrison Birtwistle, and I wish I could get hold of a recording.

Alain Robbe Grillet (1922-2008) was a French author, one of the leading figures in the nouveau roman literary movement, and since 2004 member of the Académie française. His best-known novels are Le Voyeur and La Jalousie. Robbe-Grillet also wrote short stories and screenplays, including L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last year at Marienbad). He passed away at the age of 85.
La plage (The beach) is a story from the collection Instantanés, published in 1962. I’m not aware of any translation of this collection, but an English translation of La plage is available in Penguin Parallel Text: French Short Stories 1

Here is the translation by Barbara Wright:

The Beach
Three children are walking along a beach. They move forward, side by side, holding hands. They are roughly the same height, and probably the same age too: about twelve. The one in the middle, though, is a little smaller than the other two.
Apart from these three children, the whole long beach is deserted. It is a fairly wide, even strip of sand, with neither isolated rocks nor pools, and with only the slightest downward slope between the steep cliff, which looks impassable, and the sea.
It is a very fine day. The sun illuminates the yellow sand with a violent, vertical light. There is not a cloud in the sky. Neither is there any wind. The water is blue and calm, without the faintest swell from the open sea, although the beach is completely exposed as far as the horizon.
But, at regular intervals, a sudden wave, always the same, originating a few yards away from the shore, suddenly rises and then immediately breaks, always in the same line. And one does not have the impression that the water is flowing and then ebbing; on the contrary, it is as if the whole movement were being accomplished in the same place. The swelling of the Water at first produces a slight depression on the shore side, and the wave recedes a little, with a murmur of rolling gravel; then it bursts, and spreads milkily over the slope, but it is merely regaining the ground it has lost. It is only very occasionally that it rises slightly higher and for a moment moistens a few extra inches.
And everything becomes still again; the sea, smooth and blue, stops at exactly the same level on the yellow sand along the beach where, side by side, the three children are walking.
They are blond, almost the same colour as the sand: their skin is a little darker, their hair a little lighter. They are all three dressed alike; shorts and shirt, both of a coarse, faded blue linen. They are walking side by side, holding hands, in a straight line, parallel to the sea and parallel to the cliff; almost equidistant from both, a little nearer the water, though. The sun is at the zenith, and leaves no shadow at their feet.
In front of them is virgin sand, yellow and smooth from the rock to the water. The children move forward in a straight line, at an even speed, without making the slightest little detour, calm, holding hands. Behind them the sand, barely moist, is marked by the three lines of prints left by their bare feet, three even series of similar and equally spaced footprints, quite deep, unblemished.
The children are looking straight ahead. They don’t so much as glance at the tall cliff on their left, or at the sea, whose little waves are periodically breaking, on the other side. They are even less inclined to turn round and look back at the distance they have come. They continue on their way with even, rapid steps.
*
In front of them is a flock of sea-birds walking along the shore, just at the edge of the waves. They are moving parallel to the children, in the same direction, about a hundred yards away from them. But, as the birds are going much less quickly, the children are catching them up. And while the sea is continually obliterating the traces of their star-shaped feet, the children’s footsteps remain clearly inscribed in the barely moist sand, where the three lines of prints continue to lengthen.
The depths of these prints is constant: just less than an inch. They are not deformed; either by a crumbling of the edges, or by too deep an impression of toe or heel. They look as if they have been mechanically punched out of a more mobile, surface-layer of ground.
Their triple line extends thus ever farther, and seems at the same time to narrow, to become slower, to merge into a single line, which divides the shore into two strips along the whole of its length, and ends in a minute mechanical movement at the far end: the alternate fall and rise of six bare feet, almost as if they are marking time.
But as the bare feet move farther away, they get nearer to the birds. Not only are they covering the ground rapidly, but the relative distance separating the two groups is also diminishing far more quickly, compared to the distance already covered. There are soon only a few paces between them. . . .
But when the children finally seem just about to catch up with the birds, they suddenly flap their wings and fly off, first one, then two, then ten. . . And all the white and grey birds in the flock describe a curve over the sea and then come down again on to the sand and start walking again, still in the same direction, just at the edge of the waves, about a hundred yards away.
At this distance, the movements of the water are almost imperceptible, except perhaps through a sudden change of colour, every ten seconds, at the moment when the breaking foam shines in the sun.
*
Taking no notice of the tracks they are carving so precisely in the virgin sand, nor of the little waves on their right, nor of the birds, now flying, now walking, in front of them, the three blond children move forward side by side, with even, rapid steps, holding hands.
Their three sunburnt faces, darker than their hair, are alike. The expression is the same: serious, thoughtful, perhaps a little anxious. Their features, too, are identical, though it is obvious that two of these children are boys and the third a girl. The girl’s hair is only slightly longer, slightly more curly, and her limbs just a trifle more slender. But their clothes are exactly the same: shorts and shirt, both of coarse, faded blue linen.
The girl is on the extreme right, nearest the sea. On her left the boy who is slightly the smaller of the two. The other boy, nearest the cliff, is the same height as the girl.
In front of them the smooth, yellow sand stretches as far as the eye can see. On their left rises, almost vertically, the wall of brown stone, with no apparent way through it. On their right, motionless and blue all the way to the horizon, the level surface of the sea is fringed with a sudden little wave, which immediately breaks and runs away in white foam.
*
Then, ten seconds later, the swelling water again hollows out the same depression on the shore side, with a murmur of rolling gravel.
The wavelet breaks; the milky foam again runs up the slope, regaining the few inches of lost ground. During the ensuing silence, the chimes of a far distant bell ring out in the calm air.
‘There’s the bell,’ says the smaller of the boys, the one walking in the middle.
But the sound of the gravel being sucked up by the sea drowns the extremely faint ringing. They have to wait till the end of the cycle to catch the few remaining sounds which are distorted by the distance.
‘It’s the first bell,’ says the bigger boy.
The wavelet breaks, on their right. When it is calm again, they can no longer hear anything. The three blonde children are still walking in the same regular rhythm, all three holding hands. In front of them, a sudden contagion affects the flock of birds, who were only a few paces away; they flap their wings and fly off.
They describe the same curve over the water, and then come down on to the sand and start walking again, still in the same direction, just at the edge of the waves, about a hundred yards away.
*
‘Maybe it wasn’t the first,’ the smaller boy continues, ‘if we didn’t hear the other, before . . . ‘
‘We’d have heard it the same,’ replies the boy next to him.
But this hasn’t made them modify their pace; and the same prints, behind them, continue to appear, as they go along, under their six bare feet.
‘We weren’t so close, before,’ says the girl.
After a moment, the bigger of the boys, the one on the
cliff side, says:
‘We’re still a long way off.’
And then all three walk on in silence.
They remain thus silent until the bell, still as indistinct, again rings out in the calm air. The bigger of the boys says then: ‘There’s the bell.’ The others don’t answer. The birds, which they had been on the point of catching up, flap their wings and fly off, first one, then two, then ten.
Then the whole flock is once more on the sand, moving along the shore, about a hundred yards in front of the children.
The sea is continually obliterating the star-shaped traces of their feet. The children, on the other hand, who are walking nearer to the cliff, side by side, holding hands, leave deep footprints behind them, whose triple line lengthens parallel to the shore across the very long beach.
On the right, on the side of the level motionless sea, always in the same place the same little wave is breaking.
End

The Strand (Robbe-Grillet)
This is another translation of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “La Plage.”

Three children are walking along a strand. They advance, side by side, holding each other by the hand. They are apparently the same height, and without doubt also the same age: a dozen years old. The boy in the middle, however, is a little smaller than the two others.
Excepting these three children, the entire length of shore is deserted. It is a fairly wide, unvarying belt of sand, devoid of isolated rocks as of waterholes, slightly inclined between the abrupt cliff, which appears without egress, and the sea.
It’s a beautiful day. The sun brightens the yellow sand with an excessive, vertical light. There is not a cloud in the sky. No more is there a breeze. The water is blue, calm, without the least undulation across its expanse, although the beach is exposed over the open sea, as far as the horizon.
But at regular intervals, a sudden wave, always the same, beginning a few meters from the shore, swells impetuously and immediately unfurls, always along the same line. One is not given the impression then that the water advances, afterward withdrawing; it is, on the contrary, as though the entire movement occurred in place. The swell produces at first a faint hollow in the side of the strand, and the wave recedes a little, amid the rustle of rolling gravel; then it bursts forth and pours out, milkily, upon the slope, but only to regain lost ground. It is but slightly if it rises any higher, here and there, wetting for a moment some few additional decimeters.
And all reposes anew, the sea, uniform and blue, suspended exactly at the same height on the yellow sand of the beach, where are walking side by side three children.

They are blond, almost the same colour as the sand: the skin a little darker, the hair a little brighter. They are all three dressed in the same fashion, shorts and shirt, both from coarse fabric of a washed-out blue. They are walking side by side, holding each other by the hand, in a straight line, parallel to the sea and parallel to the cliff, nearly an equal distance from each, a little nearer the water however. The sun, at its zenith, leaves no shadow at their feet.
Before them the sand is totally untrodden, yellow and smooth from rock to water. The children advance in a straight line at a steady pace, without making the least deviation, calm and holding each other by the hand. Behind them the sand, somewhat damp, is marked by three lines of prints left by their bare feet, three steady intervals of similar and identically spaced prints, quite deep, seamless.
The children gaze directly ahead. They take not a glance toward the high cliff, to their left, nor toward the sea whose little waves periodically and suddenly burst, on the other side. So much the more do they not turn, to consider behind them the distance covered. They follow their course with rapid, even steps.

Ahead of them, a flock of sea-birds mills around on the strand, just at the edge of the waves. They progress parallel to the march of the children, in the same direction as them, about a hundred meters off. But, as the birds move much less quickly, the children draw upon them. And whereas the sea regularly blots out the starry bird tracks, the children’s steps remain inscribed with clarity in the somewhat damp sand, where the three lines of prints continue to stretch.
The depth of these prints is constant: nearly two centimeters. They are not distorted, neither from crumbling nor from too great a sinking in of the heel or toe. They have the appearance of machine-punched cutouts in a superficial layer of looser earth.
Their triple line thus unfolds, ever further, and seems at the same time to thin, to flag, to melt away into a single shaft, which divides the strand into two strips, along its entire length, and which terminates at a graceful mechanical movement, at the other end, carried out as in place: the alternate fall and rise of six bare feet.
Yet as the bare feet withdraw, they approach the birds. They not only gain rapid ground, but the relative distance that separates the two groups diminishes even more swiftly, compared to the path already traversed. There is soon not much between them….
But, when the children seem at last on the point of overtaking the birds, these all at once beat their wings and fly off, first one, then two, then ten… And the entire flock, white and gray, describes a curve above the sea to come at a rest on the sand and continue milling about, still in the same direction, just at the edge of the waves, about a hundred meters off.
At this distance, the movements of the water are almost imperceptible, if not for a sudden change in colour, every ten seconds, at the moment when the brilliant froth sparkles in the sun.

Without taking notice of the footprints that they continue to punch, with precision, in the virgin sand, nor to the little waves on their right, nor the birds, now flying, now walking, preceding them, the three blond children move forward side by side, at an even and rapid pace, holding each other by the hand.
Their three tanned faces, darker than their hair, resemble each other. The expression is the same: serious, thoughtful, perhaps anxious. Their traits are also identical, although, obviously, two of the children are boys and the third is a girl. The girl’s hair is only a little longer, a little curlier, and her limbs ever so slightly more slender. But the clothing is made entirely the same: shorts and shirt, both from coarse fabric of a washed-out blue.
The girl finds herself on the far right, next to the sea. To her left walks the smaller of the two boys. The other boy, closest to the cliff, is the same height as the girl.
Beyond them extends the smooth, yellow sand, as far as can be seen. On the left stands the wall of brown stone, nearly vertical, where no opening is visible. To their right, still and blue from the horizon, the flat surface of water is fringed by a sudden hem, which immediately bursts forth in a white lather.

Afterwards, ten seconds later, the swelling wave hollows anew the same depression, in the shoreside, amid the rustle of rolling gravel.
The wavelet unfurls; the milky foam clambers afresh up the slope, regaining the few decimeters of lost ground. During the silence that follows, a very distant bell toll resounds through the calm air.
“There is the bell,” says the smallest child, the one walking in the middle.

But the sound of the gravel that the sea sucks in covers the too faint tolling. It is necessary to wait for the end of the cycle to perceive any sounds again, distorted by the distance.
“It’s the first bell,” says the larger.
The wavelet unfurls, on their right.
When the calm is restored, they cannot hear anything more. The three blond children are walking, always with the same regular rhythm, all three holding each other by the hand. Before them, the flock of birds which are not more than a few strides off, caught by a sudden contagion, bat their wings and take to the air.
They describe the same curve above the water, to come at a rest on the sand and resume their milling, still the same direction, just at the edge of the waves, at about a hundred yards off.

“It is perhaps not the first,” resumed the smaller, “if we did not hear the other, before…”
“We would have heard it the same,” replied his next.
But they have not, for that, modified their gait; and the same footprints, behind them, continue to expand, accordingly, beneath their six bare feet.
“Earlier we were not so near,” says the girl.
After a moment, the larger boy, the one found on the side with the cliff, says, “we are still far.”
And then they all three walk in silence.
They remain thus silent until the bell, still as indistinct, rings again through the calm air. The larger boy then says:
“There is the bell.” The others do not respond.
The birds, which they had been on the point of overtaking, bat their wings and fly off, first one, then two, then ten…
Then the whole flock is again settled on the sand, progressing along the shore, about a hundred meters beyond the children.
The sea regularly blots out the star-shaped traces of their feet. The children, on the other hand, who walk nearer the cliff, side by side, holding each other by the hand, leave behind them deep impressions, whose triple line stretches in parallel with the edge, the breadth of the very long strand.
On the right, the side with the still, flat water, unfurls, always in the same place, the same little wave.

***

La Plage  – une nouvelle

Source:  Penguin Parallel Text.    Nouvelles Françaises 1.

Trois enfants marchent le long d’une grève. Ils s’avancent, côte à côte, se tenant par la main. Ils ont sensiblement la même taille, et sans doute aussi le même âge: une douzaine d’années. Celui du milieu, cependant, est un peu plus petit que les deux autres.

Hormis ces trois enfants, toute la longue plage est déserte. C’est une bande de sable assez large, uniforme, dépourvue de roches isolées comme de trous d’eau, à peine inclinée entre la falaise abrupte, qui paraît sans issue, et la mer.

Il fait très beau. Le soleil éclaire le sable jaune d’une lumière violente, verticale. Il n’y a pas un nuage dans le ciel. Il n’y a pas non plus de vent. L’eau est bleue, calme sans la moindre ondulation venant du large, bien que la plage soit ouverte sur la mer libre, jusqu’à l’horizon.

Mais à intervalles réguliers, une vague soudaine, toujours la même, née à quelques mètres du bord, s’enfle brusquement et déferle aussitôt, toujours sur la même ligne. On n’a pas alors l’impression que l’eau avance, puis se retire; c’est au contraire, comme si tout ce mouvement s’exécutait sur place.

Le gonflement de l’eau produit d’abord une légère dépression, du côté de la grève, et la vague prend un peu de recul, dans un bruissement de graviers roulés, puis elle éclate et se répand laiteuse, mais seulement pour regagner le terrain perdu. C’est à peine si une montée plus forte, ça et là, vient mouiller un instant quelques décimètres supplémentaires.

Et tout reste de nouveau immobile, la mer, plate et bleue, exactement arrêtée à la même hauteur sur le sable jaune de la plage, où marche côte à côte les trois enfants.

Ils sont blonds, presque de la même couleur que le sable: la peau un peu plus foncée, les cheveux un peu plus clairs. Ils sont habillés tous les trois de la même façon, culotte courte et chemisette, l’une et l’autre en grosse toile d’un bleu délavé. Ils marchent côte à côte, se tenant par la main, en ligne droite, parallèlement à la mer et parallèlement à la falaise, presque à égale distance des deux, un peu plus près de l’eau pourtant. Le soleil, au zénith, ne laisse pas d’ombre à leur pied.

Devant eu le sable est tout à fait vierge, jaune et lisse depuis le rocher jusqu’à l’eau.  Les enfants s’avancent en ligne droit, à une vitesse régulière, sans faire le plus petit crochet, calmes et se tenant par la main.  Derrière eu le sable, à peine humide, est marqué des trois lignes d’empreintes laissées par leurs pieds nus, trois successions régulières d’empreintes semblables et pareillement espacées, bien creuses sans bavures.

Les enfants regardent droit devant eux. Il’s n’ont pas un coup d’œil vers la haute falaise, sur leur gauche, ni vers la mer dont les petites vagues éclatent périodiquement, sur l’autre côté.  A plus forte raison ne se retournent-ils pas, pour contempler derrière eux la distance parcourue.  Ils poursuivent leur chemin, d’un pas égal et rapide.

Devant eux, un troupe d’oiseaux de mer arpente le rivage, juste à la limite des vagues.  Ils progressent parallélement à la marche des enfants, dans le même sens que ceux-ci, à une centaine de mètres environ.  Mais, comme les oiseaux vont beaucoup moins vite, les enfants se rapprochent d’eux.  Et tandis que la mer efface au fur et à mesure les traces des pattes étoilées, les pas des enfants demeurent inscrits avec netteté dans le sable à peine humide où les trois lignes d’empreintes continuent de s’allonger.

Le profondeur de ces empreintes est constante : à peu près deux centimètres. Elles ne sont déformées ni par effondrement des bords ni par un trop grand enfoncement du talon, ou de la pointe. Elles ont l’air découpées à l’emporte-pièce dans une couche superficielle, plus meuble, du terrain.

Leur triple ligne ainsi se développe, toujours plus loin, et semble en même temps s’amenuiser, se ralentir, se fondre en un seul trait, qui sépare la grève en deux bandes, sur toute sa longueur, et qui se termine a un menu mouvement mécanique, là-bas, exécuté comme sur place : la descente et la remontée alternative de six pieds nus.

Cependant à mesure que les pieds nus s’éloignent, ils se rapprochent des oiseaux. Non seulement ils gagnent rapidement du terrain, mais la distance relative qui sépare les deux groupes diminue encore beaucoup plus vite, comparée au chemin déjà parcourue. Il n’y a bientôt plus que quelques pas entre eux…

Mais, lorsque les enfants paraissent enfin sur le point d’atteindre les oiseaux, ceux-ci tout à coup battent des ailes et s’envolent, l’un  d’abord, puis deux, puis dix….   Et toute la troupe, blanche et grise, décrit une courbe au-dessus de la mer pour venir se reposer sur le sable et se remettre å l’arpenter, toujours dans le même sens, juste à la limite des vagues, à une centaine de mètres environ.

A cette distance, les mouvements de l’eau sont quasi imperceptibles, si ce n’est par un changement soudain de couleur, toutes les dix secondes, au moment où l’écume éclatante brille au soleil.  Sans s’occuper des traces qu’ils continuent de découper,  avec précision, dans le sable vierge, ni des petites vagues sur leur droite, ni des oiseaux, tantôt volant, tantôt marchant, qui les précedent, les enfants blonds s’avancent côte à côte, d’un pas égal et rapide, se tenant par la main.

Leurs trois visages hâlés, plus foncés que les cheveux, se ressemblent. L’expression en est la méme : sérieuse, réfléchie, préoccupée peut-être. Leurs traits aussi sent identiques, bien que, visiblement, deux de ces enfants sont des garçons et le troisième une fille. Les cheveux de la fille sont seulement un peu plus longs, un peu plus bouclés, et ses membres à peine un peu plus graciles. Mais le costume est tout à fait le même :  culotte courte et chemisette, l’une et l’autre en grosse toile d’un bleu délavé.

La fille se trouve à l’extrême droite, du côté de la mer. A sa gauche, marche celui des deux garçons qui est légèrement plus petit. L’autre garçon, le plus proche de la falaise, a la même taille que la fille.

Devant eux s’étend le sable jaune et uni, à perte de vue.  Sur leur gauche se dresse la paroi de pierre brune, presque verticale, où aucune issue n’apparaît.  Sur leur droite, immobile et bleue depuis l’horizon, la surface plate de l’eau est bordée d’un ourlet subit, qui éclate aussitôt pour se répandre en mousse blanche.
*
Puis, dix secondes plus tard, l’onde qui se gonfle creuse à nouveau la même dépression, du côté de la plage, dans un bruissement de graviers roulés.

La vaguelette déferle ; l’écume laitcuse gravit à nouveau la pente, regagnant les quelques décimètres de terrain perdu.  Pendant le silence qui suit, de trés lointains coups de cloche résonnent dans l’air calme.
” Voila la cloche”, dit le plus petit des garçons, celui qui marche au milieu.

Mais le bruit des graviers que la mer aspire couvre le trop faible tintement. Il faut attendre la fin du cycle pour percevoir à nouveau quelques sons, déformés par la distance.

“C’est la première cloche”, dit le plus grand.  La vaguelette déferle, sur leur droite.

Quand le calme est revenu, ils n’entendent plus rien. Les trois  enfants blonds marchent toujours à la même cadence régulière, se tenant tous les trois par la main. Devant eux, la troupe d’oiseaux qui n’était plus qu’à quelques enjambées, gagnée par une brusque contagion, bat des ailes et prend son vol.

Ils décrivent la même courbe au-dessus de l’eau, pour venir se reposer sur le sable et se remettre à l’arpenter, toujours dans le même sens, juste à la limite des vagues, à une centaine de mètres environ.
*
“C’est peut-être pas la première, reprend le plus petit, si on n’a pas entendu l’autre, avant…
— On l’aurait entendue pareil”,  répond son voisin.

Mais ils n’ont pas, pour cela, modifié leur allure ; et les mémes empreintes, derrière eux, continuent de naître, au fur et à mesure, sous leurs six pieds nus. “Tout à l’heure, on n’était pas si près”, dit la fille.  Au bout d’un moment, le plus grand des garçons, celui qui se trouve du côté de la falaise, dit :  “On est encore loin.”
Et ils marchent ensuite en silence tous les trois.

Ils se taisent ainsi jusqu’à ce que la cloche, toujours aussi peu distincte, résonne à nouveau dans l’air calme. Le plus grand des garçons dit alors : “Voila la cloche. » Les autres ne répondent pas.”  Les oiseaux qu’ils étaient sur le point de rattraper, battent des ailes et s’envolent, l’un d’abord, puis deux, puis dix…

Puis toute la troupe est de nouveau posée sur le sable, progressant le long du rivage à cent metres environ devant les enfants.

La mer efface à mesure les traces étoilées de leurs pattes.  Les enfants, an comtraire, qui marchent plus prés de la falaise, côte à côte, se tenant par la main, laissent derrière eux de profondes empreintes, dont la triple ligne s’allonge parallèlement aux bords, à travers la très longue grève.

Sur la droite, du côté de l’eau immobile et plate, déferle, toujours à la même place, la même petite vague.

Fin

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