In her preface to The Age of Suspicion, Nathalie Sarraute attempts to explain the concept of “tropisms”—the subterranean movements she tries to capture in her fiction. She calls them “the secret source of our existence” and claims that they are “at the origin of our gestures, of our words and of the emotions that we believe we feel.” Although few people recognize or pay attention to these rapid changes at the limit of consciousness, Sarraute insists, they occur in every human being. Because they are deeper than the “subconscious” mind and exist before thoughts are put into words, these emotional movements are extremely difficult to record. The method that Sarraute adopts is to translate these tropisms into images—provoking in the reader emotional reactions similar to those she is seeking to portray. Because these movements are very rapid, she attempts to slow them down and take them apart so that the reader can follow the interaction of tropisms, usually between two or more people. Often, she devotes three or four pages to “events” that take place in a matter of seconds. Sarraute compares this technique to a slow-motion film.
In addition to showing the interaction of tropisms between different persons, Sarraute also studies the interplay of two levels of discourse. The first level, which she calls “conversation,” realistically and sometimes ironically imitates the banal clichés that people exchange in everyday life or in the dialogue of traditional novels. The second level, called “subconversation,” contains the images that convey the tropisms and all the other unvoiced feelings and approximations of feelings that go on behind (Sarraute would say “below”) ordinary conversation. Her later novels wander freely between these two levels with few signposts to orient the reader. The extra work required from the reader, his or her “collaboration” in making the novel, is one of the characteristics of the New Novel.
Because Sarraute was fascinated by tropisms and sought to portray them in her novels, she discarded the traditional notions of plot and character, which she believed created an awkward distance between the reader and the tropisms she was trying to isolate. She numbered among her predecessors Fyodor Dostoevski, who also showed contradictory characters with illogical motivations; James Joyce, who pioneered in techniques of the interior monologue; and Franz Kafka, whose characters were caught in an irrational world where no human contact was possible. Sarraute was especially fascinated by Marcel Proust, who, she believed, was studying the same movements that interested her; he saw them only in the past, however, frozen by memory.
In her novels, Sarraute captures her tropisms while they are still moving and makes the reader participate in this rapid movement. Otherwise, Sarraute saw her characters as dead, frozen, all of one piece, wax statues of the Musée Grévin—her most negative words of condemnation. In Between Life and Death, her writer-protagonist’s alter ego explains that there are only two judgments possible for a work of art: It is alive, or it is dead.
Portrait of a Man Unknown
Her first two novels, Portrait of a Man Unknown and Martereau, are constructed around the tension between the first-person narrator, a sensitive person who is aware of tropisms and seeks to discover them in others, and other characters, who appear at first to be solid, reliable, easily defined, all of one piece. In Portrait of a Man Unknown, the narrator attempts to discover the secret relationship between a miser and his old-maid daughter. Sarraute pointed out that this novel could have been Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1833; English translation, 1859) if she had concentrated on the exterior of the characters. The narrator imagines scenes of crisis between the father and the daughter and even goes to a “specialist” to be cured of his mania. After the specialist (probably a psychologist or a psychiatrist) recommends that he forget the world of tropisms by traveling, the narrator sees in an art museum in Holland the painting that gives the book its title. It is an unfinished portrait by an anonymous artist, but its eyes have a strange power. The narrator prefers the ambiguity of this unfinished work of art to the finality and limits of finished masterpieces. This experience convinces him that he is right to continue to look for tropisms, but his search and the novel are ended by the appearance of a character from a traditional novel who has a full name and physical appearance. Louis Dumontet marries the daughter and puts an end to the tropisms.
Martereau seems to begin where Portrait of a Man Unknown leaves off. The first-person narrator of this novel lives with his aunt, uncle, and cousin in a world filled with tropisms. He wistfully admires a man named Martereau (the only character with a name), who seems to live in a more clearly defined universe. Martereau is simply a good, upstanding, cordial man, all of one piece—or is he? When the uncle asks Martereau to do him a favor and purchase a house for him so that he can avoid paying taxes on the money, the narrator begins to suspect that Martereau is not so honest as he appears. First, he refuses to give a receipt for the money; then, he moves into the house to “supervise the repairs.” The most interesting scene in the novel is imagined by the narrator, who hypothesizes four different but plausible exchanges between Martereau and his wife that explain his motives. Finally, Martereau gives the house to the uncle, and the tropisms disappear, but the narrator retains his doubts.
After her first two novels, Sarraute abandoned first-person narration for a third-person technique that allowed her to move rapidly from the inside of one character to another. These first two novels share a preoccupation with the notion of character. The third novel, The Planetarium, continues this exploration but also introduces a preoccupation with aesthetic values that becomes more important in The Golden Fruits, Between Life and Death, Do You Hear Them?, and the play C’est beau (pb. 1973; It’s Beautiful, 1981). The notion of character has almost entirely disappeared from The Golden Fruits, where a novel of that name is the “protagonist.” Sarraute’s novel describes the tropisms surrounding the rise and fall of The Golden Fruits and incidentally provides an amusing satire of Parisian literary circles. Between Life and Death recounts the same process from the point of view of the artist. Do You Hear Them? and It’s Beautiful center on intergenerational feuds over the definition of beauty in art. Two of Sarraute’s subsequent works indicate a slightly new direction. “Fools Say” and The Uses of Speech return to the subject of her first plays, Silence and The Lie, the paradox of the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of real human communication with words.
The Planetarium is both more complex and more traditional than Sarraute’s first two novels. After the reader has mastered the technique of deciphering what critic Vivian Mercier has called Sarraute’s “third-person stream of consciousness,” a traditional...
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