Childhood published in France in 1983 as Enfance) marks the first encounter with autobiography for French author Nathalie Sarraute, among the most eminent of France’s New Novelists. Indeed, those familiar with Sarraute’s novels, plays, and critical essays may be somewhat surprised at her venture into autobiography; as a rule, Sarraute has refused to discuss her personal life with her public. Having once supplied details about her life for a 1965 study of her works, she has consistently referred all subsequent inquirers to that document, and, with the exception of one episode concerning a youthful attempt at novel writing (which she has occasionally discussed with interviewers and about which Childhood offers new insights), she has declined to provide readers with further information about herself.
Sarraute’s reticence is based less in a desire to protect her privacy than on her sense of literary integrity. She has long believed that a growing interest in a writer’s works inevitably leads to a personality cult in which biographical data, and even an author’s personal possessions, are seized upon as if they were holy relics. This fervent attention threatens to drain an author’s vitality, creating instead a sort of wax figure—a favorite image of Sarraute—who is lifeless and devoid of complexity, and who often develops a need to secure the public’s approval at any cost. A desire to avoid being “frozen” by her public, coupled with a need to turn inward to find the germ of artistic creation, partially explain Sarraute’s reluctance to discuss her private life.
Since the beginning of her literary career, Sarraute has followed a solitary path. Perhaps her main contribution to modern literature has been the elaboration of phenomena she calls “tropisms,” a borrowed biochemical term referring to instantaneous involuntary movements made by primitive organisms in response to external stimuli such as warmth or light. Sarraute’s interest in human psychology is similarly focused on small twinges of fear, irritation, longing, anguish, and so on, just as they come into conscious awareness, in that moment before they are fully formed, fully experienced, and named. In order somehow to render for the reader this “secret throbbing of life” that exists at the level of the tropism, Sarraute was obliged to find a new approach to literature that would express in words what is essentially preverbal. From her first published work (a collection of short texts, Tropismes (1938, 1957; Tropisms, 1963) to the present, Sarraute’s literary output has been centered on the exploration of the tropism.
This shift of focus has had ramifications for Sarraute’s writing, both in content and style. The traditional concepts of action, intrigue, and denouement are deemphasized in her works; for her, the real drama of a situation is to be found in those almost invisible actions and reactions simmering beneath the surface of the human organism. This orientation results in a lack of physical descriptions, either of characters or surroundings, and a lack of references to historical events that would root a story in a particular time period. In addition to being faceless, characters are often nameless as well, as Sarraute resists anything that would allow readers to recognize or label her characters too easily. Her narratives generally take place in an infinitely unfolding present which she painstakingly describes in slow motion, so that the reader can experience a tropistic moment at the same time the character does. Events are not necessarily recounted in chronological order but rather in response to an internal logic. The same incident may be retold several times and by several different characters—as it is happening, as it is later blurred by memory, or, perhaps, as a character’s changing relationship with others causes him or her to reinterpret past events in a new light.
Sarraute’s style reflects the internalized nature of these dramas. Striving to portray thought as it is forming, she uses unadorned colloquial language which partakes of the fragmentary quality of unvoiced feelings. A psychological state is expressed in a sort of verbal shorthand: Familiar clichés are often used, and the short, simple phrases of her style often trail away elliptically as the mind skips to another subject; the reader is left to complete the unfinished sentence. Because Sarraute often eschews even such basic novelistic conventions as identifying a speaker (for example, “Jack said,” “Mary thought”), it can be difficult for readers to identify the character in question and to tell whether his words are spoken or merely thought. Readers are obliged to “try on” a character’s consciousness in order to identify him; thus, they both experience the character’s feelings and learn to detect the subtle changes that indicate a shift from thought to speech. This approach is consonant with the demands placed on the reader by many twentieth century writers and is in keeping with Sarraute’s belief that to classify a character or label an emotion is more limiting than illuminating. To say “he was a miser” or “she was jealous” tends to discourage deeper understanding; Sarraute prefers the more profound insights afforded readers by a voyage into human complexity.
An autobiography by an author with such preoccupations promises to be interesting for its form alone, and the rather exotic nature of Sarraute’s background makes it doubly intriguing. She was born in 1900 in Ivanovo Voznesensk, Russia. Her parents were divorced when she was two, and while she lived for the first eight years of her life with her mother and stepfather, she visited her father often, moving between a storybook existence in Czarist Russia and urban life in Paris. At the age of eight, she moved to Paris to live with her father, who had by that time remarried; although she did not know it at the time, she was never again to live permanently with her mother.
The time period covered by Childhood is roughly 1902 to 1914; however, the memories Sarraute evokes are not presented in chronological order and no date is ever mentioned in the work (nor are her parents given names other than “Mama” and “Papa”). Indeed, the author firmly resists any impulse to make sense out of her memories. Most are recounted in the present tense; she sets them down faithfully, as they come to her, attempting neither to rearrange them nor to explain why they are significant. Some memories seem to have been retained because they involved a powerful visual or emotional stimulus, others because the sound of a particular word or phrase was striking to the young girl, whose hypersensitivity to words presaged her destiny as an author. At other times, though, Sarraute...
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