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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,...

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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 wonders at the fact that a seemingly trivial souvenir remains vivid in her memory, when what must have been a key event in her life has vanished without a trace; she makes no attempt to reconstruct memories that are missing or incomplete.

In the opening pages of Childhood, Sarraute outlines the shape that this autobiography will assume. Adopting two separate voices, she discusses both her overpowering urge to evoke her childhood memories and the uneasiness this urge causes her. Why is she departing from her normal mediums of expression—prose, drama, and literary criticism? Have her memories become fixed and false with the passage of time? Can she avoid the temptation to fill in gaps in her memories, to justify her behavior, to attribute too great a lucidity to Nathalie Tcherniak, the child? Can she resist the temptation to psychoanalyze herself and others, to assign specific interpretations to events—she who has continually resisted labels that divest human feelings of their complexity? Throughout the book, whenever she allows herself to be carried away, however momentarily, a second voice intervenes: It remarks in a suspicious tone that a certain memory too closely resembles a page out of a storybook; it reminds her that, as a child, she would have couched her feelings in different terms; or it asserts that at a given moment she could not have known what was to happen several years hence, and thus the sense of foreboding she now injects into a memory is hindsight and not presentiment. This second voice even chides her for occasional prose passages that seem too carefully wrought; Sarraute has long believed that excessive polishing can render an author’s work lifeless.

Certain memories are discussed in great detail. For example, during a summer holiday in Switzerland with her father, Nathalie provokes impatience and ridicule by her insistence on chewing each mouthful of her food until it is “as liquid as soup.” Before leaving her mother to visit her father, she was instructed to do this by a family doctor and she has promised her mother not to forget it. Although adhering to this advice makes her miserable, she persists in storing food in her cheeks until she is ready to swallow it; her obstinacy makes her an unappetizing dinner companion and somewhat of a social outcast. Her obedience to her mother’s request appears to be like a talisman which binds her to her mother even in her absence; to disobey would be disloyal.

A succession of seemingly unrelated memories such as this one serves to illustrate Nathalie’s relationships with the significant people in her life, notably her mother, her father, and her stepmother. Her memories of her mother include being tricked by her into undergoing a tonsillectomy; being nursed by her (perhaps somewhat grudgingly) through a long illness; crying brokenheartedly as she leaves her mother to visit her father; and a moment when she moves to intervene in a good-natured wrestling match between her mother and stepfather only to be halted by the words of her mother, “Husband and wife are on the same side.” On another occasion, having overheard a servant pronounce her mother “stingy,” Nathalie dreads the moment when her mother dishes up meat for the servants’ dinner; each night, the number and quality of the slices placed on the platter confirms or belies this judgment for the little girl. At another moment, a younger Nathalie faces a similar problem: Seeing a beautiful doll in a shop window, she is struck by the thought that it is more beautiful than her mother. Frightened that she can entertain such a thought, she voices it to her mother, hoping to be reassured and relieved of her burden of guilt; instead, her mother tells her that no child who loved her mother could have such a thought. This latter incident exemplifies a recurring Sarrautian topos—the potential of small misunderstandings to erect barriers, even between people who love each other.

Of her father, Sarraute remembers his understated but obvious pride in one of her school compositions; his anger after she is caught shoplifting; her desperate need for him to stay by her side until she falls asleep; his fear and concern for her as he rushes her to the doctor during a serious illness; his heated debates with Russian émigrés in his Paris apartment; his care not to influence her as she attempts to decide whether to stay with him or go back to her mother; her sense of the depth of their feelings for each other, so rarely expressed in words.

Sarraute’s memories of her young stepmother, Vera, are equally difficult to categorize. When they meet for the first time, the playful Vera is dressed as a man. She solemnly asks Nathalie to dance and whirls the delighted little girl about the room until they are both quite dizzy. Later, after Vera and her father are married, Nathalie is on an outing with Vera during an extended visit to Paris. When Nathalie asks if they will be going home soon, and Vera replies, “It’s not your home,” Nathalie is not sure how to interpret this remark. After the birth of her half sister, Lili, Nathalie is summarily moved to a smaller bedroom, and later, certain other privileges, such as eating sweetbreads or learning English, are reserved for Lili alone. Nevertheless, there are also moments of closeness between Nathalie and Vera: They laugh together as Nathalie’s father attempts to ride a bicycle, Nathalie comforts a sobbing Vera in the night, Vera painstakingly makes covers for all of Nathalie’s books at the beginning of a school year.

As a child, Sarraute experienced love and affection from all who surrounded her. She recalls pleasant times spent with nurses and servants and remembers several of her teachers with particular fondness. It was inevitable that she would lose touch with such people as she grew older; Sarraute’s situation, however, was such that even the best-loved members of her family circle tended to disappear without warning from her life. Her parents’ divorce resulted in a lifetime of leave-takings; at times, the child must have wondered whether she was ever to see one or the other of her parents again. Her kind stepfather, Kolya, sent her messages of love but apparently saw her little, if at all, after she went to live with her father. Her Uncle Yasha, who was her father’s brother, seems to have been loved not only for himself but also because he was emotionally demonstrative with the little girl in a way her father could not allow himself to be; a political exile, he was murdered aboard a ship in Sweden, allegedly by the Russian secret police. With Vera’s mother, Nathalie had perhaps her most unconditionally loving relationship; when this step-grandmother left to return home after a two-year visit with the Tcherniaks, the young girl’s depression lasted for weeks.

Throughout Childhood, as in her other works, Sarraute resists simple interpretations of character or behavior. To say “he was angry” or “I was afraid” is to close off the finer nuances of human feeling. Indeed, Sarraute believes that it is impossible to have any but the most perfect understanding of another person. Human behavior is always complex and mysterious; clear and unproblematic explanations are probably false. Sarraute confesses that she herself has been guilty of oversimplification in the matter of the one childhood memory she had heretofore discussed publicly. As a child, she showed her first attempt at novel writing to a friend of her mother; the friend’s response to the child was that such a poor speller as she should never be a writer. Sarraute has on several occasions cited this “traumatic” incident as the explanation for her late start as a writer, but during one of her dialogues with herself in Childhood, she admits that a certain laziness prompted her to use this incident as a convenient explanation. As Sarraute strives to dig more deeply into her memories, she comes to realize that her reaction to this early criticism was far more complex than it had seemed.

The complexities of personal relationships and of the process of growing up are illustrated, rather than explained, in Nathalie Sarraute’s Childhood. By reliving the bits and pieces of Sarraute’s youth, readers develop an impression of what it must have been like, without necessarily being able to point to the source of that impression. Perhaps precisely because these finely drawn memories are presented directly and without analysis, they continue to resonate in the reader long after the book has been finished. Out of a profusion of separate memories comes a sense of unity. One is left with the image of a little girl who is more aware than most, perhaps, of the unpredictability of human behavior and of the precarious nature of human happiness. Although Sarraute’s childhood experiences were by no means typical, the universality of the child’s experience—the search for love, for approval, for independence, for security, mastery, and understanding—shines through. The fact that the book is entitled Childhood, rather than “A Childhood,” or “My Childhood,” makes room for the reader as participant rather than as mere observer.

It is not surprising that when Sarraute should finally decide to write about herself, the resulting text would be unlike any other autobiography. Working in a most self-revelatory genre, she has managed to safeguard her own complexity; she has produced an elusive and shimmering self-portrait that cannot be reduced to a recitation of dates and events. Childhood is a luminous, poetic work that transcends the mere recounting of interesting episodes from Sarraute’s early years; it is also a meditation on the act of remembering and provides unexpected insights into the subtleties of human behavior. Longtime readers of Sarraute’s work and those who encounter her for the first time in this book, will be glad that she has allowed her memories “to emerge from the protective cover they are preserved under, from those soft, whitish, cloudy layers which dissipate, which disappear with childhood.”


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Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI. August 2, 1984, p. 22.

Library Journal. CIX, January, 1984, p. 83.

Los Angeles Times. April 17, 1984, V, p. 6.

Ms. XIII, July, 1984, p. 22.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, October 25, 1984, p. 49.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, April 1, 1984, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, March 2, 1984, p. 76.

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Washington Post Book World. May 20, 1984, p. 1.