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...
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