Summary

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"Fools Say” is composed of thirteen sections which embody the subdialogue or subconversation of unidentified individuals. Nathalie Sarraute deals with what she calls “tropisms,” which may be defined as one’s immediate reactions, in all of their minutiae, to outside stimuli. (“Tropism” is a biological term which refers to an organism being either attracted to or repelled by a stimulus.) These tropisms, substrata of psychological reactions, constitute a nonverbal reality to which Sarraute assigns words. The hidden depths of a person’s emotional or psychological complexity lie far beneath any rational patterns of behavior. At this level, human psychology is in constant flux. Sarraute focuses on these ephemeral responses because human beings—regardless of group, gender, creed, color, or nationality—participate in this tropistic realm.

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In re-creating such subtle psychological data, Sarraute ignores the fully developed characters which, in a traditional novel, provide readers with a sense of reality. She eliminates any appeal to outside or verifiable reality through her use of shifting voices in contexts which are completely open to speculation and interpretation. While the pronouns shift dizzyingly, each voice in “Fools Say” seems to exist because of a need to find a secure place amid the voices in conflict. Only glimpses of relationships are perceived. The progression of the novel is circular; from the fears in adolescence to the fears of so-called adulthood, the nightmarish suspicion persists that one does not exist or will not be heard. Subtle fusions of thought and feeling at the level of the tropism constitute human reality for this author. Because of the constant shift of voices, there is no way of rephrasing the experience that each reader will have when plunged into this intangible, always malleable reality as re-created by Sarraute.

For Sarraute, man’s linguistic arsenals, all of his categories, theories, and systems, lead him to conclude falsely that there is a word for everything. Furthermore, man argues—again falsely—that anything which does not fit into his linguistic schemes is not real. He has created a grid of platitudes and cliches by which he categorizes and judges others, but which he insists cannot be applied to himself. Thus, man’s willingness to define others but not himself reveals the pretension and hypocrisy which make him vulnerable to Sarraute’s lethal irony. Each person’s attempt to create a harmonious world for himself, by allotting roles for others to play, can lead to nothing but one more cage created by words.

Each voice or idea might be secure in its own narrated construct, but it would cease to exist, as ideas atrophy if they are not exposed. Yet an idea might be destroyed in free discussion. Thus, the lure of imposing or attempting to impose one’s ideas on others is clearly irresistible. To attempt to define the world on one’s own terms leads to an ongoing struggle, in which some voices will prevail and others will be canceled, and everything will be altered by clamoring demands for acceptance and recognition. In the conflict of voices as each seeks to make his use of words the accepted ones, any idea which does not serve some entrenched power is irrelevant. In the context of this novel, those who seek to maintain power by controlling the use of words, those who insist that anyone who disputes this power is a fool, are fools. Political dictators are not as powerful as the established arbiters of words.

There is no resolution to this ongoing battle; there are no victories in humanity’s conflict over words. If people control words, they are also controlled by words. If reality is defined by words, even the arbiters or supporters of hierarchy are vulnerable, regardless of whether they know it. If one does not accept the status quo and authority, one is pilloried as a fool. If one argues that those who function within categories and hierarchies are themselves fools, one will be attacked. To be silent is to give consent to a petrified and self-serving power structure. To find that one has no words which are effective is to find that one is crazy.

The voices in this novel emit opinions, promote incomplete arguments, and struggle to escape inner conflicts; generally, outside authority prevails in what must be described as a terrorist world. The novel begins with a grandson ordering others away because they have reduced his grandmother to an object. He is accused of jealousy, of believing that his grandmother belongs solely to him (he is told that authorities have proved that jealousy and hatred always go together), and he recants in horror, pleading madness. As the novel ends, with a voice protesting, “no, he didn’t think, he can’t think, he must have gotten the words from someone else, he can’t remember,” it is clear that fear knows no age, that all people, in their fears, are equally defenseless.

Authority reigns in this novel and to no good effect. Judgments are made on the basis of personality by some external authority. Judgments and endless assumptions—which are false or unverifiable—are based on the slightest of actions. Hence, the creation of any personality—the creator’s or that of another—is constantly in question and certainly not to be trusted.

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Themes