Nathalie Sarraute Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

ph_0111206431-Sarraute.jpg Nathalie Sarraute Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Sarraute is often called the mother of the French New Novel. The New Novel rejected nineteenth century novelistic concerns of character and plot and changed the face of French literature. After a thirty-year career of novel writing, Sarraute began playwriting and found new success on the Parisian stage.

Early Life

The daughter of Ilya Tcherniak, a chemist and owner of a dye factory, and Pauline Chatounowski, Sarraute was born in Russia on July 18, 1900. Her parents had met in Geneva while studying at the university; they were exiled from their native Russia because Nicholas II had barred Jewish students from attending universities in Russia. When Sarraute was two, her parents were divorced, and she began an unsettled childhood, constantly on the move between Russia, France, and Switzerland. Sarraute’s own mother was a writer, who, having returned to Russia with her daughter and remarried, had published a number of novels and short stories under the male pseudonym Vichrowski. At the age of eight, Sarraute was finally settled in Paris with her father in the fourteenth arrondissement, the hub of Russian émigré activity in the city.

Through the influence of her artistic mother and the vital intellectuality provided by her father and the Russian community, Sarraute came to believe that women could equal the career success enjoyed by men. Sarraute pursued her studies in English at the Sorbonne, but she also read history at Oxford, England, and sociology at the Faculty of Letters, Berlin, before entering the University of Paris law school in 1922. While Sarraute chose to lead a highly demanding academic career, she also had a family life and, in 1925, married a fellow law student, Raymond Sarraute. Sarraute was a member of the Paris bar for twelve years, during which time she became the mother of three daughters and began her career in letters.

Life’s Work

Sarraute’s first work, Tropismes (1938, 1957; Tropisms, 1963), consists of a series of sketches that received a highly positive appraisal by Jean-Paul Sartre, but this one review comprised the only critical attention for the novel. This debut work already demonstrated the theoretical and innovative approach to writing that was to set Sarraute in the forefront of contemporary artists. The sketches are fragile moments in which an observer experiences alienation from another through gestures and tones of voice. Sarraute chose the term “tropism” from the field of biochemistry to describe a preverbal, instinctive, psychic movement, as primitive and imperceptible as that of a plant’s response to light and water. Overt human acts or words—often those demanded by social convention—obscure these authentic responses according to Sarraute.

After the publication of Tropisms, Sarraute, a Jew, spent World War II posing as a governess to her children. Despite the lack of critical attention received for Tropisms, Sarraute began work on Portrait d’un inconnu (1948; Portrait of a Man Unknown, 1958). Sartre wrote an introduction to this second novel, which he described as an “anti-novel” because it rejected nineteenth century concepts of plot and character. Sarraute also rejects the position of...

(The entire section is 1355 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Nathalie Sarraute was born Nathalie Ilyanova Tcherniak on July 18, 1900, in Ivanovo Voznesensk, Russia. Her parents were Russian Jews who met in Geneva, where they had gone to acquire university educations because Czar Nicholas II prevented Jews from attending universities in Russia. When she was two years old, her parents divorced. Sarraute claimed that French was her first language because she moved to Paris with her mother at age two and later attended nursery school there. Until the age of eight, when she settled in Paris with her father, who had remarried, she was shuttled back and forth between France, Switzerland, and Russia. At the age of seven she wrote a novel, which she timidly presented to a Russian writer, a friend of her mother. His only comment, “Learn to spell before you write novels,” discouraged her for almost thirty years. By the age of twelve she was fluent in French, Russian, English, and German.

After studying at the Lycée Fénelon in Paris, Sarraute received the baccalauréat degree and then a licence in English from the Sorbonne in 1920. In the academic year 1920-1921, she studied toward a bachelor’s degree in history at Oxford University. During the winter of 1921-1922, she studied sociology under Werner Sombart in Berlin. In 1922, she enrolled in the University of Paris Law School, where she met Raymond Sarraute in 1923. They were married in 1925 and were both admitted to the Paris bar. For twelve years, she worked as a lawyer, and during this time she gave birth to three daughters, Claude in 1927, Anne in 1930, and Dominique in 1933. In 1932, Sarraute’s literary career began, and her biography merged with the story of the long, painful process of getting her works recognized and published. During World War II, Sarraute took refuge in the town of Parmain (Seine-et-Oise). There, under the name of Nicole Sauvage, she masqueraded as the governess of her own daughters in order to hide from the Germans.

Biographical details about Sarraute are scarce—first, because she saw her life as banal, and second, because she believed that a writer’s private life has nothing to do with the individual’s public persona. She also maintained that the idea of a public persona (which she ridicules in several of her novels) has little relation to the consciousness of the writer who creates literary works.