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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1355

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.

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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 omniscient narrator in the sense that she refuses to assume authority; her writing tends to conjure up the reader’s own memories as well as creating her own imaginative world; rather than imposing her own vision through artistic manipulation, she allows room for the reader’s participation in her texts.

It was not until nearly twenty years after the publication of Tropisms, after the publication of Portrait of a Man Unknown in 1948, Martereau (English translation, 1959) in 1953, and the popular Le Planétarium (1959; The Planetarium, 1960), that Sarraute began to receive recognition by the majority of French critics and the public. Since then, Sarraute has published a novel every four or five years: Les Fruits d’or (1963; The Golden Fruits, 1964), Entre la vie et la mort (1968; Between Life and Death, 1969), Vous les entendez? (1972; Do You Hear Them?, 1973), “Disent les imbéciles” (1976; “Fools Say,” 1977), and L’Usage de la parole (1980; The Uses of Speech, 1980).

For a relaxation between novels, Sarraute turned to playwriting in the early 1960’s. She transferred the preverbal “tropisms” into dialogue, at first for the radio, then for the stage. The plays’ characters use everyday, conversational language that reveals deeply hidden animosities and rivalries. In order to retain the same anonymity as her characters possess in the novels, Sarraute simply provided identifying labels such as M.1 and 2, for first and second man, for example. Among her plays are Le Silence (1964; Silence, 1981), Le Mensonge (1966; The Lie, 1981), C’est beau (1973; It’s Beautiful, 1981), and Pour un oui ou pour un non (1982).

During the 1980’s, Sarraute’s work began to receive recognition by readers and critics, especially feminists, outside France. A feminist criticism tends to examine her authorial refusal to manipulate the reader as well as the autobiographical work—such as Enfance (1984; Childhood, 1984)—which she has produced. Sarraute lives a hardworking and quiet life, continuing to write and publish well into her ninth decade of life.


While Nathalie Sarraute’s writing is highly experimental, she compares herself to Fyodor Dostoevski, Gustave Flaubert, Ivy Compton- Burnett, and Virginia Woolf, all exceptional creators of character and all experts in the use of irony. As her career progressed, Sarraute began to distance herself from the New Novel movement. In 1963, she added a foreword to a new edition of Tropisms in which she denies that she wished to suggest that humans are like plants in her use of the term “tropisms”: “It obviously never occurred to me to compare human beings with insects or plants, as I have sometimes been reproached with doing.” In the 1970’s and 1980’s, feminist criticism began to explore Sarraute’s writing from more useful avenues, regarding her as a major autobiographical writer, and as a novelist with particular insight into human psychology, while pursuing the twentieth century tradition of experimentation at the level of the word. Sarraute’s reputation has been enhanced since she has been viewed as separate from the very school of writing she was credited with founding.


Britton, Celia. “The Self and Language in the Novels of Nathalie Sarraute.” Modern Language Review 77 (July, 1982): 577-584. This paper argues that Sarraute’s novels are about language itself and, in particular, language as used in encounters between the novels’ characters.

Cismaru, Alfred. “Conversation with Nathalie Sarraute.” Telescope 4 (Spring, 1985): 17-24. An informal interview that provides a glimpse of Sarraute’s rather private life and her views on writing in general.

Henderson, Liza. “Sarraute’s Silences.” Theater 20 (Winter, 1988): 22-24. A close study of Sarraute’s play Silence, and of the drama in general as consisting of lies and silences.

Knapp, Bettina L. “Nathalie Sarraute’s Between Life and Death: Androgyny and the Creative Process.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 11 (Spring, 1987): 239-252. Knapp’s paper examines Sarraute’s novel Between Life and Death, its treatment of the creative process, and its creation of an archetypal writer, who creates at the level of the word as a living thing.

Minogue, Valerie. Nathalie Sarraute and the War of the Words: A Study of Five Novels. Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Edinburgh Press, 1981. A straightforward, in-depth study of five of Sarraute’s novels with an emphasis on language. Includes an extensive bibliography. An appendix adds a letter from Sarraute herself, whose theorizing about writing is always clear and illuminating.

Munley, Ellen W. “I’m Dying but It’s Only Your Story: Sarraute’s Reader on Stage.” Contemporary Literature 24 (Summer, 1983): 233-258. Munley argues that Sarraute’s novel The Uses of Speech is interested in the separation of self from others, at the same time as the self becomes confused with others.

Sarraute, Nathalie. The Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel. Translated by Maria Jolas. New York: George Braziller, 1963. Sarraute presents her own theories of narrative method in this clear collection of essays that analyze her own writing in comparison to that of others. These theories have influenced a generation of subsequent writers of the New Novel, including Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor.

Watson-Williams, Helen. The Novels of Nathalie Sarraute: Towards an Aesthetic. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1981. A full-length study of Sarraute’s writings and their concern with the artistic process and the value and appreciation of art in everyday life.


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Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 390

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.

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