Nathalie Sarraute Sarraute, Nathalie - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Nathalie Sarraute 1900-1999

(Born Nathalie Tcherniak) Russian-born French novelist, essayist, and playwright.

The following entry provides criticism on Sarraute's works from 1990 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1990, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 4, 8, 10, 31, and 80.

Acknowledged as one of twentieth-century France's most significant writers, Nathalie Sarraute was one of the initiators of the nouveaux romans genre of novel-writing, a style that shuns the use of traditional narrative techniques, such as plot structure, characters, and setting. Instead, Sarraute and other practitioners of the “new novel” focus on presenting precise, objective narratives that are often episodic in nature and call upon the reader to impose individual interpretation. In addition to her fiction, Sarraute is also regarded as one of the primary literary theorists of her age, and she expounded on these in numerous prose works, including L'ere de soupçon: Essais sur le roman (1956; The Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel). Her best-known novel however, remains her first, Tropismes (1939; Tropisms), a collection of short texts that also outlines Sarraute's literary aesthetic. According to Sarraute, tropisms—a scientific term used to describe the natural tendency of plants to grow in the direction of heat and light—are barely perceptible movements or communications that found the basis of human language and conversation. Sarraute's critical theory about language and her use of these principles in her prose and drama continued throughout her literary career, and she consistently shunned the more traditional forms of narrative, specifically breaking away from the mores of nineteenth-century realistic fiction. Even her autobiography, which she issued in 1983 and is titled Enfance (Childhood), exemplifies Sarraute's pursuit of an empirical narrative technique, presenting events in her own life as a series of small, disconnected events, with no recognizable characters or personas. In addition to prose and fiction, Sarraute also authored several plays, many of which were staged to much critical acclaim during her lifetime.

Biographical Information

Nathalie Sarraute was born on July 18, 1900, in Ivanovo-Voznessensk, Russia. Her parents divorced when she was only two, and the young Sarraute moved with her mother and stepfather to Paris until she was five, spending her summers in Russia with her father. She continued to divide her time between her parents, living in various countries, including Russia, Switzerland, and France, thus learning both French and Russian at an early age. Sometime in 1908, Sarraute's father was forced to move to France from Russia, due to political reasons. Sarraute joined him there, initially only for the summer, but then remained with him for several years thereafter. Although Sarraute declined to comment on why she stayed with her father instead of returning to her mother, her stepmother has written that her mother abandoned the young Sarraute. Despite the loss, Sarraute seems to have spent a happy childhood in Paris with her father, a writer, who encouraged her intellectual interests. Surrounded by many immigrant Russian intellectuals, Sarraute attended French schools, going on to attend the Sorbonne, where she studied English and was eventually granted a diploma in 1920. She then studied in England for a few years, returning to France at her father's behest. On her return, she completed her law degree and became a member of the bar in 1925. The same year, she married fellow law student Raymond Sarraute—both shared a deep love of literature and languages, reading books in several languages. They had three daughters. Sarraute continued to practice law until the mid-1930s, when she began work on what would become her first novel, Tropisms. She continued to write for the next several decades, until her death on October 19, 1999.

Major Works

Sarraute's first major work was Tropisms, a series of twenty-four sketches that are widely acknowledged as containing all the literary elements she was to develop in her later works. As explained above, tropism refers to the tendency of organisms to move toward sources of light and heat. In terms of human language, Sarraute uses the term to explain a fundamental mechanism of human communication, an imperceptible movement that creates a response in another person. Tropisms often serve as a counterpoint to obvious reality—for example, many of Sarraute's narratives are concerned with ordinary, everyday events and things. And yet, she uses these surface movements to reveal subconversations—hidden, inner thoughts that her characters attempt to hide from others around them. Sarraute continued her exploration of tropisms in subsequent works, including Portrait d'un inconnu (1948; Portrait of a Man Unknown), Le planétarium (1959; The Planetarium), Les fruits d'or (1963; The Golden Fruits), and others. In many works, Sarraute presents an amorphous narrative, often placing an anonymous narrator at the center of the work, presenting ideas and thoughts through his or her viewpoint. In others, she dispenses with character and plotline altogether, using voices and fragments alone to convey thoughts and ideas. In addition to fiction, Sarraute also expounded her theories about language and meaning in numerous essay collections. In fact, works such as The Age of Suspicion are often regarded by critics as both texts that explain Sarraute's theories as well as primers for her fiction. Central to Sarraute's literary theory is the belief that the novelist or writer must write in a way that suppresses any differentiation between dialogue and description—in other words, Sarraute would grant the reader a crucial and very significant role in the interpretation of the text, thus stressing the significance of the power of words. In Childhood, the work differs from traditional autobiographies, lacking a clear narrative chronology, or even a definable character. Episodes follow one another, with an ongoing dialogue between the narrator and her own double, a conscience of sorts who remains with the narrator throughout the story, making sure that the recollections do not fall into the trap of traditional autobiography. Critics have remarked that Sarraute's use of this double narrator helps her overcome the difficulties she encountered in writing this work—especially the temptation to endow the child that is telling the story with the knowledge and experience of the adult who is writing it.

Critical Reception

While many critical appraisals of Sarraute's work have focused on her relationship to the “new novel” in French literature of the early-twentieth century, an equal number of scholars have acknowledged that Sarraute displayed immense originality and independence of thought in her writing. Her mature style and ideas regarding the function of language and the place of literature in society were evident in her first work, and she consistently expounded on these theories in her subsequent writing. Helen Watson-Williams characterized this worldview as one that is highly personal, and which closely examines in detail the inner life of human beings—yet, remarks Watson-Williams, it is noteworthy that none of the major political events in Sarraute's lifetime ever make it into her works as recognizable features. Sarraute's entire focus is the primacy of the spoken word and the individual who speaks it, and it is in this effort that Sarraute's writing is most impactful, concluded Watson-Williams. In her appraisal of the ways in which Sarraute uses language, Judith G. Miller characterized Sarraute's writing as an expression of hidden tensions via inner monologues. In this regard, Miller likens Sarraute and her writing to the image of modern culture as a place where alienation is an essential element of existence, a mode where novelists and writers are unable to communicate with their readers, leaving them with only one alternative—the demonstration of the fragmentary nature of existence via snippets of dialogue and action that are controlled only through language, and interpreted only by the reader. The importance Sarraute endows her reader is also remarked on by Sarah Barbour. Eventually, noted Barbour, Sarraute does exercise her narrative authority, doing so in such a way as to provide her reader with experiences that are specific to the writer's own reality. This dichotomy, wrote Barbour, is a way for Sarraute to introduce a larger discussion about the nature of conventional character and narrative in her works. According to John Rothenberg, Sarraute continues her discussion of language and its impact on human life in her plays as well. Rothenberg specially remarked on Sarraute's successful use of the dramatic genre to convey the same ideas and thoughts she does in her prose works—a task made more difficult by the fact that plays are meant to be acted, and not just read. In works such as Isma, ou ce qui s'appelle rien, suivi de Le Silence et Le mensonge (1970), wrote Rothenberg, Sarraute deliberately detaches voices from their individual characters, often using them to express emotions felt by an entire group. These and other techniques, according to Rothenberg, allow Sarraute to seamlessly transfer her theories to the stage as successfully as she has done in her prose works.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Tropismes [Tropisms] (novel) 1939

Portrait d'un inconnu [Portrait of a Man Unknown] (novel) 1948

Martereau (novel) 1953

L'ere de soupçon: Essais sur le roman [The Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel] (essays) 1956

Le planétarium [The Planetarium] (novel) 1959

Les fruits d'or [The Golden Fruits] (novel) 1963

Le silence, suivi de Le mensonge [Silence, and the Lie] (play) 1967

Entre la vie et la mort [Between Life and Death] (novel) 1968

Isma, ou ce qui s'appelle rien, suivi de Le Silence et Le mensonge (play) 1970

Vous les entendez? [Do You Hear Them?] (novel) 1972

Disent les imbéciles [Fools Say] (novel) 1976

Théâtre [Collected Plays of Nathalie Sarraute] (plays) 1978

L'usage de la parole [The Use of Speech] (essays) 1980

Pour un oui ou pour un non (play) 1982

Enfance [Childhood] (autobiography) 1983

Paul Valéry et l'enfant d'éléphant; Flauber le précurseur (essays) 1986

Tu ne t'aimes pas [You Don't Love Yourself] (novel) 1990

Ici [Here] (novel) 1997

Helen Watson-Williams (essay date November 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Watson-Williams, Helen. “Quintessential Sarraute: A Reading of L'Usage de la parole.Essays in French Literature, no. 27 (November 1990): 40-5.

[In the following essay, Watson-Williams provides a brief summary of Sarraute's L'Usage de la parole, commenting on the consistency of her thought, especially Sarraute's emphasis on the value of individual authenticity.]

From the publication of Tropismes in 1939 to her recent book L'Usage de la parole,1 translated as The Use of Speech,2 Nathalie Sarraute's work has been astonishingly consistent and individual. Over some sixty years the quiet but unmistakable...

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Judith G. Miller (essay date March 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Miller, Judith G. “Nathalie Sarraute: How to Do Mean Things With Words.” Modern Drama 34, no. 1 (March 1991): 118-27.

[In the following essay, Miller analyses Sarraute's plays in the context of her other prose writing, calling attention to the relationship she creates between language and imaginative construction in works that are vastly different from traditional theater.]

“How could we live if we took umbrage at every little phrase, if we didn't quite reasonably allow words, after all insignificant and anodyne, just to pass on by, if we created a huge story out of so little, out of less than nothing?”1 This question, posed by the chatty...

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Sarah Barbour (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barbour, Sarah. “A Feminist Reading Tropismes.” In Nathalie Sarraute and the Feminist Reader: Identities in Process, pp. 60-72. London, England: Associated University Presses, 1993.

[In the following essay, Barbour acknowledges that although many critics have attempted to read Sarraute's Tropismes as a feminist text, the work is ultimately a non-gender-specific text that is to be experienced through the semi-participation of the reader within the narrative.]

My “discovery” in 1979 of Nathalie Sarraute's Tropismes resonated within current discussions among feminists about a woman writer's relationship to literary tradition and the...

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Raylene Ramsay (essay date April 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ramsay, Raylene. “The Unself-loving Woman in Nathalie Sarraute's Tu ne t'aimes pas.The French Review: Journal of the American Association of Teachers of French 67, no. 5 (April 1994): 793-802.

[In the following essay, Ramsay proposes that Sarraute's autobiographical sequel to Enfance, titled Tu ne t'aimes pas, continues the discussion she initiated in the first work about the nature of self and its relationship to others, including language and textual strategy.]

Nathalie Sarraute's successful “new autobiography” Enfance (1983) could be described as a dialogic reconstitution of the self which took fragmented uncertain form...

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Mary Orr (essay date October 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Orr, Mary. “The Space of Satire: Le Planétarium by Nathalie Sarraute.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 30, no. 4 (October 1994): 365-73.

[In the following essay, Orr uses Sarraute's Le Planétarium to examine the role of satire and its interrogative role in literature.]

French literature abounds with examples of satire as a form of biting social comment and literary lampooning—the works of Voltaire, Diderot and Flaubert spring to mind. As a genre, satire has irked literary critics for its hybrid form—satire means a mixture—and, in its permissive contents, evaded censors who husband the “bienséant” and edifying against such...

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Valerie Minogue (essay date April 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Minogue, Valerie. “Voices, Virtualities, and Ventriloquism: Nathalie Sarraute's Pour un oui ou pour un non.French Studies: A Quarterly Review 49, no. 2 (April 1995): 164-77.

[In the following essay, Minogue discusses the challenges associated with staging Sarraute's theatrical works, which, the critic notes, although recognizable as human experience, are clearly not centered around any recognizable representation of reality.]

Nathalie Sarraute's reputation as a novelist was already established when she began work on her first play in 1963. She had never thought of herself as a playwright. Her material is, and always has been, not action, plot and...

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Johnnie Gratton (essay date October 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gratton, Johnnie. “Towards Narrativity: Nathalie Sarraute's Enfance.Forum for Modern Language Studies 31, no. 4 (October 1995): 300-11.

[In the following essay, Gratton writes that although Sarraute's Enfance has most often been cited as an example of a text that implements the poetics of fragmentation, this reading limits the potential of Sarraute's autobiography as a narrative text.]

It is a now accepted and well documented fact that Nathalie Sarraute's childhood autobiography owes much of its compelling quality to the way it implements a poetics of fragmentation.1 It would be unfortunate, however, if critical attention were to...

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Sheila M. Bell (essay date summer 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bell, Sheila M. “Endings in Autobiography: The Example of Enfance.L'Esprit Createur 36, no. 2 (summer 1996): 21-36.

[In the following essay, Bell considers the use of endings in Sarraute's Enfance, comparing their use by Sarraute to the rest of the text.]

Beginnings and endings are crucial elements of structure in any form of narrative. In the autobiographical genre especially, they draw attention to narrative as construct. By definition, birth and death belong to the field of autobiography. By definition equally, they lie beyond the reach of the autobiographer. For existential events which are inaccessible, he has therefore to invent...

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John Rothenberg (essay date May-August 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rothenberg, John. “Nathalie Sarraute Changing Genres: From ‘dissent les imbeciles’ to Elle est lá.Australian Journal of French Studies 35, no. 2 (May-August 1998): 215-27.

[In the following essay, Rothenberg concentrates on the similarities between Sarraute's prose and theatrical works, first outlining the differences between the two genres and then comparing two of Sarraute's texts as examples of very complex, but complementary themes between the play and fiction.]

It is generally accepted that Nathalie Sarraute is pursuing the same interests in her plays as in her novels and in the later fictions which she sees as on the border of...

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John Rothenberg (essay date July 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rothenberg, John. “Imagery in the Theatre of Nathalie Sarraute.” Neophilologus 82, no. 3 (July 1998): 385-92.

[In the following essay, Rothenberg details the use of surface action in Sarraute's plays as a means through which she conveys theatrical depth, using these devices as metaphors that convey several layers of meaning.]

Nathalie Sarraute is best known as a novelist, and for her essays defining the position of the novelist in the second half of the twentieth century. Both the essays collected in L'Ere du soupçon (1956), and the novels have been generally recognised as major contributions to the radical rethinking of novel theory and practise by...

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John Rothenberg (essay date July 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rothenberg, John. “Gender in Question in the Theatre of Nathalie Sarraute.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 35, no. 3 (July 1999): 311-20.

[In the following essay, Rothenberg reviews varying critical opinions regarding Sarraute's stance about the non-importance gender has in her writing, theorizing that despite the author's denials, the intended gender exclusions from her work make the issue even more central to her writing.]

Nathalie Sarraute's own position on the question of women writers suggests that she might object to being studied in the context of a special issue devoted to women. She also strongly denies that gender has any importance in the area...

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Gretchen Van Slyke (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Van Slyke, Gretchen. “Autobiographical Matrices and Mother Tongues in Nathalie Sarraute's Enfance.” In Corps/Décors: Femmes, Orgie, Parodie, edited by Catherine Nesci, pp. 175-90. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 1999.

[In the following essay, Van Slyke evaluates Enfance as a remarkable study of the relationship between language and identity.]

What better place to study the connections between language and childhood experience than Enfance, the surprise autobiography that Sarraute, finally abandoning her characteristic reserve, published in 1983? In this work Sarraute retraces, through a dialogue between voices identified only as...

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Nicolette David (essay date April 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: David, Nicolette. “The Violence of Writing in Nathalie Sarraute's Les Fruits d'or and Disent Les Imbeciles.French Studies: A Quarterly Review 54, no. 2 (April 2000): 163-76.

[In the following essay, David analyses two of Sarraute's texts using Melanie Klein's psychoanalytical theories regarding the role of aggression and envy in the behavior of children to demonstrate that violence is an integral part of Sarraute's language and text.]

The world of savagery inhabited by Nathalie Sarraute seems to invite a Kleinian reading. The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1880-1960) developed a body of theory out of her empirical observations of children's...

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Mark D. Lee (essay date spring 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lee, Mark D. “The Last Word: Deathbed Scenes in the Works of Nathalie Sarraute.” L'Esprit Createur 40, no. 1 (spring 2000): 47-57.

[In the following essay, Lee contends that the deathbed scene is used repeatedly and with consistency across all of Sarraute's work, offering fertile ground for tropismic exploration.]

Je comprends parfaitement que l'on conserve au fond de son portefeuille le récit d'une heure d'agonie, tant d'années durant. Il ne serait même pas nécessaire qu'elle fût particulièrement choisie. Elles ont toutes quelque chose de presque rare.

—R. M. Rilke, Les Cahiers de Malte...

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Ann Jefferson (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jefferson, Ann. “Difference and Dissension.” In Nathalie Sarraute, Fiction and Theory: Questions of Difference, pp. 17-38. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Jefferson notes that despite the critical commentary Sarraute has provided on her own work, interpretations of her text vary widely, and are deeply influenced by the reader himself.]

Il n'y pas de moyen terme entre l'admission et l'exclusion. [There is no middle way between admittance and exclusion.]

(Entre la vie et la mort, p. 149 [156])


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Jennifer Willging (essay date May 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Willging, Jennifer. “Partners in Slime: The Liquid and the Viscous in Sarraute and Sartre.” Romanic Review 92, no. 3 (May 2001): 277-96.

[In the following essay, Willging compares the work of Sarraute to that of Sartre and notes the similarities between them.]

Nathalie Sarraute would not have appreciated this essay, because in it I propose to compare, as other critics have done in the past, her work with that of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sarraute's testiness about the nature of her intellectual relationship with Sartre simply “oozes” (in keeping with the theme of this essay) from the pages of a 1989 interview with Françoise Dupuy-Sullivan (“Dialogue avec...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Brodski, Bella. “Mothers, Displacement, and Language in the Autobiographies of Nathalie Sarraute and Christa Wolf.” In Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography, edited by Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck, pp. 243-59. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Comparative analysis of the relationship between displacement and language in the autobiographies of Sarraute and Wolf.

Gratton, Johnnie. “The Present Tense in Nathalie Sarraute's Enfance.French Studies Bulletin, no. 52 (autumn 1994): 15-7.

Examines the use of the present tense in Sarraute's text, noting that this technique provides...

(The entire section is 491 words.)