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.
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.
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.
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.