Sarraute, Nathalie 1902–
A Russian-born French New Novelist, Mme. Sarraute is the author of Tropismes and Portrait of a Man Unknown. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)
What Sartre calls the "anti-novels" of Nathalie Sarraute seem, as far as I can make out from the only one as yet  published in this country, Portrait of a Man Unknown, to present a total submission to meaninglessness of existence. Mme. Sarraute has plunged over the cliff, landed on her feet, and then begun to stroll calmly through the void as we watch dimly and incredulously from above. There is something rather horrible in this coolly presented picture of nothingness, this absolute taking for granted that life is a Chinese box and that as you painfully pry open each successive lid you are rewarded with yet another vacuum. What appears at first to be the insanity of the narrator, who speaks paranoically of "They" and who for no reason whatever becomes obsessed with a shadowy couple, an elderly man and his spinster daughter living together in hatred and mutual contempt, turns out to be intended as a picture of the actual state of affairs in our world. There are no characters in the book, for individuality is an illusion that can no longer be maintained; no communication between persons, for there is nothing left to communicate except, as Sartre points out in his introduction, the most generalized of commonplaces. No other writer, not even Beckett or Ionesco, has gone quite as far as Mme. Sarraute, and further than this it would be impossible to go, since her extraordinary novel is written at the point where literally everything, including the six senses themselves, are just about to dissolve into thin air.
Norman Podhoretz, "The New Nihilism and the Novel" (1958), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 159-78.
It is clear that Mme. Sarraute wants to brush away the dead wood of the novel; what is less clear is what she would put in its place. This difficulty—of seeing what one is against without knowing what one is for—has its origin in two peculiar facts. Mme. Sarraute's critical theories are not explications, appreciations, or analyses of masterpieces of antinovel fiction, but precede their hypothetical creation. And since she is a practicing novelist, we are never certain whether she is speaking for a group or a movement, or for herself….
There is no question about what Mme. Sarraute is against. She is discarding both the traditional "behaviorist," or realistic novel, and the work of her predecessors who rose up against it. She is as "anti" Joyce and Proust as she is "anti" Balzac….
For Mme. Sarraute, the revolt against the tradition is as unusable as the tradition, the revolt having become the tradition. In fairness to Mme. Sarraute, she sees clearly that the revolt against tradition is endless, but she makes no clear distinction between tradition and technique….
Mme. Sarraute, seeing the absurdity of certain conventions of the novel, fails to see that the novel itself is a convention. If one reads Mme. Sarraute's novel The Planetarium, for instance, one discovers that in ridding herself of a novelistic trick such as "he said" and "she said," she is forced to be technically obsessive in other directions. Nothing is supposed to get in the way of the "movements" that flow beneath the surface. But what are we to do with the three dots that relentlessly infest every page and interrupt every few phases of Mme. Sarraute's "action"? One becomes suspicious of punctuation. And since there is a realism of the interior that is just as pat as a realistic exterior, one becomes suspicious, finally, of writing itself….
It is splendid that Mme. Sarraute hates the false, the facile, the merely contrived, the old hat. But she should be taken to task for confounding one of the most appalling confusions in aesthetics. New forms do not guarantee new art. Revolutions in art are always revolutions of sensibility, not necessarily of form, though both may occur at the same time, as in the Impressionists.
Howard Moss, "Make It Vague," in Kenyon Review, Summer, 1963, pp. 550-55.
Miss Sarraute, the most interesting and successful practitioner of a highly nuanced novel, does create, by the interest of her observation, a series of glimpses of different consciousnesses, caught in specific moments in time. Her work thereby conveys a sense of the human mystery and its solipsistic nature, but in an extremely narrow frame. We float from moment to moment. Conversation is "functional." We are always in a series of points of view. The pregnant phrase, the momentary remark, is revelatory of an inner world; at times we arrive at a series of what Joyce called his "epiphanies"—the moment of feeling caught on the wing, before it disappears into the backward reach of the lived life. Miss Sarraute, in a word, is no longer creating an illusion of reality; she seems to be attempting to render an illusion of appearances.
Leon Edel, in his The Modern Psychological Novel, Grosset & Dunlap-Universal Library, 1964 (© 1964 by Leon Edel; reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, Inc.), pp. 181-82.
Unlike Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute has placed herself avowedly in the development of the novel-form. Learning much from the example of Dostoyevsky, and more perhaps from Virginia Woolf, she has tried to carry that development to its ultimate consequences….
For her, not only do men not act according to reason or their principles: they have not even succeeded in conquering their individuality. What interests her is the common tissue of their existence, the gross relations (of adaption, aggressivity, defence), or the subtle and inexpressible relations they have with the world and between themselves. The scale of these relations is as wide and diversified as the scale of human situations in which they operate.
Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A. M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; © 1967 by Methuen and Co., Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, pp. 132-33 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).
The depth method, Nathalie Sarraute's invention, is the poetic method: metaphor which evokes tropisms, usually through a narrator. When there is no narrator, and when a group of people are presented in a social situation, the depth method has a certain awkwardness, the disparity of tone and extent between the undercurrents and the surface conversation being very great…. Not that Nathalie Sarraute's sub-conversation is to be equated with Ivy Compton-Burnett's dialogue. As Sarraute said, Ivy Compton-Burnett's stylized dialogue is "on the fluctuating frontier that separates conversation from sub-conversation." All we know of Miss Compton-Burnett's characters proceeds from what they ordinarily say, but what they say reveals much more of their most devasting thought than does ordinary social conversation. In Nathalie Sarraute, conversations and sub-conversations are antiphonal, the latter using first or third person and indicating, sometimes through metaphor, reactions scarcely conscious. The transition to spoken words is almost imperceptible, for conversation itself is the surfacing of subterranean movements. (pp. 27-8)
Although metaphor is one of her most characteristic devices, Nathalie Sarraute is impatient of comparison. Inappropriate fathers and especially mothers have been visited on her—Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett—and she would like her novelty to be seen in and for itself. The fact is that comparison of her works with those of certain other authors provides the best possible illumination of that novelty. (p. 40)
Her tradition is not French but European. In Dostoievsky she found that insistence on the basic human need—to make contact—which is her underlying theme…. Proust was no less important, but here his disciple is less willing or able to assess her debt, possibly because when she began to write Proust's reputation was far down. It has since soared, and a multitude of critics have helped us to know Proust better, so that more analogies appear than might have done in 1939 when Nathalie Sarraute published her first novel. In fact, her resemblances to Proust deserve extensive study…. I must, however, mention these concerns common to Proust and Nathalie Sarraute: with reality as creation, not imitation of a given world, and with the essential function of language in that creation; with the indeterminate but crucial interplay of appearance and reality, resulting in disintegration of conventional character; with "les moments nuls," which are, as much as others—or even more—worthy of literary treatment…. The patterns of emotion that Proust weaves are called, she thinks, by names too crude: love, fear, hatred. He has not reduced them to their smallest parts. In a world where not even the atom is left intact, one must think and see smaller. (pp. 41-2)
Ruth Z. Temple, in her Nathalie Sarraute ("Columbia Essays on Modern Writers," No. 33), Columbia University Press, 1968.