Nathalie Sarraute

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Sarraute, Nathalie (Vol. 2)

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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. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Mme. Sarraute dreams … of a technique that would succeed in plunging the reader into the stream of those subterranean dramas which Proust only had time to skim over, and of which he was able to observe and reproduce only the broad motionless lines. Observations and skimmings with which we would be satisfied! What genius it would take to give the reader (as Mme. Sarraute wishes, without too many. illusions) the impression of reaccomplishing those actions himself, with more consciousness, lucidity, order, precision, clarity than is possible in life, without making them lose "that portion of indefiniteness, that opacity and that mystery, which one's actions always have for the one who sees them." It must be said: this genius, Nathalie Sarraute has it. There are few living authors whom I admire as much. Every line of hers is precious. This novelist always comes back to the same theme; what she says corresponds to what our experience has taught us, but as nobody has expressed it before her. I never tire of watching her clear away and cultivate the psychological domain which she has appropriated and where she reigns.

Claude Mauriac, "Nathalie Sarraute," in his The New Literature, translated by Samuel I. Stone (George Braziller, Inc.: from The New Literature by Claude Mauriac; reprinted with permission of the publisher; copyright © 1959 by George Braziller, Inc.), Braziller, 1959, pp. 235-48.

[Tropismes, a] series of prose sketches, often reminiscential, shows [Mme. Sarraute] already using some of the antinovel techniques, particularly in the general namelessness of the characters. But although the writings of Mme. Sarraute share this and several other characteristics with the chosistes, she is not actually a member of their group; her work does not manifest their intense concern with things as such….

Martereau … is centered in the vision of a sick young man whose illness, like so many maladies of our time seems partly self-willed. This young man is a concentration of the characteristics of the oversensitive: those who are splintered by their own complications, people loving and hating at the same instant. In this case, tubercular fevers magnify the character's faults as well as his virtues. His complications, along with those of the total situation, make Martereau the best, the most fully developed, of Mme. Sarraute's novels.

Harry T. Moore, in his Twentieth-Century French Literature Since World War II (© 1966 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966, pp. 118-19.

Even at its best, [Nathalie] Sarraute's method justifies attention but not manifestoes. Her least interesting books are Tropisms and The Age of Suspicion (which is the expectable collection of tendentious essays by a practitioner of the nouveau roman). The silliest is The Golden Fruits, a catty and trivial exposé of French literary society, which on the evidence of the book combines the least attractive features of an academic cocktail party and a public hanging.

Portrait of a Man Unknown, however, deserves attention. It is Mme. Sarraute's first full-scale application of her method; and it makes clear her self-admitted affinities with the Dostoevsky of Notes from Underground . Yet the differences in intention (not to speak of differences in power of realization) are much greater than she might be willing to acknowledge. Dostoevsky's underground man wanders forever in the labyrinths of motive, which have been opened by...

(This entire section contains 3400 words.)

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the nineteenth-century denial of will and action: the horror is metaphysical, it is in the endlessness of his quest, not in the malice he dredges up along the way. Mme. Sarraute, on the other hand, limits herself to observing the sporadic jets of spleen and hatred that she considers "the secret source" (doesn't she wish to say, rather, the most immediate manifestation?) "of our existence."…

Marvin Mudrick, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1967, pp. 473-78.

If you can imagine an auditory pantomime, you will be in the peculiar world of Nathalie Sarraute. A pantomime in reverse, where instead of tiptoeing action and gesture, you have vocables, so to speak, with their fingers to their mouths. In pantomime, the spectator "understands" a dialogue or soliloquy from the signs made by the performer ("He is afraid," "He is arguing," "His feelings are hurt"); in the mime of Nathalie Sarraute, an invisible action or plot—that is, a relation—is understood from snatches of overheard speech, the word in some way reverting to its primitive function of sign or indicator. And just as an "Ouch!" or a "Pow!" in a silent movie has a greater sonority than any "Ouch!" or "Pow!" recorded on the sound track of a talkie, so the action in Nathalie Sarraute emerges from the murk that conceals it with a degree of visibility that is almost immodest.

The action is simplified, conventional, classic—a Punch-and-Judy show, Keystone comedy, or Pearl White cliff-hanger—having to do with the seesawing of power in a human group, which can be as large as a mob or as small as a single integer. Some creature is being chased; he makes a narrow escape; they are after him again; he tries to hide, flattens himself against a wall, melts into a crowd, puts on a disguise; they catch him, tear off his false whiskers; he begs for mercy, uttering pathetic squeals. It is always the One and the Many, even and most emphatically when the delicate power balance trembles and oscillates within a palpitating individual heart. In the outer world, alliances and ententes, protective networks, more or less durable, can be made, but within the individual heart there is a continuous division and multiplication….

At the outset, Mme. Sarraute's reader, finding himself in this strange and unquiet territory, may be somewhat bewildered. He hears voices talking but cannot assign them to bodies with names, hair-color, eye-color, identifying marks. It is like listening to a conversation—or a quarrel—on the other side of the thin partition of a hotel room; you long to rush down and consult the register. But there is no register in this hotel; no telltale shoes are put out at night in the corridor, and the occupants of the room next to you keep changing just as you think you have them placed….

In Mme. Sarraute's work, you often find a circle surrounding a single figure, an "it" in the middle, as in a children's game. To be chosen "it," however, is not as enviable as it looks at first. Isolated, you can become the butt of tormentors before you know what has happened; the rules of the game have been changed without a word of warning. You have been betrayed by the "ring" around you who have led you on, maneuvered you into the spotlight by flattery and now start closing in, abetted by your own need of praise and reassurance, the inner traitor, always seeking to join them.

Mary McCarthy, "Hanging by a Thread" (1969), in her The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays (© 1969 by Mary McCarthy; excerpted from "Hanging by a Thread" in The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays by Mary McCarthy by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, 1970, pp. 172-88.

What Mme. Sarraute find spurious is the convention of "character," that psychological prop on which the novel so often rests. The character of fiction, she says, has lost his ancestors, his well-filled house, his discernible manners; now he must lose his name. The novel must reckon with the suspicions of its author and reader…. [Both] have become wary of fiction itself. The facts of outrage push reality to the very limits of our dreams….

Yet her final view of literature is not altogether original: literature, she says, gives to its readers "a deeper, more complex, cleaner, truer knowledge of what they are, of their circumstances and their lives, than they can acquire alone." Mme. Sarraute does not contemn words; on the contrary, she permits them to take the central place in fiction, in absence of character, plot, or setting. Her interest in "subterranean movements that are at once impatient and afraid" brings her closer to Marcel Proust, Henry James, or Virginia Woolf than her theory allows. And her penchant for certain critical terms—"surface," "hard," "compact," "opacity"—seems at variance with her own fastidious style, refined secretly by poetic means. She sets fiction against itself, but ends with an art work as made in its way as a Mallarmé sonnet. Her true achievement may be a poetry of existence that evades the fond inauthenticities of older narratives….

Mme. Sarraute retains tropisms as the "living substance" of her subsequent works, amplified into larger dramatic actions and more complex verbal interplays. Portrait d'un inconnu, for instance, is an account of domestic deceptions, desires, despairs, couched in the language, banal and insidiously poetic, of a hypersensitive observer. This voyeur looks inward to tell a phenomenological tale of an old miser and his sickly daughter. His tale could also be his own, for he too is the son of a father, the old friend, perhaps, of the miser. Speaking in the first person, his stream of modified consciousness becomes omniscient; his internal notations transform a mundane family affair into an archetype of existence, shuttling between self and other, appearance and reality, concreteness and generality. His cracked vision dwells on fragments of public experience, bits of quotidian life, moments of language and time, subverted continuously by his inwardness. For the speaker, nothing remains ordinary, without oddness, fear, lust, pain, or cruelty; nothing remains in its place. His phrases, even his images, bring all the small solaces of the daylight world; his dislocations of that world twist and snap underneath….

Portrait d'un inconnu can be read as a novel about an egoistic miser near death, a family romance, a satire on bourgeois society, a philosophic reflection on language and consciousness. Its central impulse, however, comes from the need of the artist to define his form and function—indeed, his life—in the process of writing, without recourse to traditional definitions of art. The result, nonetheless, appears literary, richly allusive.

Ihab Hassan, in his The Dismemberment of Orpheus (© 1971 by Ihab Hassan; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 161-67.

In Portrait d'un Inconnu, generally considered her most successful work, Nathalie Sarraute seems to have carried out the project Flaubert only dreamed of—that of writing a "livre sur rien." The superficial nihilism is, however, a thin, fragile crust over a sea of human tensions and deep-rooted despairs…. [We] know her "unknown reality" not by having it defined in so many words, but by directly experiencing it through the perceptions, real or imagined, and the metaphorical language of the unknown narrator….

The marine images to which she is addicted help to create a microcosm as treacherous and fluxional as the sea. A kind of softness, a "mollesse" into which the reader can sink, contrasts with what she refers to as the mummified rigidity of characters in traditional novels. The informational vagueness and poetic openness, as well as the subtle call for the reader's participation, are imparted to the novel mainly by the narrative technique….

Because Sarraute apparently shares her narrator's fascination with the fragmentary and suggestive, Portrait d'un Inconnu is itself unfinished—and deliberately so. The novel is built on a series of extended similes or analogies. The patterns these form suggest that the novel's center is the unresolved and unending tension between the solid matter of reality and the need of the artistic spirit to work it and cause it to become plastic and fluxional….

Her attempt to discern a new reality and to formulate it in a work of art is noble but seems to be frustrated by the questionable assumptions on which that art is based. The "second reality," with which one of her essays also deals, is never defined, although she is careful to define the forms with which she is working—objectivity, sous-conversation, and so on. Not only does she assume that the undefined second reality exists, she also denies that the exterior reality we all know and this new truth can be mutually contradictory. The narrator's dilemma in Portrait seems to be precisely that he finds himself caught in such a conflict of values. She also seems to subscribe to the theory that literature is not only movement, but progress, giving rise to the speculation that some new and hitherto untouched reality exists necessarily.

H. A. Bouraoui, "Sarraute's Narrative Portraiture: The Artist in Search of a Voice," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 1972, pp. 77-89.

[Vous les entendez?] is certainly Nathalie Sarraute's best novel. It puts her in the top rank of contemporary French writers. It expands, deepens, and refines what she was already doing expertly by 1963 in Les Fruits d'or (The Golden Fruits). I conclude that there is still a brilliant potential in the nouveau roman—in the Sarrautean species, that is, for of course the nouveau roman, stripped of its publicity, was never more than an abstraction distilled from several distinct notions of what an art novel, as distinct from a traditional one, ought to be.

In its length, about forty thousand words, Vous les entendez? is almost a novelette; in its main organization it is a French classical comedy of situation. Looming through a rich haze of ambiguities, there are even hints of the old unities of time, place, and action….

Complicating everything is a prose style that is elliptical enough to imply a fairly constant stream of secondary meanings. Occasionally this style, with its lavish use of short phrases, idiomatic turns, and three dots, comes dangerously close to schoolgirl breathlessness. Occasionally it comes distractingly close to French classical poetry in the grand seventeenth-century manner; there are brief sections that could be printed as perfect alexandrines, with every caesura in the right place. But when all the devices and the mannerisms work as well as they usually do, the result is a technique of which Mme. Sarraute professed to be dreaming in 1956, in her essay Conversation et sous-conversation (reprinted in the collection The Age of Suspicion): "… a technique that would succeed in plunging the reader into the torrent of those subterranean dramas that Proust had only time to fly over and to observe and reproduce in their broad, motionless lines; a technique that would give the reader the illusion of re-doing these actions himself, with more lucidity, order, clarity, and force then he could have in doing them in real life, yet without losing that element of indeterminacy, opacity, and mystery which such actions have for someone who lives through them."…

Mme. Sarraute is still primarily interested (as she has been since the beginning of her career) in what she calls tropisms, which the dictionary defines as the involuntary orientations of organisms, usually involving turning or curving, in positive or negative response to sources of stimulation. In other words, she is interested not in happenings as such, nor even in dialogue as such, but in those almost indefinable movements of the psyche, those defensive posturings of the tender inner Me that lie beneath our actions and talk.

Roy McMullen, "Second Person Plural," in World, July 4, 1972, pp. 85-6.

Nathalie Sarraute is a masterful observer of fleeting, scarcely perceptible emotions, capturing them just before they crystallize into clearly definable thoughts. Her technique is comparable to the impressionist painter's: she patiently sketches minute variations of perceptions, foregoing hard contours for vague outlines. Out of her wealth of material the reader evolves his own impressions. Never is there any explanation….

Anna Otten, in Books Abroad, Autumn, 1972, p. 619.

Nathalie Sarraute is the kind of novelist who never gives us the mixture as before. Like all serious artists, like Eliot, she knows that "… each venture/ is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate." And in a special sense her novels are raids on the inarticulate, for what provides in them continuity in change is the attempt to convey subverbal experience, what she has christened tropisms or subconversations. She has explained these as minute instinctive reactions that surface fleetingly into consciousness as wordless sensations.

The main substance of her novels ("Portrait of a Man Unknown," "Planetarium," "The Golden Fruits," etc.) is thus below interior monologue, though that appears, too, and so does conversation, none of these, by the way, designated as one thing or the other or assigned to one or another of the unnamed characters. To convey the unverbalized movements in or into consciousness, some special linguistic device must be found, and the obvious one is metaphor. Nathalie Sarraute's use of metaphor is abundant and distinctive, providing a texture so rich and complex as to belie the simplicity of the novel's structure….

"Do You Hear Them?" is a study in contrasts: youth and age …, heredity and environment, devotion and indifference to tradition, life and art, art and nonart (entertainment), silence and words. A minor theme is the relation of collector to connoisseur, and of both to the ordinary man who has other fish to fry than the self-indulgent delectation of his visual sense. All these themes are pursued not discursively but dramatically….

The problems of the writer confronting his craft and his public and of the book once it has been given to the public were explored by Nathalie Sarraute in her two preceding novels, "Between Life and Death" (1969) and "The Golden Fruits" (1964). "Do You Hear Them?" deserves to find a wider audience than these, for its subject, family life, is closer to most readers, and its substance is deeper and more various than that of either of the others. Moreover, in none of her novels is it clearer than in this one that, though she writes the New Novel, she exhibits through it the values of the age-old novel and brings to it the indispensable qualities of the age-old novelist: acute insight into the human predicament, by no means divorced from compassion for its victims.

Ruth Z. Temple, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 4, 1973, p. 5.

Two elderly gentlemen repose in a pretty dining room admiring a small pre-Columbian statue while the host's adolescent children, having made a perfunctory appearance, frolic and giggle upstairs. At one point the father tries to present the statue to the children but they reject the gift.

That is all that actually happens in this short new novel [Do You Hear Them?] by [Nathalie Sarraute,] the Russian-born doyenne of the French nouveau roman. But behind the tranquil facade a spiritual crisis builds. Only a fraction of it erupts into spoken words or even into coherent thoughts as the host (in interior monologue) fluctuates between profound and conflicting loyalties. He is desperately divided between his belief in the value of art and culture represented by his professorial guest and symbolized by the sculpted beast, and his yearning, envious love for his exuberant children and their animal symbol, a real dog….

Concerning paranoids it is hard to speak of character, and indeed Sarraute's personages have no character, no personality, no external identity. And this is deliberate, for she believes character to be superficial. She is bored with the realistic novel, with poker-faced heroes who express themselves in action or grunts and stay cool: "men who," she has said ironically, "have other fish to fry than to hover solicitously over their innermost quakings." Her people—except those who are merely foils like the friend here—are their innermost quakings, always on the boil…. In earlier novels like The Planetarium and The Golden Fruits Sarraute was less austere, permitting some remnants of plot, diverse characterization and social satire, but here such concessions are stripped away…. Like predecessors with whom she is so often compared—Proust, Woolf and James—Sarraute writes exclusively of an urbane, cultured world. But in this novel she has burrowed even further in and seems more akin to Joyce or Dostoevsky, especially the Dostoevsky of Notes from the Underground. However, her technique is an extension of all of theirs, a plunge through their stream of consciousness into the deep river of semiconsciousness for a vial of dark, pullulating water to put under a microscope. Her work is science, not romance, her method not description but scrutiny.

Audrey C. Foote, "On the Threshold of Consciousness," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 18, 1973, p. 5.


Sarraute, Nathalie (Vol. 10)


Sarraute, Nathalie (Vol. 31)